3 (out of 4)
With his directorial debut after decades of scripting, Aaron Sorkin has proven at least one thing: he’s still a damn good screenwriter.
I only tease, for the direction behind Molly’s Game would be worth praising more if it felt like Sorkin had some manner of stylistic stamp. After first coming off like a weak Scorsese imitator, he soon lets his feverish pace of verbal information subside to eventually let the story speak for itself. Which is fortunate because the tale of Molly Bloom, like life, is full of pauses, detours and confusion that requires a wordsmith of some capacity to navigate.
Within this true tale lies subject matter much to Sorkin’s liking, particularly political and legal intricacies and a recent bit of biographical intrigue too fascinating to pass up. The dual narrative between the crazy story and the messy, affluent aftermath doesn’t succeed quite as dazzlingly as The Social Network, but it functions perfectly for this film's editing, pacing and comic timing.
Jessica Chastain’s clocks in a career best performance as Bloom – her perfectly dictated narration is almost good enough to forgive Sorkin's heavy reliance on it. Idris Elba is rock solid as Bloom’s patient, straight edge lawyer Charlie Jaffey and Kevin Costner even appears faintly human in his small supporting role as Bloom’s hard-headed father. Stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck attended Bloom's actual games, and our basic stand-in for their undisclosed type is Michael Cera in a fitting role against type for an actor out of roles for his former awkward teen schtick. My guess is he supposed to closely represent Macaulay Culkin.
Anchored by a knotty, complex story, Sorkin churns out his signature soliloquys and table tennis back and forths with ease. Another director may have realized Molly Bloom's stranger than fiction story more fully, but Sorkin has the adeptness to make a film informed by editing, cinematography and the like as much as his strong suit of obsessively crafted dialogue.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Call Me By Your Name is a serene, tender, leisurely Italian vacation. Not unlike the trappings of director Luca Guadignino's other Italian romantic dramas I Am Love and last year's A Bigger Splash, this film forms the spiritual third entry in Guadignino's self-declared Desire trilogy. It may not go on to be one of the defining LGBTQ love stories of the genre's most fruitful era like the Brokeback Mountain's and Blue is the Warmest Colour's of the world, but it's lasting impression lends the film an easy spot amongst the year's finest films.
The greatest attribute of Call Me By Your Name is without a doubt its collection of seriously superb performances. Timothée Chalamet who just gained some further exposure in Lady Bird wears his lanky adolescence most believably, and Armie Hammer, though a bit old for his own character, is nonetheless an excellent foil to Chalamet's cool. Michael Stuhlbarg is the film's secret weapon though. Playing the father of Chalamet's Elio and the professor of Hammer's Oliver, Stuhlbarg comes away with a more deserving turn for a supporting actor that his in-film protégé. His monologue in the penultimate scene is beautiful and blunt, probably the best moment in the film solely due to Stuhlbarg's abilities.
Like any good director should in films of this variety, Guadignino painstakingly creates a universal landscape of attraction and stubbornness. Featuring a more refined example of the laid back auteurism that Guadignino has offered up beforehand, he makes an emotional saga of homosexual summer romance feel both carefree and monumentally weighty. The ending of Call Me By Your Name summarizes this best. After Elio casually chats with Oliver again months after the fact and upon finding out he's getting married, the film leaves you with a long static shot of a crying Elio staring into a crackling fireplace as the credits begin. I swear if Gary Oldman wasn't the man of the year, the 22-year-old Chalamet should be winning over the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and company.
Anyway, with credits rolling we see Elio's naïveté vanish and the scars of his bliss begin to take hold. Drawing out a final moment through the credits usually cheapens the film, but here it remarkably elevates everything that came before. It is a painful sendoff of release and acceptance that feels like one of the most raw epilogues put to modern film.
2 (out of 4)
Pulled from some pile of premises for cheap '80s and '90s movies, Downsizing somehow became Alexander Payne’s newest exploration of the human condition, at the expectedly microscopic scale. Silly and braced for comedy as its story might be, Payne manages to turn a whimsical pitch into a reasonably serious and often rewarding satire – for at least an hour some elaborate and enlightening world building can be enjoyed.
But my god that second half takes a brutal and irredeemable left turn, especially when Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) – a crippled Vietnamese girl downsized against her will turned Matt Damon's forced and awkward love interest – enters frame. Chau gives a fine performance but the writing makes her broken English sound generic and a little racist, and her screen presence eventually becomes a caricature.
Exploring the essence of cult, classism and especially the strains marriage, divorce and isolation – as seen through the slow succumb of Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon's onscreen couple to the perks of downsizing – the film dearly wants to entertain as easily as it can say something meaningful. But Payne fumbles at both – the shift in focus, tone and overall quality by the midway point confuses and disassembles the honesty and originality of the film’s first act. Overreaching and absurd in all the wrong ways, Payne's latest attempt is a far cry from the sincerity of The Descendants or Nebraska.
Even though the script covers many angles of its spectacular concept as it might play out in the real world, the holes in the film’s explanation (or lack thereof) of its universe appear even before the most effective comedy and sharpest commentary have started to fade. Not long after, the laughable climax of the film is such a far cry from Downsizing's point of origin that it might make you question your sanity – by the third act the ambitious hook has been all but ignored entirely. As much as I respect Alexander Payne's boldness, I can’t see the intended ends of his uncompromising efforts.
3 (out of 4)
Guillermo Del Toro has no doubt assembled a gorgeous, kinetic work of visual craft with The Shape of Water, but I wish his concept of an adult fairy tale, a formula used to perfection in Pan’s Labyrinth, let reality properly seep in through the cracks of fantasy. This new film does not double as both pure invention and the allegorical escape from the setting of despair into a child's imagination, but as a formal fable, pure and simple. Without Richard Jenkins' unnecessary narration and such a whimsical conclusion, this would stand with the year's most elegant achievements.
Sally Hawkins is breathtaking, a hopeful shoe-in for a Best Actress trophy – she tops the tightest race of the year, delivering a performance to quietly outshine both Frances McDormand and Saoirse Ronan. Her performance as the meek, curious mute who cleans is brimming with humanity, and the silence and sign language at the center of the film's unwieldy romance is the most lovely and cinematic aspect of Del Toro's vision.
Jenkins and Octavia Spencer are both fairly typecast in roles they’ve been deemed suited for many times over. Michael Shannon is the only supporting cast member not hindered by a new crack at a familiar role, but rather the actor reenters his expert plane of erecting despicable antagonists.
The film's genre concoctions aren't so carefully blended; there are grim jolts of violence, bizarre bestial sexuality set against an easy plot and neat stakes. There is a joy in The Shape of Water when its oddities are faced fearlessly and its potential as an unconventionally warm, whimsical piece of holiday-friendly escapism is less emphasized.
2 (out of 4)
Uprooting expectations for the sake of thumbing their noses at fanboys who drooled over every second of Episode VII, Disney's Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is nothing close to what any could have imagined going in. Despite a theoretically positive break from established formula for the most part, every new direction for the series is a blind alley, every sub plot is a hamster furiously spinning in place and Johnson's accomplishments with its characters, new and old, are next to none.
Spoilers inbound: touches like the milk monster inhabitants of Luke's island, Super Leia, Snoke’s embarrassing death, and the brushing off of Rey’s origin all make for smoke and mirrors, figuratively, and, in one scene, literally. Disney has tossed aside the brand's obsessive fandom almost as an expensive passive aggressive response to criticisms that The Force Awakens is a simulacrum of the original Star Wars – with the cliffhanger they ended on, many expected the second part of this new trilogy would also be closer to The Empire Strikes Back. "Bet they'll never see this coming!" the executives surely speculated, desiring to pull multiple rugs out from under its massive audience without giving much thought to the saga's continuity or the power of nerd outrage.
But in a tentpole film this strangely flawed – though it's still at least a hair above the wearying pointlessness of Rogue One – it's easy to focus on it's many fundamental issues and ignore all praiseworthy aspects entirely. Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren are the only characters that offer anything reasonably worth an audience's investment. Kylo’s inner conflict and Rey’s own independent-minded convictions are tested and mingled together in this chapter. Their respective performances are admirable, and the two make for a possibly romantic but nonetheless exciting duo to watch interact especially they carry the coolest set piece of the film.
But even the strongest scene of the movie is terribly prefaced by the disposal of super-villain Supreme Leader Snoke, and the subsequent action scene, while energetic and full of decent choreography, is hindered in accordance. Along the lines of General Leia, Finn, Poe, and new characters like Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and DJ (Benicio del Toro), all of them are wrapped up together in simultaneous chaos across multiple narrative planes, coalescing for but a moment or two of proper cinematic escapism. But damn near every scene still comes with an asterisk of blemishes, be it narrative confusion, poor character development, its problematic context within the Star Wars legacy or cringe-inducing humor.
But even taken just on its own terms, Episode VIII is an absurd miscalculation. This film has already put diehards in a fit, and as the film’s problems are highlighted and outlined in coming months, don't be surprised if The Last Jedi's status as nearly as baffling as the prequels will likely take hold in the fan community. To the average viewer or critic though, it’s just another Star Wars movie, covered from every marketing angle to appeal to anyone who may not already give a shit. It’s an entertaining mess assuredly, but if some critics haven’t lost all their credulity, then we must either be watching a different film – wouldn’t that make more sense since what I watched bordered so hard on parody? – or the Mouse has some reviewer folks like Indiewire's David Ehrlich, and many others, deep in its pockets.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Exploiting the celebrated eccentricity of Tommy Wiseau through a virtuoso performance, James Franco can’t wring out much of a directorial accomplishment from The Disaster Artist that doesn’t rely solely on references to one of the defining cult films of the millennia.
The script doesn’t have much to offer outside of simplifying the unorthodox collection of filmmakers on the set of The Room, especially the dynamics between Wiseau and Greg Sestero (played by the younger Franco Dave), an interplay so awkward you’d think they would have gone darker than they did. Instead surely one of the most strange, uncomfortable and unprofessional creative moments of our time is shaped as a off-kilter buddy comedy.
When the film was picked up by A24 it pointed to something perhaps more unexpected and challenging behind a mainstream-aimed comedy that also starred Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. At best this film is a functionally directed, entertaining companion piece to Wiseau's infamous feature which actually aims higher artistically than Franco does here (not to his disrespect, as he’s made a dozen independent pictures I’ve never perused).
You’re probably better off watching The Room than this film whether you’re acquainted with the tragically comic film or not. If obvious references to the film and double-layered caricature performance of it's inner workings could please you, you may chuckle frequently, and if you’ve never heard of it, you may be an even a better audience for The Disaster Artist after all.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Richard Linklater broadens his already rich filmography with a stark, emotional, dramatic sidestep to his typical output of red-cheeked, down-to-earth optimism.
Not that his indelible knack for concocting scripts with simple premises, identifiably realistic characters and textured, humanistic dialogue doesn’t take hold as well in Last Flag Flying. Linklater’s touches of pleasant humor and revealing interplay between his major characters are still very much intact – Bryan Cranston’s character Sal Nealon makes for an especially adept vessel to channel the American filmmaker's most easygoing, buoyant subtextual wishes.
It's actually Steve Carell's meek leading role as "Doc" Shepherd that affects the senses so honestly and painfully. "Doc" recruits Sal and preacher Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), buddies from his Marine days in Vietnam, to assist him as he travels to acquire and bury his fallen 21-year-old son of the same military class. Sal and Richard spar with one another about basic existentialism in typical Linklater fashion, but it efficiently reveals their characters. Honorably examining contrasting ideologies, this is a clever way to show how these brothers and soldiers at heart can be men who have trod down very different paths in their adult life.
Given the whimper of praise when the film was quietly released several months ago in limited theaters, I didn’t count on Last Flag Flying to be so utterly heartbreaking or so properly free of any pro-war propaganda. Depicting the wells of silence that come with new mourning and the scrappy yet sacred support that old friends can offer, Linklater somehow makes a military film that is patriotic without being at all jingoistic.
Zeroing in on the oft-ignored after-effects of deadly conflicts – in this case Iraq in 2003 – for families back home, American Sniper this is not. Linklater sticks to his relatively liberal, anti-nationalist agenda and in the process he creates a devastating portrait of loss that can be identified with far beyond the empathy of fellow serviceman.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
A triumph in artistic maturity, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes a case that Martin McDonagh may be the most talented writer-director to emerge in the last decade.
The opposite of the writer’s block-themed meta mayhem of Seven Psychopaths 5 years ago, Three Billboards is a daringly uncharacteristic original screenplay, with so many stranger than fiction plot turns that conjure a peculiar, studied realism. Though not nearly as quotable or hysterical as In Bruges, McDonagh's third film doesn't need to be, as it lands squarely in dramatic territory despite being very much a comedy-drama.
Thematically McDonagh covers so much ground. Within his tangle of finely fleshed out characters, we glimpse the irony within the slow grinding wheels of justice, the cyclical nature of violence, and the paradoxical connection between misery and comedy. Unpredictability and dry wit help the small-town politics and morality of vengeance feel both madcap and rather plausible from moment to moment.
McDonagh's characters are so believably drawn, evolving from Midwest stereotypes to real people by their respective ends. Frances McDormand is at her best, though I wish the script didn't offer up so many venomous zingers for her to dish out to lesser characters. Sam Rockwell offers up one of his best performances ever, while Woody Harrelson makes the most of another great character he fortunately gets to inhabit. Three Billboards may paint an unhealthy picture of grief, but as a triptych character study, the film manages to mesh a rich plot and terse, honest dialogue into a most entertaining and morally insightful final film.
Tonally, McDonagh's penchant for swift, brutal violence and foul-mouthed main characters shouldn't align with all the carnal brutishness and unapologetic bleakness of an unhinged mother attempting to impossibly right the wrong of her long dead daughter's rape and murder. Somehow the stabs to the gut from one of the scripts' narrative and emotional wallops or from the precise comic timing arrive exactly when needed.
3 (out of 4)
The worst thing to point out about Coco is how much it feels like a Disney film rather than a true Pixar joint – the 20-minute Frozen Christmas special playing beforehand, as opposed to their usual original shorts, only makes this more obvious. But excluding the out of the blue brilliance that was Inside Out, Coco is their best non-sequel film of late, and still a rather predictable one at that.
Standard and solid, Coco is likely to be forgotten along with the likes of Brave and The Good Dinosaur, but in the moment it's actually rather emotionally wrenching when it needs to be. The appeal to family values and adherence to the simple cinematic needs of the very young coalesces into the unfortunately rare Pixar feature that doesn't play effectively to every age. The times in which the film addresses the importance of music over dull domestic assurance is where the best ideas of Coco are – by thankfully avoiding doing a musical altogether, the songs that are in fact incorporated are poignant as well.
If nothing else the land of the dead concept is cleverly conceived and illustrated, if you don’t think too hard about this film's version of the nature of legacy, death and remembrance. Everything about Coco's structure is of a well-worn template, but the visuals are of anticipated vibrancy and its emotional beats are struck sound and clear. If only it felt like anything close to an enduring, one of a kind animated feature, which is to say, a genuine Pixar classic.
2 (out of 4)
The pieces mostly fit – Ben Affleck’s wearied Batman, Gal Gadot’s amazon warrior princess, Ezra Miller’s rookie Flash, and Jason Mamoa’s easy disappearance into the silliness of Aquaman all feel like a natural batch of partners in justice. It's just that Cyborg's lazy, loathsome design, CGI and character is more than a little jarring against the rest, not to mention the inevitable arrival of Henry Cavill's resurrected Superman and his digitally removed mustache.
Clocking in at less than 2 hours, Justice League's culmination of the DCEU 5 entries in – just as many as Marvel took before The Avengers became a blockbusting phenomenon – is an unwieldy final product, at once extremely basic and a heaping, campy, complicated mess. As a story the film is as complex a 20-minute episode of Teen Titans; Justice League doesn’t even require higher functioning to process. It’s all just scaffolding for seeing these DC characters stand aside one another and exist mostly as properties rather than remotely relatable characters. Miller is at home in his natural place as comic relief, while side characters like Amy Adams' Lois Lane and further company have thankless appearances bordering on cameos.
Zach Snyder, though without final control this go-round, has an eye for epic mythos even if every script he’s worked with for DC has been shoddy and overly serious. Joss Whedon’s inserted quips and Superman’s abominable digitally inserted upper lip – both done in reshoots – make a messy superhero tent pole more digestibly silly and even sloppier.
Hamstrung by a childish plot, a terribly generic villain, as well as indelicate editing and screenwriting that comes off rushed and audience-tested, Justice League at least has enough nonsense happening fast enough to enjoy on the most purely superficial levels. But being a few degrees more enjoyable than Man of Steel and Batman v Superman is nothing worth commending.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Greta Gerwig's previous screenwriting credits included co-writing her boyfriend and accomplished independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s recent and best films Frances Ha and Mistress America, the titular roles of which she took over. The spiritual succession of those efforts leads us to a rich and piquant writer-director debut for Gerwig. Lady Bird is a mirror to the Gerwig's past; a director's youth reassessed. And for once the image is not of herself and out of her delicate and charmingly clumsy hands.
Saoirse Ronan isn't what you would call a stand-in though. Both Baumbach/Gerwig features drew a warts-and-all portrait of two young women – Frances' rendering was loving and poignant while Brooke's was a near-condemnation of a complex character, epitomizing the pitfalls of idolizing our near-elders. Lady Bird finds Gerwig at her most self-aware and yet most removed from her work, with 15 years of adult experience to reflect on the transformative times of living through senior year of high school (Catholic at that).
The aura of autobiography here is elevated to universality by her easy alignment with the milestones of the average 18-year-old into a three-act narrative. There may be a tad too many affected jokes within the script that could have been dialed back in order to make Lady Bird’s lovely, frank tone – and even the character – that much more true to life, but Gerwig’s way with humor is just as subtly stinging as her partner's.
Labeling Lady Bird as a contemporary coming of age film does not credit Gerwig properly for all the revelations she manages to invoke without trying hard at all. The hopeless passive aggression between passionate children and their insecure parents, the indelicacy of young lust, the comfort of best friendship, the rapidly changing ideas of self, the dread at the notion of not unlocking your own potential – it's all here.
Gerwig's poetically has rewarded herself and cineastes by realizing her actual potential in the process of turning her age of greatest uncertainty into a film of soft sublimity. She spares neither the bliss nor the heartbreak in recreating the yearning for self-actualization.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Kenneth Branagh appears at home in the shoes and stache of detective Hercule Poirot, and he makes a hearty attempt to alter and update Agatha Christie's popular classic mystery for the mainstream masses. But this Murder on the Orient Express is somehow deflated and underwhelming despite being so lushly produced and magnificently star-studded.
Not that there couldn’t be something cinematic about murder and suspicion upon a snowbound train, no matter how many tries have been far from definitive. Some Christie stories are primed for modern manifestation like And Then There Were None, which has the makings of a lip-smacking horror flick – Orient Express boasts refined discourse and sharp humor, but nothing diverting enough to help the attention-span-contracting viewers fend off the urge to yawn. The narrative motion of the film is set upon a plateau early and the story’s shape is so driven by words and names that thrills never really manage to surface. Christie’s novel is an elaborate guessing game and, especially in all its snowy splendor onscreen, an unfulfilled one by the very end.
Sure, watching Penélope Cruz, William Dafoe, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer and especially Branagh function amongst the crime and costumes is its own mild but steady pleasure. Nevertheless, Murder on the Orient Express feels off set against today's other moviegoing distractions – the toying and teasing, in addition to the multitude of names, backstories and motivations, is much more suited for the imagination than for real.
3 (out of 4)
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos acquired the attention of many an American film viewer (myself included) with his idiosyncratic romance The Lobster. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a slightly more conventional next step in his directing career, but a prickly, perverse one at that.
Aligned with the pitch black comedy and bizarrely grim premise of his famous feature Dogtooth, Lanthimos takes Sacred Deer to even more unsettlingly ambiguous tonal tremors. This is the first film of his worth considering as Kubrickian: beyond some seismic low shots in dialogue and some one-point perspective, the film’s use of slow zooms and an eerie, haunted soundtrack provides echoes of The Shining despite many other differences.
Colin Farrell submits a capacity-expanding performance as ignorant surgeon Stephen Murphy – one of a similar kind of calculated restraint as his role in the director's last film – while Nicole Kidman does what she does best in the motherly role not unlike several others of hers as Anna. The real bravura acting in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is from Dunkirk actor Barry Keoghan as the queer and vindictive teenager Martin, as well as Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic as Murphy's daughter and younger son. The youth are hysterical at times and their effect on the film defines it as distressingly tense and often absurdly awkward. The film is such a tough nut to crack despite being relatively straightforward in story because of their almost robotic emotion.
There’s nothing metaphorical occurring here per se as in Lanthimos' past work, and the real world sensibility makes Sacred Deer’s smallest touches of oddity feel ever more wrong. I can see this film being torture for viewers as much as it is for Steven Murphy, but sympathy is not asked for nor encouraged for in partaking in such a psychologically maddening affair.
3 (out of 4)
In a year where Disney/Marvel has branded their films with an unflagging lightheartedness, Thor: Ragnarok, unlike Guardians Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, actually benefits from its generous helping of comedy.
And with a low bar to clear in the first two forgettable Thor installments, Ragnarok goes grander for the better in establishing its own mini-Avenger collection in the Hulk/Thor duo, plus some Loki and a new face in Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. The best part of the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it still has time for a deliriously lengthy second act that employs weirder sci-fi elements, amusing secondary characters and an enamoring sense of discovery that we so infrequently get to enjoy due to MCU’s own growing exhaustion.
While the endless quipping and tongue-in-cheek that these capeflicks dish out more and more in a "see what sticks" mentality, I can honestly say this third Thor was quite fun. Aligning along with the restrained boldness of the seriously underrated Doctor Strange, Ragnarok has inspired world-building that Guardians misses aplenty in its juvenile-aimed mischief and childish characters that work better as the cartoons they basically are.
It does no good to praise Disney's doings more than necessary, so all that is left to say is that Thor: Ragnarok taps into the episodic qualities of the franchise for the best, even if it requires typical stock villains like the Goddess of Death Hela, played by a wondrously hammy Cate Blanchett. This formula is going nowhere, but at least their tweaking the flavor enough to keep us coming back for further helpings.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
For fans of sci-fi, or really genre fare of any kind, Blade Runner 2049 should be the film equivalent of ecstasy even if Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film hasn’t earned your adornment.
The staggering visual reunion of Denis Villeneuve’s solemnly sound directorial capacities and all time great, 13 time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins coalesces into cinematic heaven purely for the eyes. But by reworking the near-future sci-fi noir elements of Philip K Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? in relatively sharp contrast to the original 35 years ago, 2049 manages to distinctly remove itself from the former film’s shadow, all by realizing everything that Blade Runner 2019 did not.
At a mammoth 164 minutes, the final outcome of this overdue sequel is an exhausting blow to the senses. It is virtually pornography for the part of the mind that relishes in the expertly cinematographic, just as calculating and intoxicating as Ana de Armas' holographic companion Joi is for Ryan Gosling’s K, an advanced replicant Blade Runner, programmed to willfully hunt and eliminate rogues of his own kind.
Harrison Ford's return as Deckard doesn’t make the film better exactly – his entrance an hour and 45 minutes in isn't a moment too soon – but he makes more of this performance than he’s done in revisiting Star Wars or Indiana Jones decades after the fact.
The only major flaw here is in Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer's eardrum-crushing score, which, while fairly minimalist for the best, can never let an expansive, breathtaking establishing shot speak for itself without droning stabs of low brass that make Inception’s infamous score – which has reshaped the art of trailers completely in our decade – look so very quaint. Something more electronic and futuristic would aid the film’s tone and atmosphere, but the film’s appropriately painstaking – almost robotic if you will – flawlessness aside makes this factor easy to ignore. We are in fact watching not just a sci-fi noir, but also a sci-fi epic – and Mr. Zimmer is keen not to let us forget it.
A thorny plot, engaging sentiment, surefire performances, superb sound design and thought-provoking themes all enhance a fairly good story that succeeds even apart from such mind-shattering beauty. The synthesis of the sublime and the sobering is a remarkable balancing act, and Blade Runner 2049 justifies every minute of its sprawling length in the even exchange of these two elements.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Films that attempt to recreate history – as well as reassess it – are always going to stumble out of the gate. Molding real life to the narrative confines of cinema and the expectations of the average moviegoer almost always results in the simplification of the central issues. The significance meant to be immortalized can often be communicated through condescension, where the themes are made very black and white.
Battle of the Sexes already has the clearest of conflicts and most obvious of morality at its core, and the film manages to make the most of a story that doesn’t exactly gel to the formula for either biographical dramas or sports films. The film has a melancholy flavor amidst the brightness and kitschy whimsy of the 1970s, and this helps the husband and wife director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make an amiable, if far from fantastic, true life account of the highly publicized 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. With only Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks to their name, Battle of the Sexes doesn't find the filmmaking pair maturing so much as finding a piece of history to fit their quirky comedy-drama chops.
Behind the camera, Linus Sandgren (recent Oscar winner for his work on La La Land) balances out the purposely faded color palette with handheld, documentary-like grain and absorbing wide shots that make negative space seem vast and daunting.
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell inhabit their respective sexes rather comfortably, and the script wisely doesn't paint Riggs as a villain. He's given less screen time than that of Stone's committed portrayal, but Carrell's own character feels human despite being a callous, self-declared chauvinist pig. And for once casting and make-up actually has our leads resembling the real-life figures very closely – when photos of the real Riggs and King appear after the film ends, we can appreciate the casting rather than groan at how loosely rendered this fabricated reality really was.
3 (out of 4)
Delivering just about everything you could want from a sequel of its ilk, The Golden Circle manages not to trip itself up with excessive seriousness and universe expansion, or get too caught up trying to top the original Kingsman's adrenaline-injected action.
To my great surprise, most of the 141 minute runtime is devoted to developing the key characters of Eggsy, (Taron Egerton) Harry (Colin Firth) and Merlin (Mark Strong) all while keeping an even pace of gadgetry, action spectacle and more than expected self-indulgence. If you didn’t care for The Secret Service, I can only imagine how sincerely you will loathe this film. But for those who rode high on Matthew Vaughn’s cheeky Bond-lite remix – bloodied and foulmouthed for our desensitized, meta-minded zeitgeist of now – The Golden Circle is a nourishing follow up with only faint symptoms of sequelitus.
What ultimately makes the new Kingsman great fun is that Matthew Vaughn takes his craft seriously even when his focus is terribly silly – he relishes in absurdity, meticulous stunt work and coy winks to the audience. But Vaughn's style churns with purpose, weaving an ambitious plot of end of the world crisis and topical politics through seamless match cuts and transitions. Even when Elton John's grating extended cameo – the movie's obvious weak spot – repeatedly threatens in to derail Kingsman's momentum, the brazen auteur smooths out many of the film's cracks and leaves you with a sense that the ridiculousness has still been thoroughly mapped out.
That said, I wish the script had a little more time for Champ (Jeff Bridges) and Tequila (Channing Tatum) of Statesman, as well as a few other fine expansions to the cast. But centering on our established heroes is a safe and well-played bet – crossing the border to Kentucky is more a footnote than a detour. Instead we get more of Julianne Moore's Poppy Adams, a marked improvement from the cartoonish lisp of Samuel L. Jackson's villain, and a larger role for Hanna Alström as Swedish Princess turned Eggsy's girlfriend.
Contrary to the repulsed reactions I was aware of before seeing it, Kingsman is far from being too over the top or ambitiously lengthy – had it gone for a few more gross outs beyond human burgers or gone numb with set pieces before the climax kicked in, I would understand the hate. But as it stands, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is fervently entertaining, richly populated and makes the idea of a third entry seem reasonable, if not entirely necessary.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Boasting a well crafted, sickly tuned ambiance that functions far better than the story, mother! succeeds as raw nightmarish energy but less so as a potent film.
Its shocks are minimal, for the film is more divisive in its allegorical touches, symbolism, and pointed abstraction that all go skin deep as far as thematic depth is concerned. mother! only truly works as a visceral calling card to Jennifer Lawrence’s emotive skills, though she’s not perfect here or in general. The young Oscar winner locates the borders of her limits as a thespian and expands on them in this brutally draining role as, for all intents and purposes, mother nature herself.
Your brain will want to evaluate mother! at face value for the first hour, which plays fairly straight, but this soon becomes impossible as logic eventually falls to the wayside. The excessive finale makes way for Darren Aronofsky's adeptness at the essence of the horrendous that have defined his superior films like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, but his inconsistency in cryptic and obvious biblical references are far removed from actual meaning. For all it’s experimentation and bracing challenges to our conditioned expectations, mother! could never touch the powerful austerity of The Wrestler, the director's best to date.
So far out of left field that it could almost be read as a pitch black comedy, mother! would earn points outside of boldness and stylistic atmosphere if only there was something tangible to care about. The camera constantly sweeps past J Law, gliding around her every move, through toils and snares – but we never care for her or any other character because they're mostly just archetypes, another facet of the allusions Aronofsky never ceases to impose on his audience.
To keep it brief...