2 1/2 (out of 4)
Though in the moment the combination of Steven Spielberg’s propulsive, intuitive directorial skills and a 175 million dollar budget equates to relatively unmatched entertainment value, Ready Player One cannot exercise many cinematic thrills without reverting to a narrative built more on referencing and borrowing from pop culture than genuine emotion or actual science fiction.
What little human elements are present – most of our time is spent in an overwhelming 3D-animated universe, the in-film virtual reality world OASIS – are pedestrian at best. Milquetoast Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, who, as his avatar Parzival, simply wants to beat the Oasis's late creator's challenges leading to control of the game and romance his online fantasy, Art3mis, or Samantha Cook in person (the gifted up-and-comer Olivia Cooke). Going into a Spielberg film I didn’t really expect much other than bright-eyed sentiment and crowd pleasing, but our lead characters aren’t barely more interesting than Ben Mendelsohn’s generic corporate villain Nolan Sorrento, a ruthless CEO seeking to exploit the OASIS for profit.
As much as I question how much involvement Spielberg and DoP Janusz Kaminski had in the digital animation process, the result is as seamless as Spielberg’s first attempt at this technology in The Adventures of Tintin. Though inferior to that film and at least half of Spielberg's filmography, it's good to know the classic director can create his worst sci-fi film by a mile and still end up with something more inspired than Avatar.
Speaking of similar movies, the film somehow emulates both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and even with its dystopian future setting Ready Player One is in the same class of maturity as those aforementioned flicks. Despite an intriguing premise that could easily bring up bigger philosophical, social or even cinematic questions, the film's story settles for the most rudimentary of thematic content. Even the rules of the OASIS' virtual universe are never properly explained, and what is spelled out for us is a crude and unfulfilled vision of the future.
At about 30 minutes too long, Spielberg shows no restraint and is especially too keen to bait his audience with nostalgia. The worst sequence of the film is an extended homage (if you can call it that) to The Shining would make Stanley Kubrick's head throb. Just a decade or so ago Spielberg was making the likes of A.I. and Minority Report, films which would have made Kubrick proud. I can't imagine what Spielberg thinks he's doing for one of his favorite films by one of his major influences – regardless of his comfort with nine-figure-budgeted blockbusters, fun can't save the largely hollow reality at work in Ready Player One.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
With auteurist trademarks so mathematical, recognizable and unswerving, does that leave any room for Wes Anderson to grow as a filmmaker? Isle of Dogs has everything you could expect and/or enjoy from the idiosyncratic director – relentless symmetry and one point perspective, affected humor, an array of quirky and appropriately named characters and so forth – but none of the unassuming maturity that often elevates his best work above a typical smorgasbord of kitsch.
In returning to stop-motion anthropomorphic animals, reminiscent of his lovely adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, this feature is sorely missing the razor-edged wit of Noah Baumbach's writing or a story that doesn’t simply please dog-lovers and hipsters. Mr. Fox was for everyone but especially kids – every other Anderson movie has a dark edge from brief moments of harsh violence and a handful of unsavory characters, but all the adult elements can't quite gel in the thoroughly twee diversion of Isle of Dogs.
But of all the criticisms of Anderson's latest, the one thing that can't be overlooked – and won't be especially in the age of SJW-commanded social media outlets – is the film's rather Americanized view of Japan. Sure, perhaps the easy cultural staples and cheap lost-in-translation humor might be intentionally small-minded, but a plot involving the Japanese government's utmost hatred of dogs feels just a few hairs shy of pretty racist. With a filmography of innocence chased with a splash or two of graphic language, violence or sexual maturity, I would assume his appropriation for the sake of an interesting setting was purely affectionate. But who knows how testy millennials and the real Japanese audiences think about this one.
So regardless of racial subtext, Isle of Dogs tries to contrast its cute band of talking dogs with the backdrop of disease, corruption and conspiracy theories. While I understand he's not adapting a children's book this time around, the effort is about half as sophisticated in its plotting, character or dialogue as Anderson's best, even if his filmmaking craft is still commanding. The film is as visually delightful as any of his past work, and the superlative voice cast comes standard, full of talented new recruits (Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig) and familiar timbres to Wes's catalogue (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, many others).
Whereas his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a calling card to the director's abilities and is furthermore quintessential Wes Anderson despite not being quite his best, Isle of Dogs is firmly amusing but does nothing as the director's ninth feature film other than to dilute the breadth of his creations altogether.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
If women didn’t turn out in droves to support the practically all-female Annihilation, I doubt that even a film that has its foot firmly in the ideological territory of the #metoo and #timesup movements will get the attention it deserves. Regardless of box office numbers I'm sure Steven Soderbergh – who has nearly 30 films under his belt – kept his budget exceptionally low this time around by shooting his latest film Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus.
But apart from the filmmaking gimmick like 2014's Tangerine, the film features one early Apple plug before completely adjusting its story to the granular texture, reduced motion blur of serviceable, pocket-size digital quality, and its a general format he's committed to for the better part of the millennia. As an experiment in lo-fi, Unsane is ultimately aided by the peculiarity of its visual grain – the aesthetic is both appropriately claustrophobic and unrestrained simultaneously given the portability of the camera source.
Apart from his digital inclinations, Soderbergh's chilling new psychological horror-thriller is also much more than its feminist themes. Unsane vigorously attempts to scrub clean the idea that men, with enough effort, can get exactly what they want from female of their interest. Hollywood has a long history of often teaching men that no doesn't always mean no; in handling a paranoia/stalker premise, Unsane looks at the pain of not being believed both in terms of sanity and safety from sexual abuse and assault. All that while also serving up strong words for the health insurance sector.
Just within the current decade Soderbergh's output has been some of the strongest of his career – Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects, and most recently Logan Lucky are all superb gems, and Unsane is no exception to the collection of taut mini-masterworks. Though another departure always seems in the midst, like we were all saying six months ago, please don't retire Steven.
2 (out of 4)
Trying to do for its own franchise what worked a decade ago in rebooting Bond and Batman, Tomb Raider attempts to give us a rousing origin story for the British-speaking, ass-kicking digital sex symbol as she's known to celluloid.
Back in the early 2000's, there was no room to grow for Angelina Jolie, whose own goddess-like stature served her personification of the practically faultless pixelated heroine well. The cartoonish antics of her portrayal in the two Tomb Raider films fell in line with the schlocky production across the board. With this revamp, injecting so much all-consuming seriousness, hamstrung emotion and a measured manner of realism doesn't take this very straightforward Tomb Raider to much further artistic reaches than its laughably entertaining predecessors. There's no punching the shark, but the writing and characterization of this by-the-books 'gritty reboot' is so one-dimensional it makes you wish the film was much, much worse.
I’ll admit Norwegian director Roar Uthaug extracts a couple moments of tension in backtracking the usually plot-armored Croft to her vulnerable and unlearned roots. The film’s second half commits to nearly constant action, and some of it actually pretty exciting, particularly in an extensive waterfall sequence.
And while the supporting cast is all but pointless to mention, recent Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander does what she can with her lack of material, doing her best to humanize and sentimentalize Croft's character. However, while Jon Voight’s role as Papa Croft was reduced to flashbacks in the original film, this version puts Dominic West's Lord Croft in a major third act role, desperately straining to make something real out of the weak father-daughter relationship. After wasting enormous effort and screen time, the film still can’t spare us flashbacks or pointless, repetitive voice-over.
Most embarrassingly of all, the film’s last moments and vague plotting serve to set up a fresh franchise only to trip over itself right out the gate at the box office. Her legend will likely begin and end here, and no one will be too forlorn at that fact.
3 (out of 4)
Cory Finley excels cautiously in first film Thoroughbreds, which debuted at last year's Sundance Film Festival and now finally is seeing a theatrical release through Focus Features. In his directorial debut Finley stirs up a rich genre mixture without ever getting overambitious. The film updates the satire of teenage nihilism that made Heathers an '80s cult touchstone while also succeeding as a sly, incredibly minimalist horror film wrapped in black comedy.
Anya Taylor-Joy, as she did for up-and-comer Robert Eggers in The Witch, proves she can sustain a fresh writer-director’s new age thrills and even elevate the results with her composed acting talents. Like Eggers' film Thoroughbreds unfortunately includes a jarring score that serves to remind you too often that you’re watching something spooky – The Witch can live with the ambiance given its obviously grim atmosphere but Finley's film could have done with a little more irony or tonal ambiguity. The film's many narrative sidesteps shouldn't be anticipated with creepy cues, but rather the music should have embraced the film's core cavalier rebelliousness more fully.
After reforming their childhood friendship Amanda (Olivia Cooke aka the dying girl in Me and Earl [a Sundance 2015 darling]) and Lily (Joy) form a pair of opposite yet similarly disassociated teens, the first brutally honest, emotionless and the other more uptight and proper. However, desperately seeking to oust her wicked stepfather via a convoluted murder scheme, Joy hopes to exploit drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin in his final, brief but excellent performance) to keep her and Amanda's hands clean in their scheme.
Giving rise to cinematic moments of sardonic humor, coy editing and clever (but never knowingly, annoyingly clever) back and forth, Thoroughbreds keeps you on your toes and entertains with ease as it plays only so loose with reality. The writing has some manner of wit, insight and thematic depth throughout all navigated by well-developed characters.
It almost feels too short, but it's not an insult to say I wish Thoroughbreds went on for another twenty minutes at least. For as much as it may lean on recognizable tropes, Finley's first is wisely sparing and fairly unconventional.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
After penning poignant efforts in 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go and directing one of the best science fiction films of the decade in 2015's Ex Machina, novelist, screenwriter and now writer-director Alex Garland has returned with an even more ambitious, disturbing and thought-provoking picture in the psychedelic, lovecraftian sci-fi thriller Annihilation.
Leading a cast of several strong female characters and Oscar Isaac, Natalie Portman does her best as cellular biologist Lena, the only one of five women to survive an expedition into the Shimmer (including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny), an ever expanding area as the result of a mysterious meteor crash, from which nothing returns yet will engulf the earth if nothing is done.
The framing device, in which the story is recollected through Lena's questioning after the fact, lends a Willy Wonka-like plot progression as each of the five main characters is picked off one by one. This leaves Annihilation with a dark yet deflated structure, an otherwise great film’s only true flaw, apart from moment or two of uninspired dialogue.
The screenplay's delicately layered themes touch on duality, cancer and the unknown, and the intelligent scripting usually forgives any flat acting or excessive exposition. The digital photography is also sublimely sickly to behold, especially in its wordless, visually ambitious and subconsciously surreal climax. The final act of Annihilation is a beautiful payoff to superb mounted anticipation as the film officially enters a constant state of mind-bending strangeness and shocks as the movie barrels toward its conclusion.
Fearlessly weird and fiercely creative, Annihilation is confident and original enough to remain on the lips of critics until the end of 2018 even if doesn't presently connect with audiences.
3 (out of 4)
As the streamlined sameness of Marvel movies becomes more repetitive with each successive film, these slightly more daring solo stories – 2016's Doctor Strange was radical by the studio's standards – break up the humdrum even if they still strictly follow the checklist for Disney-approved capeshit. So is Black Panther the greatest movie ever or just a competent blockbuster? Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a box office performance set to outpace the original Avengers for the highest grossing MCU film, seem to place that obvious rhetorical question into a serious light for some people.
Black Panther gets several things right, putting it more than a cut above your usual Marvel flick. The performances have dramatic weight, and the humor is kept to a minimum; the world-building, while flaky and not fleshed out, is interesting when it is in focus; and most importantly, there are no pointless connections to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the after the credits. The action is sparse, leaving room for an array of new heroes and conflicts – the fight sequences, though nothing more than filler, are better in general for how much the film commits to characters above all else.
Should Black Panther earn bonus points for diversity though? On some level of course, but no matter how many POCs are included, that alone cannot elevate Black Panther as filmmaking. As much of a cultural moment this film is for its inclusivity on the Hollywood blockbuster stage, it'll never resonate through the years as a watershed superhero film like The Dark Knight or the first Spider-Man by just being pretty good otherwise.
Black Panther is assuredly one of the best Marvel film's to date, and yet it's forgettable, predigested and predictable – impressive in its own context but overall nothing worth carrying on about so much.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Adept and engaging enough to please youngins all around, Early Man sadly does not possess the universality or subtle humor that can entertain all ages equally like the best of Aardman's claymation films.
That isn’t to say that the handcrafted visual delights and predictable yet speedy script won’t elicit many a chuckle from any viewer. The typically ugly, wide-mouthed characters and particular details of this prehistoric comedy are frequently amusing. But the satire of primitive man that makes up the movie’s highlight moments and funniest jokes are undone by an underdog sports movie structure that plays out free of any surprises.
Though the effort behind these projects is always easy to appreciate, the simple structure and basic emotions of Early Man make it hard to recommend when the likes of Laika are putting out little masterpieces with every attempt. The talented voice cast completely disappears behind our bug-eyed characters despite the big names like Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Timothy Spall making up our main character. Only Richard Ayoade voicing a husky caveman character continually embarrassed by his mother stood out to my ears.
Effortlessly diverting but less than stimulating, Early Man is still the best children's film you will see for some time when the likes of Peter Rabbit are the alternative.
3 (out of 4)
Though The Post and its creators risk very little unlike the journalistic minds the film depicts, Spielberg’s latest may be his best this past decade, rivaling Lincoln alone for his best recent crack at American history.
The legendary director has put together yet another singularly masterful film (within just a few months of another Spielberg joint of course), primed for the critics and the masses in equal measure. But manipulating historical facts for the sake of a nicely structured film can't be taken so lightly, especially in the Trump era. Several folks at the New York Times have criticized the film for inflating the Washington Post's significance in breaking classified Vietnam war documents to the public. Ironic as it may be for a newspaper movie to play so fast and loose with the facts, The Post is much more about ethics than accuracy – the film nonetheless seeks to justify the right to publish rather than exactly what is published.
As cinema alone though, The Post makes Spotlight, 2015's Best Picture winner, look like a glorified TV movie. The prolific pairing of Spielberg and his longtime collaborator and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski works its usual wonders without a hiccup; The Post's camerawork is fluent and often breathtakingly cinematic.
Between the spy/revenge vibrations of 2005's Munich and the political drama of Lincoln, The Post lands in the middle as a sophisticated, tightly constructed thriller and easily one of the most entertaining journalism films to date. The 10-hour window for publishing once the WaPo gets their hands on more than half of the 7,000 plus pages of classified documents catalyzes plenty of back and forth on truthfulness and accountability as well as an effective ticking clock element.
The film's ensemble is also excellent from top to bottom as well. Tom Hanks was bested for Best Actor recognition but he goes through more than the motions as as the titular paper's grouchy Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee. Meryl Streep has only to star in a movie to receive attention from the Academy, and her performance here is no more than fine. The cast is remarkably well-suited for the material and Spielberg, like he always does, gets great takes and superb performances out of damn near every facet of the sizable supporting cast.
It may be the smoothest liberal handjob of the year's Oscar contenders, but at least The Post doesn't overtly draw parallels between adapted history and today's 1st Amendment politics, as much as the obvious and uncomfortably timely echoes are there. The hoopla of Watergate that followed the events of the film feels tacked on as an ending to The Post, but its a keen reminder that despite the trend of corruption and lies at the highest levels of government, reporters will always be there to loudly and diligently dig up the truth. Over time, the relevancy of this film will hopefully be in its expert craft and timeless moral compass more than its reflection of the era.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Only the eighth film for essentially the Stanley Kubrick of the age, Paul Thomas Anderson returns from the most complex breather of all time – the wildly underrated and profusely entertaining Inherent Vice – to more dramatic features geared towards challenging the current form of film as we know it.
Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent as fastidious fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, overshadowed only by his own work with PTA a decade ago as the now legendary Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Crafting tonally ambiguous films that are difficult to fully digest without repeat viewings is what Anderson is best at, and Phantom Thread, while relatively straightforward, is still uniquely elusive given its lack of epic experimental conception – something the director's pushed more heavily with each film. The film’s closest cousins to the rest of Anderson’s filmography are surely Punch-Drunk Love and The Master, taking the former's unorthodox romance and the dominant-recessive relationship between its two leads from the latter. Many an Anderson film will feature toxic relationships, but Phantom Thread takes the cake for being the easiest one to identify and the most bewildering to comprehend.
Creating a montage of the finer emotions that go along with love and the celebration of one’s muse, Anderson purposely muddies the quixotic splendor by closely studying the role that repulsion and dissatisfaction play in our most indispensable relationships. Phantom Thread brushes the line of psychological thriller in a few moments but is otherwise a somber tale of a perfectionist, his dearest partner, and their joint quest for the sublimity of high fashion. Ironically, for studying a most persnickety man of patrician taste, technically speaking this is one of the least meticulous of Anderson’s efforts – in shooting there was no mainstay DP in what was described as a group effort. Even his last film, the narratively dense stoner noir comedy, felt more coherent in adapting Thomas Pynchon's challenging novel.
But for as reticently inscrutable as his new film is, subsequent viewings will likely reveal more and Anderson’s most divisive choices will begin to feel right. I was not warmly receptive of The Master and Inherent Vice on first watch, but they've both become personal favorites; regardless I don’t want to give Phantom Thread too much undue credit. The subtext and psychology lingering beneath this film, waiting to be unearthed and appreciated, doesn't dilute the immediate effect of this subdued and most peculiar love story.
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 hardheaded 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 soliloquies 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 1/2 (out of 4)
If the Academy Award for Best Actor were chosen by merit alone Timothée Chalamat would be a sliver more deserving for his breakout starring role in Call Me By Your Name than the intimidating Gary Oldman. But there’s more riding on Oldman’s unbeatable streak of acting trophies than just his extraordinary work as Winston Churchill in the otherwise merely standard British biopic Darkest Hour.
Though my eyes and ears have yet to be graced with Pan, Joe Wright’s filmography, and my knowledge of it, has been spotty. Pride and Prejudice and Hanna are unequivocally good films, whereas The Soloist and even Atonement are well-crafted yet unworthy of emotional investment. Darkest Hour is somewhere in between, treading humdrum quality often and a few times grazing the borders of greatness thanks to Oldman’s tremendous conviction and the cinematic subtleties of Bruno Delbonnel’s startlingly beautiful lighting and cinematography.
The DP behind the atmospheric heights of the Harry Potter series in Half-Blood Prince and in the Coen's late-career classic Inside Llewyn Davis certainly elevates several wonderful moments of Darkest Hour. Churchill’s first address to the nation over radio, as well as the movie’s most sentimental scene – wherein Churchill rides the subway for the first time in his life and discusses Britain’s difficult wartime position with average citizens – are powerful and elegantly composed.
The formulaic script yearns for slightly less Hollywood dialogue, more prominence for its female characters (Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas are all but unessential), and greater scope to the story. Given the destruction of war that lies on the horizon by the end of this film's month-long narrative in May 1940, can you really even call this Britain's darkest hour?
This and Dunkirk are like two peas in a pod, the most current Armageddon/Deep Impact year we've had. Wright's film is more traditionally satisfying than Dunkirk, yet half the film in importance. No matter how individually flawed, at least Christopher Nolan’s vision of history is for real – Darkest Hour is mostly history for show.
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 an 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.
McDonagh covers so much thematic 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 (as himself) 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 sync 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 CGI design 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 less essential 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 even sloppier if more digestibly silly.
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 also assumed. 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 ironically the reflected image is finally not of herself and out of her delicate and charmingly clumsy hands.
Saoirse Ronan isn't exactly what you would call a stand-in though. Both Baumbach/Gerwig features drew warts-and-all portraits 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 contemplate 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 that much more true to life, but Gerwig’s way with humor is just as subtly stinging as her partner's, and far more marketable.
Labeling Lady Bird as a contemporary coming-of-age film does not credit Gerwig properly for all the revelations she manages to invoke in her script 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 has poetically rewarded herself and cineastes by realizing her actual potential by turning her time 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 information 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 stiff 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 sends even more unsettlingly ambiguous tonal tremors through Sacred Deer. This is the first film of his worth considering 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.
Colin Farrell submits a capacity-expanding performance – one of a similar kind of calculated restraint as his role in The Lobster – as ignorant surgeon Stephen Murphy, while Nicole Kidman does what she does best in a motherly role, not unlike several others of hers, as the wife Anna. But 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 teenage 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 some viewers as much as it is for Steven Murphy, but sympathy is not asked for nor encouraged 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 with 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's 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 escalating 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 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 heroes that function better as cartoons than characters.
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 they're tweaking the flavor enough to keep us coming back for further helpings.
To keep it brief...