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Hereditary (2018)
As the Graham Crackers Crumble
12 June 2018


IN BRIEF: Despite fine acting and direction, pretension undoes tension in this far-fetched and ultimately disappointing supernatural thriller.

JIM'S REVIEW: Beware the artsy independent horror film! Usually adored by critics and well-crafted by its filmmakers, this genre begins intriguingly, builds its tension well, only to lose all reason by its third act. You have seen this all before, with movies like The Witch, It Follows, The Blair Witch Project, The Strangers, and mother!...all of the spooky parts that never make a rational whole.

We now have to add writer / director Ari Aster's Hereditary to the mix. This is not to say that the movie is not impressive: it is very effective in its imagery and acting. But it just has such an unsatisfying and loopy ending which diminishes all the chills and thrills that come before.

The story involves Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a visual artist who creates miniature environments with painstaking detailed accuracy. Her precision and skill, however, only seem apparent in her art. As a passionate mother and wife, she is far from perfect. Hereditary begins with the death of Annie's mother, also a fractured force in her unusual upbringing. We meet the other family members at the funeral: her stoic husband, Steve (Gabriel Bryne), her creepy introverted daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and her unloved drug-laden son Peter (Alex Wolff).

From the start, everyone has abnormal tendencies. All exist within their own traumatic universe, with no one in authority questioning this family's unhealthy choices. Their behavior, to say the least, is relentlessly odd and overtly weird. Yes, there are bizarre dysfunctional families...and then there are The Grahams. When the film's central characters relish in their eccentricities and erratic ways, there is no norm in this new normal. Everything gets all the more curiouser and very bewildering.

Where the film is its most effective is in its domestic family drama storyline, that is, before it veers into the supernatural realm. Strange and unexplainable things begin to happen and the filmmakers create the right tone for this horror film's initial set-up. This is Mr. Aster's directorial debut and it signals the making of a talented director. He fills the screen with surreal images (ants crawling on a severed head, black flies buzzing away in an attic, flames suddenly combusting for no reason, a child's rubber ball bouncing out of the shadows, etc.). The director also populates his story with engrossing characters and many pivotal dramatic scenes.(Kudos to cinematographer Pawel Pogorelski who captures the claustrophobic feel of Grace Yun's strong production design and he photographs the home with low angle shots to reinforce the eerie dollhouse theme with stark lighting and shadow for the necessary eerie haunted house effect.

But the screenplay piles high its contrived plot devices and interesting twists that feed on circumstances which are illogical and never fully thought out. Complicating the build-up of incredulous happenings are inexplicable acts of violence that would trigger the immediate appearances of law enforcement, school, or medical authorities who never seem to intercede. As the film progresses, the moviegoer has to suspend belief to make sense of it all, and some of low budget CGI do not help matters. Just saying that there are supernatural forces at play does not justify the action of some characters and their whereabouts while their motives remain murky at best.

The acting is top notch. Mr. Bryne and Ms. Shapiro are very fine in their roles but it is the conflict between mother and son that anchors the film. Mr. Wolff plays the troubled teen with aching despair. He plies his character with angst, guilt, and a tender quality of sadness. He is the emotional counterbalance to Ms. Collette's shrew mother figure. Partly deranged confessor, partly loving and cruel Mommie Dearest, the actress excels with an unparalleled emotional range. It is worthy of Oscar contention. Also giving yeomanlike support is the reliable Anne Dowd as Annie's new friend, Joanie, from her group therapy session.

Hereditary is a powerful directing showcase for a new creative talent like Mr. Asher. His film may be disturbing and intense, but it is also pretentious and absurd due to his wonky script. Yes, there is more here that meets the eye, even if the mind is not fully convinced about all of those bumps in the night.
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Disobedience (2017)
Love and the Question of Free Will
5 June 2018


IN BRIEF: An emotional story that honestly depicts the pain that comes with love.

JIM'S REVIEW: The summer movie season has arrived, filled with superhero blockbusters and sci-fi sagas as usual. But hidden in all the hoopla and hyperbole is a small independent film worth viewing. Director Sebastian Lelio's Disobedience is a gay love story between two friends who have gone their separate ways only to meet again later to consummate their relationship once again.

The scorned daughter of a strict rabbi, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) now leads a successful bohemian lifestyle as a professional photographer in New York City. Unfortunately she is abruptly forced to return to her strict Orthodox Jewish community in London. The memories of her earlier rebellious life hold a painful reminder to her past, after being shunned many years before by her father and friends. It is here she encounters her childhood friends, Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), Ronit's father's adoptive protégé. and the principal surrogate to her father's love. Coming back brings with it a cultural shock to Ronit as she deals with this conservative close-knit clan of judgmental onlookers. The discomfort is palpable. Added to that distress is the fact that Ronit had no idea that her once close friends have now married. A sense of awkwardness and tension prevails as both Dovid and Esti extend their home to their foreign guest during her visit.

Disobedience subtly tells its story of two women caught in a patriarchal society who depend on each other's strengths and weaknesses. This sensitive literate screenplay written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and the director asks its viewers to decide if love should trump faith and if there should be any consequences for our human flaws. It is a film that dares to deal with large issues of religion, conformity, and free will in telling its tender love story.

Filmed in muted tones by Danny Cohen, the film slowly establishes the relationship between the three major characters and allows the actors to fill in any gaps. And the three leads give fully realized performances. Ms. Weisz provides the impetus for the emotional conflict and gives her character a vulnerability and isolation that defines Ronit completely. Ms. McAdam has the more difficult role as her character is an enigmatic figure as written, confused by her attraction and unfulfilled as Dovid's loyal wife. But the actress accomplishes a great deal with her initial hesitation, lonely introspective conversations, and indirect downward glances which makes Esti all the more tragic. Yet, the most convincing portrayal comes from Mr. Nivola who presents a man trying to come to terms with his deep-set religious beliefs and his quest for human compassion and tolerance. All three are superb and add to the storyline, even when the plot becomes slightly contrived.

Mr. Lelio has crafted his film with an true understanding of his subject and he treats his characters and their situations with an honesty and thoughtfulness, including the passionate tryst between the two lead actresses which is never gratitious and completely necessary for the plot to be convincing. However, the director does allow the suds and melodrama to build a tad too excessively and cannot seem to conclude his film without the customary histrionics. (The film seems to have three too many endings, two of which are awash in sentimentality. I preferred that group embrace moment myself.)

Highly dramatic and, at times, erotic and sensual, Disobedience is a showcase for three fine actors and is an underrated film that should be seen by anyone who has loved and lost. It is worth your time.

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When The Force is Not With You
29 May 2018


IN BRIEF: Bland storytelling and a miscast lead performance by Alden Ehrenreich make a disappointing prequel.

JIM'S REVIEW: The name Han Solo has been with us for over 40+ years and has become legendary in filmdom history. A colorful antihero and beloved rascal, this character would seem to be a prime subject for his own movie. But director Ron Howard does a disservice to his memory in his standard retelling of this famous outlaw.

The 10th Star Wars offering, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is a stand-alone film that serves as a prequel to one of the series' most iconic characters. The movie is an additional side chapter to this most successful franchise and it takes the myths and references to those films and blends them into a diverting, if somewhat, bland whole.

Behind the scenes, the making of this film was plagued with strong creative differences, ego-clashes, and a change in directors before the film's completion. (Ron Howard took over the reins after directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were ousted.) The wear-and-tear doesn't show, but neither does the excitement or joy. This is strictly conventional sci-fi fare with sub-par production values and a script that lacks suspense or a coherent plot.

The movie seems small in big budget terms. It is lensed by cinematographer Bradford Young in dingy browns and dark shadows that obscure some of the action. The CGI is uninspired and ordinary by today's standards. Neil Lamont's production design is strictly generic. Edited by Pietro Scalia, the film has no real tempo or pacing, excluding a well staged monorail robbery which is the film's high point. Scenes are just strung together from one battle to the next with little time for any real character development to transpire. If it were not for a stronger third act which finally builds to some thrills due to unexpected twists and double-crosses, Solo would have be a thorough slog-fest. As it is, the movie remains a very bumpy ride.

The casting of Solo is a real issue. Alden Ehrenreich is a talented actor and he gives an admirable performance as the younger Solo. He tries valiantly and has the swagger but not the manly presence as a young Harrison Ford whom he is trying to imitate. More petulant boy than man-child, he plays the role as if puberty has not set in as he awaits a growth spirt of about 4 inches. With lotsa of smirks and posturing, he is physically wrong for the role. His boyishly good looks never match Mr. Ford's rugged persona, the years between them notwithstanding. Granted, it is a thankless task, but he is essentially miscast which throws off the other cast members. There is little chemistry between Mr. Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke as his love interest, Qi'ra. Adding some support is Donald Glover as Lando Cairissian, Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca, both fine in their parts, and Woody Harrelson who plays his stock character, Tobias Beckett, with little depth or emotional range. Thandie Newton is wasted in a terrible 70's hairdo. Paul Bettany is the menacing villain, Dryden Vos, although he does not have enough screen time to truly make the needed impression and conflict to resonate.

The screenplay by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan connects the dots in filling in Solo's backstory, which might give fans some pleasure. (How did Hans get his misnomer? How did he and Chewbacca met? How did the Millennium Falcon become his spaceship?) Yet, the basic plot goes nowhere as it goes planet-hopping with each mission. Their dialog lacks clever retorts and humor while their characters remain two dimensional at best.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, I'm afraid, may be only for die-hard Star Wars fans (of which there are many). However this critic was mostly bored and unimpressed with its dull storytelling and visual repetitiveness, wanting my moviegoing experience to be more than a series of battle scenes and little else. Mr. Howard may have rescued the film project from failure, but he did little to add any substance or worth. Obviously, the force was not with him or his film crew, making Solo what becomes a legend least.
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A Case of Brains Over Beauty
20 May 2018


IN BRIEF: An insightful documentary about the actress, Hedy Lamarr and her unacknowledged scientific inventions.

JIM'S REVIEW: Hedy Lemarr was a most fascinating woman and Alexandra Dean's documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, certainly adds to her allure. Most called her an international movie star of the 40's. Others called her a spy. Very few recognized her scientific achievements. It was always a case of beauty over brains.

The film focuses on her untold story from her childhood and early bohemian life in Vienna during the 1930's, her rising 40's Hollywood career, subsequent scandals, and many marriages and divorces. It also shows her as a woman of creativity and intelligence, one who actually patented inventions that were early prototypes of WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS technology. Documents reveal her plans for radio controlled torpedoes during World War II, aeronautic aviation advances, and secret communication systems. One can easily accept the film's main title for its double meaning after seeing the evidence on display.

However, Ms. Lamarr's scientific aspirations and skills were derailed by her beauty and chauvinistic attitude at that time. It was her glamour that most wanted to idolize which led to a thriving film career. Using archival footage, photos, interviews with family, animation, and film clips of Ms. Lemarr's films, the documentary chronicles her life using a found taped interview by the actress that tells many hidden details of her flamboyant life as its primary source.

While always interesting, this documentary seems to overcompensate about her scientific breakthroughs and bogs down with the technical underpinnings of her inventions. The animation is crude and unnecessary. The film provides glosses over the few facts about her numerous love affairs and marriages it shares and uses her Hollywood films as an afterthought that takes second place to her personal backstory. All seems well researched, but one wishes the filmmakers would have concentrated more on her two-sided complex life, with more film clips and exposition about her love affairs and relationships. It rarely stays on any one aspect of Ms. Lemarr's for too long.

Still, with such a fascinating woman as the subject, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is always compelling and offers many facts unknown to this reviewer. I gained more insight and admiration from this documentary for this under-appreciated talented woman which is a strong statement in itself for Ms. Dean's film too.

NOTE: This document is now available in movie art houses that showcase independent films. It is also on DVD and local streaming services.
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Girls Trip (2017)
Girls Just Wanna Have (Raunchy) Fun
15 May 2018


JIM'S REVIEW: A best-selling author, a gossip columnist, a sex-starved divorcee, and a loud raucous friend reunite with hopes of rekindling their friendships in the highly successful and profitable Girls Trip. The comedy was critically acclaimed, with talk of possible Oscar nominations, which never materialized (nor should it had).

The film provides many laugh-out-loud moments and it is a raunchy time, but hardly original. Too often the movie follows its well worn formula with various results, all of which are predictable fare. Much will depend on your liberal sense of humor due to many of the R-rated situations and dialog. The film is capably directed by Malcolm D. Lee and the screenplay by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver keeps the comic interludes coming at a fast pace.

The obvious plot revolves around a hard-working nurse and mother who does not have much of a social life and an Oprah wannabe who is much too accepting of her philandering husband's escapades with his gorgeous mistress. This irritates their other girlfriends who decide to join forces in an effort of unitarity and sisterhood and bond on a trip to New Orleans where, of course, they meet many studs and have sex along the way.

The actress all have their memorable moments. Queen Latifah is the solid dependable friend, Regina King brings the drama, Jada Pinkett Smith morphs from typical wallflower to beautiful butterfly, but it is newcomer Tiffany Haddish who steals the show with her outrageous hi-jinks and line delivery (much as Melissa McCartney did in Bridesmaids...a better film with the same "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" premise.)

Girls Trip is just, nothing more.
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Annette Bening Lives!
15 May 2018


JIM'S REVIEW: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool tells the final days of Oscar winning actress Gloria Grahame and her rapid career and health decline. Her fall from grace is sad but fascinating: her bouts with alcoholism and cancer, abusive behavior on the set, failed plastic surgery, an affair with a younger man, and a third marriage to her stepson...some of which is strongly depicted, other merely suggested. However any omissions in her life story are nicely added by a tremendous performance by Annette Bening as the doomed actress. She is riveting.

Ms. Bening brings a sophistication and vulnerability to this dramatic role, one that fully deserved an Oscar nomination. Her youthful love interest is Peter Turner, well played by Jamie Bell, and they have a wonderful chemistry between them. One believes in their initial attraction and their subsequent mercurial relationship.

The film focuses on Ms. Graham's last three years in England when she was forced into a stage career as the film industry offers dried up. Matt Greenhalgh's script has many touching moments (a stage rehearsal scene between the leads is very memorable) but the film's narrative structure is so non-linear and jumps too haphazardly from past to present that it tends to occasionally confuse. Some time lapse transitions are very effectively done; others are too artsy and forced. Most of the supporting roles of Peter's family members needed more definition as their actions seem unjust, erratic, or cruel at times. Yet Paul McGuigan's direction remains consistently strong and he sensitively handled the aspects of this May-December love story.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is a fine biography that should be seen by any filmgoer interested in serious drama. The film deserved a better life, much like Ms. Graham herself.
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Going Ape
15 May 2018


JIM'S REVIEW: The Planet of the Apes series has spanned 50 years with a very spotty record of hits and misses. The third chapter in this rebooted trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, (totaling 8 remakes, including this 2017 film) is a wonderful offering of strong storytelling, fine acting, astute direction by Matt Reeves, and dazzling state-of-the-arts visuals.

The story beleaguers its tale about the battle between man and apes. After all, this is a war movie, regardless of the species, but wisely focuses on the primates and their interplay and conflicts. The film fleshes out their individual traits and humanizes their plight.

Andy Serkis once again plays Caesar, the leader of the retreating apes, and supplies voice and action to his character to maximum effect. Woody Harrelson is his blood-thirsty de-humanized adversary, known as The Colonel, a direct descendent of Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He is seen as pure evil and little time is spent on his character development, one of the film's minor flaws. Also bringing strong support is Steve Zahn as Bad Ape, Karin Konoval as Caesar's loyal friend, and Amiah Miller as the mute Nova.

More time is spent on the action packed combat sequences. There is strong evidence of inspiration from other war films such as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Great Escape, and that aforementioned Coppola classic. However, the screenplay by Mark Bomback and the director mixes the "human" drama with its war scenes most effectively. (Kudos to Mr. Reeves for his strong direction as well which balances the dramatic narrative with epic staging usually found in blockbuster spectacles.)

But its the film's Oscar-nominated visual look that champions this sci-fi adventure film. (It should have won.) Without the transfixing motion-capture design and CGI effects created by all the artisans behind the lenses, the film would not have worked so incredibly well. It is an impressive realistic blending of animation and acting that makes the story resonant. The production values are top-notch, especially taut editing by William Hoy and Stan Salfas and a diverse music score by Michael Giacchino that does not bombard the viewer with loud unnecessary fanfare.

The series is bookended with its very best efforts and War for the Planet of the Apes, this franchises' possibly last installment, ranks among its finest achievements.
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Tully (2018)
Au Pair Repair
9 May 2018


IN BRIEF: A mishandled screenplay is in need of "au-pair", despite an excellent performance by Ms. Theron.

JIM'S REVIEW: From the stern but loving Ms. Poppins to the gentle nurturing of Mrs. Doubtfire and the crazed slasher types in films like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the nanny has become a mainstay in films. Her appearance is always a catalyst for change and Tully certainly joins that legion. But this au-pair outstays her welcome fast in Jason Reitman's dramedy.

Diablo Cody's screenplay starts out very promising by establishing its main character, Marlo, winningly played by Charlize Theron, as the mother of three. Adrift and alone in the pangs of depression and anxiety, Marlo is trying to cope and be a good mom and wife to her absentee husband Drew (Ron Livingston), while dealing with an autistic son (Asher Miles Fallica), a smart but precocious daughter (Lia Frankland), and a crying newborn. Ms. Cody's script shows the horrors of parenthood (the sleepless nights, the cluttered household, the utter exhaustion from the 24 / 7 job of being a parent. The film is brutally honest in its depiction and moviegoers immediately empathize with Marlo's dilemma. Plot-wise, her rich insensitive brother (Mark Duplass) offers her some help in the form of a night nanny to alleviate the daily stress. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

Mr. Reitman solidly directs and captures the family dynamics well, with a little too much pop music lyrics telegraphing the narrative's message. He also secure fine performances from his cast. Ms. Theron is wonderful in the role and unleashes her emotional range in many well-drawn scenes (her anger with the school principal over her son's problems, her quiet moments of desperation in being a lonely wife, the physical drain on her body and mind, etc.) She also strikes a nice balance with Ms. Davis in the title role and their bonding seems real and slightly off-kilter, as it should be. Ms. Davis is a refreshing presence on the screen and plays her character with a mysterious ambiguity that provides a subtle tension.

That said, you may ask, why the mild recommendation of this film?...and I will answer in this way: About the midway point, Ms. Cody's story loses its focus and its sense of logic and leads to a very disappointing conclusion, one that has no rhyme or reason. Without revealing too much of the twist, the film wants its story and plot to be seen on two levels, neither of which works due to some of the images and dialog scattered throughout the film. The contradictions do provide the conflicts but remain a mishmash of ideas. Its parts never congeal to a satisfying whole, despite the hard work by all involved.

So, Tully is a movie that ultimately disappoints. It's an au-pair film in need of repair.
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If It's Action You Want
2 May 2018


IN BRIEF: A superhero movie with a puny and weak plot and non-stop action.

JIM'S REVIEW: Superheroes. They come in all shapes and sizes, with varying super powers and enough attitude and skill to fight against evil and protect mankind. More importantly, they rake in millions at the box office. The DC Comics and Marvel universe have taken over the movie business and offer critic-proof blockbuster after blockbuster for the insatiable moviegoing public.

But perhaps my favorite crusader comes from neither source. He's a little big man by the name of Buzz Lightyear whose famous catch phrase and mantra was..."To infinity and beyond". That classic line may be over two decades old, but this toy oracle saw the future of cinema back in the mid-nineties. Which leads us to the 18th film from the Marvel Studios series, Avengers: Infinity War, the latest pop entertainment from one of the most successful and profitable franchise in cinema history.

In this installment, we discover that there has been a rift among superheroes. There is Team Ironman and his loyal crew of major and minor characters (Thor, Spiderman, The Hulk, Doctor Strange) versus Team Captain America and his colorful line-up of rogue groupies (Black Widow, Vision, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, White Wolf, Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Falcon), plus the Guardians of the Galaxy crew. Lots and lots of superheroes with little time to spare for deeper character development but lots of time for CGI and action stunts. Yet what will unite them all?

Why, of course, a truly bad villain, namely Thanos, who wants all six of the magical infinity stones in his possession in order to dominate the world! (Maybe, collecting trading cards of all of the assembled superheroes might have been a more challenging goal for our conflicted outlaw.) Yes, the plot is puny and weak, but the consequences to stop this megalomaniac are of the life and death variety. So all you need to know is that the battle lines have been drawn over the prized McGuffin, with one battle scene leading to the next for maximum enjoyment. ACTION is in not in short supply, even if logic and high drama take a backseat to the frequent combat sequences.

Anthony and Joe Russo ably direct and keep the pace at warp speed lest they disappoint their youthful target audience. A screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely juggles the misadventures on the different planetary destinations with varied results, some are simply more interesting than others. To its credit, it establishes many likable quirky characters and their camaraderie is infectious due to the actors' personal stamps on their recognizable roles. Yet the movie has a hard time spreading its narrative with a balance of equal screen time and does little to advance the development of some central characters and their interrelationships. Too often the numerous sub-plots and mini-expeditions with such a large ensemble wears thin. Dialog has some clever humorous retorts but rarely aspires to any real poignancy or gravitas.

The gangs all here, with an all-star ensemble that includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Bossman, and in lesser roles: Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Benicio del Toro, and others too numerous to name. Josh Brolin effectively plays the evil Thanos and creates a strong adversary who allows power to corrupt his soul.

The CGI is impressive throughout. Less effective is the editing and handling of transitions. At times, the well staged combat scenes intercut some of the action. Too much planet hopping interrupts the overall flow and gives the film an episodic vibe...the sum of the parts never making a very cohesive whole. Yes, there is much to hold one spellbound with its big budget cast of thousands approach and the film's fine production values, but all the rigmarole and commotion almost exhausts the moviegoer rather than enthralls.

One eagerly awaits for the fractured teams of heroes to meld into an unstoppable force, but it never truly materializes and the cliffhanger ending is far from satisfying. This long and epic film literally comes to a stop with no clear denouncement, taking Mr. Lightyear's phrase and deciding not to settle anything soon, just looking the next installment, with no end in sight.

In Avengers: Infinity War, the war rages on and on...and the Marvel franchise lives long and infinity.
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A Quiet Place (2018)
Silent Running
15 April 2018


IN BRIEF: A modern horror classic that earns its scares with taut direction and strong acting.

JIM'S REVIEW: Are they man-made robotic predator destroying humankind? Or are they savage alien invaders? It is never explained but the evidence is there...deserted towns, empty stores, streets with nary a person in sight. They're here and waiting for an iota of sound to signal their swift attack in John Krasinski's tension-filled horror film, A Quiet Place.

A family tries to survive these dire conditions and live in a hushed world. Any sound could equal death. The moviegoing audience immediately emphasizes with their dilemma from the start. That is the clever premise behind this thriller. Interesting, but not such an original idea...the hunter being captured by the game theme, but it is handled with a high degree of skill and execution that seems refreshing and innovative. (In fact, I recently a similar effective plot and formula in an episode of the Black Mirror anthology series called Metalhead which was also very well done.) The lean screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and the directorconsists of efficiently paced scenes of peril and, just as the stalkers are of the slice-and dice variety, so is Mr. Krasinski's sparse and razor-sharp precision in creating a frightening world. He eliminates much exposition and hones in on the central theme of a family in crisis and a parent's responsibility to protect their children at all cost. Yes, there are a few logical missteps dealing with decibel levels rationale...(and why not just throw an object farther away from oneself to distract the attacker since it goes directly for the loudest and closest nearby sound?)

In A Quiet Place, the family communicate through sign language and gestures. The slightest sound can bring doom to their doorstep. The movie wisely has minimal dialog with subtitles, and utilizes sound effects and visuals to convey the fear. It also makes the moviegoer "listen", a rarity with today's annoyingly loud dissonant movie blockbusters that ratchet up the noise. Credit to the sound design and CGI artists, Marco Beltrami's atmospheric score, shadowy photography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Jeffrey Beecroft's claustrophobic farmhouse design, and, oh yes, the acting.

What makes this film have its overall impact is the actors involved who show the sadness and madness of their life-or-death situation. The child actors are perfectly cast in conveying their camaraderie and familial ties. Noah Jupe and deaf actress Millicent Simmons are wonderful in their roles. Emily Blunt (Mr. Krasinski's actual wife) exudes a gamut of emotions and her chemistry with her real-life doe-eyed husband is quite palpable and convincing. (There is a lovely shared moment of the two dancing in silence before Neil Young's Harvest Moon comes into play.) And it is those quiet "real" moments that give the film its power.

Without given too much away, the film has many scenes of nerve-wrecking suspense...a scene in a grain silo, a water-filled basement, an invasion in a cornfield, etc., to name a few. There is much to admire in a film that relies less on its gore and violence and more on its characters and actions to deliver genuine scares which are frequently earned.

A Quiet Place pumps up the volume and its sound of silence rings true. It is one of the year's best.
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Isle of Dogs (2018)
Puppy Love
11 April 2018


IN BRIEF: An inventive animated film with much wit and a pedigree of mischief too.

JIM'S REVIEW: I am enamored by animated films. As a child, I was amazed that a series of drawings was able to "move" and created an emotional story of worth. Back then, (we're talking the 50's / 60's), the animated full-length feature was a rarity with the Disney Studio being the primary source of that genre of entertainment. Nowadays, with computer generated and stop motion movies being more common, and many studios venturing into state-of-the-art animation techniques like the reliable Pixar Studio and Aardman Animations, among other lesser sources, the allure may have faded somewhat and the results from the many prolific studios vary in quality, if not quantity. It seems that either the visuals overtake the narrative or vise-versa. It is so rare that both meld successfully into the final product. Wes Anderson's quirky and clever animated feature, Isle of Dogs, almost makes that leap of story and visual balance. It has scenes of total brilliance and political satire done with imagination and flair, even if the story ultimately wears thin and settles for a contrived ending to please the masses.

The simple tale relates the story of a boy searching for his lost canine friend. Set in the distant future in Japan, dogs have been banned and shipped to a trash heap island due to a contiguous outbreak presumedly caused by dogs. One of the first to be banished is Spots, owned by an orphan called Atari. This boy is determined to get his pet back and goes off to rescue him. He lands on Trash Island and is befriended by a quintet of raggedy mutts, namely, Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief. All journey together to find Spots and uncover more than they bargained for.

Written by Roman Coppola, Jason Swartzman, Kunichi Nomura, and the director, the film takes its storytelling quite seriously depicting a "love cats, hate dogs" polarized society, an Orwellian world that is controlled by a fascist dictator. The dogs are literally the underdogs representing the oppressed class. All of this dramatic structure is heavy-handed and in need of a few re-writes to clarify characters and the events that transpire. Still, the stop motion animation is most skillfully rendered, especially in its superb details of discarded refuse and hand drawn backgrounds. There is much to admire from its color palette, stylish compositions, and imaginative littered landscapes.

Mr. Anderson's vision focuses on this dystopian place using aerial views, shadows, and lighting to maximum effect. He injects this adult-oriented film with subtle touches of unexpected wit and droll humor (ticks scurrying in the dog's fur to show the squalor, a boy's bloody face with a impaled metal rod becoming an annoying yet forgotten appendage, shadows of figures quickly traveling against mounds of detailed garbage, a dead fish head still moving on a nearby plate as lunch is being prepared, etc.) These slightly macabre moments give the film an indelible sense of glee and mischief and show off this off-kilter universe. Another clever conceit is that the human words, mostly spoken in Japanese, is explained through translation while the dog's "barks" are the main English dialog. Whimsy is Mr. Anderson's forte and his penchant for good spirited fun.

The voiceover work is uniformly strong. Koyu Rankin voices Atari and Liev Schreiber is his friend, Spots. Vocal support comes from Bryan Cranston (displaying a wonderful tone of ongoing despair) Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Murray as the Canine Five. Other star-studded friends of the director add their talents in minor roles: Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gerwig, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Courtney B. Vance, and Yoko Ono.

Isle of Dog is a masterful ménage of lovely animation and unique storytelling that make this movie going experiences a howling success. NOTE: The opening and closing credits of the ensemble taiko drumming is marvelous. Four paws up!
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The Rise and Fall of a Nation (Circa 1969)
7 April 2018


IN BRIEF: An riveting factual retelling of a political scandal and cover-up that changed the life of one man and a nation. JIM'S REVIEW: One man remained above the law. One nation watched in shock and disbelief as the event unfolded. One woman dead. Such is the scandal and cover-up of Senator Edward "Teddy" Kennedy and his ill-fated accident that changed his life and took the life of campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechine. Chappaquiddick, John Curran's fine retelling of true events shows those days in 1969 when the young inebriated senator made that dire mistake, driving off a bridge and leaving a friend to slowly drown in a slightly submerged car. His decision lacked courage and integrity which cost him a political future to become America's once and future president. But our nation does love the rise and fall of the rich and famous...and their ultimate comeback.

Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan create a timeline that shows the unscrupulous damage control crafted by powerful men to protect their own, with little regard for the true victim. The script focuses on six days, from the fatal crash to the senator's televised plea to a country to forgive him his trespasses, ending in actual footage from real people who commented most positively on his "forced" confession. To the film's credit, it does not shy away from Kennedy's caddish behavior, the numerous illegal acts, and exposes the "spin" (which is ever prevalent today, while being a rarity back then). Their narrative could use more backstory to give more substance to the possible relationship of the politician and his victim. It only hints at that aspect and is a tad unjust to Ms. Kopechine's character by making her an incomplete pawn rather than a fully dimensional character. Kate Mara plays her very well and one wishes more screen time was spent in flashbacks about her character and motives.

However, the majority of the film is a showcase for Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. It is an excellent performance of a troubled and desperate man at terms with his own weaknesses. Mr. Clarke is a forceful presence and fully captures the Massachusetts senator's persona. (It is deserving of an Oscar nomination, although it will surely be forgotten due to the film's early release.) Also giving excellent support are Ed Helms as his close ally and conscience, Joe Gargan, Clancy Brown as Robert MacNamara, Taylor Nichols as Ted Sorensen, and Bruce Dern as the cruel patriarch, Joseph Kennedy. (The scene between father and son is brutal to watch, and Mr. Dern conveys his disappointment and personal disgust with barely a word as Mr. Clarke searches for any ounce of compassion and tenderness.) Rounding out the strong ensemble are Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Thirlby.

Mr. Curran directs with a solid vision and effectively jumps back to the incident to remind his audience of the tragedy of a human life cut short countering with the political mechanisms of a political life saved at all cost. That Senator Kennedy went on to continue a healthy career and eluded any jail time, never being convicted of manslaughter seems an odd turn of events in this enthralling and disturbing drama. But truth is stranger than fiction and Chappaquiddick is an honest depiction of dishonest times. It is a movie definitely worth viewing.
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Game Over
31 March 2018


IN BRIEF: A well-made but ultimately empty exercise in virtuoso filmmaking.

JIM'S REVIEW: The DeLoren and Back to the Future. Chucky the Killer Doll from Child's Play. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. T-Rex from Jurassic Park. The holy McGuffin from Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail...items and places worth mentioning and on view in Stephen Spielberg's lively sci-fi fantasy movie, Ready Player One.

We are taken into the world of virtual reality while worshiping any of the above pop culture reference from the 70's or 80's along the way. Ready Player One is pure escapist fun, but your level of satisfaction will depend entirely on your knowledge base of the trends and fads of the 70's / 80's era. (My level of expertise is in the middling range. All of the gaming references and arcade entertainment in this film were scored zero, but I do have strong creds with the many filmdom referrals with aided in my enjoyment of this film.) Apparently all of our world prior to those eras is non-existent, faded relics of days gone by (except for one word...Rosebud). But celebrating the whiz-bang escapades in an advanced Tron universe may be all one needs to hunker down to prepare for a rollicking good time. After all, we are in the hands and mind of a master director working overtime to impress us, and he sporadically does, if only on a purely visceral level.

Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One takes the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory premise and reboots that golden ticket to an escapist virtual reality game called OASIS where fantasy usurps a dark dystopian future. It is 2045 and as one character says, "Reality is a real bummer." People tune out their humdrum existence and tune in to the latest escape to an alternate world. It is there that a contest created by its crazed owner James Halliday (a winning Mark Rylance) entices them to own this Atari paradise. Unlimited wealth is the goal for whomever wins the most Easter Eggs and unlocks The Mystery of the Three Keys. Enter teen hero Wade (Tye Sheridan), a.k.a Parzival, his avatar counterpart, and his soon-to-be Scooby Doo gang: Aech, Daito, and Sho, plus Wade's love interest, Samantha (Olivia Cooke), a.k.a. Art3mis. It is they vs. CEO baddie Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), all eager for ownership of that coveted prize.

Plot-wise, the film is only continuous chase loop after the next, with very little character development in between. The screenplay by Zak Penn and the author himself try to dole out the exposition and somewhat explain the perimeters of the game for those moviegoers that may be lost in virtual space, but it is very rough around the edges and the story goes increasingly off track. While there is no emotional connection, the movie has much eye-popping effects in its visual look.

Director Spielberg certainly knows his craft, how to set up a scene, establish the high adrenaline pace, and deliver the thrills. Credit him and his editing team, Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, the ever-reliable cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and that music score veteran, Alan Silvestri, for their massive contributions. (Highlights include an exciting race car scene and a wonderful sequence into Kubrick territory, a neon-lit disco sequence less so.) This whole enterprise may be a trifle in Mr. Spielberg legacy of films, but it remains a well-made one.

Less successful is the merging of the unreal and real worlds. The human story dulls in comparison with the more exciting fantasy storyline and never registers on an equal par with the virtual reality universe. And even in that unreal world, not all is right. The CGI avatar characters lack definition in their characters and renderings. Everyone seems to have an off-putting cartoonish look about them. They are upstaged by all the visual intricacies of their stunning surroundings and dazzling backgrounds. These figures lack the human details to involve this reviewer. The constant feeling of "this is only a game" interfered with my full pleasure of this movie and the perils they faced just seemed too remote.

As the film reaches its anti-climactic conclusion and the narrative strains for continuity, the film goes top-heavy and into forced overdrive becoming all sound and fury, a distracting cacophony of explosions, noise, smoke, and mirrors...the end result being overdone and empty.

My involvement throughout this movie was diversionary, admiring Mr. Spielberg's sleigh of hand, even if the movie itself was hardly visionary. My overall reaction was always one of entertainment with a lackadaisical resigned feeling. But Ready Player One just may appeal to a younger generation of gamers and its mass targeted audience of teenagers looking for the next thrill to occupy their short attention spans. I just needed a bit more...or less.
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Annihilation (2018)
2018 Space Oddity
26 March 2018


IN BRIEF: A strange nifty little sci-fi thriller that was wiped off the face of the earth due to bad distribution, and it is not its fault.

JIM'S REVIEW: Alex Garfield's Annihilation is a 2018's sci-fi oddity. The backstory of this film is as compelling as the story seen on screen. Perhaps more so. Originally,Netflix purchased the film rights and distribution for this alien thriller. After gaining some positive critical reviews and also some preview audience's negative reaction, the studio lost faith in the movie and disbanded the film in movie theaters less than a month after its premiere. To compensate for a loss, the company then made it a part of its streaming services worldwide (with the exception being its U.S. outlets). The director cried foul of this controversial release method and so did most of the Hollywood elite. He was right.

That said, the film itself is a tad odd too. It may not enrapture a mass audience as it tells a well-worn formulaic story of scientists discovering an alien life force that mutates in a section of Planet Earth. Called "The Shimmer", this glowing quarantined zone is soon being explored by Army Special Forces organized by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). After months trying to contain this area and all living plant and animal life within. another crew is assembled. This includes Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) had previously entered this Area X. Others in this all-female platoon include Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). This MeToo Movement quickly becomes a WhoseNext Movement as they battle supernatural forces in a test of survival. So much for women's empowerment!

Also strange is the lack of interest by sci-fi fans and moviegoers with this latest journey into the unknown, as it is a well-made and scary little thriller that deserved more attention. (Only 6 other people were in the audience when I viewed the movie.) Sure, there are leaps of logic...many. (Some randoms thoughts: Since others had gone before without any survivors, why was this female quartet better equipped to handle this mission? Shouldn't these scientists be trained to know they are in a contagious area and dress for success? Nary a latex glove in sight. Since the team only traveled with backpacks, where does all the extra gear come from? Does anyone in this movie understand the meaning of the word, "quarantine"? Wouldn't other war technology such as planes, drones, or jets with missiles be more efficient means of travel? Without sounding too sexist, wouldn't one or two male soldiers be more advantageous for some physical muscle power on this unknown mission? Why is it always so hard to stay with the group when in peril?) Questions left unanswered or poorly explained.

The adapted screenplay by Mr. Garfield is based on Jeff VanderMeer's book. Too much time is spent on narrative exposition about genetic science and trying to add some dramatic elements about Lena's human story, which does bring some character development but it also seriously impedes the action. It also takes far too long to finally enter the anomaly, about a half hour into a film that is barely two hours in length. Still, kudos for giving a standard sci-fi thriller come nice dialog, fine acting, and gravitas to this mix.

Where the film excels is in its CGI visual images, sound design and Mr. Garfield's artistic flair. The music score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow adds that eerie moodiness and the movie is well edited by Barney Pilling for maximum suspense. The director creates an intelligent and taut creature feature. As his film progresses, many moments are nerve-wrecking and fraught with tension. His memorable climactic showdown between our heroine and the alien life form becomes a lyrically freakish "dance of death", well choreographed and stylishly realized.

Annihilation won't morph or change the sci-fi fantasy genre, but this strange and odd film deserved some love and admiration.

NOTE: The end credits are a wonderful light show of extended colors and hypnotic swirls. Stay for it.
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Love, Simon (2018)
A Coming Out Story that Entertains Rather than Enlightens
21 March 2018


IN BRIEF: An entertaining "coming out" of age film that rarely exceeds its sit-com trappings.

JIM'S REVIEW: Today we are said to live in a bubble, a parallel universe that protects us from real events. Love, Simon is that place. It purports to be a real world totally accepting of LGBT rights and bereft of any menacing prejudice. People there have a high tolerance of diversity issues too. Would that this world be just a tad like the characters and place in this entertaining comedy! But it's not...and that is the main problem I had with this loving but dishonest story.

First, let me vent: We are dealing with major problems of hate crimes, gay conversion therapy, and the stripping away of human rights in our real world. None of those obstacles exist here. This is pure sit-com land, without a laugh track but with a wink and a nod to John Hughes' popular teenage comedies in the 80's. However, the main character has now transgendered into the Molly Ringwald hero this time around. One may say that I am being overly sensitive to the's a COMEDY, one that gives today's generation of gay teenagers (and yes, they do exist) a big OK to be who you are. You may say get over it! And I guess that having this film produced and distributed by a major studio is definitely a step forward. I just wish it took more chances.

That said, I do not want to be too hard on this film. Love, Simon is an extremely good movie, earnest in its intentions but more unexceptional in its execution. It has much to say, even if it delivers its message far too subtly. That message of tolerance and self-worth can be clearly heard and may be the most important statement about this "coming out" of age tale.

We are introduced to a likable title character who lives in an affluent suburbia community. Simon has known that he is gay for a long time, but he is leery about sharing that secret with his parents and friends, fearing any negative reaction. He is in search of love and he decides to find it, anyway possible, including contacting an anonymous online lover named Blue. This invisible gay character becomes a bit of a mystery for Simon and the moviegoing audience as well as Simon fantasizes some of his teenage friends and acquaintances in that role.

The screenplay by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (adapted from Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda) has many clever moments, turning the tables on our perceived biases. We empathizes with Simon through his many well-written confessional voiceovers which define his confused state of mind. The script establishes its stock characters (the loyal girlfriend, the funny sidekick, the hunky friend, the drama club type, etc.) and gives them some unexpected quirkiness that diverts our interest. But it lacks the courage to delve into a real gay relationship with any new insight.

The film is solidly directed by Greg Berlanti for mass audience appeal. Too bad he homogenizes the gay conquest angle, barely registering even a simple kiss, let alone any more graphic sexual awakening scene. Rest assure, love will be found In this sanitized PG -13 version with a simple tender kiss being the only sexual affirmation given to Simon and mainstream teenage audiences. Nevertheless, it is all innocuous diverting fun, mostly due to its engaging cast.

Nick Robinson plays Simon and he is a delight. The actor elevates the story with his sincere and touching interpretation of a boy trying to find himself. He brings with him the perfect charm and charisma needed to make this story work. Many fine young actors complete the teenage cast, although they all seem more twenty-somethings than real teenagers. This winning ensemble include Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Kelynan Lonsdale, Clark Moore, and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., and all do a commendable job. The adults in the cast are left at the perimeters of the teenage angst in sketchy roles, but Tony Hale and especially Natasha Rothwell add that needed comic spark with their ironic comments and sharp comic timing. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play Simon's caring parents and deliver their tender familial moments very well.

Love, Simon is a most assuredly a crowdpleaser, but it is more Like, Simon for this reviewer.
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When Bad Things Happen to Good People
13 March 2018


IN BRIEF: A sci-fi fantasy that is metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and one of the year's most disappointing movies.

JIM'S REVIEW: As a goofy teenager, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was heady stuff back in the sixties, a book that I found difficult to understand, let alone, enjoy. It was all metaphysical mumbo-jumbo in those late turbulent 60's and Ava DuVernay's updated film adaptation can be described the same way today. It is a film of good intentions gone badly.

The film is ill-conceived from the start. (How anyone looking at the kitschy design couldd not have seen the many missteps is beyond me and the universe!) Words fail to accurately explain the many flaws, but try I must.

But first, a short plot summary for those not familiar with the novel: Meg Murry, her brother, Charles Wallace, and a friend meet some time traveling matrons named Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who. (Who's on first?...I dunno!) They "tesser" to different worlds to find Meg's missing physicist father, who may have discovered the meaning of life, as they battle an evil force named The It (No, not that supernatural devious clown, although the circus of misfits has fully arrived).

The director has diversity and woman's empowerment seemingly the major emphasis throughout this time-traveling saga, more blatantly on display than in most films. Score some points for that issue. But whereas, the recent Black Panther movie had the same idea and melded it successfully into its narrative, this heavy-handed version makes advancement for racial quotas in the most obvious of ways, primarily in its casting choices and stereotyping of some characters. Subtract points for the lack of logic and pure entertainment value. This film is a confusing dumbing-down of its source material.(In Ms. L'Engle's defense, many of her ideas of parallel dimensions, light vs. dark forces, black smoke monsters, and such were innovative and ground-breaking at the time, although now they are commonplace and contrived due to many later reincarnations from other sci-fi sources.) In fact, when the film stays earthbound, it oddly has more impact than its many treks to supernatural destinations.

Storm Reid is our young heroine and the actress holds her own and creates a believable girl trying to cope with a new world order. Her casting is one of the few pleasures in this movie. Levi Miller has that teen idol look but is a bit bland as Meg's friend, Calvin, who seems to have a hair fetish through the movie. In smaller roles, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw register very well as the helpless and loving parents.

Perhaps one of Ms. DuVernay's biggest hurdle was her miscasting of young Deric McCabe as Meg's gifted brother. He is just physically wrong for this role. As directed, the young actor overacts shamelessly and is annoyingly precocious. Mr. McCabe's resemblance to a small but mighty Hervé Villechaize does not help matters either. (No rescue here, the plane never arrives!) When called on to be a menacing force of nature, his size and high-pitched line delivery has the completely opposite reaction, more bratty hissy-fit than life-threatening peril. This child actor may have talent, but this role does not show off that potential at all.

Yet some of the other adult performers are just surprisingly awful, especially the three fairy godmother types played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and the omnipotent Oprah "You get a car" Winfrey. It's hard to determine just who, whatsit, or especially "why" these actresses interpret their roles with a fuzzy cartoonish smugness and total lack of gravitas. They never create an iota of a believable character or transcend their real life personas. It's just dress-up time. Other unusual suspects are: Zach Galifianakis, once again hamming it up to excess as a yoga guru called The Happy Medium and Michael Pena plays Red briefly, a wise exit.

Ms. DuVernay's vision becomes strained in this re-imagining and the technical CGI have a general artificial quality which subverts the story. It is a rarity in today's filmmaking that such a big budgeted blockbuster from the Disney Studio looks so cheap and be so bereft of imagination and visual style. Blame the artisans involved, the worst offender being costume designer Paco Delgado's outrageous drag queen outfits, the bejeweled make-up, and Disney's fairy-tale over-the-top hair design. (Perhaps this look would have worked as a more theatrical musical, A Wizard of Oz updated tale. As it stands, it just looks foolish and laughable.) In fact, evolving hair styles seems to be the deciding factor for character development, since it surely isn't the muddled screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell. It's more like a skeletal outline of a series of kiddie adventures as the characters space hop to different planets and different obstacles than a complex story of universal adult themes. The dialogue is just a series of positive pep talks and self-help platitudes that grow tiresome very fast ("Be a warrior!"...Celebrate your flaws!"..." Don't give up hope!"..."You know, you have great hair!").

A bombastic music score by Ramin Djawadi telegraphs the emotion one is suppose to feel but doesn't. Most of Naomi Sholan's production design and especially Elizabeth Keenan's unimaginative set decoration looks like a college art design project using painted styrofoam as its main element, with the prize going to best float. Only Tobias Schliesser's photography has some merit.

Yes, there are a few effective scenes that are completely satisfying. After all, the director is a powerful force. Just see her previous two films, the superb Selma and the important documentary, 13, and it is proof of her talents. However, in this film, she loses control of her story with trite images (Orion's gaudy cavern, a bedazzled bigger-than-life Oprah, and those ugly costumes with added colored lip gloss, a dated 50's beach scene that seems out of place with all the other contemporary touches) mixed with strong ones (the ripple effect prior to transporting, an eerie beige Stepford suburbia, a dangerous race in a dark forest).

This modern reboot of A Wrinkle in Time has many kinks to iron out. Sadly, it is a major disappointment. Hopefully, Ms. DuVerney and crew will learn from their failures and "tesser" onto other more worthwhile projects. This one deserves to be lost in its own parallel universe.
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Red Sparrow (2018)
Anemic Blonde
8 March 2018


IN BRIEF: Except for a strong performance by Jennifer Lawrence, this is one of the worst spy films ever.

JIM'S REVIEW: Did any of you moviegoers out there happen to see last year's espionage thriller, Atomic Blonde? It told the story of a seductive female spy using her martial skills and sexuality as a lethal weapon to combat enemy agents. At least, that film was high energy and stylishly filmed. Red Sparrow follows that same not-so-secret formula, with more talk violence, and sex to tell its predictable story. Perhaps a better alias might have been Code Name: Anemic Blonde, as this film version may follow the same course of events, but it's a real yawn-fest. You know, the standard double crosses and fight sequences are intact and expected in this genre.

The story goes something like this: Dominika Egorova, a premier ballerina for the Kirov Ballet, is unexpectedly forced to change jobs in order to support her ailing mother. (Are there any other types in Russia?) Dom is blackmailed to become a master spy by her evil Uncle Vanya (no relation to Chekov, although it could have used his creative talents). So it's off to Sparrow School or "whore school" for some in-depth training . Our little minx is taught how to be a successful spy in seven easy lessons that include sexual humiliation, rape, and violent charades. The film meanders and takes its time indoctrinating our heroine with the art of the spy prior to her mission as she is trained to use her body a tad more than her mind. After graduating the top in her class (or bottom, she's not fussy, the state owns her body now), Dom is send by the KGB to go on a mission to seduce a CIA agent and assess some sort of file...who knows, who cares. There are so many double crosses, amid violent scenes of gore and torture, that the film loses any shred of credibility.

Red Sparrow does boast a fine performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She uses her Natasha Fatale accent quite well and makes a convincing anti-hero, even if the Tonya Harding bangs are a bit much. Too bad the actress is written as a mere sexual toy by Justin Haythe who is more interested in creating clever ways to depict gratuitous nudity (mostly Ms. Lawrence and some refreshing male frontal shots) and shocking violence in its frequent torture scenes to tell its tale.

Oh, the mission...something about finding a mole. The plot grew very confusing and more convoluted as the film progressed. All the sinister talk and pointless exposition was tedious and under developed. By the midpoint of the movie, in my mind, this spy's license to kill was revoked and reissued as a license to bore.

The sluggish script introduces some sketchy stock characters, then they disappear, only to return later for no apparent reason. Their motives made no sense and their allegiances shifted throughout the movie as par for the course in these espionage thrillers. The jerky story structure goes global from one scenic European city to the next with occasional stops in Russia, but everything seemed off kilter as did some anachronistic props that had this reviewer questioning the time period of the story at one point (floppy discs?)

Francis Lawrence (no relation to Ms. Lawrence, although it could have used her creative talents) does a sub-par job at directing, building no suspense at all. To keep the moviegoing audience awake, he throws in location sights to add authenticity while objectifying Ms. Lawrence in every conceivable nude scene in the most voyeuristic way. He also prolongs the torture sequences with a graphic glee. It is a exploitive cinematic step backwards.

Except for Ms. Lawrence, the acting was disappointing, especially coming from a talented cast that included: Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Claran Hinds, Bill Camp, Douglas Hodge, and Jeremy Irons. Matthias Schoenaerts is the villainous uncle and he overplays the part. No animals may have been killed in the making of this movie, but the Russian accents were certainly mangled. Except for Ms. Lawrence's consistent diction, nothing else was remotely believable. Joel Edgerton is Dominika's love interest, Nate Nash, a perfect name for a comic book superhero, but merely unintentionally comic as played by this usually reliable actor. The chemistry between Ms. Lawrence and a miscast charmless Mr. Eggerton is non-existent.

Red Sparrow is for the birds.
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Black Panther (2018)
Black Superhero Lives Matter
25 February 2018


IN BRIEF: Black lives really matter in this well-made movie, but it is hardly the ground-breaking innovative pop entertainment that one expects after all of the hype.

JIM'S REVIEW: The reviews are in for Ryan Coogler's Black Panther and they have been glowing..."A cultural phenomenon"..."A monumental achievement in filmmaking"...So is all of the hoopla justified or is this film simply a well-made example of a crowd-pleasing comic book action hero movie? Obviously, my opinion won't change any moviegoer's viewpoint as the film is on its way to be one of the highest-grossing films of the year. But review it I will...

Black Panther does follow the formula of most superhero movies: establish its hero and villain, build the conflict between them while laying out the mythology and origins, and creates endless CGI battles. The difference here is its predominantly African-American cast and crew overtly celebrating its own cultural heritage. The film also takes its time to delineate its supporting characters and make them fully-rounded individuals of merit. Kudos to that, and its message of social and political conscience found within its story.

The film firmly celebrates racial and gender equity in its depiction of an utopian universe called Wakanda. This isolationist African nation is a technically advanced place with a peace-loving population of various tribes who have no interest in being included with the outside world and its troubles. They purposely make their country's appearance as an impoverished third world country to our real world. But beneath its surface, there is a secret powerful substance called vibranium that protects this Kwanzaa territory and makes their Lion King into a Black Panther who will reign supreme. That is, until evil forces discover this metal for weaponry and corrupt power.

Yes, the basic set-up of superhero versus super villain remains intact and much of the film's beginnings are, while compelling, still long exposition posing as a story. Our hero is T' Chaka (a fine Chadwick Boseman) who is in love with a very independent woman named Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o, ever so classy). T'Chalka (a.k.a. Black Panther) becomes king and must stop the outside world from getting their stash of vibranium at all costs. Helping him is Okoye (a terrific Danai Gurira), a fearless female warrior, and her Amazonian army of bodyguards. This film uses women power to the max, another timely positive touch in this MeToo state-of-the-world mindset.

Mr. Coogler directs with skill and confidence. His debut film, Fruitvale Station, an under-appreciated crime film, showed a new talent to behold, and his second feature, Creed, established a director with an unique vision. This film, his third, shows a visionary craftsman that stages his action scenes with flair, especially his climactic battle on land and in air. His deft hand elevates this film from standard superhero mode to a film of importance and authority.

However, one wishes the screenplay by Joe Robert Cole and the director would have been more adventurous in breaking out of the standard issue formula found in this fantasy genre. It does, at one point, venture out and begins to resemble more of a spy homage to James Bond, complete with fast cars and gadgetry, but then it goes safely back to comic book land and gets lost in its overindulgence of CGI effects, some of which are too noticeably fake.

As written, our hero is rather a bland crusader whose supporting army of warriors are far more interesting than the main character himself. The world and characters spinning around him is a more exciting bunch. As with most action flicks, it must be the villains who have the necessary know-how to engage the audience. And in Black Panther, we have, not one, but two evil forces that are great foils. Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue is the antithesis of sinister evil as a black market arms dealer and makes a lasting impression, but stealing the film is Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, one of the most memorable villains since Heath Ledger's Joker. Mr. Jordan is dynamic as the vengeful rival wanting to seize the throne. He brings a street-wise edginess to the narrative very convincingly and is able to give his complex character a tragic side as well, no easy feat.

Rounding out the cast are such talented performers as Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, John Kani, and Daniel Kaluuya. Also giving great support are British actors Martin Freeman as a C.I.A. agent (with a perfect American accent too) and Letitia Wright in a breakout performance as T'Challa's savvy sister, Shuri.

At the risk of sounding too kumbaya, Black Panther has its flaws, but it is a rollicking good time. It doesn't break any new cinematic frontier as one is led to expect by the critical hosannas, nor does it redefine film history (except for the fact that the film industry has now discovered a black audience's willingness to pay green). But as entertainment goes, the movie repeatedly scores...and that's no easy feat either.
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But Knot For Me
13 February 2018


IN BRIEF: The Greys finally tie the knot and it's still a dim-witted love story in need of a safe word to stop all of this dreck.

JIM'S REVIEW: I am now complete.

Fifty Shades Freed is my official first film for the 2018 movie season and having seen all of this film series, I can attest that the film is certainly free from any sense of full-fledged exotica or just common sense. (Yes, dear moviegoers, I did my sacred duty and took the bullet for you on this one!)

The film trilogy, the last one, thank goodness, is a conventional mix of soft porn and romantic fantasy, the type of tripe most middle-aged blue-hairs would carelessly blush and giggle to themselves as they experienced the second-hand sexual nastiness on the screen. But I'm afraid it's just "knot" for me.

Love has pussy-whipped Our Sex-Obsessed Mr. Grey. He morphs from a male-chauvinistic playboy with sado-masochistic tendencies into a dull, jealous, and controlling dolt with sado-masochistic tendencies. This mundane movie shows less erotic sex this time around (lots of moaning and groaning though), less nudity (excluding Ms. Johnson's taut nipples that tend to overact slightly more than the actress), and less screen time in its less-than-two hours length (its strongest selling point). But this installment sure has an overabundance of hokum in its silly thin plot: Christian (James Dornan) and Anastasia "Just Call Me Ana" Steele (Dakota Johnson) have continually "tied the knot" in previous chapters, but this time, it is legit. They marry in the most opulent of ceremony that would impress the rich and famous class, let alone us commoners. But happiness soon eludes The Greys, as they adjust to their new arrangements as husband and wife. He: trying to fit in his extensive gym routine while making millions to keep new wife happy; She: juggling and jiggling her role as wife, lover, and a feminist. Oh, and She has one other issue: a psychotic admirer is stalking her once more! Typical soap opera fare.

Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Dornan continue to stay fit and are very well-toned. Acting-wise, they still remain flabby. Former Oscar winners Kim Basinger is nowhere in sight this time around and Mary Kay Harden is a mere walk-on. (Be thankful, ladies!) The rest of the cast is unmemorable, although Rita Oro, a singer a.k.a. actress, acts distressed in most of her scenes, even the happy ones, Brant Daugherty looks dashing as Ana's personal bodyguard, and Amy Price-Francis emotes a tad too much in her minor supporting role. Eric Johnson as the one-note villain, Jack Hyde, does seek to add a few notes to his evil character. All are lackluster at best, given the weakest of material to portray.

Yet, the real fault lies more with the best-selling source. In adapting the purple prose of his wife's tawdry novel, screenwriter Niall Leonard never makes this melodrama believable. The dull direction of James Foley seems more interested in the luxurious trappings than actually creating an interesting movie. It is all so formulaic: Christian and Ana look hot and horny, begin to talk dirty, have foreplay with various hand-held instruments, cue music ballad for mood, show Ms. Johnson's breasts, glimpse at Mr. Dornan's dimpled derrière, tastefully-shot short sex romp follows, fade out to next scene. Just dreadful...and not the least bit sexy.

So, let me just end with one ripe laughable quote to belabor my point:

" Babies are caused by sex...and we have a lot of it."

'Nuff said. Fifty Shades Freer may have come full circle, and it is hopelessly as loopy as ever.
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Snatched (2017)
Bungle in the Jungle
31 January 2018


Snatched, an alleged comedy directed haphazardly by Jonathan Levine, starts off promisingly enough with some laugh-out-loud visual gags and funny one-liners before it gets lost in the jungle, literally speaking. About twenty minutes into this barely 90 minute non-laugh fest, the film becomes so top-heavy in its desperation to please, it loses all sense of comedy as we follow a storyline that goes nowhere.

The inept screenplay by Katie Dippold is all over the place with unfunny gross-out moments, sit-com situations, and an absurd plot that really makes little sense. It traps two of the most likable performers, Amy Schumer, and the rarely-seen Goldie Hawn, in a dumb plot and leaves no survivors.

The story (?) follows the exploits of a mother-daughter team as they are kidnapped on an Ecuadorian vacation. I would say that the film follows a predictable formula, but one simply doesn't care about any of this nonsense as it rambles to one silly scene after the next. By the time any moviegoer finally gets to the ending, if they make it that far, it's all one exasperating groan.

Pity the performers who have all done better work, but at least, it's a paying job. Beside Ms. Schumer and Ms. Hawn, other victims include Ike Barinholtz, Wandy Sykes, Joan Cusak, and Christopher Meloni. This one will not go into anyone's resume.

Snatched is bad comedy.
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I, Tonya (2017)
A Ice Cold Dark Comedy
28 January 2018


IN BRIEF: A clever bio-pic that purposely mixes fact and fiction.

SYNOPSIS: The supposed story of ice skater, Tonya Harding.

JIM'S REVIEW: I, Tonya is not your typical biography film. Craig Gillespie solidly directs his movie about the infamous ice skater, Tonya Harding, with a bold conceit, purposely mixing fact and fiction and admitting this premise from the outset. He skates through the hard news facts and avoids conventional storytelling techniques in a refreshing way. The director tends to simplify the story as he adds one part high melodrama and two parts irony to his dark comedy. He does overload the film with 90's pop standards that overstate his message, but he assembles a winning cast of players who act their roles with expert glee and a strong satiric edge.

I, Tonya stays on target with its low-trash trashing of America, and having Tonya portrayed as the eternally abused heroine. Perhaps, not the most accurate depiction of this celebrity. The clever screenplay by Steven Rogers uses mock interviews with the actors in character and the supposed "true" events that led up to the attack on fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan. The script reinforces this notion with a "she said-he said" formula which works.

The film sets up the story of Ms. Harding's early skating career, her heartless mother, her violent relationship with her husband, her Olympic dreams, and the "incident" leading to her downfall. It tells its tale effectively but spends too much time blaming those around Tonya as her victimizers and making her more saintly sympathetic than need be. Where the film mostly succeeds is in its sardonic black humor and outlandish characterizations.

Margot Robbie, a bit too beautiful for the part, is quite sensational as Tonya. The actress interprets her role very well as abused victim and hard-as-nails survivor. She rarely is shown to be apologetic or kind, usually appears to be temperamental and impetuous, yet Ms. Robbie makes Tonya empathetic and vulnerable. She is excellent throughout the film, her highpoint being her dressing room scene prior to Tonya's disgraceful showing at the Olympics and the film's brutal closing moments. Those alone deserve award attention.

Ms. Robbie gets strong support from a fine ensemble that are physically aligned to the real life counterparts and bring a fierce determination to their characters. Sebastian Stan is Jeff Gillooly, her abusive spouse, and he makes this despicable person a dangerous force and troubled soul. His scenes of sudden violence and unpredictable behavior are powerful. Paul Walter Hauser plays Shawn Eckhardt, his half-witted accomplice with delusions of grandeur, and the actor is quite wonderful...funny and yet pitifully tragic. Some of the other roles could use more clarification and depth, but they are graced with talented performers like Julianne Nicholson and Bobby Cannavale who add much to their sketchy parts.

But the real scene-stealer is Allison Janney as her cold-hearted mother, . She creates a bitter hateful woman, unloved and unloving, and Ms. Janney, almost unrecognizable, never allows her cruel character to be not the least bit sympathetic or caring with the moviegoing audience. What could easily have been an overdone evil caricature becomes an wildly eccentric character that is, understandably, the main cause-and-effect of Tonya's dysfunction. Her scenes with Ms. Robbie have a bittersweet sadness and a quick comic give-and-take shock value that empowers the film.

I, Tonya is a well-made and searing indictment of the rise and fall of one woman and her quest for fame, fortune, and the American Dream. Be careful what you wish for.
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25 January 2018


IN BRIEF: A well-crafted but pretentiously boring movie that is dressed to the nines, but barely rates a five.

SYNOPSIS: A portrait of a suffering artist, set in the 50's world of high fashion.

JIM'S REVIEW: Reynolds Woodcock (a great screen name) is an elitist snob with little tolerance for others and more interest in himself. He is consumed with his art and his social skills are lost on anyone who enters his world, except maybe his only living relative, his sister, Cyril. He is a genius when it comes to fashion and a fool when it comes to love. He clings to a sense of order in his life and longs for a reasonable amount of decorum in his everyday existence. But all that will change when he meets and woos Alma, a common girl with an uncommon figure and profile who will become his muse. He is, of course, the talented Daniel Day-Lewis, in his final film role. And while it is not the greatest exit in his illustrious career, it is still a compelling portrait of an artist. Sadly, Mr. Day-Lewis' last film vehicle, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, ultimately disappoints.

The talented Mr. Anderson serves as director / screenwriter and this is not his best effort, given the contrary praised lavished on this artistic dud by many critics. Yet Phantom Thread has a wonderful visual and epic sweep. It cannot be denied that this movie is one of the most elegantly mounted films of the year. Mark Tildesley's production design is stunning, with wonderful sets and backdrops, lavish period costumes by Mark Bridges evoke the era very effectively, and Mr. Anderson's camerawork (yes, he also did the lush cinematography) is fluid and helps to peek interest with his lovely composition and lighting, plus a captivating atonal music score by Jonny Greenwood seamlessly mixes jazz renditions of popular songs and classical elements. Still, with all that care and craftsmanship of these fine artisans, the film rarely has any emotional connection. It is a joyless character study that just doesn't go anywhere. The fault is primarily an unfocused script by the director that lacks clarity and purpose.

Without divulging any plot spoilers, one can simply say that the film takes an interesting enough premise, an intricate character study of a man possessed, and makes a long story longer. The film doesn't tie up its loose strands of plot very well, but to its credit, it doesn't follow a predictable story either. Sometimes a strange Hitchcockian love story, sometimes a psychological thriller (without the thrills), it is a hybrid of sorts that can't decide its own direction.

The screenplay establishes supposedly complicated characters that are given nothing to do other than pout or look intense, act gravely, wear lovely outfits, and talk in stilted phrases with many pauses that accentuates the gravitas of their splintered relationships. The film holds your interest with its overall look, even as it starts to unravel in its complicated narrative structure and odd character twists and sadistic turns that all lead to an illogical ending. (Can submitting to death really evoke true love? Let's get real!)

Acting-wise, for this film to work, the three main characters must establish conflict and heighten the drama. There lies another problem. Mr. Day-Lewis adds layers to this nebulous character and watching him suffer and fuss is always an enjoyable exercise in moviegoing, one that will be missed. The most compelling role, however, is not the foppishly handsome and fastidious Mr. Woodcock, but his cold and straight-laced sister and business partner, Cyril, played to the hilt by Leslie Manville. One wishes she was given more screen time. It is the third character, that of Alma, which is miscast. Vickie Krieps plays this part and is being outacted by the pros around her. She brings forth little charm or the ability to make an impression that commands any attention. One fails to believe her allure with her bland interpretation of this crucial character. Ms. Krieps never successfully shows the cunning manipulations of her wayward character. It is this imbalance that seriously undercuts the film's potential. All in all, the actress is not the ideal Phantom's menace. (Sorry, I couldn't resist the pun.)

As a director, Mr. Anderson also lets scenes go on far too long which drags down the film and flatlines his film to a sluggish pace. His plot becomes a rather predictable and pretentious mystery that builds little tension or suspense. Except for a well-written office scene between brother and sister, dialog has an improvisational aura that lacks eloquence, seems contrived, and is just plain boring.

All the fancy trimmings cannot hide the fact that Phantom Thread is one of the most well-made films of the year, but it is also one of the most overrated as well. Critics have adored this film and heaped accolades on this pretentious movie. But truth be known, the Emperor is wearing no clothes.
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No, The Kids Aren't Alright
24 January 2018


The kids are not alright in Sean Baker's intimate drama, The Florida Project. The children are regularly unsupervised, crossing dangerous highways and walking miles from home, which seems all commonplace to them and acceptable behavior for the adults around them as they ignore their safety. Waffles, jelly sandwiches, and pizza is their regular and affordable diet. A rare shopping spree at a dollar store becomes a special celebration. All of these small touches elevate the power of this film's message.

But children see the world with different eyes and that can be a good thing as it hides some of the ugly realities in this world. It protects them from the harsh truth. We meet little Moonee and her friends during their summer vacation, living at the Magic Castle Inn, near Futureland, both flea-bag motels that house welfare families and lower class residents such as her trashy and volatile single mother, Halley. And while the sunny weather may shine in this Sunshine State, all is not happy and aglow.

Mr. Baker shows his larger-than-life characters living at poverty level with his camerawork capturing the squalor and desperation. On a small budget, he takes us into this unfamiliar world to many of us. The screen is awash in gaudy pop architecture painted in vivid purples and hot pinks as its setting, a lost land of 60's kitsch and undeniable hardship. He also depicts the innocence of children, filling their days with games and activities, like sharing an ice cream cone after begging for change, playing hide-and-seek in deserted tenements, talking into a fan to hear their altered voices, playing with a cigarette lighter. It is all shown matter-of-factly in a cinéma-vérité style. His strength is more as a director than screenwriter. His screenplay, co-authored by Chris Bergoch, needs more focus on its narrative structure and some rewrites.

The cast are mostly unfamiliar faces which adds to the authenticity and grittiness of the story. Except for a fine Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the stern but caring motel manager, the film takes its characters and their dire situations and forces us to see their lives on display. The aforementioned screenplay is becomes an effective character study about these "low-lifes" rather than a well-plotted story. Mr. Baker tends to allow scenes to go on too long with too much improvisation and more atmosphere than substance. He tends to use his strong imagery well, although he repeats himself too often with some of his settings and story-lines. (And let's not go into an incomplete and awful ending that undercuts his fine narrative. It absolutely makes no sense and one leaves his film with some dissatisfaction after investing your time in this fascinating characters.)

Aside from Mr. Defoe's subtle portrayal of a man trying to be a little girl's distant protector, the acting throughout the film is uniformly strong with Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as a precocious six year old Moonee. She gives a breakout performance which is quite natural and heart-breaking...and very impressive for such a young actress. As her mother, Bria Vinaite takes on the most difficult role as her mother, a very unlikable character and makes her vulnerable, yet hard, unfit to care for her daughter, angry and frustrated with her lot in life. Everyone in The Florida Project is trying to survive.

It's a hard knock life and The Florida Project makes that perfectly clear. But the question still remains: Who will listen?
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Ode to Gay Romance
21 January 2018


IN BRIEF: Lyrical, sensual, and moving, the film is pure gay fantasy and it's beautifully acted and directed too.

SYNOPSIS: In northern Italy, a teenage boy falls in love with an older man.

JIM'S REVIEW: Oh, the fervor of first love. That unmistakable sexual need to be wanted by another person, to be caressed and kissed. The risk we take to be viewed as an object of desire, yearning for those glorious highs and that joyous awakening which begins our rite of passage, from innocent adolescent into the harsh realistic adult world. The journey is filled with unexpected pleasures, detours that can take one to the pinnacle of satisfaction and, in minutes, when false words are spoken or unexplained actions complicate the relationship, send us spiraling downward to the eventual low. We become the foolish spurned lover, shamed and laid barren, wondering if the mating dance was worth the whole experience. The answer is yes...better to have loved, as the saying goes...and in Luca Guadagnino's glorious ode to romance, Call Me by Your Name, we can observe those forgotten moments of ecstasy and anger with wistful thoughts and wry observation.

The film chronicles the love affair between Elio, a gawky seventeen year old and his infatuation with an older man named Oliver, who is visiting Italy as a graduate student working with his father at their country villa. Set in 1980's Italy, we watch the tender give-and-take between the two and follow the seduction as it slowly unfolds. Neither can truly acknowledge their inner emotions, nor explain the palpable attraction in their hearts and minds. But theie feelings are quite tangible and the director captures that sense of awe and wonder. Mr. Guadagnino's vision is pure romance and he uses his lyrical imagery to build the tension between the two lovers.

Call Me by Your Name is not remotely real. The film is strictly a gay fantasy, which takes place in a utopia free of homophobia. In reality, this public attitude rarely existed in the eighties, nor does it exist today. In fact, James Ivory's screenplay, while articulate and persuasive, avoids any semblance of the mere notion of sexual prejudice and intolerance. Any moviegoer has to disregard that lack-of-realism factor if they are to truly appreciate this lovely coming-of-age drama. The director's decision to play up the romantic intimacy and downplay the nudity and sex scenes allows the moviegoer to view this courtship in unrealistic terms while avoiding of the underlying corruption of a minor issue (at least, as viewed in American terms)...But can one justify this prevalent attitude as more free-thinking Europe in the 80's? (The AIDS epidemic was a real influence and is never mentioned in the scenario and Elio's parents seem hellbent on their liberal-mindedness in terms of their son's adolescent freedom and happiness, a stance that seemed odd to this reviewer.)

The homoerotic moments are sensually charged and filmed on a grand scale by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom with his gorgeous lush panoramas and beautiful period details by Samuel Deshors reinforce the romantic tale. We are swept away and taken along, rarely questioning the sexual predator role or the corruption of a minor angle. It never enters our mind. It's pure impure romance. We somehow justify the indecency of the boy-man relationship and ignore our Puritan judgment. After all, love is love is love.

Director Luca Guadagnino certainly cast his film perfectly, creating the most swoon-worthy pairing with his two lead actors, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Their chemistry together delivers the tension and pathos of first love. (Surprisingly, with all the sexual accusations and #MeToo Movement afoot, there has not been any backlash against the man / boy theme of this film. There is some questionable intent and power games on display. Granted, the casting of Mr. Hammer as the predator seems to make the seduction and conquest more credible, but imagine another less attractive actor in this pivotal role and the subject matter would have been less accepting and reaction more judgmental.) Of course, it also helps that the two actors project that necessary allure to make the whole love story believable. And they are sensational in their roles.

Mr. Chalamet plays the intense young Elio and it is an astonishing performance. The young actor displays the gamut of emotions and shows the vulnerability and confusion of a young boy trying to come to terms with his own sexual identity during homophobic times. As Oliver, portrayed by Mr. Hammer, the actor uses his masculinity as a potent fixture. He allows his character to be enigmatic in his words and deliberate in his actions. Wearing his tight-fitting pastel outfits and the shortest of shorts make a strong case for the attraction and the actor takes the risk in a difficult role and makes the character kind and, at times, slightly cruel.

There are also two classic moments in this film that will be long remembered. One involves a masturbation scene that is quite sensual and handled with the utmost "taste". The other is given to Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio's father, Mr. Perlman. He delivers a beautifully-written monologue by Mr. Ivory that sums up the film's theme. This talented actor almost steals the entire film with his emotionally-shaded soliloquy of the road not taken. He deserves award recognition for his fine interpretation of those finely-honed words. (Special mention also to Amira Casar as Annella Perlman, whose wry performance as Elio's mother says more in her subtle glances than in mere words. Esther Garrel adds fine support as Elio's girlfriend too.)

Call Me By Your Name speaks so eloquently of the love that dare not speak its name. Mr. Guadagnino has crafted a lovely romanticized view of the thrill of love and has created a classic bit of gay cinema that will be embraced for decades to come.
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The Post (2017)
Another History Lesson
17 January 2018


IN BRIEF: A well made but far too manipulative film about journalism and governmental corruption.

SYNOPSIS: The story of the Pentagon Papers and the power of the press.

JIM'S REVIEW: History seems doomed to repeat itself. Steven Spielberg political drama, The Post, becomes a cautionary tale about the value of the freedom of the press and its battle against an unhinged president, a polarizing scandal, deceptive governmental policies and cover-ups. The story may have taken place back in the 1970's but its 20th century subject matter is Textbook 2017. With cries of "fake news" and "leftist media" heard today, one forgets the power of the fifth estate and its fight against governmental conspiracies and corruption. A lesson to be learned and, in Mr. Spielberg's skilled hands, one expects a film of great importance.

The Post isn't. It pales in comparison with other newspaper-based tales like the far superior Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, or Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Granted, that is some tough competition, but expectations run high with this film and its accomplished director. While there are some strong moments, The Post never quite achieves its lofty goal. It is an earnest but standard political gab-fest.

The film has a "ripped from today's headlines" vibe, even though our story takes place in 1971. Classified document have been stolen by journalist Daniel Ellsberg and about to be made public that the U.S. government systemically lied about the Vietnam War. The stage is set and after a rather slow beginning and too much exposition, the film finally gets to its main plot: the possible publishing of the confidential Pentagon Papers and the issue of revealing their contents to a deceived American public. (For roughly 20 years and under the reign of six presidents, from Harry Truman to Gerald Ford, the war will rage on, amid violent protests and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon.)

Per normal, Mr. Spielberg's direction is solid, although he continually overstates his liberally-gauged message of equal rights for women and the costly struggle over the freedom of the press vs. governmental cover-ups. The film tells its significant story and builds to its ultimate conclusion, one that may not have been the same results if addressed in today's political environs with 2017's divisive Congress and its conservative-leaning Supreme Court. And it's that particular theme that is the real reason for the film: to relate our past with our present and hope for a better future.

The Post is an admirable attempt, a crucial history lesson that could have had more impact if the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer took more risks and layered its story with more convincing characters and tension. Instead, it settles for conventional storytelling and endless political debates that become monotonous and predictable, especially if one is aware of the outcome.

But Mr. Spielberg supplies the necessary craftsmanship to create enough interest in his politically tinged story. He casts his film very well and crafts his narrative with enough visual images that keep his action moving. (A wonderfully edited sequence shows the actual printing of the newspaper article with its old-fashioned typesetting machines, passionate editing staff, and the manual labor needed to start the presses rolling.) The production design by Rick Carter is exceptional in its period flavor. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is quite memorable, and the film's strong costumes by the reliable Ann Roth add to the authenticity of the movie.

But reality-wise, the film is let down with its heavy-handed message, granted one that I personally endorse, as it repeatedly preaches to the choir. Subtlety is not this film's forte, as in a scene where Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), owner of the Washington Post newspaper, leaves the courthouse as the multitude of women outside stand in awe as the crowd parts like the Red Sea. So manipulative and contrived.

The two leads are fine. Ms. Streep plays Ms. Graham as a cautious and savvy lady. The actress looks the part and brings to her role interesting mannerisms, nervous tics and calculated stares, to show this woman to be more intelligent and courageous than expected. (In case one doesn't notice her bravery, it is expressed in stirring speeches by other minor characters. Again, subtle...not.) Tom Hanks plays his role effectively, but his screen persona as the All-American hero seems mismatched with the actual gruff and harsh-spoken editor, Ben Brantley. This character, as written, has been so homogenized and sanitized that it becomes a grave injustice to this great crusader of the First Amendment.

Other actors lend their talents in supporting roles that spout the political views of their characters which come off as more grandstanding than believable dialog. Still, the fine ensemble includes Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, and Bradley Whitford. A talented A-cast, no doubt, but they are given B material.

Still, The Post is a timely achievement, worth seeing as an historical testament to our much aligned press. The film has much to say, and much to be heard. But, for me, it remains too much talk and not enough genuine action.
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