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Paddington 2 (2017)
The Rare Sequel That Improves Upon the First
19 January 2018
As hacky is it is to start a review comparing a new movie to food, the charm of this one pretty much begs for it. Thus if all family-oriented adventure films are to be compared to some form of cheese, Paddington 2 is like an artisanal muenster in that it is immediately engaging, rich with flavor and has a potential for gooeyness but never goes overboard. Also, orange rinds have something to do with it.

This film starts with the well-meaning Peruvian bear happily acclimated and settled with the Brown family in their posh and homey London neighborhood. As a bastion of courteousness, Paddington (Whishaw) still sends letters regularly to his dear aunt Lucy (Staunton) who will be turning 100 in the next few weeks. As a result, Paddington pursuits a rare pop-up book he'd like to send as a gift. Unbeknownst to him, the book holds the key to a hidden treasure which has been hunted for ages by the nefarious Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), former star of the stage and screen.

Those who delighted in the warmth and wit of the original Paddington will find just as much to enjoy in this playful continuation. Paddington 2 takes full advantage as a sequel by immediately feeling more lived-in and comforting to those in the know, while still remaining as welcoming as ever to outsiders who are just now hopping on the bear's bandwagon. More impressively, it also retains the same emotional intelligence, thematic clarity and childlike wonder in such a way that it feels almost dirty to call something like this a "sequel" to a "franchise".

It'd be more appropriate to simply say that Paddington 2 is a joy to watch, with the only obvious negative being that it remains unassuming and modest when it should be shouting its ability to engage from the rooftops. There is an able effort to shake the material from humility in the form of Hugh Grant who positively oozes charisma and is a gas to see chewing the scenery. The film lightly lampoon's Grant's off-screen persona by having the villain vamp against mannequins, sporting costumes of roles long past. It's a fun role but the ensemble isn't as all in as he is. This is not to say Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson aren't good, they're just left in the dust a lot of the time. There's also a few deus ex machina moments that lit up my pessimistic adult brain, but in a movie that has a full on jailhouse musical number, I'm willing to forgive the wayward assumption that good things can actually happen to good people (and bears). All in all, Paddington 2 is a charming affair - one which takes the daintily assembled world of the first and builds on it with heedless aplomb. In many ways it's a comfort for these increasingly cynical times. It serves as stark reminder that while adversity always abounds, a little bit of gumption and politeness can make this world just that much more pleasant.
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The Commuter (2018)
Leaves the Station without a Train of Thought
19 January 2018
In the realm of bruising, brawling, nay unstoppable a**-kickers, no rise is as unexpected and as unprecedented as that of Liam Neeson's. The man is 65-years-old and has worked on an incredible diversity of films, from gritty historical epics to talkie Woody Allen romantic dramas. But with 2008's Taken, Neeson took a hard dive into action and the world hasn't looked back since.

Ten years after that franchise has remorsefully petered out, Neeson still turns in the goods every once in a while, with middle of the road action movies, middle of the road budgets and middle of the road returns. It's a living - I certainly don't fault the man who is pretty much getting paid to stay in shape. Plus every once in awhile, a middle of the road action movie is really all you need to stave off all the badness in this world.

The Commuter is one such film. It's modest in its presentation and definitely falls to pieces under scrutiny but it nevertheless works because it knows what it is. It's the story of a seemingly ordinary New Yorker who ensnares himself in a criminal conspiracy on his way home from work. Luckily this man, one Michael MacCauley (Neeson), has a "certain set of skills" that will ultimately determine whether he lives or dies by the time the train reaches its final destination.

The film was directed by frequent Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra who over the last decade has been a part of the best of Neeson's late-career work. With Neeson and Collet-Serra jointly you can expect a quick pace even tone, a good setup and a couple of action sequences that elevate the film above the field of a Van Damme knockoffs. You can also expect diminishing returns but more on that later.

Part of The Commuter's nut-and-bolts appeal is it's sparse to a fault. We're put into our protagonist's headspace nearly the entire time, leaving only for a brief insert here and there. Michael is in search of a passenger on the train and needs to discover their whereabouts quietly. When who, what, where and why, in short, the details, remain scant keeping the audience transfixed on what is occurring. It's mystery box filmmaking at its finest.

Of course after you've meticulously setup your premise and created the max level of tension, then you have know answer the who, what, when and why. To that end The Commuter derails with the force of a backyard axe kick with villains who neither need to be this flamboyant nor this dramatic. For me, my suspension of disbelief snapped back the moment we get a cutaway of two FBI agents puttering around the last stop. But if you're the type of person who'd willingly set your house on fire to kill a spider then you're probably willing to forgive most of this film's baked in nuttiness.

The movie is also hacked to s**t with editing choices that completely eschew any hope of any B-story. That normally wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't immediately clear all that stuff was supposed to be there to begin with. For example, minor characters are enshrined in the last act with a working-class dignity reminiscent of the rebel slaves of Spartacus (1960), but absolutely nothing comes before it to ground us in whom they are. It's the equivalent of starting a children's storybook with the message on the last page being read first. Also, not for nothing but if you're going to directly reference an objectively great movie; please make sure your movie reaches at least a level of competence that you can find in a Harold Becker movie - just saying.
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The Post (2017)
A First Draft (of History)
19 January 2018
I have said in the past that 2017 wasn't exactly a stellar year for movies. I still stand by that, though I acknowledge that perhaps events outside of the movie theater have colored my perspective in the negative. 2017 was the year of the women's march and the travel ban, the year of Black Lives Matter and #metoo, the year of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, of the anthem protests, of Russian election tampering, of DACA and of Charlottesville. So much has happened over the course of one year, I'm surprised more people haven't built bomb shelters in their backyards.

So much has happened over the course of one year yet Hollywood is as slow as always to react. It's not their fault; it's the nature of filmmaking - years of pre-production, finding the funds, scheduling shoots etc. all but guarantees that once that first film that's purposely chasing the zeitgeist, actually appears at a cinema near you, the moment has already passed. And if you need evidence of this: watch/re-watch War Machine (2017) on Netflix.

So it is with The Post, a movie that was rushed through production for the sole purpose of chasing a contemporarily vital spirit. The film stars Meryl Streep as Kay Graham the proprietor of the privately owned Washington Post newspaper circa 1971. She along with her hard-nosed Editor in Chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) are taken for a ride when the infamous Pentagon Papers are published by the New York Times and The Post is given an opportunity to follow suit.

Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn - if these names don't immediately pop out the page for you then you have no business watching this movie, let alone reading this review. On paper, this movie has enough talent in the margins to easily surpass Spotlight (2015) as the prestige newspaper film of a generation. Given the talent, The Post should be an over-the-moon achievement loudly knocking on the doors of Xanadu!

Alas much like the Washington Post being billed as second banana to the New York Time's Supreme Court battle, The Post often feels like a missed opportunity. Not a missed opportunity to convey an overt political message mind you, the meta-text speaks so loudly it might as well be shouting "Love Trumps Hate" from the rooftops. I'm speaking of a missed opportunity to tell a human story that sticks.

Much of the events in the film, as recorded by history are retold with a measured, inelegant dryness. Not much outside of the Editor's office hints that there's anything all that tangible at stake and any restatement of said stakes is undermined by (among other things) Bob Odenkirk sharing the frame with Mr. Show (1995-98) counterpart David Cross. Meanwhile moments of character are handled almost entirely by Meryl Streep who somehow takes a bland "greatness-thrust-upon" character arc and turns it into yet another Oscar worthy performance. Literally in anyone else's hands, Kay would have felt bland; who she was and what she's going through episodic - but with Streep it's gold. Sadly the equally versatile Hanks is left in the stables, ambling around offices and home parlors, exuding prestige and little else. I don't get it, he's uniquely capable of taking the film's blunted messaging and turning it into something sharper but instead he's relegated to doing his best Jason Robards impression.

This is turning into a much more negative review than it needed to be. Know that despite everyone in the film, both in front of and behind the camera are working at 75%, it's still a very good movie. One whose message, best summed up by Kay who says, "News is the first draft of history," needs repeating. Yet I can't help but compare The Post unfavorably to something like Get Out (2017) or Wonder Woman (2017). While the later films latched onto a zeitgeist of the time without even trying, The Post is straight up tries too hard. If this were a freshman feature, I'd say "good job" and move on, but this is the Hollywood A-Team who by all accounts should have turned this concept into gold. Come Oscar night, they'll be lucky to win silver.
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I, Tonya (2017)
One of the Best Movies of 2017
10 January 2018
I'm mad at this movie. No sooner have I just finished writing my "Best Movies of 2017" list, this film skates up to my doorstep and effortlessly wedges itself on my list of favorites. No sooner do I write off Margot Robbie as just a face for making the forgettable Legend of Tarzan (2016) and (gag) Suicide Squad (2016), she turns in this absolutely masterful performance. No sooner do I write off director Craig Gillespie for being a hack Disney hired-hand forced to make Driving Miss Daisy (1989)-level cheese, he comes up with this uniquely dark and comic masterpiece. It's not my fault I didn't catch I, Tonya before the New Year. I blame the distribution!

The story of competitive ice skater and sensational-media pariah Tonya Harding does have a lot of blame to go around. Harding, her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her dimwitted bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, her mother LaVona Golden, the media, the Ice Skating Association and even you, yes you, all have a part to play in what Tonya refers to as "the incident". The running stitch the holds this dysfunctional collage together may surprise you but at the same time feels perfectly reasonable, tragic and despite this film being set in the early nineties, altogether timely.

Assuming you're under 25 and don't have the 90's Trivial Pursuit Time Capsule Edition, the story of Tonya Harding and her involvement in a vicious attack perpetrated on rival Nancy Kerrigan was very much the news story of the season. At the time, the exceptional ice skater became a punchline for the media and especially for late night comedians such as David Letterman. It certainly didn't help that her humble origins set against Nancy Kerrigan's prim and perfect media persona, aided in making her the biggest sports villain since the Soviet 1980 Hockey Olympic team.

What was never shown before, during or after the hoopla was Harding's battle with abuse. The film portrays the 20-year-old Harding (Robbie) coming to skating practice; makeup barely covering up bruises made by her husband Jeff (Stan) the night before. Before even meeting Jeff, the film portrays her home life with LaVona (Janney) as just as tumultuous; LaVona making it a point to destroy her confidence nearly every chance she gets. The film also portrays Harding's wings constantly being clipped by judging committees who see her homemade outfits and attitude on and off the ice as an affront to the sports' image.

I keep saying "the film portrays" because director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers make it a point to state that I, Tonya is not an official account, but rather a Rashomon (1950) cobbled from different sources. Peppered in-between the unruly narrative are a host of mock-interviews where all the characters involved are given a chance to "set the record straight". This is despite the movie often juxtaposing what they say with beautiful levels of Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) irony. It's a ridiculous approach to a ridiculous story and it's pulled off with the same bullish grace as Nicolas Karakatsanis's cinematography and Margot Robbie's ice skating. Thus what we see in I, Tonya is a total marriage of pacing and tone, humor and depth, glee and sadness that gainfully tells a story you only think you knew.

There are some problems, largely stemming from the film's third act inclusion of what's essentially extra credit. It intones that due to our own addiction with sensationalist media, we as an audience are complicit in Harding's hardships. While I agree with the sentiment and the film does weave this new tangent into the fabric of the narrative, it does seem to come a little late to the party. Additionally while Robbie completely owns the role as Tonya, the twenty-seven-year-old actress playing her at fifteen looks a

Regardless, I, Tonya is a wonder of a movie. It's a slick, funny, wild and sad little showcase about wholly unlikeable characters who manage to simultaneously be sympathetic without necessarily being deserving of your sympathy. With documentarians are mining 90's tabloid journalism to create layered, hard-hitting features like Casting JonBenet (2017) and O.J.: Made in America; it's nice to see a movie go a completely different way without sacrificing perspective. Here's to hoping the soon-to-be-made Lorena Bobbit story also rises to the occasion.
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A Good Yarn with Some Uncomfortable Questions
10 January 2018
All the Money in the World stars Michelle Williams as the vexed but headstrong Gail; mother of the sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer), the eldest heir to the Getty family oil fortune. On the night of July 10, 1973, the young John Paul is picked up by a windowless van along the Plazza Farese in Rome. He is quietly kidnapped by masked men asking for a fortune in ransom from his grandfather, then the richest man in the world. Unbeknownst to the kidnappers and frightfully well known to the rest of his family, Gail included, J. Getty (Christopher Plummer) is an impossibly frugal man.

I came in knowing little to nothing about the plot of the film which definitely helped the viewing experience overall. The tension created by the increasing desperation of the kidnappers combined with Getty's miserly behavior turned what could have been a dry retelling of events into a really taut suspense thriller. You never truly know if the end result is going to go by way of Patty Hearst or the Lindbergh baby but what is clear is due to Getty's ambivalence we're in for a long siege.

This may prove daunting to some. The thrust of the narrative starts and stops due to the waiting game brought on by actual events. This then allows a talent like Scott to indulge in what he likes best i.e. symbolism, thematic overlapping, philosophical back-and-forths largely having to do with aesthetics, social, political and moral subtexts that are highlighted over and over etc. It's basically the same stuff that made fans of the Alien franchise bristle from Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) but this being a drama, it suddenly becomes easier to swallow.

Additionally the very inclusion of Mark Wahlberg as security expert Fletcher Chase (that name though), may give audiences the impression that we're in for more fodder than what ends up being on screen. The actor serves basically connective tissue - a conduit in which Getty is to impose his power and Gail her humanity. It works for the purposes of the story but there's no denying he wears out his welcome. When his arc swells into a third-act, heartfelt speech of moral indignation I personally got flashbacks to his role in Patriots Day (2016).

Markie Mark aside, the acting, the direction and the period detail is largely top-notch with Michelle Williams deserving special praise as the worried mother who refuses to be a victim. Early on we see Gail and Getty's dynamic. Her tenuous connection to the family dynasty is a small, fragile piece of the movies thematic core but she wields it mightily against Getty who seems to think everything has its price.

Much ado was made about and Ridley Scott's baffling decision to do extensive reshoots after wrap, after Kevin Spacey's sexual harassment allegations were brought to light. The goal was to remove the actor entirely and replace him with Plummer, the actor Scott originally wanted to play the role in question, but couldn't due to scheduling. I for one was skeptical of this decision. Even if the gifted director, actor and the production team were able to convincingly remove Spacey via cut, paste and shoot around - a task I assumed was impossible, the question would always remain in my mind, should they? Mind you not from a moral standpoint, Spacey is in all likelihood a man-handsy bridge troll; I'm talking artistically and casting wise. If you were to tell me Plummer was to be plugged into any other Spacey role I'd call you nut. Would this actually work?

I'm glad to say it did and not just technically either. Plummer is fabulous to the point where it's hard to see anyone else wondering ambulant down the art filled halls of Getty's Xanadu. From the moment of his introduction to the old curmudgeon's last bow, Plummer effortlessly transports us into the mind of a vainglorious, money-hungry miser. He assumes he takes his place among emperors and captains of industry even while this story posits he belongs among murderers and thieves. We may never know what Spacey did to accent the role but based on what little knowledge I have, I'm going to trust Scott on his discussion.

Of course now that it's possible to effectively remove problem actors from projects with only the size of Wahlberg's shoulder pads being a tell, more uncomfortable questions emerge. It's clear from the thoughts of industry insiders and anonymous online comments that people are still reeling from the very thought of digital removal and replacement. Yesterday it was Superman's mustache; today it's Frank Underwood, who knows what tomorrow may bring.

It's a discussion for another time however. Long after the smoke has cleared and the initial controversy subsides, it's likely All the Money in the World will take its place near the top of Ridley Scott's lesser works. It's good, even great in portions but some of the film's pacing issues and on-screen indulgences cripple the film from being anything more than a good yarn.
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Molly's Game (2017)
A Sorkin Flick Through and Through
1 January 2018
The thing about an Aaron Sorkin script is there's little room for subtext. In between crackling paragraphs of dialogue, expertly assembled scenes of dramatic irony and dizzying explanations of complex contemporary topics, there's just not that much left for the visuals to add, other than restating what's already said aloud. This isn't a bad thing - all the above makes his television series' so re-watchable. But much like the works of Dalton Trumbo and Paddy Chayefsky, a Sorkin feature feels like it needs to overcome the eccentricities of his writing to be its own thing.

This is the central problem with Molly's Game a movie that at times feels too proud of its explanations to the detriment of underlining the dramatic stakes. It's a big, complicated story. It's an unwieldy story; one in which Sorkin manages to confidently wield. And with said story being told by a shrewd, uncompromising woman in the first person, its voice is very much tuned to Sorkin's frequency. It just doesn't come across as that interesting a story, at least not to the level it should be.

The film stars Jessica Chastain as the very real Molly Bloom; a former Olympic skier who sees new opportunities in running underground poker games for movie stars, business elites and organized crime syndicates. The film bobs and weaves through different timelines, one of which has lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Elba) defending Bloom against an FBI indictment.

The fluid nature of white collar crime, the fungibility of high-stakes poker with late-term capitalism, the looming possibility that Molly committed serious crimes and knows more than she's letting on, the fragile psyche of a woman trained to win suddenly made humble and the need to control powerful men to offset the impact of a stern father figure; all of this comes across as text instead of subtext. With such obvious messaging, your reaction to Molly's Game is fully dependent on your ability to latch on to the film's minutia which is gleefully recounted from Molly Bloom's frank perspective. I for one have always been entranced with Sorkin's ability to turn exposition into its own reward, so I for one was going along with the ride. You may not be.

And while it might be one thing to write a movie like Molly's Game, it's another thing completely to direct it. As a novice director, Sorkin just isn't far enough removed from the power of his own prose to fully assess how to make everything come to life on the screen. He's by no means a bad director; he's just making himself redundant. When director David Fincher took on The Social Network (2010) he amplified necessary information while telling his own sub-textual and purely visual story. Here it feels like we're just watching a girl-power version of Rounders (1998); it's good and entertaining, it's just not vital.

None of this is the fault of lead actress and new-feminist patronus Jessica Chastain, who by now has elevated playing smart, driven women to a spiritual movement. She takes the breakneck pacing and wit of the script, parries it with her own signature grit and allure, packages it all into a performance that takes your breath away then says, "what's next" without breaking a sweat. She carries the film with so much confidence and attitude that if you'd asked me what I thought of Molly's Game just after I'd saw it, I'd just giggle and say "see it". A week has gone by and I'm feeling a little less entranced.

Molly's Game is by no means a bad movie; it's just not on the same level as The Social Network (2010) and A Few Good Men (1992). It's more on par with a pretty decent episode of The West Wing (1999-2006), which is to say it has a lot of fun moments but lacks clear resolution and a certain level of depth. Regardless, I can't help but love Molly's Game. It's less the love of an outright fan and more the love expressed by Molly's demanding father played by Kevin Costner. I'm happy with it, proud of it even but part of me was still expecting just a little bit more from it.
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Pitch Perfect 3 - Because Why Not?
1 January 2018
The Barden Bellas are back once again for one more chance at acappella glory. This time, the film begins with the women singing Britney Spears's "Toxic" on a yacht in front of a group of severe looking men. After the song reaches its coda, Fat Amy (Wilson) the heretofore unseen member of the group, crashes through a window ceiling, opens up a spray of fire extinguisher foam, then yells at the group to "get out". They all do only moments before the yacht unexpectedly blows up.

Why not? Why the f**k not. This series already jumped the shark back in 2015 so why not have a movie entirely based on taking the shark and repeatedly kicking it? So sit back and enjoy the now mid-to-late-20's Bellas finding some contrived way to sing again then find some contrived way to compete again and then finally find some contrived way to have Anna Kendrick have her cake and eat it too.

The Pitch Perfect series as a whole is an interesting beast to say the least. The first was a sleeper hit that depended on little more than it being a good movie to get butts in the seats. And wouldn't you know it the movie actually reached its target audience, making a cool $115 million against a $17 million budget. Who knew there was such an eager audience for a female-centric comedy? Next you're going to tell me water is wet.

Thing is, I doubt the makers of Pitch Perfect themselves thought it'd be as successful as it was, thus the existence of its hastily made and forgettable sequel. Now we're on its second sequel, and if you want a comparison for the trajectory of this series, know that the Bellas have gone full Goldmember (2002) featuring much of the same stale jokes and completely ignoring overall thematic progression.

The impetus behind this latest reunion has the group singing their hearts out for a USO tour set up by Chloe's (Snow) absent father. Once they arrive they soon realize it's more than just fun and games. DJ Khaled it seems is there hunting for a new opening act and the girls will be pitted against bands with actual instruments for the top slot. As the gals gear up for competition (again), Fat Amy bumps into her father (Lithgow) for a reunion that winds up being less than ideal for her and the group.

Of course most everyone apart from Jessica (Jakle) and Ashley (Regner) get subplots that are setup and knocked down with less than ten lines each. Kendrick's involves the flirtations of a music producer (Burnet) while Anna Camp has her own paramour waiting in the flies. The one follow-through between everyone? the undeniable fact that life is never quite what you expect and my, isn't that disappointing.

In that regard, Pitch Perfect 3 may actually be the darkest of the series, offering everyone only a small reprieve from their humdrum life of anonymity, to once again capture "the glory days". The film doesn't resolve this thread nor give us an alternative worth reaching for. Instead it merely establishes as a point of fact that life after college sucks. Oh well, might as well sing about it.

But of course anyone who's been with the Pitch Perfect franchise so far knows it's not about the messaging, it's about the music and the characters. In both regards the film succeeds about 50% of the time. Despite little screen time Hailee Steinfeld and Anna Camp do fairly well in growing their respective roles. The songs, specifically the melded "sing-off" between The Bellas and girl-punk band Evermoist does have its charm once you get over the tonal whiplash.

Yet there's so precious little connecting the songs with the characters or for that matter the songs with the characters lips. The direction, especially during the singing sequences is so slapdash and lazy with no attempt being made this time around to make it seem like their actually singing live.

I'd be embarrassed for the actresses on the screen if I wasn't so convinced they were having a ball up there - an attitude that ultimately saves this movie from being an absolute waste. Nothing is taken seriously other than the friendship these characters (and by this point, these actresses) have. Every broad comedic stroke and patently ridiculous action sequence is done with such congeniality that it's hard not to at least muster a warm smile.

Pitch Perfect 3 is ultimately a one-and-done disappointment. In a year full of female-centric comedies that managed to be incredibly entertaining, it's sad to see a series that arguably kick-started everything to be this lazy and uninspired. Still, if you're looking for mild entertainment and have grown with these characters and you really, really want to see this one, you may just get your money's worth. After all many movie theaters now sell alcohol right?
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Downsizing (2017)
Bewilderingly Bad
25 December 2017
Downsizing is what happens when you have what you think is a killer script and instead of fast-tracking it you tweak it and tinker and move things around, forget about it, dig it back up, tinker some more and repeat for about a decade. I'm still processing what I had to put up with in order to finish this drab, sanctimonious little bait-and-switch but I tell you what, if the goal was to leave audiences depressed, angry and bewildered, good f**king job!

Downsizing starts on the heels of a startling, earth-shattering discovery. Scientists in Norway have developed a method of miniaturization that can shrink most organic matter including humans to 0.6% normal size thereby creating a safe, practical solution to overpopulation. Seeing the process of downsizing as a way to start over, Paul Safranek (Damon) and wife Audrey (Wiig) decide to retire in a Sunbelt mini-community where they can theoretically live like kings.

As you can imagine things don't entirely go according to plan but don't expect the highfalutin high-concept of the film go anywhere beyond the first thirty minutes of the movie. For Downsizing isn't about ambitious sci-fi technology or for that matter economic, social or political satire. No this is a movie all about how to find piece-of-mind and self-identity. And what better way to portray that than having a thankless, rudderless, middle class white dude played by Matt Damon mulling about for two hours and fifteen minutes?

This movie is the perfect storm of simpering self-righteousness, wafer-thin plodding and meandering false bravado. It takes the usual Alexander Payne, man-on-the-edge setup, arms it with an environmental message and a bullhorn and proceeds to rebuke its audience for being alive. It thinks it's being clever; it's really just taking the banal and making it insufferable.

The unfortunate and uncomfortable part of that banality is it comes at the expense of one decent and true performance on the part of Hong Chau. The demure Thai actress plays a miniaturized Vietnamese refugee who more-or-less becomes the angel on Damon's shoulders. There was much controversy in early screenings concerning Chau's accent but given that the choice was a well thought out and actually quite touching decision on the part of Chau, it becomes clear that the problem isn't really her. It's everything around her that turns the vibrant Ngoc Lan Tran into a cartoon character; the best comparison I can come up with is it's like putting a Jane Austen character into a Todd Phillips directed sex comedy - you'd notice, and you know it wouldn't work.

Had we started everything from the point of view of Ngoc Lan Tran or at the very least shifted the story to the 40 minute'd still suck but stop just short of being a catastrophic misfire on par with Exit to Eden (1994). But instead we're stuck with a milquetoast, well-meaning but complacent "everyman" whose fatal flaw can be corrected thanks to a manic pixie dream exile and his vaguely European upstairs neighbor (Waltz).

All this is punctuated by some of the most flaccid, cloying and obvious moments of social satire ever put on film. Half the time I was convinced the script was written not by director Alexander Payne but a precocious ten-year-old who suddenly found out how the other half lives. The other half of the time, I sat with my arms folded bracing for the next sermon on humanity's inability to merry selfishness with virtue - the film seeming to smile in a smug grimace every god***n time. There's even a particularly tasteless and preachy thread taking place on the wrong side of tiny town that was one Sarah McLachlan song away from making me want to strangle a pelican.

And of course I can't end without restating the sad fact that the high-concept; people deciding to be mini, is incidental to the plot. You take that aspect of the film away and almost nothing would change. Perhaps that's part of the point thematically, but those looking for a grown-up version of Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), i.e. most everyone who saw the trailer, will instead need to get themselves a tank of sea monkeys.

Downsizing is the most disappointing movies of the year by far. It writes a check it has no intention of honoring then chastises its audience for falling for the ruse. I long for the days when Alexander Payne's misanthropic worldview informed his films with wit, irony and a sense of dour humanism. For now when we need it most, Payne has instead retreated into his barrel and left this tiny little turd on our doorstep.
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Ferdinand (2017)
Does Not Live Up to the Original Tall Tale
25 December 2017
"The Story of Ferdinand" is arguably one of the most cherished children's classics of the 20th century. The seemingly simple story of a bull that rather sniff flowers than fight, captured the imagination of nearly everyone when it was first released in 1936. At the time it was both celebrated and reviled the world over for being (in order of increasing ridiculousness): non-conformist, pro-peace, pacifist, democratic, Pro-religious, anti-democratic, communist, homosexual, anti-religious, fascist, anarchistic, anti-Spanish and in Ernest Hemingway's case being anti-faithful? That of course is the beauty of fable - stories so simple that what you get out of them is more a reflection of who you are than what the story claims to represent.

Films however are different beasts. If they are to remain simple, the simple must come from the message not the plot, especially it seems when it comes to kid's movies. Thus Ferdinand, as directed by Blue Sky mainstay Carlos Saldanha, remains laser-focused on masculine identity and little else. Then to drag on the plot longer than the runtime of a Disney short, Ferdinand adds generational resentments, hastily thought-out prison break schemes, prancing horses, adorable talking hedgehogs, flower festivals, an extended car chase scene and I kid you not a bloody dance-off.

All these changes aren't exactly a bad thing; at least not on their own. Much of the film's hijinks serve to pace the film and provide enough entertainment for kiddos without it necessarily coming across as filler. The characters while arch and broad never cease to entertain either. John Cena as Ferdinand beings with him a generosity of spirit that cannot be overstated and Kate McKinnon knock's it out of the park as Ferdinand's hand-picked comfort goat Lupe.

It's just not Ferdinand; a fact that becomes apparent when he runs away as a calf in the first act and winds up on a farm tended by a benevolent farmer and his young daughter. It doesn't last and he's eventually sent back but now instead of pining for flowers that may never be, he's a bull who knows what lies beyond Casa del Toro and knows the grass indeed is greener on the other side. By this point the film becomes less of a fable and more of a specific sort of allegory - one in which he has to convince his peers that there's more to life than butting heads and being meat.

Two problems with this - One: it's easy to change minds when you're the biggest bull in the ring. Two: the social change allegory forces the movie to be less about Ferdinand wanting to be accepted and more about what Ferdinand can bring to the table to facilitate such change. The onus is now on him. This would be fine from a character development standpoint but since said character is never treated as anything more than a symbol, there's really no room for any sort of growth. It's also a moot point as the powers that be aren't going to administer social change because one bull refuses to fight.

So what was once a simple, heartfelt story told lovingly through countless generations has morphed into a so-so animated feature. Still, Ferdinand manages to inject a scintilla of the original warmth and gentleness from author Munro Leaf's original story; which will have to be enough since focusing on the films middling clutter is liable to leave you frustrated.
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Wonder Wheel (2017)
Arguably Woody's First Abject Failure
25 December 2017
"Oh, spare me the bad melodrama." Kate Winslet's character lights a cigarette, striking a pose against the neon like a skirted Revlon doll. Justin Timberlake's Coney Island lifeguard and self-described romantic stands mortified. As does the audience but not for the reasons director/writer Woody Allen might have hoped for when he first penned his newest film Wonder Wheel. For by the time Kate Winslet barks that nakedly obvious line, I half wanted to shout back "ditto". I didn't, for the sake of the other two people in the theater watching this overcooked trainwreck but something tells me they were thinking the same thing too.

Wonder Wheel sucks. It is, in this writer's opinion the first abject failure in Woody Allen's impressive 48 year repertoire. Not just a disappointment, not just a simple misfire, not just a below-average comedy that tries and fails to garner a constant stream of laughs, a la Anything Else (2003) or Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001). No this thing is a certified stinker. An arch, cloying, overwrought, and callous melodrama that took the worst instincts of Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams and blunted them until every aspect of the script resembled a high school dramatist's idea of truth and consequence.

Thing is I've been a longtime Woody Allen apologist (only in respect to his work as a filmmaker just to make that clear). I've admired his work since a teen. I admit his late period work isn't as transformative as his early comedies and mid-period dramedies, yet I always claimed up until this point that Allen has never made a terrible film. Now it is seems I must eat crow.

Wonder Wheel is a kitchen sink drama concerning a middle-aged carousel operator named Humpty (Belushi) and his despondent second wife Ginny (Winslet). Their life of mundane anonymity is made topsy-turvy with the unexpected arrival of Carolina (Temple), Humpty's daughter from his first marriage. Formerly a gangster's wife, Carolina now finds herself penniless and on the run after turning informant. Meanwhile, Mickey (Timberlake) and attractive young lifeguard finds himself orbiting around Ginny and Carolina; becoming an inadvertent catalyst to brewing resentments and jealousies.

Much of what you'd expect from a Woody Allen joint is written into the margins. Timberlake fills in as the neurotic, well-read writer/bulls**t artist balancing two women, Winslet swings for the cheap seats as the woman scorned and Belushi tips the scales as a blue collar palooka that chafes harshly against the stories loftier ambitions. Yet everything about Wonder Wheel feels just the slightest bit off. The characters, what they feel, what they go through and what they say is stilted and artificial - echoes of other better stories told with more conviction. Since there's no real tension from the film's crime element, we basically see these broadly drawn caricatures ramble, spew and sit; nary a plot point around to offer up conclusions.

With nothing really to grab onto, no unifying themes or layered characterizations, everyone involved is more or less on their own up on the screen. In order of success: cinematographer Vittorio Storaro does a wondrous job painting this dinky little stage play with the right amount of light and color. His use of natural overcast, soft tones and neon combined with optimal digital photography served as the only tool with which most emotion was amplified. Kate Winslet also manages to more or less walk away from this mess unscathed thanks to the power of one hell of an Ethel Merman impression. Finally, while some may find Juno Temple to be far too dollish and innocent as the world-traveled gangster's wife, it is fair to assume she does her best based on what is written.

But of course for every carefully set frame there's a Jim Belushi or a Justin Timberlake lumbering about, mucking up the machinery. Belushi's character especially seems especially thin, sounding at times like a dude playing Boatswain at Summer Stock and somehow managing to bungle his lines. Timberlake on the other hand simply exudes smugness. Every time he waxes poetically about Hamlet and fanes passively about his apartment in Greenwich Village he sounds like a college aged Jordan Belfort who just discovered the cliffnotes version of "The Iceman Cometh".

Wonder Wheel is the equivalent of having old furniture being bequeathed to you by long-gone grandparents. Sure it looks nice but everything about it is outmoded, creaky and reeking of mothballs. It's blunt, obvious, boring, and melodramatic and lacking nearly all the wit we've come to expect from such an affair. This one is a hard one to say no to, it really is, but believe me when I tell you Wonder Wheel is worst case scenario Woody Allen (artistically speaking).
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Ferdinand (2017)
Fun if Forgetful
24 December 2017
"The Story of Ferdinand" is arguably one of the most cherished children's classics of the 20th century. The seemingly simple story of a bull that rather sniff flowers than fight, captured the imagination of nearly everyone when it was first released in 1936. At the time it was both celebrated and reviled the world over for being (in order of increasing ridiculousness): non-conformist, pro-peace, pacifist, democratic, Pro-religious, anti-democratic, communist, homosexual, anti-religious, fascist, anarchistic, anti-Spanish and in Ernest Hemingway's case being anti-faithful? That of course is the beauty of fable - stories so simple that what you get out of them is more a reflection of who you are than what the story claims to represent.

Films however are different beasts. If they are to remain simple, the simple must come from the message not the plot, especially it seems when it comes to kid's movies. Thus Ferdinand, as directed by Blue Sky mainstay Carlos Saldanha, remains laser-focused on masculine identity and little else. Then to drag on the plot longer than the runtime of a Disney short, Ferdinand adds generational resentments, hastily thought-out prison break schemes, prancing horses, adorable talking hedgehogs, flower festivals, an extended car chase scene and I kid you not a bloody dance-off.

All these changes aren't exactly a bad thing; at least not on their own. Much of the film's hijinks serve to pace the film and provide enough entertainment for kiddos without it necessarily coming across as filler. The characters while arch and broad never cease to entertain either. John Cena as Ferdinand beings with him a generosity of spirit that cannot be overstated and Kate McKinnon knock's it out of the park as Ferdinand's hand-picked comfort goat Lupe.

It's just not Ferdinand; a fact that becomes apparent when he runs away as a calf in the first act and winds up on a farm tended by a benevolent farmer and his young daughter. It doesn't last and he's eventually sent back but now instead of pining for flowers that may never be, he's a bull who knows what lies beyond Casa del Toro and knows the grass indeed is greener on the other side. By this point the film becomes less of a fable and more of a specific sort of allegory - one in which he has to convince his peers that there's more to life than butting heads and being meat.

Two problems with this - One: it's easy to change minds when you're the biggest bull in the ring. Two: the social change allegory forces the movie to be less about Ferdinand wanting to be accepted and more about what Ferdinand can bring to the table to facilitate such change. The onus is now on him. This would be fine from a character development standpoint but since said character is never treated as anything more than a symbol, there's really no room for any sort of growth. It's also a moot point as the powers that be aren't going to administer social change because one bull refuses to fight.

So what was once a simple, heartfelt story told lovingly through countless generations has morphed into a so-so animated feature. Still, Ferdinand manages to inject a scintilla of the original warmth and gentleness from author Munro Leaf's original story; which will have to be enough since focusing on the films middling clutter is liable to leave you frustrated.
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Good Choreography but Sloppy Story
24 December 2017
A musical movie about P.T. Barnum told with all great reverence to P.T. Barnum, featuring P.T. Barnum's Museum of why not just make "Barnum" the stage musical? The answer to that question seems to be because then they couldn't get the guys from La La Land to do the music; fair enough. But if director Michael Gracey and screenwriter Jenny Bicks were set on custom making this celebration of glitz, chicanery and humbug they could have at least opted for a little more connective tissue.

The Greatest Showman is a movie in moments, many of them great many more of them flaccid and empty. We're whisked through P.T.'s (Jackman) impoverished childhood in a single bound before settling on his happy marriage with wife Charity (Williams), and his two daughters (Johnson and Seely) who have grown to see their father as a hero. Tired of working to scrounge up a meager living, Barnum embarks on a risky entertainment venture and in due time, recruits his circus of curiosities and freaks.

From that point on, the film's narrative relies heavily on its skin-deep celebration of acceptance and diversity. This is while it chugs along through Barnum's life from his start as a full-time huckster, to his falling out with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson). And while it would have been nice to say that the movie does a good job of linking theme with plot, I'm sorry to say none of it becomes a cohesive whole.

This is not entirely the fault of the filmmakers. I mean turning P.T. Barnum's life into a celebration of kindness and humanity is like using William 'Boss' Tweed as a symbol for New York pride. This film being a musical, I was not expecting something exacting, but I was expecting at the very least a keen acknowledgement that the legacy of P.T. Barnum isn't all razzle-dazzle. Yet this film makes him out to look like a saint; a man of untold potential who uses "truthful hyperbole" to provide for his loving family - A man of conviction, of love and of just wanting to put a smile on your face.

Framed in virtually any other way, Barnum would be the villain - enticing his young protégé Phillip (Efron) to "live a little," and abandon his family to come join the circus. Belittling a theater critic with insults masquerading as flaccid, fortune cookie, self-help wisdom and enticing circus "freaks" to stand out and express themselves while closing the door on them the moment he's among the rich and famous. The film's show-stopping tune "This is Me" takes place at this moment but because the film is too scared to make its hero anything more complicated than a fancily folded cocktail napkin, the moment feels like the side characters are just letting off steam.

What ultimately saves this movie from being a complete waste of a Saturday night is the choreography. Every poppy show tune and love ballad brings with it entire body shots of twirling, leaping perfection, conjuring memories of the physical feats of the cast of West Side Story (1961). Not satisfied with the traditional, the film continues to build its momentum with incredibly fancy footwork and some truly death defying trapeze choreography on the part of Zendaya and Zac Efron.

There's imagination in the frame and a lot of it, but largely due to the film's complete inability to marry subject with tone, The Greatest Showman is far from great. Rather than being a worthy successor to Moulin Rouge! (2001) this picture winds up feeling like Newsies (1992) without a Crutchy. And let's face it; the only thing we really remember about that movie was there was a character named Crutchy.
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An Outstanding Passing of the Torch
19 December 2017
It's that time of year again! Since Disney Studios has made it its corporate mission to release Star Wars films every winter from now until the end of time, it's becoming apparent that the ubiquity of the Star Wars franchise is making it impossible not to get caught up in the hype. The very moment John Williams's bombastic Star Wars theme sounded its trumpets to the expected opening crawl, I - like most everyone else I'd imagine - had a Pavlovian reaction ginned by anticipation and pure joy. I'm not sure how long this euphoria will last. The force of Force Awakens (2015) just barely lasted through the 2016 New Years...but for now I'm just going to have to say, "Squeeeeeeee!!!"

The Last Jedi takes the strong if predictable set up of the Force Awakens and turns it all into a big, blistering, emotionally charged, action-packed and gainfully complex space opera in nearly every sense of the word. Just as it is big, Last Jedi is also bold, taking all the characters you love (new and old) on a journey that veers into all kinds of new and exciting directions without snapping the tether of believability and strong character development (though it does pull it tight at times). Those who state that this one is on the level of the original trilogy (or the orig-trig as the kids call it) may be jumping the gun a little but it is in the same ballpark and liable to have a lot of people swinging from the rafters with joy.

After the destruction of the Star Killer Base from the first film, the First Order has regrouped and consolidated power under their nefarious leader Snoke (Serkis). With the Resistance rebels on the ropes, Rey (Ridley) is tasked with bringing Luke Skywalker (Hamill) back from seclusion to help restore hope. Meanwhile, Po (Isaac), Finn (Boyega) and series newcomer Rose (Tran) attempt to evade capture and death at the hands of Kylo Ren (Driver), who leads the New Order's armada of Star Destroyers.

Part of the reason The Last Jedi is so effective in its ability to deliver both pulse-pounding action and satisfying stakes is because it answers old questions in unexpected ways while raising and examining larger thematic questions that audiences didn't know they had. While remaining as opaque as I possibly can (for fear spoiler-haters will string me up by my thumbs) the film bends and widens previously stated definitions of good, evil, the force, fate and choice as set up by earlier films. Some of that stuff is stated at the forefront as when Benecio Del Toro's ghoulish thief DJ is introduced in the second act. Other times, the framing of some scenes and the character development of others, laces the fabric of the story with a lot more to wrap your head around than just swinging swords and picking up rocks.

Key to this trilogy's larger arc is the interplay between Rey and Kylo. While Daisy Ridley blossoms as a conflicted protagonist that nevertheless oozes old-school charm, charisma and heroism, Driver's Kylo Ren really comes into his own in this one. I didn't really hate the Kylo as much as some in the Force Awakens. To the contrary the idea of having a petulant child running around in granddaddy's clothes was to me, the perfect fictional counterpoint to a certain real group of proto-fascist hate trolls. But here it seems the waters are a little deeper, the feelings a little more mixed and the generational gap a little more wide. This was, to me, the best thing writer/director Rian Johnson could have possibly done with the character.

Speaking of which the direction; both in terms of behind the camera and overall narrative flow, is refreshingly grounding here. Instead of opting for a fun, expensive-pretending-level fan film like J.J. Abrams did, Johnson brings a level of strong visual literacy and storytelling panache. The themes here are clearer and weightier even as the script muddies the waters of Jedi legends with ambiguity and regret. Additionally there's a sense of scope in Last Jedi. Aside from Rogue One (2016) and a few scenes in the unmentionable prequels (1999-2005), we never see very much life outside of the bad guy/good guy paradigm. Here we not only see other people going about their daily lives, we see how this intergalactic tug-o-war ultimately affects other living beings.

There are some editing and time-clock issues, the second act does go a little long and there's a subplot whose impetus is interesting and clever but comes across as just a little clunky. Mere quibbles. The larger, more interesting issue may just stem from the cognitive dissonance created by Disney, when the super studio, makes a point of standing up for the little guy; inspiring its audience to never lose hope even when all is about to be engulfed in flames and blaster fire. But even if this latest Star Wars is, by definition a corporate shill to sell toys (when was it not?), it certainly doesn't feel like it.

Instead it feels like a glorious multi-generational remix of most of what made the first trilogy great while also treading a brave new path with growing confidence. There are impeccably choreographed lightsaber battles and incredibly taut X-wing dogfights alongside new intimate character moments and plucky sequences of daring-do. To some longtime fans, The Last Jedi may devastate with the force of an exploding Star Killer. But lest you think the beloved sci-fi series is at risk of implosion, I remind you "we are what (the new generation) grows beyond," and it seems the next generation has finally found Star Wars.
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Auteur Filmmaking with a Capital "A"
10 December 2017
I just love movies like The Shape of Water. Not because it's particularly imaginative (it is) or because it's decorated to the brim with lavish costume, set and creature design (it is), or even because it's thematically ballsy (it very, very, very much is). No – I like movies like The Shape of Water because it is a rare glimpse into the mind of an original creator, cashing in most of his good will and gambling his professional reputation on a film he/she has nearly complete control over and that encapsulates everything they like and care about. George Lucas did it for Star Wars (1977), Christopher Nolan did it for Inception (2010), Zack Snyder did it for Sucker Punch (2011) and now Guillermo Del Toro has done it for The Shape of Water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saoirse Ronan is…an interesting choice as an avatar for Gerwig's personal tale of adolescence and turmoil. The film requires her to be funny, charming, excitable, aggressive, and a bit of a brat depending on the circumstances. And while the young actress hits all those notes, she does so with an uncomfortable passivity that often risks making the movie about her environment as opposed to about her. One can't help but compare Ronan to the fearless Hailee Steinfeld of last year's Edge of Seventeen (2016) and wonder if by this time next year, we'll still be talking about the self-absorbed but not too self-absorbed Lady Bird? That along with the strong inference that Lady Bird is a lesser, spiritual prequel to Frances Ha means the film, for all its positives doesn't go all-the-way sort of speak. It's an honest movie and a lovely movie but not as truly transformative or life-changing as could have or should have been. The bad news is that means The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) will stay in the popular consciousness for only that much longer. The good news is hopefully that means Greta Gerwig is just getting warmed up. With a movie that ultimately feels as custom made as this one, I'm very, very excited to see what she comes up with next.
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Too Many Qualifiers to Recommend Strongly
10 November 2017
Is it just me or have trailers now fallen into the habit of selling movies as something they're not. I started noticing this trend sometime around last winter's Passengers (2016). The film was sold as a sweeping sci-fi space adventure when, what it ended up being was a weepy drama with sci-fi trimmings and the mentality of a 90's romantic comedy. Book of Henry (2017), Suburbicon (2017) heck even the very excellent Mother! (2017) all sold themselves as one thing then blindsided audiences by being something entirely different.

The trailer for Murder on the Orient Express and the accompanying movie definitely fall into this trap, though not in the way you'd expect. It is, a point of fact, a candidly old-fashioned whodunit with a showy lead performance by director/star Kenneth Branagh at its center; that much you know. Yet if you're not familiar with the Agatha Christie novel, the stunningly overrated 1974 film or the even more unbearable 2001 made-for-TV movie, you'll be somewhat surprised that the whodunit at the head of this story is very much beside the point. This isn't a murder mystery as the title suggests but rather a social investigation on whether pre-meditated murder can truly be justified.

The film begins at the tail end of one of detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) world famous criminal investigations. Tired and in need of rest, relaxation and Dickens, Poirot takes the advice of an old friend (Bateman), and hitches a ride on the Orient Express, a luxury coach that winds through the snow-covered Carpathian Mountains before chugging through some of Europe's most important cities. Finding a full train of interesting and potentially dangerous characters, Poirot's relaxation turns to suspicion when a known criminal with plenty of enemies, is discovered dead on board.

During Poirot's careful deconstruction of events and motives we get a sense of Hercule's intelligence, poise under pressure and innate sense of justice. "To me the difference between right and wrong is as clear as black and white," says a tired Poirot right before hopping the train. Little does he know that his brief holiday from crime will have him plumbing through the depths of human sorrow, guilt and anger, ultimately shifting his antiquated worldview.

If you come into Orient Express with that in mind, you may end up having a pretty good time. Agatha Christie invented the popular Poirot for her many novels but the character is a creature of the stage. His mannerisms are big and his emotions are even bigger. Branagh knows this and imbues the super sleuth with a certain theatricality that works well in the cramped quarters of a gently rocking train. He has a stage and fills it with deeply felt emotional stakes. When the big third-act twist reveals itself, we actually feel for Poirot's internal struggle and hardly do we envy him when things start to fall apart.

Of course getting there, and feeling for Poirot much less the rest of our characters involves entirely too many qualifiers for Murder on the Orient Express to warrant a strong recommendation. If you have seen the 1974 Sidney Lumet film, this newer, flashier version feels like an unnecessary remake. It's prettier and quicker paced but like a clear night in a big city, it just feels less impressive and has far fewer stars than you'd like. If you've read the novel then the film's fidelity to the source material may warrant some brownie points. But again, if that's what you're looking for than the 1974 version straight up does it better.

If however, you're coming in fresh and you're jonesing for a good 'ol fashion mystery where you can play along at home then…I have some bad news for you. This movie (and let's face it, every other incarnation of the story), leaves the mystery to hang out just long enough for you to engage on an intellectual level then pulls the rug out from under you in the most unsatisfying of ways. I'm being coy because I don't want to ruin it for you but let's just say Orient Express has always felt like taking a final exam that you've been fretting over for weeks only to discover that everyone's getting an "A" regardless.

So yeah, if you want to get the most out of this movie, you need to have either read the book or seen one of the films. You have to be at least familiar with Kenneth Branagh's directorial efforts and realize that the intellectual exercise in this case is not finding out who the killer is but spotting the differences and similarities between the many versions of the same story. The characters are as always interesting and as I said, this one is prettier, but the greatest version possible out of the source material, this film is not.
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Sean Baker is the Maxim Gorky of Our Time
9 November 2017
Much like the feral children of the Magic Castle – the tacky, rundown Orlando motel where we lay our scene not the Disney Cinderella castle - my early childhood was one of constant flux. Part of that was built into the whimsy of being a kid. A new neighbor would become your best friend with a simple invitation to play outside then become a perfect stranger by the week's end. But to me there was also the added complication of living the semi-nomadic lifestyle. Every few years my parents would move and after a day or two of travel I'd be ricocheting off the walls of a brand new place, ready and willing to meet my new potential besties.

It was on that level that I deeply felt for and connected with Moonee (Prince), the troublemaking Floridian youngster that breathes life into the neons, pastels and verdant greens of The Florida Project. She, along with her friends Jancey (Cotto), Scooty (Rivera) and Dicky (Malik) playfully terrorize the denizens of Orlando's crusty motel rooms and gravelly parking lots to stave off the boredom and the heat. Courting mischief at every turn, the rag-tag group of friends runs wild; finding excitement in everything from pasture fields to abandoned housing projects to the greens just outside the Disney World theme park where on a clear night, you can see the nightly fireworks.

Yet as the children have their delirious fun, the complex, dangerous and cruel world of adulthood lays always at the periphery, threatening their unending summertime fun. Moonee's mom Halley (Vinaite), hardly more mature than her six-year-old, takes the brunt of every consequence of systemic, individual and moral poverty. The lack of education, lack of mobility, lack of future prospects braces uneasily against Halley's worse instincts. She keeps the authorities at bay with flagrantly desperate hustles yet without really trying, she only makes her situation and thus Moonnee's situation much worse.

The Florida Project was once the name of Walt Disney's top secret land development initiative that would eventually become Disney World, Orlando. One can't help but feel the title is a slight on the part of director Sean Baker whose previous films have found beauty in unexpected places. And here there is a lot of beauty but there's also a lot of ugliness in what many would call the closest thing to paradise on earth. Gross neglect and heartrending degradation takes place just outside the manufactured fun and fairy-tale street signs of the infamous park. Those in need of vacation come and go as they please, with little knowledge of their complicity in what is captured for the screen.

Yet despite all this, what makes The Florida Project truly special is its light touch. It stops short of judging its characters - or worse still moralizing what could have amounted to poverty porn and giving its characters socio-political halos to wear. Much like Bobby (Dafoe), the unappreciated manager of the Magic Castle, we observe them through lenses of world-weary empathy. A beaten down but still ticking humanism that has learned to accept some things as they are yet still on a happy search of that innate goodness from within. A quiet grace, a foul-mouthed optimism, the remnants of arrested development grinded down by the realities of life; in short we see in this movie, real, actual people.

All in all, The Florida Project is incontrovertible proof that Sean Baker is the Maxim Gorky of our time - an exemplary writer and gifted visual director with an eye and soul for great human dramas. Additionally the movie provides an unforgettable showcase for debut actresses Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite and a career highlight for the indelible Willem Dafoe who stops just short of being a thankless bargain bin Gabriel and somehow pulls it off gracefully. Finally, while some may perish the thought of watching a movie like this in general and may not be as receptive to the overall message as myself, the accuracy with which The Florida Project portrays the innocence of childhood is powerful enough for everyone to watch at least once.
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