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.
To keep it brief...