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Having been on IMDB for many years, I will not speculate as to why some films are revered and others are reviled. All I have is my own vote and my own voice and that is all.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Harsh crime drama well worth seeing
Joaquin Phoenix gives a restrained but deeply eloquent performance as a psychologically-scarred Iraq veteran who, as a civilian, has become a contract killer. His total lack of fear and killing machine mindset make him good at his job, but his survival skills are tested when he gets more than he bargained for in trying to rescue the young daughter of a prominent New York politician from a high-end prostitution ring in Manhattan.
What this film does differently is show very few scenes of violence per se, but instead depict the quiet power of violence with one brutally-finished victim after another lying horribly eviscerated. It has a cold, baroque score that amplifies the grim storyline, but sometimes the background noise and pregnant stillness can provide the film with a sterile sense of dread as well. It aptly portrays a tough guy's severe psychological demons coming back to haunt him in the face of sudden uncertainty. Some admirers have described this as a new version of "Taxi Driver", a comparison I have no issue with, but I also believe that it stands quite well on its own.
I imagine a film like this is not going to become immensely popular because it's one of those low-key thrillers that does not rely too much on conventional moviemaking devices to keep tension going or to move the pace along. Even so, if you find the time to watch this startling film, you will come away with quite the impact. Strongly recommended.
Hostage thriller finishes strong but is too uneven
A dark, dimly-lit account of the U.S. State Department's effort to negotiate the release of a U.S. hostage taken in Beirut, Lebanon in 1982 does have its moments and boasts workmanlike performances from Jon Hamm who brings his trademark guile and imperiousness and from Rosamund Pike as a steely-eyed CIA operative. Hamm is a former U.S. envoy who unexpectedly finds himself returning to Lebanon on a surprise assignment from the U.S. government.
I do appreciate a film that sheds light on how much an area of tension Lebanon was in the 1980's, a part of history that is not widely understood. In Lebanon, we get to see how many sides there are and how each is at each other's throats, including the Palestinian Liberation Army, Syria and Israel as well as the United States security presence.
Unfortunately, I struggled way too often to stay awake in the early and intermediate parts of the film in which almost nothing happens and that was with my sitting in the front row. It almost rendered me comatose, which is why I'm not recommending this film.
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Colorful, slightly annoying but endearing Wes Anderson fable
Wes Anderson's homage to Japanese film animation certainly has its good points. It's visually elaborate and depicted in alternatingly desolate and pristine landscapes in fictitious places in Japan. The incredible thing about Anderson's work is that even a story about dogs being quarantined on a toxic waste island can seem momentous and even highbrow with his upright, stubbornly eccentric style of filmmaking.
Initially, this wasn't quite my speed. I found the film's beginning a bit lacking in its emotional pull even with a fairly thorough backstory about the five dogs who become the pack at the center of the story and a boy who flies to the island where the dogs have been isolated. Fortunately, the film becomes considerably more compelling once it becomes clear what the boy's purpose is and how much he is up against. The plot aspect involving a corrupt, tyrannical mayor of a large fictitious Japanese city is one of the more enjoyable parts of the storyline.
I was ultimately able to digest this film because I settled into it and just decided to run with its mad adventure and its dogged (no pun intended) fight against political corruption and anti-democratic practices. The political aspect of the story made this film more fascinating and worthwhile. Having said that, a couple of the human supporting characters are so cardboard and disposable that it might make the viewer regard Trash Island as more a refuge than a prison.
My friend who saw this with me described the film as "too precious" to connect with (a common criticism that Anderson films sometimes run into) and concluded that it was ultimately "superficial" after a promising start. If you're not a Wes Anderson devotee, you might conclude that this film either squanders or redeems itself. In the end, I found it adequate enough to recommend.
Dreadfully botched script dooms this hijacking film
Unfortunately, this film about the 1976 hijacking of an AirFrance flight by German and Palestinian terrorists who demanded Israel's release of Palestinian militants and a $5 million ransom is thoroughly mishandled and wastes its powerful acting talent.
Things start out sharply enough. The film wastes no time getting to the hijacking itself and taking things from there. The planning and training for it is revealed through flashbacks. But what follows is a narrative that loses its thrust and becomes quite devoid of any dramatic force. It becomes talky and plodding. There isn't much sense that the more than 200 hostages taken are ever in that much physical danger. When a French airline engineer asks "How is this going to work?" you might wonder if he is asking about the film itself.
I cannot fault Daniel Bruhl, Rosamund Pike or Eddie Marsan. They each do their best as two German hijackers and Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres respectively. They cannot save a screenplay that loses its power and fails to remain compelling. By the end, even the actors themselves seem to just want it to be over. A scene with one of the hijackers at a public phone exemplifies this perfectly.
There are some plot threads/characters in this film that made no sense. For one thing, it was not clear at all who the Israeli solider is who is played by this young actor Ben Schnetzer. He has a number of scenes in this film, but who he is never becomes known. If you check the cast section on this film's page, it appears IMDB doesn't know either. Who can blame them? If he's an unknown, what is his girlfriend? To describe them as weakly-defined characters would be quite charitable. There is a choreography sequence that coincides with a key military operation in this story, but its connection and its supposed analogy to the core events portrayed here is amorphous and even nonsensical.
This is not a film that I regret seeing, but it's quite frustrating how an account of real life events could be phoned in the way it is here. It's a textbook example of a seemingly unfinished film. Not recommended.
Unreal, insane journey into the metaphysical
Alex Garland has given us quite a memorable piece of cinema with this new sci-fi/horror work. The storyline centers around a former soldier-turned-academic who ventures into a scientifically mystifying and inscrutable zone of supernatural activity in the aftermath of her husband's troubled return from a mission into that area, which has been festering and expanding for years. She joins a group of fellow scientists/military personnel in the hopes of finally ascertaining just what the zone is and what goes on inside it.
Natalie Portman is terrific as the biologist whose core motivation is understanding just what happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac in a small but effective role). Jennifer Jason Leigh is compelling as a psychologist who is in charge of the mission that Portman joins. She is iron-willed in the face of a zone that becomes more dangerous and terrifying as the mission progresses. Strong supporting performances from Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson add to the mix. In the process of the mission, questions of ethics, existentialism and the human condition are raised, albeit tangentially. Human frailty and its occasional conflict with scientific understanding also comes into play.
I found this film extremely compelling and even if some scenes were a bit protracted, it didn't take away from the film's effect or achievement. The exquisite visuals contrast sharply with spare but ferocious moments of brutality. It epitomizes a world that science knows quite well- the wonder and the horror of our existence and how we are sometimes left with more questions than answers. The film's vision of scientific rules being bent is imaginative but not overindulgent. Viewers who prefer something concrete and definitive in its storytelling might not take to this, but for those who like a film that raises challenging issues and is alternately placid and scary, I highly recommend this.
Postscript: I would advise the studio that produced this film to not conspicuously advertise the fact that it is already being released on Netflix. In my view, that really cheapens the release and makes it look like a made-for-television movie, which it is not. There is a definite audience for this, but perhaps not the masses.
Black Panther (2018)
Visually splendid, thought-provoking Marvel blockbuster
The fight for the crown of Wakanda is wonderfully brought to life in this bristling film about T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his rise to power as king of Wakanda in the aftermath of returning to his home country and his subsequent struggle for his position when he is challenged by his rival Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan in an authoritative performance) whose father was killed by accident by his father a generation earlier.
First, the extraordinary visual effects. This sheer visual aspect of the film held my attention before I was sold on the film's underlying story. Even if you don't go for this sort of movie as a genre, you should nevertheless see it because its visuals demand being seen on screen. The film's stunning and lush realization of Wakanda alone is worth the price of admission.
Then, there is the powerful story of two viciously competing visions for the place of Wakanda in the world and confronting injustice and oppression against its people. This film becomes a surprisingly gripping debate between confrontation and pragmatism, between vindictiveness and conciliation. Killmonger and T'Challa come to epitomize the conflicting philosophies battling for the leadership of Wakanda. In that regard, it's a great political Marvel film as well.
I was impressed by how the whole cast gave this film so much vitality. Although Michael B. Jordan is somewhat underused in the beginning, his presence becomes more paramount and he shapes the film more and more as it goes along. Boseman is tremendously heroic and sympathetic in the title role. This is a Marvel blockbuster to remember when the dust settles. Strongly recommended.
Get Out (2017)
Not really a horror film, more like a thriller with a very insolent sense of humor
Having heard nothing but raves about this film and how scary it is, I caught its return to the theaters. For starters, I'll say this. Get past the first 15-20 minutes, because initially it comes across as cartoonish and obvious and gives no indication of how clever and brash it's going to become. But a sharp soundtrack early on gives a hint of something to come.
This mystery story of a young couple, black man and his white girlfriend meeting the latter's parents in their suburban house quickly sheds its cookie cutter aura and becomes something brazen and ominous as the family members are introduced. The film pulls no punches in landing one stereotypcial gag after another. If you're a politically correct individual who cannot stand any kind of racially-charged digs, this film isn't for you. I found the jokes to be so shameless and the satire so biting, that it made a film about race relations in this day and age seem almost carefree. And although it does have some isolated horror elements, this is a suspense film through and through.
Don't get me wrong. The humor aside, this movie is not afraid to get its hands dirty. But the outrage is really on mute. This is not the kind of film that should stir up strong emotions for the simple reason that it's so escapist and cheerfully juvenile. At the same time, despite its sheer style and witty screenplay, I don't see this film winning Best Picture. Happily recommended.
Darkest Hour (2017)
Lively Oldman performance mired in a stifling, talky biopic
Gary Oldman's range is hard to dispute. He has been so many different types of people on screen that a performance of his as Winston Churchill during the Second World War would be an obvious selling point for this film. He does in fact give quite a potent portrayal of the British prime minister, whose character flaws and history of military and political failures were obscured and forgotten as he mobilized the British government and the British people to stand up in defiant resistance to Hitler after the German Army overran continental Europe in 1940.
Also noteworthy are supporting turns by Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine, Churchill's patient wife, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI whose disposition toward Churchill goes from disgust to ardent support and Lily James as Churchill's dedicated young personal secretary. Finally, Stephen Dillane is constructive as Viscount Halifax, one of Churchill's primary political rivals in the British government.
But the structure is a different story. With so many strong performances, the film seems quite content to merely tread water and give the audience little sense of how the war impacted the British people. Most of the movie takes place in closed government quarters, with Churchill either arguing ferociously with an obstreperous war cabinet or negotiating the fears of the crown. This is less a war film and more a political drama about shifting alliances in power and backroom Parliamentary calculations. It's about how initially the British government was anything but united on how to confront the possibility of a German invasion. While all of this is fascinating, it doesn't always make for viscerally gripping cinema. The film's best scene happens with Churchill talking to British citizens to gauge their morale, a rare moment of moral certainty.
I normally give a film like this a pass. But extended dialogue scenes in a film like this can actually obscure the war rather than bring it to life. This kind of stagebound account can weaken the story's grave sense of urgency and diminish the scope and ramifications of what Britain was facing in the spring of 1940. Not recommended.
The Post (2017)
Stodgy and slipshod Spielbergian historical tribute
Much to my surprise, I found Spielberg's account of the Washington Post's constitutional battle with the Nixon Administration over the Post's audacious and impulsive decision to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers in 1971 to be mildly prosaic and detached. It definitely lacks the raw drama it was obviously angling for and key scenes came across as tentative and sloppy.
Despite an impactful, committed performance by Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post who helped crush gender barriers in journalism and a lively turn by Tom Hanks as the brash and swaggering Ben Bradlee, editor of the Post, this film suffers from a lack of depth and a surprisingly scattershot approach to the story by Spielberg. A viewer would be forgiven for coming away with a flawed understanding of the Pentagon Papers because the film is more about how the Washington Post came into national prominence by defying the White House in publishing documents the government claimed as top secret and vital to U.S. military success in Vietnam.
Some might argue that this film should be watched and evaluated more deliberately but when Spielberg himself rushed through the material and the filmmaking process, it's harder to claim that the viewer has missed something. With this much proven talent on both sides of the camera, haste makes waste. Not recommended.
Phantom Thread (2017)
Enigmatic and austere romance, replete with peculiarities
Paul Thomas Anderson's painstaking craft and haunting style are both vigorously at work in this weighty film about Reynolds Woodcock, a famous fashion designer in London in the 1950s who becomes personally involved with a young woman he meets at a café near his country house. Daniel Day-Lewis gives an absorbing performance as the seemingly impenetrable Woodcock whose firmly ossified and perfectionist world is challenged by the presence of a woman he meets out of pure chance.
Day-Lewis's intensity often dominates and overshadows the films he is in, but here Vicky Kreps gives a marvelous and captivating performance as the woman he meets and whom he takes into his demanding world of fashion design. Lesley Manville is also superb as Woodcock's demanding but humane and knowing sister. In keeping with his past performances, here Day-Lewis portrays a man who is a tough nut to crack. The mystery surrounding his psychology is slowly unwoven throughout the film.
The film's musical score maintains an alternating sense of angst, furious labor and heartfelt vulnerability throughout. As usual, Anderson's film knows how to use a musical score to great effect. This film is meant to be absorbed slowly and linger on. For patient viewers, it's an incredibly rewarding experience. Extraordinarily recommended.
The Disaster Artist (2017)
Hilarious portrayal of epic filmmaker eccentricity
The story of the making of the film "The Room" is brilliantly realized in this biopic directed by James Franco. It's the story of the making of the one of worst critically-received films in memory. Franco impeccably stars as Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious aspiring Hollywood star who in the late 90s, no one had ever heard of and almost everyone avoided once they saw him except, Greg Sestero, a young aspiring actor (Dave Franco who is wonderfully sympathetic) who meets Wiseau in San Francisco in 1998.
The two realize early on that the odds are overwhelmingly against them in getting anyone in the industry to take them seriously or give them the time of day, so they embark on their own project to make their own movie with a script that Wiseau has written. Wiseau also directs the film, which turns out to be a unique experience for everyone involved.
No other film this year made me laugh as hard as this one. It's beyond hilarious how peculiar and unconventional Wiseau's filmmaking style comes across. His oddities just jump out at you like no other, but in an endearing way. Despite its comedic aspect, this film never intends to ridicule or make fun of Wiseau but instead seeks to portray him as an artist who had nothing but an honest-to-goodness belief in the work he was doing and devout faith that it would be recognized. It's a story that is too poignant to pass up. Recommended to the highest degree.
All the Money in the World (2017)
Christopher Plummer elevates this drama
It's hard to conceive of how a film could have gone so wrong with a miscasting so staggering and yet by dumb luck got a second chance and wound up redeeming itself as well as Ridley Scott's film about the kidnapping of oil millionaire J. Paul Getty's grandson in Rome in 1973. In a vacuum, you would never have guessed that Kevin Spacey was ever in this film or that Christopher Plummer was deployed so late and with such haste. That alone makes this film an impressive accomplishment.
The truth is that Plummer is the strongest thing about this film, as he fully personifies the tight-fisted Getty who chose to withhold a ransom of $17 million that was demanded in return for his grandson's safety. Plummer perfectly conveys how Getty's ultimate motive was to weigh his own losses, both personal and financial even in dealing with kidnappers. How bad does this film make the Italians look? Only a little better than Getty himself. By the end of the film, you might wonder if the country is still as corrupt and morally derelict as Italian society in the 1970s is portrayed here. Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg are both decent here but they are largely in Plummer's shadow, which is actually appropriate.
The film does go on a bit long and becomes somewhat labored toward the end. But it still does a tremendous job of portraying the utterly poisonous influence of money and privilege in family relationships and how tremendous wealth can destroy a family bond. Tough as that may be to absorb, this film conveys it quite well. Gladly recommended.
Molly's Game (2017)
Chock full of Sorkinian glibness, biopic goes south in the end
Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut about the Olympic skier Molly Bloom, a brilliant over-achiever who chose to forego law school to become a gambling entrepreneur, is a compelling film that starts out very strong. Even with its lengthy running time, it's never slow or uninvolving. It's gripping and fascinating throughout, thanks to Sorkin's master penmanship at keeping the dialogue and tempo of the film at a heady pace.
Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba both give dynamic performances here. Elba makes a great presence as the defense attorney who tries to grapple with the sheer size and scope of Bloom's considerable legal problems as her gambling operation becomes progressively more mired in the criminal world. Even if you find Chastain's character cold and detached, her performance here is strikingly realistic.
Alas, we have the film's ending. Where the film goes wrong is this highly far-fetched and phony attempt to humanize Bloom beginning with a chance encounter with her father at a skating rink in Central Park. A corny scene does not sink a film all by itself, but unfortunately this scene was followed up with an equally ridiculous courtroom sequence that struck me as unduly and comically political. It's always a shame for a film to look first-rate for most of the way only to collapse in the final act. Recommended mostly on the strength of the performances, even if the film as a whole misses the mark in the end.
Solid Star Wars entry, even if a bit spread out
This longish Star Wars chapter featuring the Resistance's desperate fight for survival against the pursuing First Order holds up well enough on a second viewing. It has much to recommend it, especially since it makes better use of Oscar Isaac than "The Force Awakens" did and offers a final moving turn by Carrie Fischer. Her presence in this film is greatly appreciated and she offers some of the best moments.
My biggest criticism of this Star Wars entry is that it could have had a tighter storyline. As it is, it spreads its synopsis far and wide, diluting its impact. Its division among several differing story threads got to me and kept this film from being even stronger. But in the end, I can't criticize any Star Wars film that more fully fleshes out Kylo Ren's backstory and gives us an awe-inspiring return by none other than Luke Skywalker, who has become reclusive and detached from the Force. Some simmering themes of loyalty, inner conflict and the corrupting influence of power and well-explored in this installment.
Daisy Ridley is initially unremarkable here but her presence builds as her storyline becomes one of the stronger parts of the film. Benicio Del Toro is very loose and funny in his wild card role. John Boyega is somewhat weakly utilized here and he's at the center of a key battle scene that I thought ended up as a missed opportunity. However, it's still a well-executed saga that will keep you gripped until the very end. Gladly recommended to both Star Wars fans and novices alike.
I, Tonya (2017)
Gripping biographical black comedy gave me chills
Over time, I have grown weary of the biopic genre. It tends to yield a lot of films that are by-the-numbers and lack an edge. Enter this film that proves the exception, a fiery account of the renowned U.S. figure skating champion Tonya Harding, whose husband and friends got involved in her career in the most sinister way possible and seriously injured a figure-skating competitor of Tonya, Nancy Kerrigan who, as it turned out was equally impressive on ice.
The film starts out at the beginning of Tonya's development as an ice skater, when she is virtually a child. The film smoothly transitions to her more grown-up years as Tonya morphs from an adorable little girl on ice to a frighteningly edgy teenage competitor. It is then that we meet her boyfriend, who initially seems like a socially diffident young man, but is quickly revealed to by a physically violent nightmare of boyfriend/husband. Their relationship goes through many twists and turns, but it does witness her defiant rise to greatness within her sport.
The film bristles with vivid performances, the most electric of which is Allison Janney who steals the film as Tonya's monstrously cruel mother who shows little regard for Tonya's emotional well-being even as she pushes and pushes harder for her daughter to reach the top. Sebastian Stan is great as her abusive husband/intermittent ally. Margot Robbie finally shows how transformative her acting ability is in this film. She disappears into the role of the figure skating champion whose rise to fame went against the norms of the figure skating sport, that disdained her working class background.
There are no heroes in this story; no one emerges looking even decent. But it's a deeply incisive story of how one person's amazing journey took a radically unexpected turn. It will strike a chord with anyone who had to cope with at least one difficult parent, which might make it difficult to watch, but it's a film of absolutely granite integrity. Enthusiastically recommended.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Enchanting fantasy romance, full of wonder
Although far from flawless, Del Toro's fantasy drama about a mute woman and her unexpected romance with a creature captured from the Amazon by the U.S. government is endearing and sad at the same time. It's a story about two members of divergent species who meet one another by chance and develop a romantic spark. These two beings come to find solace and bliss in each other's company in a world that is cold and heartless. It's a more modern spin on "Beauty and the Beast" and it's well worth seeing.
The biggest stumbling block the film has to overcome is a claustrophobic feeling that settles in after a certain point. The trailers made this look like a great adventure, but it's actually a desperate fight for survival against daunting odds, but one that is riveting. The film is beautifully shot, has a sterling throwback soundtrack and a beguiling storyline milieu. The creature itself is not depicted as a soft cuddly thing at all times, refreshingly. In some instances, it can be quite menacing. Del Toro's realization of this monster-cum-paramour is both wondrous and complex.
Sally Hawkins is utterly splendid as the mute woman who works in a smallish maintenance position at the government facility where the creature is quarantined. Michael Shannon is well-deployed as the government official who views the creature as nothing more than an experiment to be learned from. Michael Stuhlberg is also effective as one of the chief scientists at the lab. And Octavia Spencer, as always, is fun to watch here. The only weak link is Richard Jenkins as Hawkins' neighbor. There's something annoyingly saccharine about his performance and the film winds up having to overcome it, which it does.
There might be some larger metaphors in this film about race and religion, but I would leave that open to interpretation. This is a poignant story in its own right, and one that will stay with you, regardless of what else Del Toro might be trying to say. Gladly recommended.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Summer love discovered, explored and never forgotten
I am usually quick to start focusing on the next film as soon as I've finished one, but here is a rare exception that I prefer to let linger on for a while even at the risk of my memory of it becoming unremarkable. That's because it's one of the most subtly affecting and beautiful love stories that I've seen in years. A low-key pace and a sumptuous musical score build the film to a conclusion that is truly flawless.
The story is of a young American graduate student who stays with a professor in his country house in Italy in the summer of 1983 and slowly develops an intimate relationship with the professor's precocious 17-year-old son. Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are both brilliant in this film as the two who find companionship in an unexpected place, and Michael Stuhlbarg is wonderful as the professor. The young man and the teenage boy do not interact much at first, mostly because the young man appears detached and unresponsive. But I would be loath to reveal too much after that. Let's just say it's a film that one should absorb slowly and let its quiet power take hold. It's a film that truly captures some wonderful truths about the human condition, about the emotional toll of relationships and about how much one's secrets shape one's dynamic with others.
In terms of cinematography, there is much of the Italian countryside to marvel at. It makes that country seem like one of the most blissful and sublime places in the world to visit. History buffs and linguists will find some welcome material in the professor's dialogues with his graduate student to enjoy. As quiet and austere as the film may be at times, it contains a deeper passion that gradually gets tapped into and colors the mindset despite the taboo nature of the material. Never long or protracted, it will keep you guessing until the end and just leave a haunting feeling after it's over. Gladly recommended to anyone in search of true cinema.
Slog through this mud only if you have to
I can best describe this Netflix film as highly uneven and frustrating to watch. Know this, you will feel the running time here because the film often loses its narrative grip and takes a while to get going again. Although handsomely shot, well-acted and possessing a powerful story at its core, this work nevertheless is too bloated and at times too aimless to leave a lasting impression. I've already forgotten the several stretches here in which seemingly nothing happened.
A melodrama about a white family and a black family on a Mississippi farm before, during and after the Second World War is a well-intended premise, but this film definitely could have used more editing. The characters are introduced quite well and there are some genuinely well-executed scenes, especially the heart-wrenching climax. But getting there takes so long and during these intervals I was wondering what the whole point of it was. Another sign that the story was not told very well: I actually forgot that the farm was struggling until one of the characters mentioned it. An important plot thread like that wound up feeling more like a footnote.
Some of the performances, although high quality, are wasted. Carey Mulligan is the best example of this. She starts out as a relatively central protagonist before fading into the background. In the end, she's an ill-defined character. Jason Clarke starts out strong, but he's also something of an afterthought by the end. On the plus side, Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell play well off each other as two war veterans who come to grips with the institutional racism of 1940s Mississippi and who both realize that life was, in some ways, better in the military. Jonathan Banks gives a committed performance as the aging grandfather who deplores any indication of social change.
But despite the strong performances, this is a film I would only remember as one that took long to get through. To put it bluntly, I was snookered by the reviews. They praised this film as brilliant and I bought it, hook, line and sinker. Regrettably, I cannot recommend this film because then I would be joining them in that lie.
Darkly comic morality tale, and one that deserves respect
Many have referred to McDonagh's film as a black comedy and it does have a lot of grim humor. But it's also a film about grief, revenge and ultimately about doing right by others. Harsh is the most apt way to describe the film's mentality. Nobody emerges from this story pure. You will come away battle-scarred but also grateful at having absorbed a refreshingly blunt take on human nature. I wish I could say more, but this is a film where one should go in knowing as little as possible, as I did.
Frances McDormand absolutely shines as the mother of a murdered teenage girl. She has watched for months as the police department in her local town has not come up with any arrests. She takes matters into her own hands by putting up billboards demanding answers from the authorities. From there on, the town swells into a maelstrom of rancor, vendetta, recrimination and, if I gave away more it would spoil too much. Sam Rockwell is equally impressive as the dim-witted cop with supposedly little self-discipline and a short fuse. And Woody Harrelson is great as the highly-regarded police chief who suddenly finds a roiling controversy on his hands.
In terms of cinema embracing a dark, cynical point of view, this is the hardest film I've seen since "Nightcrawler". It takes its bleak view of the world and splashes it all over the screen from start to finish. There are scarce moments of rejuvenation and optimism. For the most part, the film revels in its dark sarcasm all the while keeping the audience guessing about the its resolution and making no guarantees. The themes of grief and anger at the system's lack of results and thus taking matters into one's own hands are powerfully rendered here. The sense of victimhood takes a back seat to up-from-the-bootstraps empowerment. Love it or hate it, this film makes its points with conviction and sincerity, however rough around the edges. Strongly recommended.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Does Kenneth Branagh think he's Baz Luhrmann?
The most conspicuous aspect of this misfire is that right out of gate, it comes at you with full force, over-the-top, fake-looking performances. It's the kind of rare style that very few directors, let alone films can do to good effect. It was like "Moulin Rouge" only not done well. It poked me in the eye in that regard. And it made me wonder just what Branagh's intentions were with this version of Agatha Christie's novel. Was he trying to make it more light-hearted? More comical? More campy? In the end, he only succeeded for sure in making it more boring.
A film that goes from absurd to dull will not earn much recognition for anything other the sheer acting talent that it wastes. Michelle Pfieffer and Willem Dafoe are both slumming it in this dreck. Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz are the only ones who don't embarrass themselves here but then their screen time is short. I've seen worse films in my life, but this one gets a big thumbs down and is not recommended.
Lady Bird (2017)
Alternately incisive and plodding, coming-of-age film gets a passing mark
I always appreciate a film about the personal upheavals of reaching young adulthood. To be honest, I found this film mildly annoying at times. Maybe because it's a film that just doesn't hold back on the raw emotion of growing up. The characters are very real and therefore the taste it leaves is not always palatable. The story of a 17-year-old girl growing up in Sacramento and her personal travails with her parents, with school, with her friendships, with boys and with her hopes and dreams didn't exactly grab me initially.
The good news is that it's so superbly acted that I was able to absorb it and enjoy the wonderful moments of truth in terms of one's relationships with those you've grown up around. In that regard, this film cuts very close to the bone. I just wish the narrative had been more brisk and not as deliberate. For a film with this short a running time, it feels long. Toward the end, it drags a bit. Perhaps Greta Gerwig in her directorial debut is still figuring how to end a film on the perfect note.
But again, the performances here are tour de force, especially Saoirse Ronan who is exceptional as the teenage girl who spends most of the film coming to grips with a sense of self and an independent identity, something hard-earned in a difficult family. By the end of the film, we've come to know her completely. Recommended to those looking for a good character study.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Arresting film that brings the cruelty
Creeping, frightening and altogether clinical and cold, Yorgos Lanthimos' revenge thriller about a surgeon whose family is suddenly confronted by a peculiar but utterly vindictive teenager will slither into your consciousness in a serpentine and occasionally unsavory way. There are times when this film might feel like an endurance test, but it's worthwhile in the end, because it's such a beautifully acted and vividly directed work of cinema.
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are excellent as the husband and wife physicians whose lush suburban lifestyle initially looks insular and beyond disturbance. But the real standout in this film is Barry Keoghan, who gives a malevolent performance as the nonchalant teenager whose father was a patient of Farrell's character. Initially, his presence seems merely peculiar and offbeat. But as the boy encroaches more on the family's life, the story takes on a more unsettling tone. Lanthimos' use of deadpan, nondescript dialogue masks something sinister and roiling underneath and the whole cast plays it exquisitely. And while this is not quite the black comedy that some have categorized it as, there are discreet moments of depraved humor.
The film has a soundtrack that is classical and mournful but gradually becomes more violent and disquieting as it dots the storyline with dread and despair. As the sense of hopelessness starts to build up, the film ever so briefly becomes a touch static. This brief lapse is forgotten as the climax draws near. What I thought would end with shock and perhaps ambiguity, ends instead with a sense of relief and almost moral victory. It's as if after putting us through this labyrinth of horror and torment, Lanthimos gift-wraps it with a bow. It's a devilish touch. I first got acquainted with his filmmaking style with "The Lobster", a film that I reluctantly acknowledged as a good work. Here, he surpasses that achievement with something much closer to the bone and deathly scary. Recommended to the highest degree.
The Florida Project (2017)
Compelling film about innocence and poverty
Sean Baker's film about a small group of children who live in a seedy hotel with their impoverished single young mothers near Disneyland doesn't always live up to the hype. It's a solid, but curiously flawed work. It has opening credits that feel like closing credits and the editing is awkward almost from the start. The pacing of the film is not its strong suit; it can seem lackadaisical and sometimes downright aimless, although admittedly that barren backdrop might be in keeping with a film that depicts children growing up with little or no structure. At occasional moments, one might wonder where the film is even going.
With all of this being said, however, the film does go on to finish strong. We find out that these are not well-behaved kids early on and their near absolute freedom is derived from the young women who raise them and who have a ways to go in terms of adult responsibility themselves. There is a frequent sense of angst for the children's safety as they reap the benefits of minimal adult supervision and haphazard discipline. Baker's film is about growing up on the fringes of society where fathers have virtually no presence.
Performances here are nothing but exceptional. Willem Dafoe is excellent here as the kind but hardened hotel manager who has to balance his sympathy for one of the mothers with his steadfast refusal to tolerate criminal behavior in his establishment. He looks out for the children vigilantly even as they test his patience. Newcomer Bria Vinaite makes an impression as a troubled young woman who will do anything, including engage in prostitution, to provide for her daughter. Although the film ends on a very uncertain note, it is in keeping with a compelling portrait of innocence toddling through a squalid adult world of poverty, crime and despair. Almost anyone one who watches this attentively will compare it to his or her own childhood, no matter how dissimilar. Recommended.
American Made (2017)
Mundane, misbegotten Tom Cruise rejuvenation vehicle
How many more of these boy-wonder performances is Cruise going to give before he finally acquiesces to something more... normal? Don't get me wrong, he still comes across as youthful and dynamic on-screen despite being well into his 50s. But if you've followed his career for decades, this kind of film becomes something of a fraud on his part. Generally, I'd rather watch a bona fide young actor make the endeavor in the type of performances Cruise continues to strive for even though he's now within shouting distance of 60. Because Cruise is an age-battling Hollywood movie star, his presence lacks depth. Notwithstanding the film's brisk, carefree tenor, it's a stunning miscasting.
In this film, Cruise attempts to give a performance as Barry Seal, the TWA pilot who quickly becomes a hired gun for the CIA in the drug smuggling era involving the South American drug cartels and the Sandinistas. He basically flies loads and loads of drugs into the United States and in the process becomes a very rich man. He works for the CIA and provides a service to the drug lords. It's fairly interesting and decently executed for a while. Domhnall Gleeson is the bright spot in this film as the shadowy CIA operative who becomes Cruise's demanding, unapologetic boss.
But maybe the filmmakers should have done their homework before putting this together because Cruise, evidently trying to capture a young protagonist, doesn't look anything like the corpulent Seal. Ironically, this miscasting makes Cruise's effort even more ridiculous. Not only was Seal not as athletic as Cruise, he wasn't particularly youthful-looking either. This central misrepresentation is really what kills the film, not to mention a relatively rote screenplay that we've come across a million times before. None of this is going to be too egregious to most viewers. Many people would probably never even know who Barry Seal was, if not for this film. Still, it's kind of silly for Cruise to continue to perpetuate a desperate jump into the fountain of youth in a role that doesn't even call for it that much. But perhaps stardom is the ultimate source of self-delusion. Not recommended.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Brooding, visually rich sequel diluted somewhat by running time
The long-anticipated sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic is definitely something you should see in theaters. The visual effects and cinematography alone are enough to make this a movie event that should be watched on the big screen to get the full effect. The film's storyline is slowly hashed out in a smoke cloud of mystery, futuristic dark humor and dystopian milieu. It's Villeneuve's admirable achievement and a worthy sequel.
Ryan Gosling is solid as a latter-day Blade Runner, whose job is to hunt for a diminishing number of replicants from an earlier era. Gosling's cop begins to struggle with the question of his own identity and ponders whether the memories in his head are authentic or artificial implants. Ana de Armas is captivating as his artificial flame, who takes on many different forms. Robin Wright is sharp in a smallish role as Gosling's iron-willed superior. Jaret Leto is well-utilized as a creepy industrialist whose bleak vision for society is being implemented. Sylvia Hoecks is effectively menacing as Leto's ruthless enforcer. Unfortunately, the film could have used a bit more of Harrison Ford, who returns to his role as Rick Deckard, Gosling's predecessor from 30 years back. Ford's work in this film amounts to little better than a cameo appearance. But thankfully, Gosling and everyone else mostly fill the void.
The film's emotional core is real but very cold and deeply embedded. And some more editing probably would have helped. Although there is a storyline here that you do care about, the film's aloof, almost Lynchian sense of mystery keeps the viewer at a distance for a long stretch. There is a deliberate build-up in the labyrinthine investigation through which Gosling pieces together a macro scale of criminal activity. Villeneuve is able to sustain the film's gripping crescendo just enough that the film reaches a well-executed, well-earned catharsis. Strongly recommended.