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8/10
An emotional celebration of Rogers' life, career and beliefs at a time when we need reminding of them
18 June 2018
It's incredible to think that "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was broadcast to family television sets for three decades. Multiple generations of children were charmed by Fred Rogers' leisurely musical demeanor, abounding love and positivity and belief in the power of make-believe. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" celebrates Rogers' life, career and moral framework in an extremely moving way while tapping into some of the foundational ideas of child development.

The documentary style is one known for pulling back the curtain on people or issues and revealing new truths. But with Rogers, what you see is what you get. He grew up in a well-to-do home and was on the path to becoming a minister when he saw the power of television as an educational tool before most anyone else. The way he "preached" through the TV show was the way he lived, pure and simple - the film just proves it.

To the naked eye, Rogers living his values doesn't seem all that remarkable or documentary-worthy, but the film touches on the backlash among more conservative-minded and intolerant individuals, in addition to wide public speculation into Rogers' sexuality. There's a psychological phenomenon that all this highlights - our unflattering tendency as humans to doubt and look for scuff marks on public figures who present as infallible. This is far from the film's central purpose, however, and director Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") only gives this notion brief exposure.

Neville is instead more interested in conveying the essence of Rogers and his belief system, including where it came from and what it meant to him. The more intellectual meat of Rogers' story presents itself in compelling ways, but then Neville often quickly veers to something else. "Neighbor" glides just below the surface taking fewer deep dives into larger questions, keeping the focus on Fred and the show.

And Neville does so with grace and aplomb. He weaves together clips from the show, interview footage, behind-the-scenes footage, footage of Rogers in the "real world" and present-day interviews, most of which is set to classic "Mister Rogers" piano music. The clips from the show are thoughtfully selected and poignant. They are given to us as gifts, presented without interruption in some instances, so the emotion can just wash over us. They are also teed up with context, so we understand the intention Rogers truly put into every part of the show.

Fairly early on, one of the interviewees poses the question of whether America has learned anything from Rogers. It's difficult to believe that with the platform he had for 33 years that he didn't leave the world full of more compassionate, kind and emotionally well-regulated people than when he started, but much of the experience of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is recognizing ways in which our world hasn't changed and how Rogers' ethos is needed more than ever. He would be heartbroken over the divisiveness of today's partisan culture. That said, he'd also be blown away by how his ethos has been foundational to the worldview of liberalism, which is rooted in Rogers' core belief, that there is good inside of everyone that deserves to be nurtured and loved.

~Steven C

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8/10
Simple, pure, emotional and well-told story
15 June 2018
A 2D-animated story taking place in the real world with no princesses? A hard sell these days. "The Breadwinner," based on the book by Deborah Ellis, runs completely counter to the CGI-photorealism, elaborate world-building and talking animals of Disney, DreamWorks and Illumination. Yet that's precisely what makes it a pleasure to watch, just not in the absent-minded "how do I entertain my kids for a couple hours?" way.

Simply animated, softly spoken and not trying to crack jokes all the time, there's an endearing purity to "The Breadwinner" that becomes rather immediately apparent. The drawing style lack gritty details, and yet the characters are all extremely expressive, especially the big green eyes of protagonist Parvana (Saara Chaudry), a young girl living in Kabul, Afghanistan whose father is jailed by the Taliban for more or less talking back.

Of course, losing your patriarch in a strict Muslim patriarchal society in which women must stay indoors or be accompanied by a man (and covered head to toe) is a problem, especially for Parvana, her mother, older sister and baby brother. Without any means to provide for themselves, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to sell goods and reading/writing services at the market, while also trying to make cash on the side to buy information about how she can rescue her father from prison.

Interspersed throughout the narrative is Parvana telling a very long, traditional-sounding fairy tale, first to little brother Zaki, then to a girl her age who is also disguised as a boy and lastly to herself. The story of Sulayman, who went on a quest to retrieve his village's precious seeds from the evil Elephant King, gets told in a paper-cut animated style but is actually the most sophisticated element of the movie. One expects the tale of Sulayman to reveal an obvious moral parallel to Parvana's story, but this side narrative has much deeper and complex relationship with the main story.

Despite the animation's technical simplicity, director Nora Twomey ("The Secret of Kells") builds an extremely vibrant Kabul. The film is never lacking for setting or context and certainly offers more of an authentic perspective on life in Afghanistan under the Taliban than any contemporary American war film audiences are used to. The realities of living under terrorist rule and being a Muslim woman are also extremely accessible to children Parvana's age (11) and older.

Focusing on a traditional story of familial struggle, "The Breadwinner" manages to hit all its emotional marks and immediately root itself in viewers' hearts. It's so genuine, authentic and not flashy, which makes it an ideal tool for the emotionally mature child, not so much the easily distracted, younger variety.

~Steven C

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Tomb Raider (2018)
5/10
A fresh and interesting Lara in a predictable, unoriginal early 2000s story
12 June 2018
Hollywood is not giving up on "Tomb Raider." Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander dons Lara Croft's signature shorts and tank top in this reboot of the popular video game franchise that was abandoned in the early 2000s by Paramount Pictures when its second Angelina Jolie-led effort flopped. Despite 15 years and new minds at MGM and Warner Bros. taking over, the new "Tomb Raider" still feels an awful lot like a 2000s movie.

Based on the 2013 video game reboot of the franchise, "Tomb Raider" is a Lara Croft origin story. The approach to revive the character feels extremely similar to the "reboot" MGM did with the "James Bond" films when Daniel Craig came aboard - make it grittier and character-focused.

That's where "Tomb Raider" does succeed. Vikander gives Croft a total makeover from tall, busty sex-appeal action hero to petite, scrappy, tough and independent heroine. Vikander makes Lara infinitely more human, taking cues from some of the best action hero performances by struggling and experiencing pain and anguish. She's just working in an extremely stale, cliché story.

Seven years after her father's (Dominic West) disappearance, Lara is living a troubled life, scraping by as a mail courier and still unable to accept her father's death. Right as she's about to sign the papers acknowledging his death in absentia, she receives a clue that leads her to the lost Japanese island where he went missing while in search of the tomb of an ancient Japanese queen with supernatural powers, and she goes there looking for answers.

Nothing in "Tomb Raider" wasn't covered by "Indiana Jones," "The Mummy" or even "National Treasure" franchise and that's where it fizzles. The riddle- and puzzle-solving, discovering hidden sites, and power struggles over finding the power at the center of it all - these are all tropes of other movie franchises that have gone out of style. Although they are true to the "Tomb Raider" games and there's a reason so many movies have used them, it's a decade later and story writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet (who also wrote the screenplay) and Evan Daugherty ("Snow White and the Huntsman") bring nothing new to the mix. Even the much-improved handling of Lara comes with a too-familiar daddy-issues back story.

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug does a capable job bringing some grit instead of shiny, stylized video game action to this series, though the script really pushes the extent to which we can believe Lara can survive the jumps, falls and bruises. Generally, however, the action is suspenseful and watchable and not at all the issue.

Despite being an origin story, the film generates not much more than indifference toward the plot and Lara's personal journey. Her street life and decision to journey out in search of closure is constructed on hollow clichés and we can sniff out exactly the way her story will turn out, turning her into the classic Lara fans know and love by the film's end. Even the most compelling performance by an Oscar-winning actress is only so interesting when the story deposits her into old, well-worn situations.

The good news is that I could watch Vikander's Lara Croft again in a better, more original story, but it doesn't seem like the box office numbers will give her the chance.

~Steven C

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Game Night (I) (2018)
8/10
Fresh premise, clever dialogue and a fun blend of comedy and thriller elements
7 June 2018
Good comedies come down to good premises with fresh ideas and "Game Night" offers exactly that. Something of a comedic version of David Fincher's 1997 thriller "The Game," a group of friends who get together for regular game nights agree to up the stakes with a kidnapping mystery that suddenly becomes a little too real.

Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein wrote another one of the more original comedies of the decade in 2011's "Horrible Bosses" and though Mark Perez ("Accepted") gets sole credit for the script, they clearly did rewrites: "Game Night" shares a similarly playful yet dark tone. In fact, bouncing between a breezy comedy and a high stakes thriller is their huge accomplishment with this movie.

No one needed another Jason Bateman-led upper-middle class comedy, but the ultra-competitive Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) slightly tilt from the norm. Their in-between newlyweds and parents stage of married life in which they host game nights and try to avoid telling their odd neighbor (the impeccable Jesse Plemons) about them has a high relatability factor. Although the trend is more strategy-based table top games these days as opposed to charades and Pictionary, the spirit is in the right place that the social dynamic at play feels familiar.

The action starts when Kyle Chandler comes into town as Max's "legendary" older brother and convinces the crew to get behind the lifelike mystery. After the kidnapping occurs, Perez recognizes the audience is completely aware of the main conceit of his film: figuring out what's a game and what's real. Wisely, he toys with us, giving the story some unexpected and fun turns.

"Game Night" jumps in and out of violence and levity, with Daley and Goldstein finding creative ways to give some juice to the action sequences, including a game of "hot potato" that appears to be done in a single take and some ordinary contextual shots done in closeups to create a humorous intensity (like shots Edgar Wright used in "Shaun of the Dead"). They also use these overhead/distance shots that make the characters and setting look like a gameboard and pieces.

These little touches don't make the film a better comedy, but they bring a creativity films like this often need. There also several references to games and movies that also contribute to its unique energy. Casting all that aside, however, the dialogue is tight and clever and that humor drives "Game Night" too. Not every character is as well-realized and acted as Plemons' Gary, but the ensemble has enough of the right pieces to play the comedy game competitively, especially compared to most of today's comedies

~Steven C

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8/10
Two behemoths of their respective crafts, PTA and DDL, deliver more fine art
6 June 2018
Paul Thomas Anderson films are always such a joy to watch. Ok, maybe not a "joy" in terms of being a pleasant and easy to ingest, but a "joy" as far as observing fine craftsmanship.

Anderson is as assured in his visual storytelling as ever in "Phantom Thread," which teams him with the most assured actor working today (or now retired?) in Daniel Day-Lewis. The film doesn't offer much in terms of plot but serves as a portrait of a master dressmaker, his operation in vaguely 1950s England, and the woman who becomes the focus of his admiration and desire.

Yes, "Phantom Thread" is still a love story despite missing all the obvious trappings. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a self-proclaimed confirmed bachelor completely dedicated to his craft but capable of being entranced by the right woman for periods of time. He meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) when she serves him a robust breakfast at a restaurant and she quickly becomes his muse. Alma carefully weaves herself into the fabric of Reynolds' work and personal life, even navigating his tight bond with his sister (Lesley Manville). She soon discovers, however, that she must reckon with his controlling, abrasive ways.

There's an elegance to "Phantom Thread" that's more inviting to audiences, though it's a sharp contrast from Anderson's usual California-set stories and American narratives. That elegance goes beyond the film's focus on fashion - though that's certainly part of it - and pervades the entire aesthetic including the camera movement and another exceptional Johnny Greenwood score. Plop Day-Lewis in a frame like that and you immediately have a riveting visual. In fact, these components are enough that Anderson can get away with a loose narrative containing many related scenes but no distinct arc.

Day-Lewis makes anything more interesting and he's in top form here. You get the sense that his role feels lived in - there's a verisimilitude to this and most of his performances that blurs the line between actor and character (which admittedly is kind of the point of method acting). Day-Lewis does give us a bit of a trademark of his in the volatility of Woodcock's temperament, but the grace and his professional demeanor belong to the character.

Acting opposite Day-Lewis and Manville would be a frightening prospect for nearly any actor let alone an unknown like Krieps, but the Luxembourgian actress proves her salt, balancing Alma's naivete, elegance, shrewdness and determination. Although at first presented as the precious doe who is bound to make the same mistakes as Woodcock's past lovers, we see an unexpected fearlessness as their relationship becomes about power dynamics. Krieps is extremely well-cast and it will be curious to see what directions her career goes beyond such a well-suited part.

Although the third wheel, Manville also deserves recognition for bringing refreshing dimension to the part of the shrewish older sister. Usually that role is immediately dislikable, but there's something in the calm of Manville's performance that both complements Day-Lewis and opens us up to idea of Cyril as a human.

Somewhat of a chamber drama, "Phantom Thread" proves nothing is beyond the scope of Anderson's skill set. Certain story pieces and characters can be equated to those in other films, but you might assume at a quick glance that some one-time "Downton Abbey" director made this film, not an American. Do not assume the fashion component and period element is just a chance for Anderson to play dress up - they are well-researched, well-realized and integral to the story being told.

~Steven C

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Deadpool 2 (2018)
8/10
"Deadpool" keeps on slicing off success because it takes itself more seriously than you think
2 June 2018
Hilarious movies don't often lead to hilarious sequels, but the R-rated, tongue-in-cheek fourth-wall-breaking approach "Deadpool" brought to the superhero genre in 2016 seemed like the kind that could have legs - and indeed it does. (That will be funny once you've seen "Deadpool 2.")

With writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick back on board, this time in collaboration with star Ryan Reynolds, "Deadpool 2" promised more of the same outrageous violence, profanity and hilarity, even with a new director (David Leitch, "Atomic Blonde") in charge. The movie delivers exactly that. Everything about it dovetails with the original movie, which will delight those devoted return customers.

What both films do admirably well is take their characters seriously and nothing else. Maybe it's because they lean heavily on revenge narratives to provide character depth and motivation, but regardless, it works. The characters of "Deadpool" exist in more than one dimension. Wade Wilson (Reynolds) has a soul, though he's not entirely sure how to use it.

The lineup of characters expands quite a bit in "Deadpool 2." In addition to the return of Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) as his occasional X-Men buddies, other comic characters including members of the X-Force including Domino (Zazie Beetz), Bedlam (Terry Crews) and others. The plot largely centers on a teenage mutant named Firefist (Julian Dennison) whom Wade is trying to protect from Cable (Josh Brolin), a dangerous mutant from the future.

"Deadpool 2" doesn't sacrifice all that much for upping the plot complexity and character palette. The narrative stays linear and focused - count that sequel pitfall as avoided. The recruitment of the X-Force is more about comedy than attempting to dazzle the audience; in fact, the movie's best and most original gag involves the X-Force's big debut.

Probably 80 percent of the humor if not more fills familiar territory from the first "Deadpool" and that's to be expected. T.J. Miller humorously tries to describe things, Reynolds calls people names that reference pop culture both mainstream and obscure, and there's no shortage of humor drives from violence, drugs and sex (though less of the latter two than you might think). It's a movie with a PG-13 heart that delights in R-rated aesthetics.

Being so similar, the differences between the "Deadpools" are slight. The edge in terms of storytelling goes to the original - the screenplay was tighter with more clarity. But the sequel has stronger villains and more dimension to it. If "Deadpool 2" had a few more fresher ideas and didn't lean so much on past formulas for success, it would have the clear advantage.

How long Reynolds and Co. can keep up this shtick without it getting stale remains to be seen, but "remains to be seen" is pretty good two films in. As long as the commitment to characters and storytelling worth a damn remains the priority over laughs and gleeful violence, Deadpool and the X-Force characters will have a long life on the big screen.

~Steven C

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7/10
Another fun "Star Wars" adventure that could've done more justice to its title character
30 May 2018
Just how far is the "galaxy far, far away" expanding? "Solo," the second "A Star Wars Story" after 2016's "Rogue One" gives us more of a hint as to how Lucasfilm and Disney view this beloved franchise beyond its main stories, and so far, their intent appears to be to keep things on course, or as young Han Solo is told many times in this film, "stick to the plan and do as you're told."

Obviously Phil Lord and Chris Miller, "Solo's" initial directors, didn't heed that advice, and so they jumped ship and Ron Howard came aboard, who's as reliable and capable as they come, though hardly as "interesting" as the "21 Jump Street" and "LEGO Movie" duo. "Solo" is consequently a reliable "Star Wars" movie that does right by fans and checks all the boxes of a blockbuster of its pedigree.

Han Solo is a classic seat-of-his-pants hero who embodied "coolness" for an entire generation, so telling his backstory made sense even if filling Harrison Ford's boots would be a huge challenge for a new actor. Alden Ehrenreich was clearly asked to take on as much of Ford's affect as possible rather than tap into his own charisma and watching him try to do his best impression becomes a little bit of a preoccupation throughout the film. That said, there are a handful of moments when he nails a smirk or a line and it feels like we're watching the same character, not a new actor.

Any gripes with the new Han Solo should not be placed at Ehrenreich's feet but that of the writers. Longtime "Star Wars" writer Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan craft many fun moments with catharsis for fans, but what one would presume to be the core of the film - the story of how Solo became Solo - gets lost in the finished product.

Ehrenreich's Solo is cocksure and optimistic. When we meet him at the beginning of the film he is a teenage thief for crime boss Lady Proxima on Corellia, dreaming of escape with his girlfriend, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). When the two make a run for those dreams, they're separated, and Solo ends up with a band of professional thieves led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson). As he goes down this path, he retains this sense of optimism, which - knowing what we know about Solo in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," means something will lead him to become Ford's grumpier and standoffish Solo of the original trilogy. But that arc trails off in "Solo" despite the film's many pluses.

Another way of putting it: As Lucasfilm tried to make an exciting "Star Wars" movie, they forgot to make it hinge more on its title character. Beckett, Qi'ra, "young" Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) L3-37 (Pheobe Waller-Bridge), villain Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), Enfys Nest - they're all colorful and compelling supporting characters, the kind "Star Wars" is known for, capturing our imagination, but pushing Solo out of the limelight. Odds are this was incidental, but the combination of getting those characters right and the lack of clarity around Solo's character make it stand out.

"Solo" also seems preoccupied with showing fans how things came to be: how Han met Chewbacca, how exactly Han acquired the Millennium Falcon from Lando, how Han did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs - even how he got the name Han Solo. Sometimes it's just a scene, sometimes the plot bends entirely to that purpose. The success rate varies, but the explanations that do work really work. The Han-Chewie dynamic, to name a positive, is one of the biggest strengths.

As a blockbuster, "Solo" never gets boring and stays a step ahead of its audience in terms of plot. The action all works, especially the train heist sequence toward the beginning. As Lucasfilm has done well all along in this new era of "Star Wars," the look, feel and tone of "Solo" jives with everything else "Star Wars." It's a safe and dependable course of action for Lucasfilm and Disney to take, but spinoffs should be a little more daring, or at least give fans a chance to connect at an even deeper level with a beloved character. "Solo" mostly uses Han as a springboard into another fun but familiar "Star Wars" chapter.

~Steven C

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Molly's Game (2017)
7/10
Sorkin remains a smart and captivating storyteller; "Molly's Game" just needs a little more vision
29 May 2018
Hardly any writers for film and TV can be identified by the words on the page alone, but Aaron Sorkin remains one of if not the most distinctive voice in the business, and that gives "Molly's Game" an immediate edge. Although Sorkin makes his debut behind the camera with this adaptation of Molly Bloom's memoir about her high-stakes celebrity-filled poker game, the film comes down to structure and verbal back-and-forth - Sorkin's calling cards as a writer.

Sorkin uses narration (as though Bloom is reading from her book) to navigate us through Bloom's (Jessica Chastain) backstory as a former Olympic-class skier and the rise and fall of her poker game. Interspersed throughout are scenes from a later/"present day" timeline in which Bloom and her attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), talk through her case and arraignment proceedings following her arrest by the FBI. The Chastain-Elba dynamic sees a lot of verbal swordplay while the narration of the storytelling scenes allows for a lot of clever and juicy setup and commentary for the scenes we're shown. This style generates a pace with a similar verve to 2015's "The Big Short."

Chastain doesn't quite have the verbal slickness of tonuge that Sorkin's writing requires of his characters, but rather than simply coming off flat, she uses that flatness to give Molly a somewhat unique sarcastic humor. The character has a cut-and-dry business-like approach, which is presumably what served her well in dealing with the rich, entitled and slimy while she was running the game.

Getting the next most screen time to Chastain is her cleavage, which is interesting in a film that's otherwise completely uninterested in sex or romance. Chastain's outfits and body seem to exist in a vacuum - on display for no clear purpose except that their purpose is obvious - Bloom's sex appeal was part of her brand, an unspoken component of her power that didn't need to be spelled out even though it's impossible to miss.

Actually receiving second billing would be Elba, who pairs with Sorkin's style very well, even though the dialogue in his scenes sometimes requires an intellectual rigor (or law degree) just to follow along. Even when Sorkin gets long-winded, however, he is pretty good about giving his scenes emotional punctuation. He digs into Bloom's psyche a lot as Jaffey tries to figure her out and presents us with a compelling, somewhat enigmatic female character.

The other "psychological" element to the film is Bloom's relationship with her father, played by Kevin Costner, a relentless figure who we are to presume is responsible for Molly's worldview and behavior. He also happens to be a psychiatrist, which makes their dynamic all the more on the nose. Costner is perfectly cast, however, and it makes Sorkin's device of using the father a lot in the story completely forgivable.

In totality, "Molly's Game" has great beats and scenes and unfolds with the drama of the best poker games, but as a work of art, it doesn't present a cohesive message, and that could well be the result of an inexperienced director. As good as Sorkin tells a story on the page and rivets us scene by scene, "Molly's Game" just needed to gel a little more. Still, it's a great start from someone who continues to justify the attention his name and projects receive.

~Steven C

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Wonder (I) (2017)
8/10
Cliche family film themes with strong, authentic, storytelling behind them
14 May 2018
Although I haven't read R.J. Palacio's best-selling book, it's pretty easy to see why "Wonder" has caught on with kids and adults alike. Its message is clear and simple, conveyed in a way kids can understand with some of the nuance that will resonate with adults. The film follows suit in the hands of someone who knows what to do with a beloved book, Stephen Chbosky, author of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and director of that big-screen adaptation.

With "Wonder," Chbosky proves his deft storytelling ability across written and visual media. He recognizes the deep connection readers have with this story and its emotional roots, and makes sure each element of the film channels that in some way. So much of "Wonder" is contrived to tell a story about compassion and kindness, but he finds ways to bring in authenticity to every moment.

"Wonder" appears to focus on Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a fifth grader with Treacher Collins Syndrome who enters school for the first time after having been homeschooled his whole life due to fear and insecurity around his facial differences. Yet, to use the film's outer space metaphors, Auggie is but one bright light in the solar system of his family and community, who are also impacted by Auggie's situation and have their own unrelated struggles.

One of the story's most admirable qualities, in fact, is the way it doesn't simply pile on sympathy for Auggie scene after scene and tries to impart the lesson that just because his struggles are more external and obvious to others doesn't mean they always deserve priority treatment. The approach is more holistic, presumably because Palacio's book is as well. By taking moments to follow the perspective (with narration) of characters in the story beyond Auggie - sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and others - the film beautifully teaches its audiences to consider perspectives outside of their own.

Another admirable quality of the screenplay and Chbosky's direction is the way he steers clear of melodrama. That doesn't mean the film is devoid of clichés (is there ever a film about young boys that doesn't involve a schoolyard scuffle?) but the conflict never erupts in a showy way. Strangely, everyone's reasonable and resolves conflicts normally. A scene in which one character has lied to another, a lie we know will be uncovered eventually, the revealing of the truth doesn't lead to some jarring clash between the characters followed by the person who has been lied to overreacting. There's actually some empathy involved.

Sometimes, the characters in "Wonder" do manage to have the perfect things to say; the kids are sometimes overly eloquent and the parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) are sage-like. That said, characters are still given flaws and fallibilities, though some more than others. The school bully's parents, on the other, are painfully the opposite of perfect to balance it out. A scene in which the principal (Mandy Patinkin) confronts those parents strikes a nerve and proves one of the most memorable scenes because it exposes a sad reality. The writing of the principal's response and Patinkin's performance are gracefully done and part of what makes the movie special.

"Wonder" has a lot of wonder-full moments and Chbosky is a more than competent architect designing and constructing them with substantial emotional payoff. The source material clearly lent itself to a higher-caliber mainstream family film, but the execution follows suit.

~Steven C

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8/10
"Taken" for the serious arthouse crowd
9 May 2018
In "You Were Never Really Here," writer and director Lynn Ramsay takes what might have been a more conventional revenge thriller or lone wolf battling his inner demons story and gives it a more harrowing, artistic edge. Think "Taken" but for the serious arthouse crowd.

Ramsay, who last brought us the supremely dark and unforgettable "We Need to Talk About Kevin," proves herself to be one of cinema's bravest voices working today with this film, about a war vet named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) working as an enforcer/hired muscle who specializes in recovering missing children and exacting brutal revenge on the captors. It's a role that's big and roomy but internal and dark - perfect for a method actor like Phoenix - and the results are chilling.

Ramsay is not gentle to the viewer at all in both the direction and adapting of Jonathan Ames' book. Although she leaves most of the violence to the imagination, what we don't see proves as compelling as the few calculated angles she does give us in any one take. What would be a traditional action sequence in a genre version of this story has a more haunting feel when Ramsay decides to tell it using only security camera footage of the premises where the action takes place. Add in Johnny Greenwood's score (seriously, is any film composer more interesting these days?) and a clear, compelling tone is set.

The story also has no standard movie fat on it, forcing us (and Phoenix) to do most of the work in terms of making sense of what we seen on screen. We do get enough cutaways to flashbacks and sudden visions that piecing together Joe's personal narrative eventually becomes less laborious, but they are quick and abrasive, conveying the trauma and pain in a way that someone with Joe's troubled past might actually experience it.

This storytelling approach to trauma feels unique considering the abundance of films in the 21st century that have dealt with it. "You Were Never Really Here" asks tough questions, chief among them being whether a deeply wounded person like Joe can find relief or peace in the work that he does. It's a conversation happening in the dark corner of a larger conversation about mental health, which is part of its strength and allure as a story.

Some audiences will doubtless find Ramsay's film inaccessible; she has a way of denying audiences some of the core satisfactions of a traditional story. Some will also find it too dark and off-putting - similar criticisms were lobbed at "We Need to Talk About Kevin" for broaching the uncomfortable territory of the mind of a mother trying to figure out what went wrong in the wake of her son committing a massacre at school. As provocative as it may be, Ramsay's voice is an important one that film, on the whole, could use more of in these troubling times.

~Steven C

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8/10
This is how you make a film about a queer character
25 April 2018
Calling "A Fantastic Woman" queer cinema or a trans film would be to completely misread it. In fact, the word "trans" never makes an appearance. Sebastian Lelio, part of the vanguard of modern Chilean cinema, digs so much deeper into his protagonist than her gender. Although Marina's (Daniela Vega) trans identity factors heavily into the film, it is not the focal point of her story, who she is, or the driver of the plot, something modern films with LGBTQ characters have yet to get right - until now.

"A Fantastic Woman" is instead a film about a woman forced to grieve in isolation because others refuse to accept her. When her lover (Francisco Reyes) dies suddenly, Marina finds herself shut out by his family and put under a microscope by just about everyone. Lelio works diligently with Vega, whom he sort of thrust into the role, to create this portrait of brooding loneliness and communicate the extent to which this loss and its reverberations have shaken Marina's confidence in all facets of her identity.

Capturing internal conflict rather than manufacturing external antagonism appears to be Lelio's storytelling preference. He and co-writer Gonzalo Maza do give us some tangible plot and conflict, but "A Fantastic Woman" is mostly the story of Marina's emotions, specifically her grief. The script is extremely light on context, even surrounding Marina and who she is and - more to the viewer's natural curiosity - who she was before the start of the film's timeline. That choice keeps us at a certain distance from Marina, keeping us as objective observers to her circumstances rather than evoking our extreme pity.

The average viewer will want desperately for the film to address Marina's gender identity directly; Lelio makes it a point to talk around it, forcing us to come to terms with our own grotesque curiosity. Nothing about Marina's past or, more bluntly, her genitalia, are truly necessary to her human experience of needing to mourn and having no outlet and no one to comfort her.

To illustrate Marina's inner conflict and her search for meaning and closure, Lelio plays with brief spurts of fantastical daydreams and haunting visions. They are these tiny digressions that embody familiar emotions and create an intimacy with her character that many filmmakers would use words or dialogue to try and convey. That's what makes Lelio such a promising emerging voice in film, albeit one who might struggle for some time to completely latch on to mainstream tastes.

"A Fantastic Woman" has a lesson to teach all movie fans about what really matters in good storytelling. What a film seems to be about based on background, context and plot means little; a good storyteller drills into and unearths the universally human ideas and truths that are at the heart of any story worth telling. Lelio illustrates those ideas in this film with great beauty and the utmost sensitivity.

~Steven C

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A Quiet Place (2018)
9/10
Whereas most blockbusters bombard us, the silence of 'A Quiet Place' is twice as effective
23 April 2018
A winning concept can completely carry a genre film, and "A Quiet Place" has exactly that. Bryan Woods and Scott Beck's idea of a family that must live in total silence in order to survive a monster/alien threat is the rare seed for a story that can blossom into an enthralling moviegoing experience. John Krasinski, as a writer, director and star, simply nurses "A Quiet Place" into a fuller, more deeply rooted film.

The most essential element of successfully developing a concept movie is keeping the scale small and scope tight, and "A Quiet Place" nails that. Trusting that the viewer needs no explanation of where these sound-hunting creatures came from to understand what's at stake, Krasinski need only focus on the central characters and how they are handling their dire circumstances.

Krasinski and real-life wife Emily Blunt play a husband and wife who in the wake of this apocalyptic incident have figured out what it takes to survive with their three kids when tragedy strikes unexpectedly. Fast forward more than a year later, we see how the family has adapted to life in silence, cleverly "sound-proofing" their home yet going about their business on a razor's edge. Oh, and the mother is pregnant and due in a matter of weeks.

The script and Krasinski realize this silent world thoughtfully with small meaningful touches like the kids playing Monopoly with felted pieces and tokens subbed out for soft materials, a simple way of communicating the need for life to go on in spite of everything. The oldest child, played by Millicent Simmonds, is deaf, and yet in a world where hearing matters less, her father has been desperately trying to build her a cochlear implant.

The film is steeped in these family values, presumably something Krasinski, as a relatively new father, brought to the table. Among the minimal lines of dialogues is a consistent theme of familial responsibility and the desperation of these parents to protect their children. At its core, the story is really about that powerful parental fear of not being able to keep your children safe and the consequent drive to protect them. Everything else, including the silence component, is layered on top.

The "gimmick" of silence, however, provides these rich storytelling opportunities and also really forces the viewer to engage with the film differently than most standard-order horror flicks or monster thrillers. Like anyone deprived of one sense learns to compensate with others, we pay much closer attention to the visuals. Krasinski uses this opportunity to invite us deeper into the story and into the characters shoes (though, obviously, they don't wear shoes).

That invitation can also be risky and open up logic problems in the plot, but "A Quiet Place" remains eminently engaging anyway, keeping us in constant suspense and dread. After all, all these characters can do is try not to make a sound and simply stay alive - there isn't much room for optimism or a solution. The plot smartly builds around close-calls, moments of tension between family members and the few moments of release. When the father takes the son (Noah Jupe) out on a day trip in hopes of imparting some survival wisdom onto him, they get one such moment to breathe easy, which would play as cheesy in most films but makes a great deal of sense here.

These moments are also moments of reprieve for the audience, and if that audience is in a movie theater, you become very conscious of every shift in your seat and every bite of popcorn making even the slightest noise. Considering how often we are bombarded with big-scale noisy films that think they're delivering an immersive movie experience, it's remarkable that this film takes the entirely opposite approach and actually provides transporting mental, physical and emotional thrills.

"A Quiet Place" isn't entirely silent; in fact, one of its few flaws is the exaggerated sound editing and scoring when a noise actually does occur, usually in an attempt to amplify a jump scare. The film can't resist utilizing horror genre cliches in this way and others, but it's a small price to pay for an otherwise exciting film (and horror fans will probably appreciate the familiarity of these tactics).

Although not quite as dramatically potent, "A Quiet Place" shares a lot of similarities with "10 Cloverfield Lane" in keeping the viewer in the dark about the greater context surrounding a story and instead focusing on a claustrophobic character-driven scenario. The films even have similar endings tonally speaking. Without spoiling anything, "A Quiet Place" ends on one of the most satisfying notes in recent movie memory, the perfect form of cinematic punctuation on an unforgettable film experience.

~Steven C

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Isle of Dogs (2018)
8/10
Classic Anderson filmmaking and storytelling in its most creative packaging yet
20 April 2018
The union of Wes Anderson and stop-motion animation continues to be an ideal match. In 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson showed what he could create using a medium that gives its author total control over every detail and every tiny movement; it amplified his comedy and creativity. This proves true once more in "Isle of Dogs," a completely original concept and story.

The film takes place in a fictional Japanese Dystopia in which a canine disease has swept over the city of Megasaki, leading the mayor to order the banishing of all dogs to Trash Island. Flash forward a little to the mayor's nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), crash-landing a plane on the island and encountering a pack of Trash Island dogs led by Chief (Bryan Cranston). The pack discerns that Atari is looking for his dog and bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first dog ever shipped off to the island. Despite Chief's reluctance to help a human, he is overruled by Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray).

Their adventure becomes this fresh and interesting way of exploring the relationship between man and dog, embodied in the initially tenuous dynamic between Atari, an orphan in search of his best friend, and Chief, who has found new purpose on Trash Island because he doesn't have to be obedient.

That story could've been told any number of ways, so in a sense the Japanese cultural aesthetic could be deemed arbitrary, yet it really adds a distinctive flavor. Various Kabuki/Noh theatre influences blend with Anderson's usual visual stylization and storytelling rhythm, and Alexandre Desplat gets a fresh musical palette to work with for his excellent score. It's clear that Anderson was destined to do something in a traditional Japanese style and it was probably easiest to do in a completely fictional adventure story.

All this to say, "Isle of Dogs" is rife with Anderson trademarks that will undoubtedly satiate his most devoted fans. He only gets points for dressing up some of his most prolific themes -a protagonist with dead parents, estranged relationships and a meticulous plan gone wrong - in his most unique and creative way to date. The world-building he does in this film is unlike anything he's done before, from the visuals of a Dystopic Japan to telling a story in which only the animals speak English and there are no inorganic subtitles.

The tender relationship moments that usually accompany his films also take a slightly different shape in man and his pet. Even though the plot is larger than life, it always boils down to that moment of emotional vulnerability that always helps catapult his films from good to great. "Isle of Dogs" is no exception, and there's plenty to marvel at too.

~Steven C

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Coco (I) (2017)
9/10
Another stunningly imaginative and beautiful Pixar film, and maybe its most emotional
16 April 2018
Known for imagination and creativity, Pixar has transported audiences of all ages to astonishing cinematic worlds with nearly every film on its resume. "Coco," inspired by Mexican culture and the aesthetic of Dia de Muertos - the "Day of the Dead" holiday - is another gem in its crown, a six-year passion project stunningly realized, wonderfully immersive and emotionally resonant.

"Coco" begins with a predictably cliche family film premise but eventually evolves in unexpected ways and takes brave turns. Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) is a young boy in a family of shoemakers that for generations has sworn off music because Miguel's great-great grandfather was a mariachi who abandoned his family to pursue his dream. Naturally, music is the thing Miguel loves most; he aspires to be as great as his idol, legendary singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). When his family discovers his hidden passion during the celebration of Dia de Muertos, it goes poorly, and Miguel somehow finds himself in Land of the Dead on a quest with his dreams at stake.

Pixar's trademark innovation immediately kicks into gear once Miguel moves over to the spiritual plane in which only the souls of the dead exist. He meets his ancestors and other skeletal figures, including the jovial drifter Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a host of brightly colored spirit animals. But as much as the Land of the Dead ironically dazzles with vibrant life, all of it is built on a foundation of family and remembrance. These souls can only existence in this world as long as they are remembered, and they can only cross into the land of the living on Dia de Muertos if their photo is on someone's ofrenda (altar).

So the film's main song, "Remember Me," has more powerful connotations than Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's simple melody and sweet lyrics suggest. Director Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 3") and co-director Adrian Molina weave these deeper themes into the very fabric of the film's imaginative conceit and the payoff is at least as moving if not more than "WALL*E" and "Up."

The story also isn't shy on dark notes and heartbreaking moments. There are some mature themes and a palpable sense of familial conflict, with characters who have strong values such as family or pursuing one's dreams who make poor choices despite these values and intentions. "Coco" sends powerful messages when these choices come to bear on the plot.

Although Pixar chooses to dip back into the well of its first original creative successes a little too often, films like "Coco" prove that its spirit of ingenuity is alive and well. Granted, Unkrich and his team had to dig deeper, steeping themselves in a culture and new ideas in order to unearth something both original and universal. These kinds of successes may become more sparse over time as unique storytelling territory becomes harder and harder to come by, but with time and energy, "Coco" proves anything is possible.

~Steven C

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The Post (2017)
6/10
With a plain story, the talent-loaded "Post" is merely ordinary
9 April 2018
Even the most casual of filmgoers could sense that a Steven Spielberg-helmed newspaper drama starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep would be making a play for the Academy Awards. Although some will misguidedly think "The Post" was made solely to earn Oscar statuettes, it's sure easy to understand why. The marquee talent and "Oscar bait" label, however, sets the bar too high for what's a perfectly decent, ordinary journalism film.

The film is very simply the story of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, in which the government moved to file suit to keep The New York Times from further publishing details of a study that revealed that the White House knew the Vietnam War wasn't succeeding but kept sending troops anyway. Also having access to the papers, The Washington Post - under the leadership of editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Streep) - was in position to either cave to the Nixon administration's demands or risk its business interests in the name of a free press.

"The Post" is the story of their decision to publish, which isn't nearly as thrilling as those who decided to write, produce and create it seemed to think it was. There's a lot of talking and hemming-and-hawking constituting drama in writer Liz Hannah's script, which received help from Oscar-winning "Spotlight" screenwriter Josh Singer. Most newspaper films have a strong element of mystery to them to aid the gutsy moral decision-making elements. They also have strong underdog characters compared to pushy, whiny white men.

The pushy, whiny white men are presumably to contrast with Kay Graham, the true main character. One might presume a woman newspaper publisher in the early '70s to be of the strong feminist variety, but the film portrays Graham as an unlikely leader and hero, a woman of the mold of '50s and '60s housewives thrust into the part of a decision-maker. Spielberg deploys a few heavy-handed but highly illustrative shots to show Graham standing out amidst the sexism and gender divisions of the time.

Streep also brings all this out in her performance, communicating the anxiety of the situation extremely well. Her character has the most at stake in this whole situation, which puts her in a position she's clearly uncomfortable with at first and slowly grows into owning. Her story is far and away the most interesting part of the film.

Littered with pithy journalism dialogue, "The Post" walks a fine line between important true story and cliché free press drama. That language doesn't work as well when the journey for the characters hasn't been arduous. The Post was literally handed the Pentagon Papers and just had to decide what to do with them. Without any other drama or action, it's no wonder the film was finished from script to final cut in just nine months.

Thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, all that decision-making sure looks good though. In all seriousness, though that's the perfect example of the undeniable quality of "The Post" working in service of a story that just wasn't that interesting or original to begin with. It's a terrific example of what happens when the story of a film isn't quite right; you can have the best director, cinematographer, actors and an Oscar-winning screenwriter, but the whole thing will turn out ordinary if the story doesn't beg to be told.

~Steven C

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4/10
The culmination of all of DC's superhero woes. At least it's out of their system
2 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Every time a new superhero movie comes out lately, we wonder if this will be the point that the market finally hits oversaturation, that audiences and critics will just stick a fork in the genre. When Marvel Studios releases that new movie, we tend to pleasantly discover there's more places these films can go; when DC Entertainment releases that new movie, we wonder how the genre hasn't died already.

Although "Wonder Woman" turned out excellently, "Justice League" suggests it may end up being the lone exception. Despite bringing together Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the film offers nothing new or exciting to the genre and barely executes the formula to satisfaction.

Seeing Marvel bring multiple beloved heroes together in 2012's "The Avengers" was exhilarating; DC's hero assembly evokes ambivalence at best. The difference lies in "Avengers" being a true culmination, a few years of (well-made) solo films introducing us to the characters. DC introduced us to Cavill's Superman in 2013's "Man of Steel," added a brand-new Batman in "Batman v. Superman" (2016) and managed to squeak in "Wonder Woman" mere months before this film's release. What does that leave us with? A big contrast between scenes featuring Gadot and scenes without her, three completely new characters and a familiar Superman who isn't even in three-quarters of the movie.

A film directed by Zack Snyder, co-written and partially directed by Joss Whedon (the first two "Avengers" films) and executive produced by Christopher Nolan surely shouldn't be this average, but perhaps that's exactly why it is. With the mediocrity of past films nipping at their heels, DC and Warner Bros. took some panicked measures to right the ship, making "Justice League" a tonal blur that every so often hits on a good laugh or a good character moment before returning to predictable status quo.

The real issue with "Justice League" is that even with three new, theoretically exciting characters, every element of the film feels reused and retreaded. Cyborg and Batman are basically Tony Stark/Iron Man made more brooding and split in two, The Flash is that young excited-to-be-there character we've seen in Ant-Man and the latest Spider-Man and the jury's still out on Aquaman.

Story-wise, the threat in the film comes from yet another supernatural, other-worldly being in Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), who seems no more intimidating than the other villains DC has sent us recently, and he's after the three Mother Boxes, which will form the Unity, giving him the power to turn earth into his hellscape (a plot that feels straight out of various Marvel films). Why this particular all-powerful villain requires the teamwork of all these heroes isn't immediately apparent.

Maybe DC is simply late to the party on some of these superhero movie ideas so what's generally fine simply feels stale. Maybe the action is cooler and the jokes funnier than they seem, but DC is trying to too quickly overcome its past letdowns. Perhaps the difference between DC and Marvel right now is credibility; whereas Marvel seems two steps ahead of where its audiences are at, DC is two steps behind what its audiences expect. One is proactive, the other reactive.

There's some promise in the DC Entertainment Universe. "Justice League" hints at exciting new worlds in Atlantis and its reboot of the Green Lantern Corps universe; Ezra Miller seems capable of carrying his own humorous coming-of-age superhero film; and Wonder Woman is perhaps the most beloved hero on screen right now. With a little patience and a clear, committed vision, the second "Justice League" should outdo the first.

~Steven C

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7/10
A comedic tribute to "The Room" with a fascinating leading performance
30 March 2018
A feature film about the making of a cult movie (in this case, a horrible movie) has a unique challenge: How do you honor the movie's cult status, while also being honest about it? "The Disaster Artist" tries to straddle being a comedic homage to the making of "The Room," one of the most infamous so-bad-it's-good movies while also trying to tell the deeper story beneath it.

James Franco directs, but its his leading performance as the enigmatic "The Room" writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau that carries his movie. He has never lost himself so much in a role as he does here. While the film sometimes struggles to be an entertaining comedy and also a deep look at the who, why and how behind the film, Franco never fails to keep us fascinated with his character as well as reveal the fragile soul wrapped in this cloak of unbridled childishness, cocksureness and social awkwardness.

In many ways, "The Disaster Artist" is also a bromance between Wiseau and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), a young aspiring actor whose account of meeting Wiseau and making the film formed the book upon which Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber based their screenplay. Both Tommy and Greg are dreamers subconsciously using each other in pursuit of stardom. Greg provides Tommy with companionship and Tommy, with his mysterious cash flow, supports Greg and eventually gives him an opportunity to make this film with him.

One would expect the making of "The Room" scenes to be most interesting, and to fans or those familiar enough with the movie, they absolutely are. On the other hand, that's also when the script, and Franco as a director, start to lose the heart of the story in favor of committing to this behind-the-scenes homage full of name actors playing all the actors who starred in "The Room." Even as this homage, the script feels indebted to highlighting all the films most iconic "WTF" moments and offering some commentary on them.

All of this isn't so problematic as much as it misses the opportunity to say something about art of the so-bad-it's-good variety. "The Disaster Artist" does, however, have something to say about the people that make that art. The film works best as an entertaining and intriguing character study, reminding us that art and beauty is in the eye of the creator (and whoever has the money/influence). It's not a cathartic realization, as the end of the film chooses to simply remind us that the film was/is a trainwreck that somehow people loved to laugh at, turning it into a phenomenon.

"The Disaster Artist" is primarily a comedy about a cult film that will probably be best enjoyed by those who have seen "The Room" and will appreciate the detail "The Disaster Artist" puts into recreating it, skewering it and celebrating it.

~Steven C

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I, Tonya (2017)
8/10
A bold new take on a biopic that's messy but memorable
10 March 2018
Biopics tend to have a fair amount of decorum, or at least a sort of sanctity for the people whose lives they're based on and the truth of their stories. "I, Tonya" throws all that traditional methodology out the window, using a faux-documentary, fourth wall-breaking approach that highlights the conflicting accounts and lack of certainty over what happened in the famous scandal surrounding the assault on Nancy Kerrigan.

Films based on true stories always take liberties, but Steven Rogers's script swims in them, purposefully. Why must Rogers condense the differing perspectives of Harding (Margot Robbie), her "ex"-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her coach (Julianne Nicholson) and others into one narrative and present that as one complete truth? Instead, Rogers liberates the story and himself and celebrates the way all the pieces don't come together all that cleanly. In the process, under the direction of Craig Gillespie, the film too develops its own unfiltered point of view.

Presenting Harding's story in this way necessitates an overtly tongue-in-cheek tone, one that sometimes threatens to undermine the moments when the film shows artistic ambition. Beautiful skating sequences are often book-ended with brash comedic moments, or dramatic conflicts qualified or punctuated by the characters in after-the-fact interviews. It's a wild ride through moments of unbridled humor, sports drama, verbal and physical abuse, and characters acting with unbelievable stupidity.

Robbie's performance becomes all the more impressive when you consider all the forces at work in this story attempting to paint Harding one way or another. Rogers, for example offers us plenty of reasons to sympathize with her and explain some of her rash behavior from a psychological standpoint. It doesn't feel as though he's trying to exonerate her, especially because he tries to make it clear that some of what we are seeing play out in the film comes from her perspective, but he's trying to show both her humanity and her personality, which point in opposite directions in many instances.

Perhaps the boldest choice in "I, Tonya" is its indictment of the audience for being complicit in the dismantling of Harding's reputation and the general way that we hold celebrities to a higher standard because they appear privileged, gifted and in the public spotlight. By bringing her challenging home life and abusive relationships into the picture, Rogers asserts that Harding actually rose above her station to even compete at such a high level in professional figure skating. She was clearly not desired in that world in all the superficial ways, and had to rise purely on skill (chiefly, her ability to perform a triple axel).

"I, Tonya" definitely succeeds at creating memorable moments, as well as bringing perspective and insight to Harding's story. It would be difficult to leave the film without feeling as though you learned a lot about what was a seemingly straightforward news scandal, but it would also be hard to come away with the impression that you know the full story.

Despite sometimes getting a little too flashy or too in your face, "I, Tonya" makes it a lot farther than most other stylistic, comedy-tinged movies based on true stories thanks to clever writing, committed performances and a distinct point of view.

~Steven C

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Black Panther (2018)
8/10
Coogler helps Marvel set "Black Panther" apart, even in its so-so moments
4 March 2018
Since it was announced, "Black Panther" has held the promise of something different from Marvel Studios. It's been 10 years since the Marvel journey began with "Iron Man" and the narratives, spectacles and formula are in perpetual danger of wearing thin. Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station"), "Black Panther" writes its own narrative into the tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a thread that is both distinctive and familiar.

"Black Panther" has a lot in common with "Thor" with its hidden fantasy world and elements of near-Shakespearean palace intrigue, but most of the action takes place in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda instead of out of it, making the film Marvel's biggest exercise in world-building to date. Coogler must foremost create a people, culture and society that we believe in and care about in as little time as possible. With production designer Hannah Beachler ("Moonlight," "Creed") and costume designer Ruth Carter ("Selma"), they create a colorful, vibrant and exciting Wakanda. No fictional place has seemed more appealing to spend time in since the "Avatar" world of Pandora.

Yet that's purely the sci-fi/fantasy appeal of "Black Panther," which really makes its mark with themes and narratives of extreme relevance, especially presented through this black lens. The film opens with a prologue in Coogler's native Oakland, tying the modern day black experience to the Afro-Futurist fantasy experience of Wakanda, a nation of smart, strong black people sitting on top of a "gold mine" of vibranium, the greatest source of power known to man.

The film mostly focuses on how T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly minted king of Wakanda and also its guardian and protector, the Black Panther, wrestles with having leadership thrust upon him. At the same time, the secrecy and isolationist policy long held by his country faces new pressure and danger from the outside world from arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and mercenary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

The story surrounds T'Challa with a team of strong minds and bodies (and terrific talents) including ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Wakandan General Okoye (Danai Gurira). There's also CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is a fifth as interesting as any of those characters and actually does amount to the token white guy. Outside of the superhero team-up films, it's Marvel's best ensemble.

Yet perhaps all of them - even T'Challa - are overshadowed by Jordan's Killmonger, whose fascinating backstory and motivation make him Marvel's greatest villain success, or at least in that first tier with Tom Hiddleston's Loki and Michael Keaton's Vulture from 2017's "Spider-Man: Homecoming." A villain with conviction and not just some unstoppable force trying to destroy the world, Killmonger makes "Black Panther" much more dramatic and interesting start to finish. He and T'Challa clash in personality and ideology in a satisfying way, one that's somewhat akin to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The film offers a buffet of action styles, from a "James Bond"-inspired sequence in a Korean casino to a medieval fantasy battlefield brawl to the one-on-one fight scenes that echo some of Coogler's work in "Creed." It's a little all over the place and some sequences therefore work better than others. What's more important is most of the time, the stakes feel relevant even when the action gets messy.

Carefully considered characters and themes, however, should account for most of "Black Panther's" success. That's how Coogler elevated "Creed" from among all the "Rocky" sequels and similar cliche-ridden boxing films. Creed's struggle was deeply personal and human. Nearly every character gets that same treatment here.

Thematically, Coogler and Joe Robert Cole do not shy away from relevant black issues, even though the film explores them through fantasy rather than harsh reality. The Afro-Futurist fantasy of a powerful and influential black nation brings with it questions of responsibility that the movie devotes itself to contemplating and addressing. T'Challa must not only decide what kind of leader he wants to become, but reckon with the realities of a changing world.

"Black Panther" triumphs not exclusively as an inspiration to black people wrestling with these same questions, but all of us can consider the fantasy of power and position and how we would use it. These notions distinguish the film from the rest of the Marvel Studios canon, not necessarily the more tangible storytelling and filmmaking elements. The film has weaknesses, many that it shares with other Marvel superhero movies, but those films cannot match its intellectual acuity and social consciousness.

~Steven C

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Darkest Hour (2017)
8/10
Delivers everything you want from a prestige historical biopic
27 February 2018
As prestige pictures go, they don't get more prestigious than "Darkest Hour," a British historical World War II biopic about one of the most frequently quoted and depicted figures in history with a transformative performance at its center. If you want the antithesis of independent filmmaking, here it is - the steak and potatoes of dramatic cinema.

Thankfully, the steak is a perfect medium and the potatoes are well-seasoned under the watch of director Joe Wright ("Atonement," "Anna Karenina"). Wright is known for being a bit artistically aggressive rather than subtle, but that style complements the highly intellectual, conversational and strategy-focused script from Anthony McCarten ("The Theory of Everything"). He takes a film that could've been utterly boring and gives it movement and vibrancy.

"Darkest Hour" depicts the events of May 1940, starting with the stepping down of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and the appointment of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), the only member of his party whom the opposition would support. The move comes as British forces are surrounded by the Nazis in Dunkirk, France and the war seems just about lost. Although Churchill stands resolute against his party's wishes to entered peace negotiations with Hitler, the situation grows more dire by the day, and the pressure mounts for him to cave.

An almost unrecognizable Oldman is the film's centerpiece and lynchpin all in one. Unlike many prosthetics-laden performances, the makeup is so painstakingly and precisely applied that it never calls attention to itself and allows Oldman to full realize his interpretation of Churchill. Oldman gives us both the bold and bullish, cigar-smoking and liquor-swilling orator of historic lore, and also a man with doubts. The script definitely casts Churchill in a favorable light, and perhaps historians will take issue with it, but there's plenty of room for nuance and Oldman really revels in those moments as much if not more than the big speeches.

Oldman's performance is the sun, but some of the other supporting players in his orbit leave memorable impressions, including Stephen Dillane ("Game of Thrones") as Viscount Halifax, Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie and Ben Mendelsohn ("Rogue One") as King George VI. Still, without shoehorning in Churchill's typist (Lily James) whom he technically did not employ until 1941, "Darkest Hour" would be a lot of white men talking.

Wright does a lot to keep "Darkest Hour" visually engaging, be it through use of camera dollies in tight spaces or CGI aerial views of cities and towns to convey a sense of place when talk of strategy desensitizes us from the actual stakes. Still, the film is meant to explore the behind-the-scenes conversations in places of power and convey the extent to which Great Britain nearly gave up. While the whole country was swept up in rhetoric of hope, the film makes us privy to the fear and weakness behind the curtain.

"Darkest Hour" as a film caves a bit too - to storytelling devices all too familiar in prestige pictures. The script contrives unlikely scenarios, such as a scene when Churchill rides the Underground, and even attempts to conclude on an inspirational high note with a sweeping speech. The film is better than those crutches, yet nevertheless it uses them.

Yet "Darkest Hour" can also hang its top hat on incredible production design (Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer) and cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel). These aesthetics alone, especially as they bolster Oldman's unforgettable performance, imbue the film with an energy that commands our attention. For an old-fashioned historical biopic, "Darkest Hour" checks all the right boxes and flat-out delivers on that esteemed, high-brow entertainment.

~Steven C

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9/10
Remarkably sensitive, sometimes magical depiction of difficult lives in the shadow of Disney
26 February 2018
We normally associate Orlando, Florida with the vibrant commercialism and magic of Walt Disney World and the Universal Studios theme parks, but in the shadow of Cinderella's castle lie motels like the Magic Castle, where indie filmmaker Sean Baker invites us to journey in "The Florida Project."

This dive into the unglamorous, lower-class side of a place home to big dreams and fantasies echoes the spirit of Baker's previous feature, "Tangerine," also co-written with Chris Bergoch, which followed black transgender hookers in Hollywood. Both films go light on plot with Baker opting for a verite style to convey authenticity. In "The Flordia Project" in particular, the empathy factor multiplies given the focus on 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who has created her own magic amidst her life's harsh realities.

Baker's style necessitates actors with strong improvisational skills, and somehow he nurtures those abilities in Prince and her fellow child actors, Christopher Rivera (as Scooty), Aiden Malike (as Dicky) and Valier Cotto (as Jancey). This motel band of little rascals give the most honest portrayal of children I can recall on screen. Normally, kids in movies show uncharacteristic maturity or are unusually precocious. Moonee has a smart mouth, but her motives feel genuine to her being a child, not in service of the script.

In addition to following Moonee and her friends, the film gives a window into her life with her young mom, Halley (Bria Venaite), a complicated relationship that provides a lot of the film's moral ambiguity. Halley willfully engages in immoral and illegal behaviors in order to pay her weekly "rent" to the motel, does not supervise Moonee most of the day and fights ferociously against authority to protect her status quo and give her and Moonee the life she feels they deserve. Her behavior gives the impression that at some point Baker will drop the moral hammer, but it doesn't quite happen the way we think. Baker and Bergoch show almost a disdain for melodrama in the way their story unfolds.

Also critical to their story is motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Initially he occupies the role of lovable side character - the grumpy middle-aged man keeping the order, who won't stand for the kids' hijinks or Halley's violation of motel policy. But as the lens tightens on the reality of the motel's circumstances, we see Bobby for so much more than that. Dafoe articulates all this nuance while staying committed to playing a quirky, character role. Few characters are easier to love.

The world of this seedy knock-off Disney strip of Orlando has a deeply immersive quality, one that Baker carefully constructs through consistency in camera angles and shot techniques. He coaxes the magic hiding in these little crevices to come out on screen and complement the harsh contextual realities of the characters and their situations. This balance allows us to consider how these characters and people whose lives resemble them actually feel day to day, rather than to just fixate on everything that's wrong and bad about it. We know that no one should have to grow up like Moonee, but we can also relate to having created our own happiness and comfort within tough circumstances and consider how it feels lose that.

"The Florida Project" could have been written and told with more dramatic peaks and valleys and a concrete sense of movement and structure. This version would have also been a remarkable film drawing tons of awards attention. Yet there's a beauty in the way Baker works so diligently to give audiences the sense that he was hands off in this process, that the story and characters have a life of their own and he was just there to show it to us. He does not ask us to think one way or another about any of it, rather to make sure we know that stories like this are in fact real and right under our nose.

~Steven C

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7/10
The bones of Christie's mystery are at least good enough to carry this update for the uninitiated
26 February 2018
It doesn't take a detective to deduce that this remake/reimagining of Agatha Christie's esteemed novel "Murder on the Orient Express" was about 20th Century Fox trying to overloading a movie poster with big names in hopes of big box office returns. Yet in the hands of Kenneth Branagh, who directs and also stars, the film avoids a complete slide into gussied up, hollow period mystery.

Branagh plays literature's second greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, whom screenwriter Michael Green (who had a huge 2017 with "Logan" and "Blade Runner 2049") wisely treats as the centerpiece of the story. Poirot could simply have fulfilled his functional purpose as the audience's eccentric mystery-solving surrogate, but the film commits to him as a central character, whose journey in some ways supersedes the crime itself.

Hoping for some respite aboard the Orient Express en route from Istanbul to France, Poirot reluctantly becomes chief investigator on a case when a passenger is murdered on the train. He then interrogates the passengers, which include the likes of Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Oliva Colman, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr. and more, slowly revealing secrets and deceptions until he cracks the case.

Having neither read Christie's novel nor seen previous film adaptations, I can't comment on how this update compares, but its tried and true bones provide sufficient entertainment. The film relies a little heavily on interrogation scene dialogue and the glee of Poirot spouting off some genius bit of detective work from evidence we hadn't considered, but the twists that clearly made "Orient Express" a classic find a way to work their magic regardless of any changes or tweaks in this version.

That said, Branagh's tone is one of fantasy and heart more than a gritty, claustrophobic thriller. He's more interested in the thematic elements that complicate and layer the truths that Poirot uncovers than crafting a gripping, heart-pounding genre film. Curiosity is the entertainment factor he wields rather than suspense. It's meant to provoke our intellect and our sense of wonder above anything else.

Green's script misfires mostly in regard to the mystery within the mystery, or the backstory that Poirot uncovers which proves to be integral to his solving the case. It doesn't quite make the necessary emotional ties. Yet Green's commitment to playing out Poirot's personal story arc and coloring in who he is with some small details makes up for it. He's a character I certainly wouldn't mind seeing on the screen again.

The actors playing the passengers don't get nearly the same legs to stand on, so most of the flashy names on the marquee are just that, flash. Only "Star Wars" star Daisy Ridley manages to show off some chops in her brief scenes and in a way Gad gets to show he can do more than comedy. All in all, despite each getting one-on-one time with Branagh, there's not much in the way of meaty, dramatic content.

Given my inexperience with this classic mystery story, it's impossible to say whether this version has enough to hold on to for those with greater degrees of familiarity. My instincts say it might be a close call - knowing the truth will surely place more strain on Branagh's interpretation of Pourot. So climb aboard at your own peril if you hold a deep reverence for Christie's novel or Sidney Lumet's 1974 version. Objectively, it's an engaging film suitable for mainstream tastes.

~Steven C

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Wonderstruck (2017)
7/10
A visually and aurally artistic family film more than a captivating one
21 February 2018
Graceful and quite literally quiet, "Wonderstruck" makes for an unconventional (or at least uncommercial) family film, but one worth enduring thanks to director Todd Haynes, the cast and composer Carter Burwell.

Written by Brian Selznick, who authored the book as well as the book that became Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," "Wonderstruck" tells the story of a young boy in 1977 and a young girl in 1927 who take on New York City in search of secrets and a sense of belonging. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a boy living in Minnesota whose just lost his mother and never knew his father, but has a lead pointing him to NYC; Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a girl living in New Jersey who is deaf and feels misunderstood by her father in a world unkind to those with disabilities. She takes the ferry across the river to find silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Much like "Hugo," Selznick's story is a love letter (in this case to silent film, New York City and museums) wrapped up in a tale of children escaping challenging circumstances in search of answers and finding friendship along the way. The key difference is that "Hugo" is a more focused mystery that moves concretely from A to B to C, etc. Haynes approaches "Wonderstruck" as more of an art piece that glides about, with both storylines slowly yet inevitably intertwining. The "Carol" and "Far From Heaven" director crafts a seamless audio-visual experience that makes a gentle appeal to our own sense of wonder.

Consequently, "Wonderstruck" will have trouble captivating audiences; children should definitely see it, but not necessarily children with short attention spans. The effort to play off silent films through the lens of deafness has great artistic and even educational value, but entertainment-wise it leaves something to be desired. As thoughtfully as Haynes switches between timelines and contrasts "hearing" scenes with "non-hearing" scenes to affect our perspective, graceful transitions can only be so riveting.

Children will for sure not notice Burwell's score that establishes place, time and wonderment extremely well. He even underscores moments of action, suspense and surprise in the way a silent film score would back in the '20s. These are just some of the artistic touches that make "Wonderstruck" special for adults whose tastes incline them toward films that appreciate history, the arts and other intellectual subjects.

One of the most critical artistic touches comes at the end of the film with an entire sequence told using models and dioramas. It also ties together the entire plot, so a lot hinges on it. It is both a beautiful conclusion and somewhat anti-climactic given that the reveals are not all that surprising (at least to an adult viewer). Yet the point is not for any startling revelations, but for the characters to come to terms with the answers they find and embrace the good that came from the journey.

~Steven C

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Good Time (2017)
8/10
Exciting, frantic crime thriller with great style and just enough realism
7 February 2018
Robert Pattinson's body of work has generally been on a spectrum between "Twilight" and flat-out weird (his David Cronenberg collaborations), but the fit is a good one between him and Benny and Josh Safdie, the latest filmmaking brothers making waves. "Good Time" has an aggressive pulse, assured style and enough grounding to connect with audiences.

Pattinson stars as Connie Niklas, who ropes his brother Nick (Benny Safdie), who has clear social/intellectual disabilities, into robbing a bank with him. When their getaway goes awry, and Nick ends up in custody, Connie becomes desperate and makes a series of high-risk moves attempting to save Nick and evade his own capture.

What stands out most about the film is the frantic pacing and anxious energy that rarely relents. Connie is a criminal at large, so he (and the film) is constantly looking over his shoulder. The question of if and when he gets caught in a bind he can't escape keeps "Good Time" rolling. Each move he makes narrowly avoids raising our implausibility alarms - the scenarios are just believable enough that it's hard not to stay hooked in the story.

Helping ground the plot are characters and performances that feel decidedly real. Films about small-time criminals usually glorify the characters or become larger-than-life, but the Safdies have been careful to keep this film about salt-of-the-earth people. This is not the glamorous or mythological side of New York City. Pattinson, the dapper Englishman, convincingly plays a troubled, street-wise, kind-of-gross New Yorker in all that character's complexity. It's probably his most memorable if not best performance.

Benny Safdie also plays his part in a way that feels powerfully real. We've seen people with disabilities struggle in this way and in the film witness how terrible our systems are at helping them. The only problem is that we lose Nick for a significant chunk of the movie and he - and his relationship with Connie - are the emotional core of the film. Had Josh Safdie and co-writer Ronald Bronstein been able to work him back in besides the film's coda, "Good Time" would've been something truly special.

What we do get, however, is nothing to scoff at. The film's aesthetic is extremely engaging with stunning aerial shots and Daniel Lopatin/Oneohtrix Point Never's electronic score fitting it all perfectly, even among the proliferation of electronic scores since 2010. The last crime film to move this well and look this good doing it was "John Wick," and "Good Time" has no traditional action components to lean on. Instead, we get a kinetic crime drama fueled by a troubled man's deep sense of obligation and blind hope for the future.

~Steven C

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4/10
"Cloverfield" name loses a lot of its mystery and intrigue with this predictable space-station thriller
5 February 2018
Netflix's huge swoop up and surprise Super Bowl release of the newest film in the "Cloverfield" film universe should prove to be a daring stroke of movie-distributing genius-if for no other reason than it should help generate big ratings for a film that would've otherwise been killed by bad word of mouth.

Initially called "God Particle," the film was adopted by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot into the "Cloverfield" family mostly after the fact, but its connection to the ambiguous mythology of cinema's most secretive franchise doesn't do anything to elevate this predictable "diverse crew in a space station" thriller.

Oren Uziel ("22 Jump Street") and Doug Jung's ("Star Trek Beyond") story imagines an energy-depleted world in desperately depending on the success of a particle accelerator experiment on board a station manned by scientists and engineers from various nations. Uziel's script launches quickly into the experiment, providing only a personal look into Hamilton's (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) life before frustrations, tension and unnatural occurrences rise.

After Dan Trachtenberg's pulse-pounding claustrophobic 2016 thriller "10 Cloverfield Lane" married a smaller chamber piece with a sci-fi disaster flick, it felt safe to hope director Julius Onah might do the same with an "Alien"-inspired space opera. The pieces are in place, but "The Cloverfield Paradox" quickly devolves into a carbon copy of the many space-station films before it, wasting a juicy cast including Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O'Dowd and others.

For one, the script shoehorns in too much exposition to cue the viewer into what's going on rather than keeping it a mystery, and in the end there's not much mystery to be revealed except for whether the mission will succeed. In the meantime, creepy stuff begins happening to members of the crew in a series of familiar, contrived on-board disasters that result in character deaths, betrayals and the usual outer-space plot devices.

Many concepts in the film hold promise, but the execution in the writing and direction fails them in every way. From the "explanation" to what's going on to some character debacles to the way the film connects to "Cloverfield," there are potentially intriguing ideas at play that would've provided the film with just enough food for thought to separate it from the rest of this sub-genre. Instead, they get as woefully undercooked as the characters, leaving "The Cloverfield Paradox" with no option but to try to work as a space station survival story and pretend as if we haven't seen it all before.

Fans of the "Cloverfield" films will probably find some joy in the more explicit connections and explanations "Paradox" offers, but some of those fans will also likely be incensed at just how the mystery is unfolding and the technical nuts and bolts of it. The previous two films were microcosms and smaller stories-in "Paradox," humanity's survival is wrapped up in a very public, high profile space mission. Instead of teasing us with mysteries, "Paradox" paints more of a picture of what this franchise is about and it does so carelessly.

Sadly, rather than light a fire under the franchise and increase our appetite for more from this anthology, "Paradox" sucks some of the clout and intrigue out from it. Instead of seeing the name "Cloverfield" and thinking "mysteries and secrets," after watching "Paradox," audiences are more likely to associate it with "gimmick."

~Steven C

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