Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Rock and a Hart Place: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Entertains but Wears Thin

1995's “Jumanji,” while not quite the epitome of great art, was an entertaining thrill ride and didn't just depend on your fondness for the great Robin Williams. The new “Jumanji” with it's awkward “Welcome to the Jungle” subtitle, requires a serious tolerance for The Rock and comedian Kevin Hart. They're funny guys sure, but the film relies way too much on their comedic schtick. And then there's Jack Black who spends the entire film acting like a stuck-up 15 year old girl. It's a funny gag that is stretched to its limits. And let's not forget the awkwardness of modernizing the story of a board game, now a retro video game. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is fine for a few laughs and thrills, but it's basically a one-joke movie that relies too much on its somewhat clever premise about kids being stuck in a video game. There are attempts to connect the film to its 90s predecessor, but too much time is spent watching its decently charming cast react to their surrounding and it quickly wears thin.

At the end of “Jumanji” the board game and it's beating drums ends up washed up in beach in Europe. At the beginning of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” it ends up back in the same New England town where the first film took place. The game is gifted to the son of the man who found it, and for no apparent reason, the game transforms itself into a video game which sucks in the curious teenager who begins playing it. Many years later we're introduced to several new teens who all reflect typical teenage personalities. There's the nerdy introvert Spencer (Alex Wolff), his former best friend, the dumb jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), selfie-obessessed mean girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), and outcast Martha (Morgan Turner) who obviously has a thing for the equally outcast Spencer. The four kids find themselves in detention one day, stumble upon the Jumanji video game, begin playing out of sheer boredom, and end up getting sucked in and appear in the bodies of the avatars they chose. Cue a lot of dialogue that basically explains how video games work to those audience members unfamiliar with such things. And lots of “body swap” humor which mostly involves Jack Black coming across like a flamboyant gay man as he portrays the smart-phone obsessed Bethany.

The foursome then set off an adventure to finish the game and hopefully get transported back home. From here a bunch of borderline corny special effects take over. None of which are that much improved from the borderline corny special effects of the original film. There's no real sense of wonder or excitement as the film relies too much on typical body swap humor which mostly involves Bethany reacting to being trapped in a shlubby 40 year-old's body. There are way more penis jokes here then there ever were in the first film. The Rock is fine in the role but one can take so many references to the fact that Spencer how has gigantic muscles. Hart is fine basically playing himself and Karen Gillan gets decent mileage as the beautiful adventurer who's stuck wearing skimpy clothes in the jungle.

The film is directed by Jake Kasdan whose film is bright and colorful but lacks real imagination. The script meanders and struggles to make itself worth existing. It's somewhere between “this could have been a lot worse” and “why do we need this.” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” certainly doesn't need to exist and I'm still certain that if the film had nothing to do with Jumanji it would find success on its own. The movie is certainly entertaining enough and is harmless fun, I just don't think it's as smart as it thinks it is. Fans of The Rock and Kevin Hart is certainly in for a fun time, others can tread cautiously.  GRADE: C+

Friday, December 22, 2017

Lord of the Rings: “The Greatest Showman” is a Surface-Level, Enjoyable Spectacle

It must be said that if you're expecting to actually learn much about the life of circus man P.T. Barnum than you probably shouldn't see “The Greatest Showman.” If, however, you just want a really entertaining, gorgeous musical with high quality musical production numbers than you should definitely see “The Greatest Showman.” I went for the latter reason and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. With songs by the Oscar-winning song writing duo of “La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman” is a well-oiled musical machine featuring catchy songs, exuberant performances, and a sense of wonder. An in-depth documentary this is not, and whatever your thoughts are about the real Barnum (let's just say he's a controversial historical figure), the movie is undeniably fun. There's no real surprises in the story and it follows the formula set up by any other lavish musical but the film sends you out of the theater on a high and considering what a downer year it's been that's not the worst thing in the world.

Ripping a movie like “The Greatest Showman” apart is just way too easy. So let's focus on the positives. Hugh Jackman gives a charismatic performance as PT Barnum. He grows up constantly wanting to entertainment people. He quickly achieves what musicals are usually about (love) and so the film thankfully doesn't waste too much time on the romance between him and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams). Stuck in a routine job that he ends up losing anyways, the born-to-entertain Barnum opens a museum of curiosity. It isn't a hit and then invites strange and usual people (ie the bearded lady, a little person) which causes quite the sensation. Before he knows it the PT Barnum Circus is born.

While the film is obviously taking place in the 1800s, the film has a very modern look and feel. And that's probably for the film's benefit. The glossy pop songs, simply put, are extremely entertaining. And the visuals orchestrated by director Michael Gracey (in his feature directorial debut) are quite impressive. There's a love ballad with Barnum's eventual business partner Phillip (Zac Efron, in his first musical since 2007's brilliant “Hairspray”) and acrobat Anne (Spider-Man Homecoming's Zendaya) as they fly around on ropes under the big top. There's power pop ballad “This Is Me” sung with prowess by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and the film's opening/closing number “The Greatest Show” which brings down the curtain.

Sure the film's entertaining, but it feels like it was made by a corporation to sell tickets. Which it was. General audiences will eat it up. Even the old ladies down my row, who didn't even realize the film was a musical enjoyed it. You won't learn anything about the real PT Barnum, you won't really learn anything about the circus, and the film hits all the generic plot points to the point that it's pretty much all telegraphed. The script from Jenny Bricks and Bill Condon is pretty standard stuff but it gets the job done. And the circus, in general, while historically significant as a form of popular entertainment, is by and large a pretty terrible thing.

But you know what? I'd be lying if I didn't enjoy every minute of "The Greatest Showman." There's a power to the musical performances that are indisputable. The cinematography from Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”) is really breathtaking. To think that a first time director was capable of creating such a beautiful looking film is pretty astonishing. The singing is great, the music is catchy, and the film looks pretty. If this film was translated to the stage, it would probably be winning a handful of Tony Awards and no one would think twice about it. The film basically functions as a 105 minute trailer for what is probably a more in-depth look at the life of PT Barnum, but what a fun trailer it is!  GRADE: B+

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I Know Who You Did Last Summer: The Understated “Call Me by Your Name” is Gorgeous and Truthful

If “Lady Bird” is a comedic slice of life coming-of-age story of a 17 year-old girl from a lower middle class family, “Call Me By Your Name” is the dramatic version about a 17 year-old boy from an affluent family living abroad in Northern Italy. Both films even share a key ingredient, a new rising star named Timothée Chalamet. This gorgeous film is about desire and heartbreak (they usually go hand-in-hand) and is about that moment in your life where your views on the world open up and anything seems possible. Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a reserved and quiet film that is almost a bit too literate. It's hard to connect to a family whose patriarch is an archeology professor and whose son refers to novels and musicians no one's really ever heard of. But on the flip-side it is easy to connect to an introspective teenager as he discovers more about himself because we've all been there at some point whether it has to do with sexuality or not. In a lot of ways the film would work well as a double feature with last year's Oscar-winner "Moonlight."

Set during the summer of 1983 in an old school sun-soaked Italian countryside, “Call Me By Your Name” can't possibly get any more beautiful. The film follows 17 year-old Elio (Chalamet) as he's forced to give up his bedroom for his professor father's graduate school research assistant moves in for the summer. This happy-go-lucky man is Oliver (Armie Hammer) and there's a fleeting connection between the introverted Elio and Oliver's more extroverted personality. From here we sort of get a collection of moments between Elio, who, while pursuing a sexual relationship with his girlfriend, find strange attraction to the new guest. Meanwhile, Oliver who also catches the eye of a young Italian woman and is strangely fascinated by Elio as well. Oliver and Elio soon form a bond that begins to go beyond mere friendship. You know the drill. It's like the Italian countryside version of “Brokeback Mountain.” It's also yet another film about gay people, who don't identify as such, who can't simply be happy and content with being who they are. They're secretive about their relationship but because this is a film set over thirty years ago there's no way they can really end up together. Of course, it doesn't help that Oliver is moving back home to the United States at the summer's end.

The film, written by James Ivory (yes from the Merchant & Ivory duo) certainly takes its time exploring the characters are they traverse various Italian locations whether it's a swimming hole or bike path. The film looks exquisite but it's a direct counterbalance of the darkness and confusion going on between the two main protagonists. They long for each other but for half the film neither of them act on it. And in those terms it feels like an extremely long waiting game. But once Oliver and Elio do finally get together it feels worth the wait and the fears and anxiety and anticipation give way to happiness and pleasure and comfort. And then the sobering realization that there's no way this can have a happy ending. Eventually the heartbreak that comes from lovers being forced to part gives way to a scene between father and son that is emotional apex of the entire film and features a truly moving piece of acting from Michael Stuhlbarg.

“Call Me by Your Name” is an ultimately moving film. Its beautifully lyrical and the performances are subtle even if a lot of the overly intellectual dialogue goes over the head once in a while. The chemistry between the leads is palatable. The film is erotic without ever being exploitative. There isn't a lot of flashy over-the-top dramatic scenes it's a very quiet film that likes to take its time. Guadagnino even uses music in a unique way and the soundtrack is filled with classical pieces and nostalgia-enduing pop tunes. Even if the film doesn't leave you on a high note, it's not dark or depressing or tragic the way some gay love stories turn out. The film is naturalistic (if not completely realistic), earns empathy for the main characters, and even though I still find it hard to identify with a family living it up in an Italian paradise (even with Italian in my blood), the film's more obvious themes are things any human being will easily find relatable. If the melancholy film doesn't immediately click with you, there are aspects that will certainly stay with you. GRADE: B+

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Beauty & the Beast: “The Shape of Water” Casts a Fintastic Spell

A tale as old as time. Girl meets sea creature. Sea creature meets girl. They fall in love. End of story. Guillermo del Toro has been telling fairy tales for adults for quite some time and may have finally crossed a bit into the mainstream with “The Shape of Water.” Sure it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s erotic and violent, but those not expecting that will probably come for the exquisite lead performance from Sally Hawkins who shows us her heart without saying anything at all. “The Shape of Water” works so well because deep down it’s a very traditional story told in a really extraordinary way. Del Toro can address a lot about society just by setting his story in a 1960s research facility where scientists have discovered a male sea creature and the lonely mute woman who falls for him. The film has some really special performances, a beautiful color palate, and a really good story that satisfies.

Sally Hawkins is great as a mute janitor named Elisa. She communicates through sign language though her hearing is fine. She’s friends with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who both work the late shift at a Baltimore research facility. An “asset” found in South America is brought in one day and it turns out to be an amphibious humanoid. Elisa is curious about the bizarre creature and begins leaving him hard boiled eggs to eat. Michael Shannon is the hard-ass, and horribly mean Col. Strickland who’s in charge of the research team and spends most of his time beating the thing with his electric baton. Both the creature and Elisa are “freaks” for all intends and purposes and they two form a bond, but no before things begin to get a little out of hand.

“The Shape of Water” is about connection and longing. It’s not unlike a similarly themed romance “Call Me by Your Name” that also displays another form of “forbidden” romance in an age where people were way more uptight then they are now. But of course, as much as things have improved, they tend to stay the same. Which means that stories like these are just as relevant today as they would be to when their stories take place. In that way “The Shape of Water” can easily be read as a metaphor for the once taboo subject of interracial relationships. It’s not a coincidence that Elisa’s friend and neighbor played by the always wonderful Richard Jenkins is a gay man looking for love himself.

Guillermo del Toro brings his trademark brand of whimsy and darkness to the film that balances out rather nicely. The film has some pretty disturbing and sensual elements which makes the film back to its roots of fairy tales being adult stories rather than being for kids. Even if the premise seems a little preposterous, like the best storytellers, he makes it believable. There’s a real sense of artistry here from the beautiful production design and Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score to the film's lower budgeted byt fantastic special effects. The whole thing, even if it’s a decidedly “American” story, has a decidedly European feel. It’s a universal story that can easily be loved by anyone who needs a dose of imagination in their lives.  GRADE: A- 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Rian's Hope: The Thrilling “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Takes the Series in a Fun, Exciting Direction

By my count, and it’s not that difficult, there are now eight Star Wars films, and technically 10 if you count spin-offs “Rogue One” and the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” By all accounts we’ve “been there and done that.” But not so fast. Those who complained that the highly entertaining reboot “The Force Awakens” followed too closely to plot elements found in “A New Hope” are in for a big surprise because “The Last Jedi,” while overwhelmingly classic Star Wars in every sense, very much takes things into its own arena. It’s glorious. This 8th adventure in the Star Wars saga is just as thrilling as ever and has some really fun and surprising story elements up its sleeve. New-to-the-franchise writer/director Rian Johnson takes some risks and directs with an assured hand; the force is strong with this one.

As the most non fanboy Star Wars “fan” imaginable (aka I’m not really much of a fan, sue me) I have to say that these new films are supremely entertaining in a way that I never felt with the original trilogy. Watching 2015’s “The Force Awakens” something awoke within me. I got that feeling a person gets when they first watch Star Wars for the first time. Something that never happened with the other six films. Though "Revenge of the Sith" came close. But since everyone’s entitled to an opinion and you obviously came here for it I’ll give it any way: “The Last Jedi” could easily be one of my favorite Star Wars films. For a film that takes nearly two and a half hours to tell its tale, I was enthralled the entire time. No need for any nitpicks here. If you can believe that space ships can travel at the speed of light there’s no need to pick apart anything else. These movies were always meant to be fun. And that’s exactly what I had.

Me trying to explain the plot of a Star Wars film is like trying to watch your grandma explain how Twitter works, so I’ll do the best I can. Not too much time has passed since the last film. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is at remote island seeking help from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is still leading the Resistance but they’re in extremely poor shape since the New Order can now apparently track them through hyperspeed. This sets off one of my favorite storylines which involves Finn (John Boyega) teaming up with mechanic Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the New Order’s tracking device. And resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Issac) is at odds with a new leader in the Resistance named Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern).

The last film left us so many questions like all great trilogy starters do. Why is Rey so significant? Who is this evil Snoke character? How come Chewbacca hasn’t aged at all? With expectations so high for this entry some people are bound to be either thrilled or disappointed with the many revelations throughout the film. I dug everything. And that’s mostly due to Johnson’s fantastic script and tight direction.  It has humor in all the right places, the porgs are a cute, but not distracting addition in the weird creation department, and Adam Driver still stuns as the constantly conflicted evil Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is just plain fun from beginning to end. The special effects are as convincing as ever, the movie has a nice worn-in look and feel that fits with the original trilogy, and it has a constantly engaging story with characters that are easy to root for. Johnson challenges the norms here in really interesting ways. There’s simply no way to predict how this one is going to turn out even if you’ve spent the last two years wasting time theorizing. Going with one of the film’s main themes, I’m certainly looking forward to the next installment.  GRADE: A


Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Room with a View: “The Disaster Artist” is a Hilarious & Heartfelt Ode to Terrible Filmmaking

It takes a special kind of non-talent to create something as atrocious as the film “The Room.” It’s a film so flat out terrible that it seems to exist on its own plane of being. But how could a film about something so bad be so surprisingly good? Because the passion behind the love of the hatred of “The Room” propels the fantastic docudrama “The Disaster Artist” into legendary status as one of the great films about Hollywood and the film industry. Put it simply, “The Disaster Artist” is the “Ed Wood” for a new generation. It’s both a tribute and satire of such a horribly misguided piece of “art” that it seems to transcend time and space. Director James Franco has collected an impressive Robert Altman level cast to recreate the making of one of the most notorious films in Hollywood history. It’s brilliant, funny, scathing, and has an unexpected amount of depth and heart. It will leave you feeling as much as it will leave you laughing.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on the mysterious, aspiring filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his attempt to make his own Hollywood movie after being rejected by what seems like everyone in town. He's obviously a foreigner, with a thick Eastern European accent, (though he insists he's from New Orleans) and seems to be obsessed with no one finding out anything about him. He’s played by James Franco in a show-stopping, transformative performance that is half great impersonation and half in-depth character study. Tommy moves to LA with his aspiring actor buddy Greg (Dave Franco). Tommy is such a weirdo you’d never believe he was a real person. After several attempts to get into the film business Tommy writes his own movie script and Greg reluctantly agrees to co-star, despite the fact that his script for “The Room” is utterly atrocious. Tommy finances the entire thing from his own seemingly endless pockets and so sets off an adventure of Hollywood filmmaking that is the stuff of legends.

So let’s discuss. Why exactly is “The Room” such a terrible movie and why are people obsessed with it? The film has terrible dialogue, wooden acting, characters and storylines that come and go from the film for no reason, and such horrible production values you’d think a blind person directed it. It’s one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. Even the most talented filmmakers could never make a film this inept. The ineptitude really attracts people to “The Room.” People are fascinated by it; drawn to it. Like it holds some kind of cinematic power over them. The movie is more than just “so bad it’s good;” it’s so bad it’s legendary. Enter a group of filmmakers so obsessed with this piece of garbage, they had to make a movie about it.

As someone who loves films about filmmaking, “The Disaster Artist” hits all the right buttons. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also wrote the brilliant “(500) Days of Summer”) the film is a both a tribute and tease of “The Room” but more importantly it’s about a friendship and how easily that can be tested. The Franco brothers obviously have great chemistry together and easily slip into their roles. Alison Brie shows up as Greg’s eventual girlfriend which begins to drive a wedge between these two guys which actually has significant bearings on the “plot” of “The Room.” 

The film is also a character study of a mysterious eccentric who is unlike any other movie character you’ve ever seen. At times he’s lovable and at times he’s an asshole and Franco plays him with seemingly no effort. But there’s a degree of difficulty here and he pulls it off flawlessly. Wiseau, the character, isn't a complete moron. He just isn't very talented.  The other actors who show up to be part of “The Room” include everyone from “The Hunger Games’” alum Josh Hutcherson, to multiple Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver who all give great dual performances as struggling actors turning in horrendous performances. Franco’s friend Seth Rogen plays a member of the crew and other Hollywood icons Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith show up in bit roles.

The story of “The Disaster Artist,” oddly enough, is not unlike another so-bad-it’s-good cult classic, “Showgirls.” Both films are about eccentric people with mysterious pasts who struggle with achieving fame. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence. You really get the sense of love that is coming through the screen in “The Disaster Artist.” It’s fascinating to watch. Your level of enjoyment might be based on how well you know “The Room” but I don’t think it’s a necessity. Like “Ed Wood,” it’s more than just the making of a cult film; it’s about life, friendship, the creative process, and how none of that apparently made it into “The Room.” This movie is so good, it’s great.  GRADE: A 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Guitar Hero: You’ll Go Cuckoo for Pixar’s “Coco”

It’s rather ironic that with all this horrible controversy about a border wall between the US and Mexico over the past year, we now get a beautifully animated film that’s so rich and respectful of Mexican culture and tradition. Oh Pixar you did it again. It practically erases the critical slump you’ve had with a trifecta of “meh” releases including “The Good Dinosaur” (which I enjoyed for what it was), a fine, but unmemorable sequel “Finding Dory,” and the nearly unwatchable “Cars 3” (a film so misguided I couldn’t even bear to write even a scathing review of it). “Coco” is Pixar’s return to form and features everything you really love about a great Pixar movie: memorable characters, moments that make you cry, jaw dropping animation, and a clever and original story. In fact, “Coco” is so perfect that the only bad thing about it is that you’re forced to watch a subpar 22 minute “Frozen” short that prepares you for the feature film by forcing you to go through the five stages of grief.

“Coco” tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who loves music and aspires to be a famous guitar player like his deceased hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But his family forbids any form of music since Miguel’s great-great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband. Her family now makes a living as shoemakers and music is strictly prohibited. But Miguel, like so many Disney heroes and heroines before him is a rebel and has secretly taught himself to play guitar and still longs to be a musician. He then goes on the adventure of a lifetime when he’s accidently transported to the Land of the Dead during the annual Día de los Muertos and learns a lot more about his heritage.

This “Day of the Dead” celebration is where deceased family members are honored and remembered. Well this is a Pixar film so they’ve taken a real life tradition and turned it on its head in a really fun way. Dead relatives can “visit” the world of the living if their family members have displayed their photo in an ofrendo (an alter that honors a deceased relative during the celebration). They visit by going through a customs-like border area between the afterlife and real life. While in the Land of the Dead Miguel attempts to find his deceased hero and teams up with Héctor (Gael García Berna) a down-on-his-luck musician who is trying to crossover to the Land of the Living. Might I add that all the folks over in the Land of the Dead are skeletons that are gorgeous rendered? The world that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and their team have created is, in a word, astonishing.

And of course it’s not quite a Pixar masterpiece if you aren’t about to bawl your eyes out by the end. Music is the soul of the film and here the emotional song “Remember Me” (from the “Frozen” songwriting team) plays a crucial role. You’re probably wondering why the film is called “Coco” if the main character is a little boy named Miguel. Coco is Miguel’s extremely elderly great-grandmother and by the time the film enters its final act you are completely and emotionally sucked into this fantastic story. If you’re not fighting back tears by the end then you aren’t human. The film is about family, tradition, and the power of music and it’s another brilliant and funny piece of entertaining art from arguably the greatest animation studio ever. In other words, to miss “Coco” would be a crime against humanity. GRADE: A

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Female Trouble: “Lady Bird” is a Funny & Moving Piece of Teenage Americana

“Lady Bird” is, in fact, not a spinoff of last year’s first lady character study “Jackie.” When buzz for the film began whirling around the internet I mostly ignored it because what I assumed was a biopic of ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson didn’t appeal to me at all. This is not that film. The film is about typical suburban teenage life and strife, ie, I hate my life, I hate my town, I wanna get out of this place. Sound familiar? The film is headlined by a fantastic performance from two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (whose name I still can’t spell without looking at her imdb page). “Lady Bird” certainly isn’t the first film to tackle the ins-and-outs of being seventeen but director Greta Gerwig’s portrait of teen life feels so authentic I’d be damned if it wasn’t a true life tale. The story focuses on one year in the life of a 12th grader named Lady Bird and her sometimes contentious relationship with her mother. From the moment Lady Bird first throws herself out of her mom’s moving vehicle you’re with her and the film 100%. It’s not based on a true story but in a way it’s based on all of our stories; it’s immediate and immediately engaging.

There’s nothing particularly flashy or eye-catching about the filmmaking in “Lady Bird.” Writer/director Greta Gerwig, known for her charismatic performances in smaller, indie films (everyone should see “Frances Ha”), makes an auspicious debut behind the camera. And that’s probably because the Lady Bird character is probably ingrained in Gerwig’s soul and you can feel it. While this is far from the first film to portray realistic teenagers and family dynamics (we got a great one last year even “The Edge of Seventeen”), Gerwig just gets everything so right here. The filmmaker certainly knows where the main character is coming from, Gerwig attended Catholic high school in Sacramento and went to college in New York. For all intends and purposes the director IS Lady Bird. And even if you don’t relate to her specifically, someone you know will definitely remind you of her.

Lady Bird is played by Saoirse Ronan who is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most talented young performers. The character is one of those rebellious, somewhat pretentious teen movie characters that is somehow immediately relatable. It’s a role actors would kill for. She doesn’t always do the most likable things (or the smartest things for that matter) but she feels genuine. She hangs out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), has the hots for the cute guy in the school play (another outstanding Oscar-nominated young actor Lucas Hedges from last year’s “Manchester by the Sea”),, and has the occasional quarrel with her mother Marion (underrated character actress Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird hates Sacramento and wants to attend college in New York but her mother insists they can’t afford it. She gets sarcastic commentary from her adopted older brother who can’t seem to escape his supermarket clerk career. Only her dad (played by playwright Tracy Letts) seems to get her. Oh and Lady Bird and Julie occasionally eat the church wafers as snacks between classes and I have the strangest feeling that Gerwig probably did that at least once.

The female-centered film is a fascinating slice of high school life that takes place in 2002 and successfully reflects some of my own experiences growing up in the early aughts. Those expecting some kind of shocking revelation or big plot twist will be sorely disappointed. The film and its screenplay function to bring well-drawn characters to life in a naturalistic way, not to wow you with expert cinematic trickery. The movie is way more interested in making you laugh or feel something. The film has a wickedly delightful sense of humor. It’s has some keen life observations to make, some really fun vignette-like moments, a great sense of identity, and an emotional core that is sure to resonate with any adult who has ever been a teenager. So, essentially, everyone.  GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Signs: The Thrilling “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a Jet Black Dark Comedy

You never know quite what to expect in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It's a movie as eccentric as its title suggests but it's also an expertly written and acted searing drama about loss, vengeance, and a microcosm of the current state of affairs in this country. Oh and it's also wickedly funny. Sort of in the vein of “Fargo,” writer/director Martin McDonagh takes the tragic story of a mother's loss and turns it on its head in a way you rarely encounter in mainstream movies. Frances McDormand leads a fantastic cast as a woman hell bent on starting a war of words with the local cops who have yet to find her daughter's killer. In lesser hands it sounds like a movie-of-the-week tearjerker, but here it's a fiery indignation about the role of authority, the nature of violent crime, and the questionable morals of its central characters. Did I mention it was really funny? Oh right I did. This is a one of a kind movie-going experience and a fresh alternative to all that Marvel vs DC crap that's been going around.

“Three Billboards” revolves around a terrible, violent crime. The rape and murder of a teenage girl. But it takes place nearly a year after this horrific events (which we never see). Instead, the film doesn't focus on the victim but rather the questionable behavior of her grieving, pissed off mother Mildred (McDormand) who challenges the cops to solve her daughter's murder by purchasing three billboards just outside of town displaying a controversial message to the town's sheriff. The town is practically turned upside down as Mildred practically begins a war between her and the town's police force. There's the sympathetic Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who happens to be dying of cancer. And then there's bad-tempered Officer Jason Dixon (a perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) who trades nasty barbs with Mildred and anyone else who stands in his way. The billboards are a catalyst for what sets off violent confrontations. But it's also funny I swear.

The film comes from the mind of Martin McDonagh who showed off his flair for mixing crime, comedy, and drama in his critical hit “In Bruges.” He slowly peels away the layer in this story of horrible violence in small town America. He paints broader strokes that deal with racism, homophobia and the clash between cops and civilians that have made headlines around the country. But there's also quick wit here with his fascinating characters who are always making questionable decisions whether it's the “heroes” and “villains.” It's a fine line of course. All of this is wrapped up in a mystery that is really second fiddle to the tension unfolding among the characters.

The acting here is top notch. McDormand was born to play the role which feels like a fun echo of her good-natured Fargo character Marge Gunderson. Rockwell playing a difficult character to like is fascinating here. Harrelson plays off his southern charm in a way that completely fits. He's really the soul of the film (along with Carter Burwell's uneasy score). Caleb Landry Jones, who played such a creepy, nasty character earlier this year in “Get Out” is in opposite form here but no less charming. And there are minor but solid turns from Oscar nominees Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes. Oh and Peter Dinklage is there as well.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a fantastically original film. It has an amazing sense of time and place. There's nothing too flashy about it, but it features one of the most electric scripts of the year. It's witty and unpredictable and will stay with you long after it's over.  GRADE: A 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A League of their Own: DC’s Big Screen Team-Up “Justice League” is Fine but Underwhelming

Full disclosure: If I’m being honest, I could take or leave the first big Marvel team-up “The Avengers;” I enjoyed it at the time, but has since receded from my memory. I can’t recall a single plot element or joke that made me laugh. I’d rather watch any of the other Marvel films. I’d rather watch “Wonder Woman.” I’m dumbfounded that people rank it so high in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Released several months after the outstanding aforementioned “Wonder Woman” and practically days after the surprisingly fun retro-chic “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” easily feels disappointing in comparison but is nowhere near the trainwreck some have described. Have they never seen “Batman & Robin?” The thing that hurts “Justice League” the most is that “average” comic book films feel so slight and underwhelming when there are so many great ones already in existence. Having said that, there’s no reason someone can’t have an enjoyable experience with “Justice League” though it does feel much more like a product than the Marvel films do. The movie doesn’t feel depressing, overly long, or as self-serious as the previous DC outings and while some of the humor feels forced I’ll take what I can get when it comes to an already overcrowded marketplace full of caped crusaders.

One has to admire the courage it took to kill off Superman in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Of course, no one will be surprised if the Man of Steel returns somehow. Superman has always been the weak link in this universe mostly because the filmmakers could never quite figure out how to make such a dated character feel relevant, even in such a shit-show of a world we currently live in. We already know Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is great and she’s great here as well, teaming up with grizzly Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) who wasn’t as terrible as most strangely hoped last time around. Then there are the newbies who we got flash of (pun intended) in “BvS.” There’s Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, injecting some fun but slightly awkward humor into the proceedings, Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa, perfectly cast as a beastly Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and probably the least interesting being Ray Fisher’s Cyborg/Victor Stone.

And now the real disappointment and I’m not alone here. Does anyone care much about “Justice League’s” generic CGI villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds)? I’d much prefer to see a human performance. Of course, why would we need five of the world’s most super humans to defeat someone like, say, The Joker? You need a big, bad villain whose goal is total destruction of the human race and/or planet. I get it, it’s just not all that interesting.

It must be said that director Zack Synder still sort of feels like the thing that makes these films so uneventful. He has made some very good movies, most notably “Dawn of the Dead” and “Watchman,” so he’s not incapable. But “Wonder Woman” gave us a fresh perspective and a new eye. We need some new voices in the DC world. “Justice League” has suffered from rewrites and such and even “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon was brought in to fix things up. Even the God himself couldn’t make this a perfect work of art. Bottom line: the film is fine, it’s entertaining, and it has finally reunited Danny Elfman and Batman. You could do a lot worse.  GRADE: B

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The ‘Rok: The Thunderous “Thor: Ragnarok” is Retro Fun with a Capital R

Let’s be honest, the Thor films have sort of been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So obviously they took a cue from the wild success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and injected a wonderful sense of fun, humor, and retro-coolness into the surprisingly enjoyable third Thor outing. Gone is the fish-out-of-water story that was the basis for the first “Thor” film and so is the convoluted “Portal”-like plot device of “Thor: The Dark World” and we finally get a wild comedic action-adventure that is completely amusing and funny from beginning to end. Hot off the silly horror-comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” director Taika Waititi goes full retro-vibe in “Thor: Ragnarok” which is a welcome change of pace for a series that always took itself a little too seriously; even 17 movies (!) deep into the MCU, the film is fresh, funny, looks cool, and the always charming Chris Hemsworth again proves his comedic ability is impeccable.

The last time we saw Thor (Hemsworth) at the conclusion of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” he was leaving Earth in search of Infinity Stones. At the beginning of “Thor: Ragnarok” he’s been captured by a gigantic, fiery demon creature. In a perfectly wonderful opening, Thor escapes his clutches while spouting snappy dialogue provided by screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost and learns of a prophecy of destruction known as Ragnarok. He returns to his home of Asgard to find a Shakespearean play version of his life unfolding live in front a captivated audience that consists of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Of course it’s really his evil adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. With the help of another Avenger Thor and Loki locate their dying father who tells them about their even more evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) who will basically take over Asgard once Odin passes. She does lookin’ like a wicked, futuristic Victoria’s Secret model stag complete with pointy antlers and everything. She destroys Thor’s hammer and he’s whisked away to a colorful foreign planet where he’s imprisoned and forced into a deadly gladiatorial death match with… you know who. Oh and there's Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblumy.

Oh boy, does anyone really care about the plots of this films? After sixteen of them we just want to see fun action and “Thor: Ragnarok” certainly delivers. The film is a visual treat thanks to Waititi’s flamboyant direction and the humor has thankfully been dialed up. There are some truly inspired bits here that are too good to spoil. Blanchett always makes a fantastic villain, but of course we knew that already. The film’s synth-heavy score by Mark Mothersbaugh completely works with the film’s colorful imagery as do some of the interesting song choices. It’s like an 80s cartoon come gloriously to campy life.

At this point are reviews even matter when it comes to the MCU? You know what you're getting into when you see one of these things. Marvel and Disney have proven that these movies are of high quality. Sure they don't always take many risks but they are unabashedly fun. Some are better than others. “Thor: Ragnarok” is definitely in the top tier. Even 17 movies in the film proves that the MCU still has plenty of fun tricks up its sleeves. Here's to 17 more!  GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Puppet Master: “Jigsaw” is Back Whether We Like It or Not

“Jigsaw” is the return of the peculiarly popular moralistic gore-fest “Saw” series which sort of got old before the first movie ended. The first film, released back in 2004, was a surprise hit. The film looked great from it's clever marketing campaign but director James Wan, who would later go on to better successes like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” had crafted a disappointing film from an ingenious premise. And then it went on for six more films with the advertising practically threatening the public with Saw film after Saw film every Halloween for seven years straight. All these years later, we now get “Jigsaw” a reboot of sorts that's overall not a very good movie, but is way better than it has any right to be. Like it's predecessors it still features bland characters we don't care much about, brutal and somewhat suspenseful death scenes, and a surprisingly delicious if preposterous twist that somewhat makes the entire thing watchable.

The “Saw” films were like the fast food of horror, constantly being churned out, terrible for you but people ate it up anyway. This new entry follows in the series' footsteps by providing a new batch of “victims” who are being tested by an unknown perpetrator. The film begins with five strangers locked in a room with chains around their necks. They're dragged towards a wall full of spinning buzzsaws and must give blood as a sacrifice. The game is only the beginning for these unfortunate folks. As these folks get picked off one by one by more and more gruesome traps a pair of detectives on the outside are trying to solve the mystery of where these bodies are coming from. It seems to be the work of the “Jigsaw killer” John Cramer who died a decade prior.

There's a lot of “plot” here that feels out of place in a movie that people see just to see annoying characters get hacked up. It's mostly confusing for a while when the detectives begin suspecting the forensic pathologists they asked to work on the case to begin with. It's all very eyeball inducing… until the final twist is revealed and then I sat up and was like “oh that's better.” The more you think about it the more ridiculous it really is but can you blame writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. They aren't exactly adapting Shakespeare here. They're also the guys who wrote the remakes “Piranha” and “Sorority Row.” So basically, don't think too hard and you might find yourself having a decent time.

If you were never a fan of the Saw films you may not be converted with “Jigsaw.” I'm somewhere in-between. The films were never all that “scary” but they did offer some pretty imaginative death scenes. They were basically the “Friday the 13th” film of the aughts: bad movies with great gore. New to the franchise are directors Peter and Michael Spierig. They follow the formula and make things interesting just enough to give the film the extra oomph to make it slightly better than anything that came before. “Jigsaw” is just good enough to recommend for those intrigued but others are wise to steer clear.  GRADE: B-

Monday, October 23, 2017

In the Loop: “Happy Death Day” is a Perfectly Winking, Goofy Twist on the Slasher Flick

Let’s hear it for Blumhouse huh? The production company really know what they’re doing when it comes to horror. Hot off the heels of “Get Out” from earlier this year is “Happy Death Day” which is basically “Mean Girls” meets “Scream” filtered through “Groundhog Day.” First of all it’s not exactly a rip off of “Groundhog Day” since a character even mentions the film at one point. The film uses that repeating day premise to basically tell a “Christmas Carol” type story about an unlikable person who becomes likable over the course of a ridiculous, fantastical situation. Except this time it isn’t a miserly old man, it’s a bitchy sorority girl who learns a lesson after repeating the last day of her life over and over again. “Happy Death Day” is a fantastic ode to the slasher subgenre with plenty of winking nods, a delightful cast, and a premise that never takes itself too seriously. It knows exactly what kind of film it is and just has fun. The film isn't the scariest horror flick to be sure, but it makes up for it with pure wit and charm.

Breakout star Jessica Rothe stars as sorority girl Tree Gelbman and she’s quickly obnoxious. She wakes up, disgusted that she’s in a dorm room and unable to remember the night before. She meets Carter (Israel Broussard) who took her home with him and she storms out of the room and back to the sorority house to start her day. It turns out it’s Tree’s birthday and she doesn’t seem very excited about it. Her dad keeps calling and she won’t answer the phone. We learn she’s sleeping with one of her married professors and is a generally unpleasant person. Then she gets murdered. Oh but then she immediately wakes up back in Carter’s dorm room and it’s the same day she just experienced. She got stuck in one of those pesky time loops you see in movies like “Groundhog Day” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” “Groundhog Day” tackled the comedic elements of that story and “Tomorrow” tackled the sci-fi action element. “Happy Death Day” applies it to the horror genre. And rather well I might ad.

Director Christopher Landon who wrote a bunch of the “Paranormal Activity” films and “Disturbia” really gets to the meat of the matter by giving us one of horror’s most interesting character arcs in quite some time. Horror films are usually too occupied with blood and guts to care much about the characters but here Tree is a full-fledged human being. She’s despicable at all the right parts but as she begins to live the same day over and over you get a sense of what’s been making her such a miserable person. And Rothe really brings her to life. By the film's end I wanted to hang out with her. Landon takes Scott Lobell’s witty script and just runs with it. Making some parts appropriately suspenseful and creepy (the baby mascot mask is equally eerie and silly) and making things funny at just the right moments. The film functions as a horror film should with plenty of things to make you jump balanced with plenty of tension-busting laughs. But it's not really all that frightening. But that's ok. There are enough bitchy catfights to make up for the lack of true scares.

It’s amazing how quickly you buy into the ridiculous premise in “Happy Death Day” (that’s thankfully never explained) and you find yourself rooting for something you started out hating. But that’s the point of course. Tree learns to be a better person by experiencing her own death over and over and over again. And for a film in which we’re forced to watch the same day over and over it’s surprisingly fresh and interesting each time and offers plenty of fun surprises along the way. This is highly recommended for genre fans who are willing to sit through something a little quirky, and purposely over-the-top in a fun, borderline campy way.  GRADE: A- 

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Battle of the Nexus: “Blade Runner 2049” is an Over-Stuffed, Slowly Paced Visual Treat

“Blade Runner” is one of those cult films that has just many ardent fans as it has detractors. “Blade Runner 2049” is much like its predecessor in that way. Many will absolutely love it, while many will be scratching their heads and trying to awaken their asleep rear ends. Like the first film, this new trip to the Blade Runner world is sort of a slog to sit through and while its visuals are nice and a handful of scenes are pretty spectacular, it doesn't quite add up to a completely rewarding and fulfilling cinematic experience. In other words, if you think “Blade Runner” is ‘kinda boring’ then just wait until you see the beautiful but lethargically paced “Blade Runner 2049.”

Ok ok, just calling a film long and boring doesn’t add up to much. And it’s impossible to call this movie terrible; it’s far from it. I love the world of this film. I love how the technology that was introduced in the first film has evolved here. (Let’s be honest, the 1982 film hasn’t aged very well) There is ingenious stuff to be found here for sure. I love the film’s take on Alexa-like AI technology. K (Ryan Gosling) has a holographic AI “girlfriend” named Joi (Ana de Armas, giving what is probably the trickiest performance in the film and she nails it). It’s his only real companion. This is a depressing, dystopian future highly reliant on technology of course. I love the grounded reality Gosling and D Armas bring to these scenes. Wonderful. Also great is a stunning performance from Sylvia Hoeks and her bangs, who bring terrifying robotic depth to a fantastic android villain.

Roger Deakins. The go-to brilliant cinematographer. Arguably the best living DP working today. It’s not surprisingly a visually arresting picture. What he can accomplish with light and color is breathtaking. Is this the best looking film he’s ever worked on? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly worthy of praise. I say it’s between him and Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) for Best Cinematography this year. The same goes for the music; Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s loud score is fine with faint reflections of Vangelis’ original brilliance. But great visuals and music can only get you so far in a film that’s pushing three hours.

The story is what’s hard to become emotionally involved in. In such a bleak future I find it hard to find anyone to really care about. Hampton Fancher (who wrote the original) and Michael Green’s script has a lot to say about technology and where it’s going. But it takes too long to say it. Is it even possible to describe the plot of “Blade Runner 2049?” I don’t believe in spoiling anything so all I’ll say is that Gosling is a young Blade Runner (one who tracks down and kills Replicants) who’s discovery will lead him to seek out Deckard (Harrison Ford’s character). There’s a mystery element to the film that follows closely to the “noir” style of the original which works here.

Denis Villeneuve is a fascinating filmmaker ("Arrival" and "Prisoners" are damn near perfect) and is graceful when it comes to paying homage to the original film while pushing things forward in a new and interesting way. In a lot of ways he was born to make a Blade Runner film. Looking at the slower paced, deliberate style of his previous efforts, it all makes sense. Every shot is composed so well; I find no fault in the direction, it’s the story that just doesn’t click with me. The performances work, Gosling fits in perfectly playing up his dark, brooding charm that he does best. The Blade Runner world works, and the evolution of this world all makes sense. The films complement each other greatly, but I found the first movie’s pacing is shockingly slow. And that similar pacing and longer running time makes this a challenging film to really love.

Fans of “Blade Runner” are sure to love this new vision. It furthers the story in a way that makes sense, but I can’t really say it offers much to those who never got the appeal of the first film. Movies based on Philip K. Dick stories are always something original to be sure. I always admire the technical aspects of both films. The set design, the costumes, the visual effects are all top notch. The actors are outstanding. The world of both films is unique. The fact that it favors contemplative scenes over action scenes is fine. I’m sure it’ll be remembered as a classic of the genre years from now like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Don’t really like that one either. GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Volley Girl: “Battle of the Sexes” Serves Up Some Fun 70s Nostalgia

“Battle of the Sexes” continues the 70s nostalgia streak that Hollywood has fixated on in recent years. There’s been funny stuff like “American Hustle” and “The Nice Guys” and thrillers like “Argo.” “Battle of the Sexes” is fixated on the famous “battle of the sexes” match between feminist Billie Jean King and chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The film is about so much more than just a tennis match. Its themes and social issues are just as relevant today as they were back then and the film presents us with a fascinating character study of two very different people who were united by their love of one sport. “Battle of the Sexes” is a glorious and authentic recreation of 1970s Americana and features dedicated performances from an outstanding cast.

“Battle of the Sexes” is really three stories in one. So for my money it’s totally worth the price of admission. One story is about a woman, married to a man, who falls in love with another woman and begins to act on her repressed feelings towards the same sex. Another story is about the woman’s liberation movement of the 1970s and the equal rights half the population felt rightfully entitled to. And lastly the film is about a self-proclaimed male chauvinist and compulsive gambler. Maybe huge tennis fans will be disappointed? I mean this isn’t your typical feel-good sports movie. Though there’s a bit of that of course. The film’s script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy juggles the storylines impressively.

The film focuses mostly on tennis star Billie Jean King—played by reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone—after becoming the woman’s tennis champion. It draws national attention and when she finds out she-and her fellow female players-won’t be getting as much money as male players, break off into their own division. It attracts the attention of aging tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell doing a sort of a creepy real life Austin Powers thing). The guy is a compulsive gambler and his wife (Elisabeth Shue, geez where’s this lady been?) has had enough. He figures his own way of redemption is with a special exhibition match between him and the world’s best female player. What better way to draw attention than male chauvinist pig vs. woman’s lib feminist?

Ms. King is dealing with her own conflict as she starts to have feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The only thing is that Billie Jean is married to Larry (Andrew Stowell) who  has pretty much functioned as a beard for the world renowned  tennis star. A large chunk of the film focuses on Billie Jean and Marilyn’s relationship with both Stone and Riseborough having tremendous chemistry. Stone goes beyond just impersonation and gives a magician, touching performance. It’s easily her most mature performance to date. Everyone gets a moment or two to shine including a great supporting turn from funny lady Sarah Silverman as plucky manager Gladys Heldman.

“Battle of the Sexes” is assuredly directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who rose to fame as the helmers of 2006’s breakout hit “Little Miss Sunshine.” They balance humor and drama magnificently. Emma’s story is very serious and Steve’s is more comical. The shift in tones works for the film and is dripping with 70s style, from the costumes and hair to every pan and zoom. The film has the prestige of a “based on true events” docudrama while making important points about where we are in society today. And it’s not afraid to present to us the type of characters who aren’t normally featured in mainstream films. There’s a palatable honesty there that really works. And I dug it.  GRADE: A-