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Annette Bening’s Gloria Grahame Owns FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

Now playing at an indie art house theater near me (and you probably):

FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

(Dir. Paul McGuigan, 2017)


“Always played the tart – big name in black and white films, not doing so well in color though, obviously,” says a Cockney landlady about her new tenant, actress Gloria Grahame, early on in this adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir about his relationship with the fading silver screen star.

She’s right, Grahame flourished during the golden age of cinema in such movies as IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE BIG HEAT, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, and even won an Oscar for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, but the pictures got bigger and she got smaller.

That’s a spin on what the washed-up former silent movie queen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), famously said in the Billy Wilder classic SUNSET BOULEVARD, and it shows an acute self awareness that Grahame, portrayed beautifully by Annette Bening, references that movie upon first hitting it off with Turner (Jamie Bell).

Turner, an actor 30 years younger than Grahame, falls hard for her maybe around the time that they disco dance together to Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

FILM STARS begins in 1981 with Turner tending to an ill bed-ridden Grahame, but swiftly flashes back to 1979 and plays on touching upon Grahame’s well received performance in “Rain” at the Watford Palace Theatre, trips the couple take to Los Angeles and New York, and various high and low points in their May-December romance.

Bening is usually right on the money in her many stellar performances, and she is again here, once you get past her character’s Marilyn Monroe-ish preciousness which comes on a bit cutesy at first but ends up feeling absolutely authentic.

Bell, best known for his child star turn in Stephen Daldry’s BILLY ELLIOT (2000), doesn’t have the most believable chemistry with Bening, but still is effective in conveying Turner’s initial smittenness, and later frustration when the relationship starts falling apart.

McGuigan, a Scotsman filmmaker (LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN, PUSH, and episodes of Scandal, Sherlock, and Smash), does his best with Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay, but the story is fairly spare and many story beats can be felt well before they hit. It’s really a film that you see for the strong performance of Bening, its tender mood, and its overall sentiment than for its narrative. And the sentiment is captured gorgeously by Elvis Costello“You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way” which he wrote for the film, and which plays over the ending credits.

The supporting cast adds considerably to the slim storyline. Particularly Bell’s BILLY ELLIOT co-star Julie Walters, and Kenneth Cranham (VALKRIE), who play Turner’s well-meaning parents, and Vanessa Redgrave, who puts in a wickedly sharp cameo as Grahame’s mother, Jeanne McDougall.


But, of course, it’s Bening who owns FILM STARS with the way she embodies Grahame’s glamour and relishes her romantic visions of old Hollywood. When Grahame tells Turner a bit of advice that Humphrey Bogart once gave her, “Keep it in the shadows, Gloria. Let the camera come to you,” one can get in that moment that Bening herself has lived that line throughout her career.

More later…

The Big, Bad Ass BLACK PANTHER Is A Beaut

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

BLACK PANTHER (Dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)

Let me get this straight – after 17 films dominated by white folks, particularly white men, we finally get a Marvel movie headed by a black superhero, with a nearly all black cast, written, directed, and shot by black artists, and released during black history month?

Well, it may have taken them until they got halfway through Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which launched with IRON MAN back in 2008, but here it is, the big, bad ass BLACK PANTHER, and it’s a beaut.

Chadwick Boseman, who’s previously played iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson, iconic soul singer James Brown, and iconic Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, takes on the iconic role of the first black superhero of mainstream American comics, whose real name is T’Challa, known to the world as the ruler of the isolationist African country Wakanda.


When he’s not attending to his country’s policies, T’Challa becomes the Black Panther, outfitted in a sleek skin-tight suit made out of Vibranium (a fictional metal that’s featured in several Marvel movies), and a fearsome feline mask, so he can more effectively fight the forces of evil.


Embedded in Wakanda is a secret technologically advanced civilization which T’Challa becomes the king of after fighting off the challenge for the throne by rival tribe leader M’Baku (Winton Duke).

T’Challa’s supporting crew includes his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his wise-cracking sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his best friend W’Kabi (GET OUT’s Daniel Kaluuya), his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), and his bodyguards Ayo (Florence Kasumba), and Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira).

Threat to the order of Wakanda comes in the form of Michael B. Jordan as N’Jadaka/ Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, who seeks revenge for the murder of his father N’Jobu (This is Us’s Sterling K. Brown).

This second challenge for the thrown is where the franchise formula becomes the most transparent in BLACK PANTHER as we know that T’Challa will lose this fight, because that’s the arc of just about every superhero movie. First act, our protagonist is triumphant, in the second they are either stripped of their powers or seemingly killed, and in the third they return to reclaim their glory.

These acts, or challenges, are filled out by zippy setpieces including a nighttime car chase through the streets of Seoul, South Korea; and an air combat sequence involving one of the film’s token white characters, CIA Operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) piloting a remote jet.

The rest of the kinetically colorful adventure concerns a lot of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat captured in eye-poppingly sweeping shots by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shot Coogler’s 2013 debut FRUITVALE STATION, and was recently nominated for an Oscar for her work on Dee Rees MUDBOUND. There’s also the eye candy of Ruth E. Carter’s elaborate costuming, and Hannah Beachler’s shiny production design.

Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, the production soars on just about every level. Boseman brings gravitas, and a sense of personal power to his performance, and is well matched to Jordan’s scenery chewing villain. Jordan is also again a good match with writer/director Coogler, having worked with him on both of his superb previous films, FRUITVALE STATION, and CREED.

Of the other cast members, it’s the women who often steal the show, whether it’s Wright with her well-timed one-liners, Gurira with her unblinking icy delivery which will make you forget Michonne, or Nyong’o, whose Wakandan warrior spy character is refreshingly more than just the requisite love interest for our hero.

The enormously positive buzz for BLACK PANTHER has some critics calling it the best Marvel movie ever, but I wouldn’t go that far (not sure which one I’d pick though – I’ll get back to you on that). I’m just going to consider it another vastly entertaining winner for the brand, which, I’ve got to admit, has been impressively consistent in quality for an 18 and counting film franchise.

Of course, along with all the expected Marvel marks being hit – call backs to previous movies, comic cameos by Stan Lee, etc. – there are mid and post credits scenes, so be sure to stay until the very end.


More later…

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies Of 2017 Part 2

And now Part 2 of Film Babble Blogs Top 10 Movies of 2017. Included are memorable lines, or exchanges from each film. For Part 1, featuring entries 10-6 click here.

5. THE BIG SICK (Dir. Michael Showalter)

Terry (Ray Romano): “So, uh, 9/11…No I mean, Ive always wanted to have a conversation with…about it. With…people.”

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani): “You’ve never talked to people about 9/11?”


Terry: “No what
s your, what’s your stance?”


Kumail: “What
s my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys. (awkward pause) That was a joke, obviously. 9/11 was a terrible tragedy. And its not funny to joke about it.” 

4. THE DISASTER ARTIST (Dir. James Franco)

Tommy Wiseau (James Franco): “I did not hit her. It’s not true. Its bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not. Oh, hi Mark.”

3. DUNKIRK (Dir. Christopher Nolan)


Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance): 
Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?

2. THE SHAPE OF WATER
 (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Giles (Richard Jenkins): “Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.”

1. GET OUT (Dir. Jordan Peele)

Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) confiding with his daughter’s new boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya): “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could. Best president in my lifetime. Hands down.”


Spillover with a few more quotes (Click on the titles in boldface for my reviews):

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Dir. Luca Guadagnino)


BABY DRIVER (Dir. Edgar Wright)

LUCKY (Dir. John Carroll Lynch) “There’s a difference between lonely and being
alone.”


GOOD TIME (Dirs. Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie)

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (Dir. Chris McKay) Black. All important movies start with a black screen.


STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Dir. Rian Johnson) Yoda’s review of the sacred Jedi texts: “Page turners, they are not.”


PHANTOM THREAD (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)



MOLLY’S GAME (Dir. Aaron Sorkin)

HOSTILES (Dir. Scott Cooper)
Films I havent seen yet, but didnt want to wait to do this list any longer before I caught up: COCO, BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE), MUDBOUND, THE SQUARE, FACES PLACES, and many, many more.

More later…

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Movies of 2017 Part 1

2017 was a very weird year, so it’s fitting that many of its movies were pretty damn weird too. A lot of franchise films flopped (this is despite the fact that over half of the years top 10 at the box office were sequels), a STAR WARS movie was divisive between critics who loved it, and longtime fans of the series who hated it; and there were a number of films with strangely similar titles like LOGAN, LUCKY, and LOGAN LUCKY, and WONDER, WONDER WHEEL, WONDERSTRUCK, WONDER WOMEN, and PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN. 

Then there were WTFWT (What the F*** Was That?) movies like A GHOST STORY and MOTHER! So yeah, it was one weird year.

A lot of the movies of the last year blur together in my head. I mean, I had forgotten about such dreary titles as THE CIRCLE, THE BEGUILED, and BEATRIZ AT DINNER until looking at a list of 2017 releases just now. And there were also a few films I only liked the first halves of like DOWNSIZING, and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, that are also fading in my memory.

But nows the time to concentrate on the cinema I best responded to, and I thought I’d do what I did a few years back and add what quotes stuck with me as well to the list.

So here goes Part 1 of my picks, in descending order, with their key lines or exchanges, and some links back to my reviews (click on select titles):

10. THE POST (Dir. Steven Spielberg)

Kay Graham (Meryl Streep): “You know what my husband said about the news? News is the first rough draft of history.


9. LAST FLAG FLYING (Dir. Richard Linklater)

Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston): Every generation has their war. Men make the wars, and wars make the men. It never ends!

Reverend Richard Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne): Maybe one day well try something different.

8. DARKEST HOUR (Dir. Joe Wright)

Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman): “Please tell the Privy Seal that Im sealed in the privy and I can only deal with one shit at a time.”


7. LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf): I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.

Christine Lady Bird McPherson 
(Saoirse Ronan): “What if this is the best version?

6. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (Dir. Sean Baker)



Moonee (Brooklynn Prince): I can always tell when adults are about to cry.


So thats 10-6 of my favorite films. See 5-1 at Part 2.


More later…

PHANTOM THREAD Couldn’t Be More Prestige-y

Now playing somewhere near you:

PHANTOM THREAD

(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
You can’t get more of a high-faluting prestige picture than Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth film, PHANTOM THREAD. Sure, THE POST comes close as it had a roster of Oscar winners both in front and behind the camera, but PHANTOM THREAD boasts what’s billed as “the final performance of Daniel Day-Lewis.”

Earlier this week, Day-Lewis earned his sixth Academy Award nomination (he’s won three times) for Best Lead Actor, while the film got nods for Anderson for Best Director (his second for direction; he’s also been nominated for Screenplay four times, but hasn’t won for either category), Lesley Manville for Best Supporting Actress for, Jonny Greenwood for Score, Mark Bridges for Costume Design, and, the big one, Best Picture.


By contrast THE POST only got two noms, but, despite one being Best Picture, and the other being Meryl Streep for Best Lead Actress, they seem pretty obligatory.

But enough about how much this movie out-prestiges that movie, let’s get to what it’s about. PHANTOM THREAD is a pristine period piece set in high society London in the ‘50s about the romance, or lack thereof, between Day-Lewis as a control freak dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock, and a much younger woman, a waitress named Alma Elson played by Vicky Krieps.

Reynolds and Alma spend their somewhat timid courtship with him taking her measurements for elaborate dresses, under the watchful eye of his sister Cyril (Manville).

Alma nervously tries to please Reynolds, but she has to walk on eggshells around his creative process. In one instance, she brings him tea when he’s working, and she gets scolded. Alma quickly leaves, as Reynold angrily admonishes, “Yes, you can take the tea out but the interruption is staying right here with me!”


So the relationship between Day-Lewis’ Reynolds and Krieps’ Alma is a prickly one – I mean, he gets mad if she butters her toast too loud at breakfast – and it goes in a disturbing direction when Alma starts to mix poisonous mushrooms into his food.

Baring thematic similarities to such subtle old timey dark thriller romances like George Cukor’s REBECCA, and Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA and MARNIE, PHANTOM THREAD is a spare, elegant and somewhat odd experience. I admired it, but didn’t feel much of an emotional connection to it. The acting by Day-Lewis is impeccable, as is Kriep’s, who should’ve been nominated as she holds her own with the acting legend lead, but this look into these sad peoples’ lives fell short of being illuminating for me.

Perhaps I haven’t fully processed it yet. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I know there are layers to his work that can take a bit to seep in like in his first collaboration with Day-Lewis, the stellar THERE WILL BE BLOOD (it took a second viewing of that to fully appreciate it), and his last film, INHERENT VICE (the same), so I’d be up for seeing it again.

One takeaway I can relay is that PHANTOM THREAD is a very white movie. And that’s not because it doesn’t have a black character in it (though that is a factor). It’s bathed in hazy white lighting, has many white dresses on display, there are walls of bricks painted white, and many big white spaces dominate the screen. Anderson, who did his own cinematography, has fashioned a beautiful looking picture immaculate frame by immaculate frame – a very white, clean, and, yes, very prestige-y picture.


As for its Oscar chances, I’m not thinking Day-Lewis is going to win a fourth Oscar here (I think it’s Gary Oldman’s year), but if he does I won’t protest because his portrayal is definitely up there with the other roles he’s won Oscars for (again, three!). 

Otherwise, I doubt this will get the big one – Best Picture, and, right now, I’m not feeling Best Director, nor Best Supporting Actress (though Manville puts in a sharp performance). The piano-driven score, by frequent Anderson collaborator, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, has a better chance, but when it comes to Best Costume Design, I’m betting Mark Bridges will be hard to beat.

More later…

THE POST: The War Against Fake News Has Been Fought Before And Won

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

THE POST (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2017)

After putting his stamp on just about every other cinematic genre out there, Steven Spielberg now tries his hand at newspaper drama with this timely story that’s ripped straight from the headlines, but, obviously, they’re headlines that are over four decades old. Simply, THE POST relays how the Washington Post defied President Nixon and all his men by publishing top secret files detailing the lies the government told and was still telling about the Vietnam war.

As the paranoid, dishonest tactics of the Nixon White House have many times been likened to the Trump Administration’s troubling methods, it may seem a bit too on the nose to get this big star-studded prestige picture from those liberals in Hollywood about how then is just like now, just in time for awards season.

And yes, this is a cautionary tale about how journalism is being threatened in our current era of “fake news,” but despite the predictable packaging, Spielberg has successfully structured an earnest, old fashioned, and highly entertaining showcase for his inspiring subject, and his superb cast.

And it really is a superb cast as Oscar-winners Tom Hanks, as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradley, and Meryl Streep as the Post’s publisher, Katherine Graham, head the strong ensemble that also includes Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk (with David Cross also on board we get a Mr. Show re-union!), Jesse Plemmons, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, and Carrie Coon.

The film begins in 1966 Vietnam, evoked by the familiar sounds of helicopter blades, and CCR blasting, as we see gritty shots of soldiers loading their guns, and applying war paint. Mulling about these men is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military advisor on a fact finding mission to monitor the war’s progress.

After we see Ellsberg witness a night ambush by the Viet Cong in the rainy jungle, he reports back to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) that things haven’t gotten any better or worse over the last year, they’ve stayed the same.

To Ellsberg’s disgust, McNamara lies to reporters telling them that “Military progress over the last 12 months has exceeded our expectations,” so Ellsberg steals a top secret 7,000 page document soon to be dubbed “The Pentagon Papers,” that strongly says otherwise about US strategy in south-east Asia, and later leaks it to the New York Times.

That brings us to 1971, where Streep’s Graham is taking the Post’s stock public just as the Times’ is publishing a portion of the Pentagon Papers, which leads to the Nixon administration suing the Times to halt further publication.

Under intense pressure, Graham frets over the legal ramifications of the Post publishing the secret files obtained from Ellsberg while Hanks’ Bradlee scrambles with his staff to distill thousands of pages into articles fit to print under strict deadlines.

THE POST can serve as a companion piece and a prequel to Alan J. Pakula’s, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, as it ends where that essential Watergate expose begins, but it stands on its own as a solid, stately tribute to the power of the free press.

Since Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg, all at the top of their game here, have already won multiple Oscars, they may cancel themselves out of the race.


So may co-screenwriter Josh Singer, who won last year for SPOTLIGHT, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, who’s already won two Oscars for Spielberg films; and composer John Williams, whose won five (count ‘em – five, and three were for Spielberg movies), so I can see this movie not winning anything (it didn’t win any of the six Golden Globes it was up for), but it won’t matter because THE POST is an Oscar-caliber film regardless.

See it so you can see that what is going on now has gone on before, and since it was overcome then, it can be fought and won against again.

More later…

MOLLY’S GAME Is Well Played By Jessica Chastain and Aaron Sorkin

Now playing:

MOLLY’S GAME (Dir. Aaron Sorkin, 2017)

Jessica Chastain is a shoo-in to get an Oscar nomination for her role as Olympic-class skier-turned-Poker-Princess, Molly Bloom, in the crackling, flashy directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, who is likely to score a nomination (or two) as well.

The real-life Bloom, whose book, “Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World,” this film is based on, was a target of an FBI investigation for running an illegal underground poker ring, which Sorkin lays out here in a movie that at times feels like a busy cluster of montages all crammed together.

That is to say that Sorkin has learned (or cribbed) a lot from David Fincher and Danny Boyle, the filmmakers he collaborated with on THE SOCIAL NETWORK and STEVE JOBS, as well as Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, or pretty much any modern director known for their fast-paced, kinetic style in telling close-to-true stories that are packed to the brim with sizzling, often sordid information.

Through sharply spoken narration, Chastain’s Bloom gives us and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (a wonderfully understated Idris Elba, who convincingly works his American accent as well as he did on The Wire) her side to how she built her secret poker empire that involved movie stars, sports stars, business titans, and, most dangerously, members of the Russian mafia.

We see how Bloom was goaded into being a hard driven perfectionist by her strict, demanding psychologist father (Kevin Costner, much more effective as a father figure here than in MAN OF STEEL), and how a skiing accident forced her to reevaluate her career goals. After a brief stint as a cocktail waitress in LA, she works an office assistant to a vulgar producer (played with just the right amount of jaded sleaziness by Jeremy Strong) who introduces her to the world of exclusive back room poker matches with extremely expensive buy-ins.

At her first game at the Cobra Lounge (read: Viper Room), Bloom meets Michael Cera as an A-list actor who’s only identified as Player X (a composite of celebrities such as Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio, among others), and becomes one of her principal players when she leaves her boss, and takes his clients to hold her own games in luxurious hotel suites staffed with former Playboy playmates.

In a dizzying array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, we watch as Bloom gets deeper and deeper into a lifestyle of debts and drugs (to help her stay awake for days), bottoming out when she’s brutally beaten up by a mob goon because she refuses the offer of protection by a couple of Italian mafiosos.

One of Sorkin’s most familiar motifs, over confident people sparing with other over confident people, is on full display here in the exchanges between Chastain and Elba, with his trademark snappy dialogue dominating every scene. Sorkin’s screenplay and direction is just as confident as his characters, and it’s a buzz seeing him put all these slick puzzle pieces together into this often exhilarating portrait. It’s also great to see Sorkin refrain from using his patented “walks and talks,” which were a mainstay of one of his most well known works – the presidential television drama, The West Wing.


The sculpting of Sorkin’s material is excellently handled by a trio of editors – Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer, who also deserve Academy action. It may feel like “cut, cut, cut” at times but, dammit, they make the majority of cuts flow into one another with exciting energy while enhancing Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s crisp cinematography from shot to shot. 

The film is sprinkled with amusing supporting turns by Brian d’Arcy James as a poker player so lousy that he’s dubbed “Bad Brad” by Bloom, Chris O’Dowd as a Irish drunkard who, like many of the players, falls in love with Bloom; a sweaty Bill Camp as a seasoned card shark, who gets in way over his head; and Graham Greene as the judge overseeing Bloom’s case.


But MOLLY’S GAME is first and foremost a showcase for the radiant Chastain and the rapidly clever Sorkin, who both well play their hands at every jazzy juncture.


Despite being two hours, and twenty minutes long the movie mostly maintains its intensity and momentum. It does get close to being bogged down with too many details, but it largely transcends its well worn rise and fall arc with its wit and stylish gusto. Some folks may walk out of it wondering what the point of all of it is, but I bet they will have been hugely entertained in the process.

More later…

Guillermo del Toro’s Take On Gill-Man In Love

Now playing at more multiplexes than art houses in my area:

THE SHAPE OF WATER

(Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

When Guillermo del Toro turned down the chance to remake (or reboot) the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for Universal’s “Dark Universe” series he definitely made the right decision.

And that’s not just because the pending franchise has gotten off to a very shaky start with last summer’s THE MUMMY flop, and is in danger of being scrapped altogether, but because there’s no way he would’ve been able to build upon the concept to make such a beautifully bizarre love story thriller as THE SHAPE OF WATER under a big studio banner.

Del Toro, co-writing with Vanessa Taylor, infringes on no copyrights here, as the amphibian man here is never referred to as “Gill-man,” but it uses the basics as obvious jumping off points for the premise of “what if the creature got the girl?”

Set in 1962 Baltimore, the film is told from the point of view of Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift at a secret government laboratory. We get a look into Elisa’s lonely world up front as we see her eat pie with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a depressed, closeted artist who loves watching old musicals on TV. Elisa and Giles live in rundown apartments above a movie palace theater, so del Toro works in his love for cinema there too.

At Elisa’s work, where she converses in sign language with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, again playing the help), she learns that a aquatic creature is being held in a huge metal water tank at the facility, and that it’s being tortured by Colonel Richard Strickland (a deliciously creepy Michael Shannon) who captured it in South America.

Elisa makes friends with the amphibian man (played by actor / contortionist Doug Jones) by feeding it hard boiled eggs, and teaching him how to sign, and a romance forms. When she finds out that they’re going to dissect him, over protest by scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), she plots to help him escape.

The escape sequence, among other elements, gave me flashbacks to Ron Howard’s 1984 rom com SPLASH, which had Tom Hanks falling for Daryl Hannah as a mermaid who he rescues from a secret lab, but that did nothing to hinder the spell this film so sweetly casts.

Back at Elisa’s apartment where the fish guy mostly stays in a bathtub filled with salt and some chemicals that Hoffstetler gave her, they consummate their relationship. While the movie contains much grotesque imagery concerning such things as Strickland’s bitten off fingers, and a cat being eaten, the love scenes are as tasteful and touching as scenes between amphibians and humans can possibly be.

You just may need to suspend disbelief considering such premises like that by putting towels under the door you can fill the bathroom of a crumbling apartment completely to the ceiling with water, but if you can do that you’re in for some visual treats courtesy of cinematographer Dan Laustsen.

Without speaking, Hawkins puts in a wonderfully communicative performance that shows fluid chemistry with Jones’ creature, and has a great moment standing up to Shannon’s evil Strickland.

She is a large part of what makes the small, dark off-kilter fantasy THE SHAPE OF WATER del Toro’s most emotionally affecting work yet.

Maybe this means that more established filmmakers should turn down franchise work to go off on their own to make movies inspired by concepts they wouldn’t be allowed to do in those big studio entries. I mean, it sure worked for del Toro.



More later…

Gary Oldman As Winston Churchill = Oscar

Now playing at a art house theater near me:

DARKEST HOUR (Dir. Joe Wright, 2017)

In the case of acclaimed performances in which a famous actor plays a famous historical figure – say, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, or Ben Kinglsey as Gandhi, Meryl Streep as anybody, etc. – it’s become a cliché to say things like that they “disappeared into the role,” or “at times I forgot who it was and thought I was watching the real person.”

But with Gary Oldman’s tour de force portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s second World War II-themed film, DARKEST HOUR (the first was ATTONEMENT), he really does completely disappear into the role, and I really did forget at times that it was him and thought I was watching Churchill.

Set in 1940 at the height of WWII, when Britain was on the verge of being invaded by Nazis, the film depicts Churchill’s intense first month as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James best known for Downton Abbey and BABY DRIVER), as she begins to work for him shortly into the film.

Churchill assumes his role by meeting with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, not stammering as much as Colin Firth did in the same part in THE KING’S SPEECH), assembling his War Cabinet which includes his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and making a big speech to Parliament in which he famously declared that they should “wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

Churchill’s refusal to talk peace with Hitler angers Halifax and Chamberlain, who want him replaced. Churchill remains adamant that they stand their ground against negotiations, and we get a different angle on the same story that Christopher Nolan’s brilliant DUNKIRK told earlier this year (Wright also memorably touched on the Dunkirk situation in a pretty stunning five-minute tracking shot in ATONEMENT).

The look of the film, shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is so grey and grim that one wonders if they considered making it in black and white. So many scenes are set in pitch darkness in cramped rooms with what spare lighting there is glowing in an Oliver Stone-ish fashion.

The tropes of period piece historical drama are unavoidable at times but Oldman’s Churchill is such a delicious characterization that I was very forgiving of some unnecessary stylish touches – like the two shots taken from above that zoom backwards into CGI-imagery depicting the dark of fire world below.

I’ll be shocked, shocked I tells ya, if Oldman doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, and then the award itself as he’s so delightfully dead on here. For this guy, who’s one of the best actors working today, to have pulled off such beyond convincing interpretations of such diverse personalities as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven and now this is well worth awarding as it for sure is the most striking acting I’ve seen this year.

The supporting cast glows (literally) surrounding Oldman as Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Winston Churchill, Clementine, makes the most of her worrying-wife-back-home archetype with some warm moments, Mendelsohn’s King George VI has a weary yet hopeful air about him, and James helps bring some light to the dark sets especially in an aside where she tells her boss that he’s doing the V for Victory sign the wrong way.

Anthony McCarten contributes a much sharper screenplay than his previous Oscar winner for that category, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, and the score, by Dario Marianelli whose worked with Wright on nearly every film he’s made, is nicely understated.


But again, it’s Oldman who makes this an essential film to see this season. His performance may be a lot to take for some moviegoers as he dominates nearly every talky as hell moment, ranting as times in his trembling accent always with a glass of brandy or scotch in his hand and a long cigar sticking out of his mouth, but for me the experience is as sublime as the way the words that the real person put together rang out.

Sure, with WWII and the tried and true Greatest Generation spirit that panders to the elder voters, it’s a prime piece of Oscar-bait, but, for a considerable amount of its running time, DARKEST HOUR mightily transcends that.

More later…

THE LAST JEDI Continues STAR WARS’s Winning Streak

Opening in your star system tonight:

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

(Dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)


Warning: There may be Spoilers!

At the end of the previous Episode of STAR WARS, Stormtrooper turned Resistance (the new version of the Rebel Alliance) fighter Finn (John Boyega) was left injured and unconscious after helping to destroy the First Order’s (the new Empire) Starkiller Base (another Death Star), General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the rest of the good guys were mourning the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford); while newly recruited Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) had traveled to the planet Ahch-To to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) so that he can help bring down the bad guys.


The last shot of FORCE AWAKENS has an emotional Rey handing an old grizzled Luke his old iconic lightsaber.


So now, after two years we get Luke’s reaction to Rey’s gesture, and it doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the rest of THE LAST JEDI, the solid seventh entry in the series that satisfyingly follows through with the threads of the former film, while providing a steady stream of call backs to the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) that should please both the casual and hardcore fans.

The most obvious prediction about the content of THE LAST JEDI is that it’ll mirror Episode V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as much as THE FORCE AWAKENS mirrored the first STAR WARS movie (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!).

Well, yeah, there are definite parallels – Luke channeling Yoda in training Rey to the ways of the force, Yoda himself appearing (welcome back, Frank Oz!), the reveal of a character’s lineage, and those much loved AT-AT walkers – but it has enough clever story beats and tongue-in-cheek humor needed to make those elements feel fresh.

The plot deals with the First Order achieving more power in their fight against the Resistance via being able to track their movement through hyperspace. General Leia gets harmed in an attack, and while she’s incapacitated, Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo takes control to the chagrin of Poe Dameron (a cocky, returning Oscar Isaac) who’s called a “flyboy” twice by Amilyn.


Finn finds a friend in fellow Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who catches him trying to run away like he was planning to in Episode VII. Together they travel to a planet that has a Monte Carlo-style gambling resort to find a code breaker, but end up with the somewhat shady Benicio del Toro as an unnamed character with an odd speech impediment.

As for the rest – you know the drill: space battles, lightsaber duels, and the powerful pull of the dark side of the force fill the screen as John Williams’ triumphant score bursts out of the sound system.

THE LAST JEDI has more depth, darkness, and drama than THE FORCE AWAKENS. It’s a blast, even in its talky downtime, and it makes great use of its game cast.

Hamill gets his beefiest role since RETURN OF THE JEDI, and it’s his best performance (yes, I’ve seen CORVETTE SUMMER). Ridley and Boyega make more of an impression that their first efforts, while Driver steals the show every time he appears.

However, there are a few issues. There is no backstory to the Emperor figure that is Snoke, and the reveal of who Rey’s parents are feels like an afterthought. Also, C3PO’s red arm in the previous movie is never explained (I hear there’s a comic that tells what happened there but I doubt I’ll ever read that).

Director and writer Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, LOOPER) molds his style successfully into the series, and doesn’t need as many wipe transitions to move the pace along, something that J.J. Abrams overdid.

As for it being Fisher’s swan song (I think, but maybe they’ve got some footage of her that will be used in the next one), it’s touching to see her Leia in a more substantial role than in Episode VII. They take a big chance with her image in a surreal scene that I won’t spoil – I’ll just say that it works.

Glad to see that STAR WARS continues to be back on track again as the stench of George Lucas’s awful prequels has long since faded, and the good will of the galaxy far, far away has been regained.

I’ve seen that many critics are calling it the best since EMPIRE, and I don’t disagree. Maybe the nostalgia that the member berries have triggered has blinded my judgement, but I’m happy that the franchise that dominated my childhood is yet again going good guns (or blasters).

More later…

LADY BIRD: Greta Gerwig’s Directorial Debut With A Difference

Now playing:

LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Not so long ago, Greta Gerwig was the indie film “it” girl. She acted in films made by the Duplass brothers (BAGHEAD), Woody Allen (TO ROME WITH LOVE), and her long-time boyfriend Noah Baumbach (GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, MISTRESS AMERICA). She even brushed up against the mainstream with her appearance in the awful ARTHUR remake with Russell Brand.

But now Gerwig tries her luck behind the camera for her directorial debut, LADY BIRD, which she also scripted.

No, it’s not about the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson who had that nickname, it’s about a 17-year old Sacramento high school senior with dyed red hair played by Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT, HANNA, BROOKLYN), whose parents gave her the name Christine, but she goes by “Lady Bird” and insists that everyone calls her that.

Lady Bird’s tense relationship with her mother, superbly played by Laurie Metcalf ( I don’t need to list her credits, do I?) is the crux of this movie which is set in 2002, when Gerwig was around the same age as its protagonist. That makes one assume that it’s autobiographical, but Gerwig claims that while she was born and raised in Sacramento, and went to an all-girls Catholic school there, the film is only loosely based on her life as many of the situations depicted didn’t happen to her.

We are introduced to Lady Bird and her mom, Marion, as they are returning home from touring a prospective in-state college, and we get a taste of what their emotionally strained life together is like.

While driving home, Marion lectures about where she and her husband Larry (a laid-back Tracy Letts) can afford to send Lady Bird, while our titular character says she wants to go where culture is like New York which makes Marion label her a snob. When her mother goes on a tirade about how her daughter “should just go to city college, then to jail, and then back to city college,” Lady Bird reacts by opening the door of the car and jumping out.

With a cast on her right arm on which she wrote “F*** You Mom,” Lady Bird signs up for drama club auditions at her High School, Immaculate Heart, with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and gets cast in a musical production. During rehearsals, Lady Birdstarts crushing on one of her fellow cast members, Danny played by Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and the currently playing THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI).

The couple date, but the courtship is cut short when Lady Bird catches Danny kissing another guy in a restroom stall. So then our heroine has eyes for Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a snooty, oh-so-deep musician who likes to say “that’s hella tight.”

Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle, but is saddened to find out that it wasn’t his first time. Moving on, after getting some rejections to schools she’s applied to, Lady Bird gets on a wait list for a university in New York, but keeps it secret from her mother.

On the sidelines of Lady Bird’s love life, is Jordan Rodrigues as her adopted brother, Miguel; Marielle Scott as his live-in girlfriend, Shelly Yuhan; Odeya Rush as the popular, pretty Jenna, who Lady Bird befriends to her BFF Julie’s chagrin; and Lois Smith, who has a few nice, warm moments as Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of our leading lady’s high school.

Because of its down to earth depiction of a hip artistically inclined young woman, who describes herself as being from the “wrong side of the tracks” going through the motions like going to a drunken party at someone’s rich parents’ house, and the politics of who goes with who to the prom, the film recalls the 1986 John Hughes teen classic PRETTY IN PINK and from what I’ve heard that’s on purpose (According to a Vanity Fair interview with Ronan, Gerwig pointed her towards that film, and Hughes’ SIXTEEN CANDLES before shooting).

LADY BIRD is a coming of age drama that doesn’t break any new ground but its low key tale of a young woman entering a new phase in her life is unpretentiously told by Gerwig, who appealingly doesn’t have her characters making snarky one-liners – consider her the anti-Diablo Cody, and this the antithesis of JUNO. Our  writer/director also brings out great naturalistic performances by Ronan and Metcalf that are both deserving of Oscar nominations.


Its a directorial debut with a difference, the difference being that it has a lot more artistic depth that I expected from Gerwig, whose onscreen presence as an actress can be a bit goofy, quirky, and often way flakey. 

Gerwig makes good choices when it comes to the film’s soundtrack as well, from Jon Brion’s subtle score to the Sondheim show-tunes that Ronan and Ledges sing, to the perfect-for-period snippets of Alanis Morrisette and Justin Timberlake. She even somehow makes the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” actually resonate and effectively evoke heartbreak in two different scenes. No small feat that.


More later…

LAST FLAG FLYING Gets Just About Every Last Detail Right.

Now playing:

LAST FLAG FLYING (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2017)
Richard Linklater’s latest is and isn’t a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 cult classic THE LAST DETAIL. The three lead characters names have changed but they’re basically the same archetypes as the three military cohorts in the original, with Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon mirroring Jack Nicholson’s Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky, Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepherd stepping in for Randy Quaid’s Laurence M. “Larry” Meadows, and Laurence Fishburne’s Richard Mueller taking on Otis Young’s Richard “Mule” Mulhall.


In THE LAST DETAIL, Navy lifers Buddusky and Mulhall escort court-marshaled Meadows to prison in Maine for petty theft, and take drunken detours along the way. In LAST FLAG FLYING, our trio are vets who re-unite to accompany Carrell’s Doc to the funeral of his son who was killed in Vietnam.

The film begins with Doc showing up at Sal’s dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia, after decades of non-communication, and after a night of drinking, Doc takes Sal to see their old pal, Richard, who became a Christian priest.

The film takes place in 2003, so there are running gags involving the internet and cellphones being new things, and footage of Saddam Hussein on TVs in the background.

Like its predecessor, it’s largely a road trip movie with a lot of buddy comradery, but in this story that happens after they reach their first destination – Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where they learn that Doc’s son didn’t die the heroic death that the army’s official statement reported. They then take his son’s body to bury in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, first by rented truck, then by train after a brush with homeland security with a lot of lively conversation fueling every scene.


THE LAST DETAIL was famous for having large amounts of profanity – it contained more uses of the f-bomb than any previous film when it was released in the early 70s – but it’s no big thing these days for a film to be filled with such dirty dialogue so it’s barely noticeable when it’s used here. Maybe that’s from my being desensitized by many viewings of Scorsese movies or frequent listens of Richard Pryor albums, I dunno.

Alongside the strong performances of the main protagonists, is an excellent supporting cast made up of Yul Vazquez as Lt Col. Willits, who tries to stop Doc, Sal, and Mueller from transporting the body themselves; J. Quinton Johnson stars as Marine Charlie Washington who breaks the news to the guys about how Doc’s son died, and especially Cicely Tyson as the grieving mother of one of their fellow Marines, who died in Vietnam.

Despite its sometimes weary depiction of distrust of the Government during the George W. Bush era, there’s a lot of warmth in LAST FLAG FLYING. Linklater handles the pathos superbly, and gets us to care about these very verbal vets. Its dialogue, co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the 1970 book, “The Last Detail and its 2005 sequel that’s the basis for this film) is rich and real feeling.

Cranston stands out as the grizzled, cynical Sal – it’s one of his most fleshed out characters since Breaking Bad – Carrell’s sad sack succeeds in getting our sympathy, and Fishburne conveys dignified grace, that is except for the funny bits where his Reverend Mueller loses patience with Sal and regresses into his old profane self.

Linklater’s loving update deserves Oscar action, but more so it deserves big audiences who no doubt will appreciate its affable yet profound sensibility. LAST FLAG FLYING gets just about every last detail right.

More later…

THE DISASTER ARTIST: A Good Movie About The Making Of A Bad One

Now playing:

THE DISASTER ARTIST (Dir. James Franco, 2017)


A few weeks ago I attended a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 opus THE ROOM. I’d seen it before on DVD, but felt like I should get the big screen with an audience experience I’d heard about and it did not disappoint. If you’re unfamiliar, THE ROOM is infamous for being a really bad movie. It’s a San Francisco-set romantic drama that is horribly acted (mostly by Wiseau as the tortured lead), atrociously written (again, by Wiseau), and awfully directed (yep, by Wiseau).

But it has built up a cult following – largely egged on by Wiseau who claims that he meant it to be a so-bad-that’s-it’s-good movie all along – with film-goers interacting with the film ROCKY HORROR-style. Folks attending are encouraged to do things like yell “focus!” when the film gets blurry, toss footballs around during the many scenes where the characters do the same, and throw plastic spoons at the screen whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears (which is often).

The screening was one of many across the country to get people primed for James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book “The Disaster Artist” which tells the story of how THE ROOM was made. Franco plays Wiseau, his brother, Dave, portrays Sestero, and Franco’s long time collaborator Seth Rogen takes on the role of the exasperated script supervisor Sandy Schklair.

Franco’s Wiseau, who has a hard to pin down European accent but claims he’s from New Orleans, dreams of being an actor, but can’t land a part so he bangs out a screenplay and finances his own project, drawing upon millions of dollars that nobody knows how he got – Rogen is surprised when his check clears and is told that it’s a bottomless account.

Franco and his crew dutifully recreate the sets of THE ROOM, and we get an ED WOOD-ish look at Wiseau’s acting and directing style – or lack of – and it’s a hilarious series of haphazard scenes though maybe not as hilarious as its incompetently shot subject.

Johnny Depp was originally slated to star, but I’m glad Franco got the role as he seems to have been born to capture the ridiculous passion of Wiseau. It’s possibly Francos greatest role, and maybe best work as a director though I haven’t seen many of the over a dozen films he’s made.


THE DISASTER ARTIST is among the funniest films this year, but it’s not been a great year for comedies or much else I hate to say. I’m not sure if folks who haven’t seen THE ROOM will totally get it, but they might as it accurately depicts what went down – Wiseau himself says that it gets 99.9% of it right of the and features a bunch of dead on recreated scenes at the end (plus stick around for an after credits stinger). It is oddly amusing, and kind of crazy, that Franco made a good movie about
 a bad one, but he really pulled it off.


More later…

One Of Woody’s Worst Films May Be His Best Looking

Now playing:



WONDER WHEEL (Dir. Woody Allen, 2017)

The most striking thing about Woody Allen’s latest film, his third project for Amazon, is how lushly lit it is. Leading actresses Kate Winslet and Juno Temple’s red and blonde hair appears to always be glowing in golden light, whether in day or night scenes; and the gorgeousness of the color schemes employed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is palpable in every scene.

It’s too bad that it’s all in the service of the tired themes and clichéd characters that make up WONDER WHEEL, yet another nostalgic period piece from the Woodman – one that recalls the aura of his previous works CAFÉ SOCIETY (which Storaro also shot) PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, RADIO DAYS, and that fantasy flashback in ANNIE HALL where Allen’s Alvy Singer reminiscences about being brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

In very Allen-esque opening narration, Justin Timberlake sets the scene: “Coney Island, 1950s. The boardwalk.” The camera pans over a crowded beach until it hits Timberlake, as Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard who identifies himself as an aspiring playwright, breaking the fourth wall to tell us he’s got a story to tell, “in which I am a character so be warned as a poet I use symbols and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger than life characters.”

Mickey introduces Carolina (Juno Temple), who has unexpectedly come back into the lives of her carousel operator father Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her stepmother Ginny (Winslet), because she is seeking refuge from the mob due to being marked by her never seen gangster husband.

Humpty and Ginny live in a shabby apartment, which used to house a freak show, with big open windows that has a great wide ranging view of the park including of the towering ferris wheel of the title. This is all back-drop to a well worn narrative involving a love triangle between Mickey, Ginny and Carolina.

Ginny dreams of running off with Mickey, but then Mickey falls for Carolina, despite the threat of a mafia hit job, which is made clear in a bit that has Sopranos regulars Tony Sirico (in his sixth film for Allen) and Steve Schirripa come to question Humpty about his daughter’s whereabouts.

There’s also a subplot about Ginny’s pyromaniac son that doesn’t really go anyhere, but it does provide shots of fire that go along with the rest of the movie’s orange bathed in blue glow.

Perhaps in the same vein that Andrew Dice Clay gained cred for his role in Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, Belushi puts in a great supporting performance as an angry, broken down working class slob who trying to stay on the wagon. I wouldn’t say it’s quite worth a Oscar nomination, but it nicely continues the ‘hey, Jim Belushi isn’t bad!’ vibe from his appearance on the Twin Peaks revival early this year.

Winslet’s acerbic Ginny is the dominant character here as the film seems to focus on her neurosis over her stepdaughter’s impending involvement with Mickey, and her frazzled attempts to thwart their romance. Winslet puts her all into her acting and anchors the film until it and she goes off the rails.

Timberlake’s Mickey wasn’t lying when he said he uses symbols as he even says “The heart has its own hieroglyphics” when trying to chose between Ginny and Carolina. He also speaks of “the tragic human condition” while giving Ginny a book of Eugene O’Neil’s plays for her birthday – an example of Allen’s screenplay laying it on a bit thick.

All this is transparent decoration around another one of his ‘women be crazy’ plotlines. The repetitive and overly drawn out dialogue doesn’t help either.

WONDER WHEEL’s melodramatic (Mickey wasn’t fooling there either) mix of hefty philosophizing with an all too typical tale of ill-fated infatuation makes for one of Allen’s least satisfying films of his later career.


But while it’s far from his best work, it may be his best looking movie. With hope, the Woodman, in his next film, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK in which he’s again working with cinematographer Storaro, will come up with a story that’s as good as the visuals.


More later…

THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now
playing at an indie art house near me:

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)

Such
a juicy premise: a hard as nails Missouri woman rents three billboards alongside
a country road to shame her town’s sheriff who has made no arrests in the wake
of her daughter’s rape and murder.

And such a great cast: Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother whose grief has solidified into anger over this injustice, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, who doesn’t take kindly to billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” Samuel Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon, who has a reputation of torturing black suspects; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage as a local car salesman who has a crush on Mildred.

Add
to that the lush mountain scenery surrounding these characters which has
locations shot in my home state of North Carolina standing in for the fictional town
of Ebbing, Missouri, and you’ve got the elements to make up a tensely funny
thriller, but roughly half way through its nearly two hour running time, the
movie runs out of steam and doesn’t know where to go.

This
happens right after the exit of one major player and the entrance of a suspect
that initially appears to serve as misdirection, but ends up being the
direction the film mistakenly decides to go with.

McDormand’s dour divorcée
Mildred owns the movie’s best moments, but, like with everyone she interacts
with, she never lets us get close to what she’s dealing with enough to really
be on her side. Harrelson’s Willoughby draws more empathy as he’s dying of
cancer and seems to have a good sincere head on his shoulders, but his
character’s fate does the film no favors.


When the film shifts to the underwritten perspective of Rockwell’s Officer Dixon, who we never learn whether he is guilty of racist activity or not, the narrative gets muddled, and a restlessness sets in.
Also, the presence
of McDormand and composer Carter Burwell (who provides a solid yet instinctive score here) made me wish for the more purposeful
(and wittier) approach of the actress and musical director
s long-time collaborators, the Coen brothers.

Writer/Director
McDonagh has had better luck with this sort of black comedy in his previous
films, IN BRUGE and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, which also features Rockwell and Abbie
Cornish who appears here as Harrelson’s wife. Here his screenplay strands its
protagonists and possible antagonists in a pointless parable.

It’s not that every
movie has to have a pat pay-off – many great films end ambiguously – but this particular story
of these broken people who fight for justice that they likely will never get deserves
a better thematic resolution than we get here.


More later…

JUSTICE LEAGUE Continues DC’s Struggle To Catch Up With Marvel

Now bombing at a multiplex near everyone:

JUSTICE LEAGUE (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2017)

The good news is that DC’s latest entry in their ongoing attempt to catch up with Marvel is a lot better than the fiasco that was BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (it has a snappier title too), but the bad news is that it’s still far from a great, or even good movie.

Zach Snyder, with help from Joss Whedon, who handled lengthy re-shoots, teams up Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Henry Cavill’s Superman (it can’t be a spoiler since everyone knew that the character was going to resurrected after his death in BVS, right?) to save the world from the clutches of the supervillain Steppenwolf (an all CGI-ed up Ciarán Hinds), but the result is a colossally anti-climatic mess.

However, perhaps due to Whedon’s involvement, there are flashes of wit – largely from The Flash, who comes off as the Spider-Man of this gang as he’s a wise-cracking kid who has the film’s best lines (I loved his quip, “Pet Semetary!” when Superman returns from the dead and is initially evil).

JUSTICE LEAGUE falls short in many departments, but one that stood out was that it has no third act. The first act is all set-up as it follows Affleck’s Bruce Wayne as he assembles the group, having walk and talks with Gadot’s Diana Prince and Momoa’s Arthur Curry (Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s alter egos), and roping in Miller’s Barry Allen, and Fisher’s Victor Stone (The Flash and Cyborg’s alter egos) into the fold.

The second act is the big battle between the Superfriends and Steppenwolf and his army of flying creatures called Parademons. This bloated sequence goes on and on with precious little excitement before it concludes with a wrap-up that reaks of lazy afterthought.

Trailers and TV spots were smart to play up the Wonder Woman angle as that’s the only character these DC movies has had any critical success with, and Gadot does have her moments here, but she’s overshadowed by Affleck and Cavill’s charmless and unconvincing takes on their iconic roles. Affleck gets a lot of flack for his acting, but I maintain that he’s not really a horrible actor; just an uninteresting one.

And after the lame likes of MAN OF STEEL, BVS, and now this, I’m still not buying Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. The British actor still feels miscast to me as the most famous superhero, as he never comes close to matching the power of Christopher Reeve, or even George Reeves’ corny version of the caped crusader from the old ‘50s Superman TV series (incidentally Affleck played Reeves in Allen Coulter’s 2006 drama HOLLYWOODLAND).


Of the other League members, Momoa and Fisher, as Aquaman and Cyborg (the character I know the least) didnt make much of an impression on me, but, as I mentioned before, Miller’s Flash steals the show. Then there are the supporting turns by Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Irons as Batman’s tech saavy butler Alfred, which are serviceable but don’t really add anything to the whole shebang.

With its 300 million dollar budget, one would expect better special effects, but the movie is marred by a lot of crummy CGI, which really dims the impact of much of the action. There have been reports that the movie is underperforming, and may not recoup its production costs, which I hope will make DC reconsider letting Snyder direct its follow-up (or any other project for the brand for that matter).

Despite some signs of improvement, Snyder appears to be unable to make a decent superhero movie (or any other movie for that matter), even with the copious assistance from Whedon here. Marvel’s business model of inter-connecting story-lines, Easter eggs, and strategically placed cameos is obviously a lot harder to copy than they thought.


WONDER WOMAN showed that it is possible to make an effective stand-alone movie, so there may be salvation for the franchise yet, but it’s a safe bet that Marvel will have racked up a bunch more crowd-pleasers by the time DC really gets their shit together, that is, if they ever do.

More later…

Branagh’s Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names – spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) – the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel – Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)

We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

As I’ve written before, Thor is my least favorite of the Marvel movie characters, but this time around the guy, again played with gusto by Chris Hemsworth, has grown on me, and with Taika Waititi (who directed the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and year’s winning comedy adventure HUNT OF THE WILDERBEAST) at the helm, the Norse God heads a smashingly funny film. One that stands beside ANT-MAN, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY entries, and DEADPOOL in the realm of Marvel movies that are really comedies at their core.

The plot, which has something to do with Thor trying to save his home city of Asgard from being destroyed by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with help of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), really doesn’t matter as the narrative zips through one action set piece to another racking up a lot of big laughs in the process.

Tony Stark is brought up enough times (Ruffalo even wears his clothes) that I was expecting Robert Downey Jr. to pop up, but instead we’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange to do that duty. But the cast member that appears to be having the most fun here is Jeff Goldblum as the unctuous Grandmaster of a planet on which Thor winds up getting pitted against the Hulk in an arena gladiator fight.

It’s a fun yet disposable entertainment as I laughed quite a bit, but now can’t think of any notable quotes – oh, wait, there was Thor saying “A creepy old man cut my hair off!” which totally sums up the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

THOR: RAGNAROK may be an overly formulaic (Thormulaic?), and maybe not a really essential entry in the Marvel canon, but it’s sprinkled with so many gags that land that it really doesn’t matter.


More later…

Deep Throat Is Back! (No, Not The Porno)

Now playing in the Triangle area:


MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE (Dir. Peter Landesman, 2017)


For over thirty years, the identity of Deep Throat – the nickname (yes, inspired by the porno) of the informant that gave vital information about the Watergate burglary to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 – was one of the biggest political mysteries in history.

In 2005, former FBI agent Mark Felt revealed that he was the confidential source, Woodward confirmed it, and decades of speculation in which folks suspected White House counsel John Dean, chief of staff Alexander Haig, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, and even White House press aide/later broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer to be possible candidates were over.

Now Felt’s story is told in this film based on the books, A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being Deep Throat, and the Struggle for Honor in Washington by Felt and John OConnor, that’s can be seen as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN told from the point of view of, well, one of the President’s men although one that doesnt work for the President directly. A grim, stoic Liam Neeson plays Felt, who more than once is referred to as a G-Man’s G-Man.

The film opens on April 11, 1972, 203 days before the election for Richard M. Nixon’s second term, with Felt meeting with Dean (Michael C. Hall) and letting him know that his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, has files full of damaging secrets on everyone in power. “We’re the FBI,
 Felt says chillingly. “All your secrets are safe with us.”

However, after Hoover dies, Felt is passed over by Nixon for the job of FBI director, with one of the President’s shady yes-men, L. Patrick Gray portrayed by Martin Csokas, getting the prime position.

Gray attempts to squash Felt’s investigation of the Watergate break-in in June of ‘72, which if you don’t know your history, involved five men getting arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office/apartment/hotel complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were found to have ties to the CIA and later the White House, which led to the toppling of Nixon’s Presidency.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s hard not to do as MARK FELT takes its time getting to the juicy stuff such as the famous parking garage meetings with Woodward (Julian Morris), because Landesman’s screenplay wants us to see what a solid, uncompromised government official Felt is. We learn that he and his wife, Audrey (an underused Diane Lane), are worried sick about their missing daughter who’s run off to join the counterculture or something (it was the ‘70s), but Felt is so by the book that he won’t use the power of the FBI to find her.

Neeson’s nuanced, grim performance as Felt is among his finest work, but the movie keeps trying to build up dramatic heft but never quite gets there. Daniel Pemberton’s overly pulsating score doesn’t help as it dominates too many scenes, and tries too hard to make everything more ominous. They should’ve learned from the minimalist soundtrack for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to use those edgy strains sparingly.

There’s also too many House of Cards-ish aerial shots of D.C. framed to make the town look evil, and the whole interior look of the film is dark blues and greys with Oliver Stone-style mood lighting. We get it – the Nixon era was dark and gloomy. Much like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (sorry, I can’t help bringing that movie up over and over), Nixon is only seen in archival footage on background TVs, but dammit if his sinister presence isn’t all over this tense, but sadly not too thrilling thriller.


As there are striking similarities with the situations surrounding our current President whose name I hate typing with the leaks, the cover-ups, the dishonesty etc. this tale couldn’t be more relevant, but this dry run through the facts doesn’t have enough narrative drive to make it essential viewing.

Felt is described in the film’s postscript as “one of the most impactful whistleblowers in American History,” but his portrait here lacks impact. The story of the Watergate scandal was, of course, so much better told in that 1976 movie I keep referring to because this film could never shake it out of my mind.

In other words, Neeson is fine as Felt, and, sure I’d rather see him in something like this instead of another TAKEN movie, but Deep Throat will always be Hal Holbrook to me.


More later…