Reel Opinions


Saturday, February 24, 2018

Game Night

No one will ever mistake Game Night for a great comedy, but it is a very likable one with a game cast and enough genuine laughs to recommend.  It's a modest movie, really.  It's not trying to be raucous or all that outrageous, but the dialogue is witty, and there are even a few surprises in the plot to keep the audience engaged.  I was never entirely enthused, but I wanted to keep watching.

The plot centers on buttoned-down suburban couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams).  They met a few years ago while participating in a trivia contest, and fell in love over their shared passion for games of any kind (charades, board games, video games, etc.).  Now married, they host a weekly game night where they invite their couples friends over for friendly competition.  They share a happy life together, but Max has been stressed lately over the arrival of his much wealthier and more handsome brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has always demanded attention and usually outshines Max in just about every single way.  True to form, when it is Brooks' turn to host game night, he holds it in an expensive mansion that he has rented, and has decided to spare no expense.

Brooks' idea of game night is to stage an elaborate murder mystery game.  He hires actors to play a detective and even kidnappers who are supposed to leave behind clues that the various couples must unravel in order to win a grand prize - a classic luxury car that Brooks recently bought.  But the kidnappers who show up at the house are not the actors that Brooks hired.  They are actual thugs, and they snatch Brooks away in front of everyone, who sit and watch while enjoying the cheese plate laid out before them, thinking that the crime is all a staged event.  The screenplay by Mark Perez cleverly feeds us information about what's really going on, and gets a lot of laughs out of how Max and Annie (as well as the other couples participating in the game night) think that this is all an elaborate set up, and slowly dawn upon the realization that what's going on is very real, and that Brooks' life is at stake.

Game Night earns a lot of its laughs due to the interaction between the different couples who get wrapped up in the kidnapping/murder plot.  Aside from Max and Annie, we also have Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), who have been in love since middle school, and find their faith in each other tested when it's revealed that Michelle may have had a fling with a famous celebrity (whom she will not name) during a brief lull in their relationship.  Kevin spends the night fixated on what famous person his wife may have slept with as much as on the kidnapping situation.  Another participant in the game is Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dim-witted sort who shows up to every game night with a different woman (usually a very beautiful but clueless supermodel), but on this particular evening shows up with a co-worker from work named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), who is not only smarter than him, but finds herself increasingly exasperated with him as the night wears on.

All of the couples have a part to play, and the way that the movie gives each of them something to do and play off of each other is probably its greatest strength.  Bateman and McAdams are the regular couple who find themselves in over their heads, and maybe secretly enjoy having their lives turned upside down.  McAdams, in particular, gets a lot of comic mileage out of how much she gets into handling a gun, and having to perform emergency surgery on her husband after he accidentally gets shot in the arm.  Morris and Banbury have wisely not been written as a bickering couple, and have an easy and very sweet chemistry.  He is more curious than angry about his wife having had a fling with a big celebrity, and genuinely wants to know who it was.  As for Magnussen and Horgan, they have a number of great comic exchanges where he never seems to know much of what's going on, and she seems to increasingly wonder how she got talked into this particular date.

But of the supporting characters, it is Jesse Plemons who steals the show as Gary, a cop and neighbor of Max and Annie.  He used to participate in the couple's game night when he was married, but after his wife left him, he has become increasingly sullen and weird to the point that the couple now do their best to avoid him, and no longer invite him over.  He takes an increasingly important role in the night's events as things unfold, and he gives a wonderfully bizarre and deadpan performance that gets some of the biggest laughs in the film.  He's the kind of character who easily could have been annoying with his sad sack nature, but the movie always manages to find a new and funny angle to make him interesting.

At only about 100 minutes, Game Night is a brisk comedy, and the directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015's Vacation) keep things constantly moving and never get bogged down in unnecessary subplots.  This is a lively film that never quite loses focus on the main situation, or lets the characters get drown out by the action set pieces and car stunts as the movie turns more into a comedic action thriller as it goes on.  I think the fact that it never loses sight on their characters or their relationships is what makes the movie successful.  This could have easily been yet another movie about ordinary suburban people who find themselves in a world they don't understand, but the movie is much smarter than that.  This is a movie that gives these characters smart and funny dialogue, and never loses sight of what makes them interesting.

Even if this is never a great comedy, it is a smarter one than I expected walking in, and it manages to build to some genuine laughs.  The action and stunts here never really thrill, but I don't think that was the main focus.  The main cast and the dialogue are the real draw here, and as always, that is more than enough.

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Every Day

Every Day has a fantastic premise for a romantic drama, and then squanders it on a plot where not a whole lot happens, and on people who are not that interesting.  Oh, the teens at the center of the romance are likable enough, and they are played by good actors.  In fact, one of the lovers is played by several good actors, both men and women. (You'll understand in a minute.) But they've been written in a way so that they are not that interesting, and only the charm and screen presence of the young actors carries us through.

I have not read the novel by David Levithan that inspired the screenplay by Jesse Andrews, so I don't know if the book has the same problems.  All I know is that I was left with a constant sense that given its premise, this movie should be so much more involving than it is.  Its premise is intriguing.  A high school girl named Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) falls in love with someone who wakes up in the body of a different person every day.  This person (or perhaps a spirit) goes only by the name of "A", and is constantly switching bodies when the clock strikes midnight.  It can be a man or a woman, and even A is not sure of what its true sex is, as this unexplained phenomenon has been happening its entire life.  The bodies that A enters for a 24 hour period are always around the same age as it, and always in the same area.  A is careful not to interfere too much with the lives of the people it inhabits for one day.  When A leaves the body and goes to another one, the person he was previously inhabiting has no memories of the previous day when A was in control.

Right off the bat, your mind is probably racing with possibilities of where a story like this could go.  We never fully know who or what A truly is, or what has caused this to happen.  It's probably best this way, and A most likely does not understand.  But still, think of what a writer could do with a story where one of its central characters inhabits a different body every day.  What would happen if A woke up one day to find himself in the body of someone who had no legs?  Would he know how to get around for the 24 hours he found himself trapped in that particular body?  Or what if he wound up in the body of someone who was comatose?  The movie does actually hint at these intriguing possibilities, such as when he wakes up once in the body of a blind teen, and later we learn that he was once in the body of someone who was undergoing surgery.  But the movie treats this as throwaway details, and does not truly explore what it would be like for someone to experience such a situation.  The movie also never addresses what happens to the person's actual personality or soul during the one day A is inhabiting them.  If A has control of the body, does he push the actual person out somehow?  After all, when A is inhabiting them, they take on his personality and mannerisms.  This opens up a whole other issue that the movie somehow dodges.

Rhiannon first encounters A when it happens to inhabit the body of her usually shallow and jealous lunkhead of a boyfriend, Justin (Justice Smith).  During the one day that A inhabits Justin's body, he is kind and respectful toward Rhiannon, and they spend a great day together.  Rhiannon sees a kinder and gentler side that she has never seen before in Justin, and seems to fall in love with him all over again.  While inhabiting Justin, A falls for Rhiannon as well.  From that point on, whenever he enters a new body, he tracks down Rhiannon and tries to get close to her again.  It's the first time he's felt a human connection to anyone.  Of course, first A has to convince Rhiannon about what is happening.  You would think this would be difficult, but she seems to go along with the idea about the whole body swapping business after about five minutes of denial.  Yes, A knows intimate details about her and what they talked about when they spent the day together when he was Justin.  But, you still think Rhiannon would be just a little more doubtful.

During the course of the film, A takes the form of a heavyset yet gentle kid (Jacob Batalon from Spider-Man: Homecoming), a transgender teen named Vic (Ian Alexander), a black kid who is homeschooled and lives with a domineering and controlling mother (Sean Jones), and at one point, even wakes up in the body of a troubled teen who has cuts on her arms from failed suicide attempts.  When A is in this girl's body, it wants to figure out how to stay in the body longer than 24 hours so that it can help this girl get the attention and care that she needs.  Can A stay in a body longer than 24 hours, and is it right to interfere with a person's life, even if it is to save their life?  Again, intriguing possibilities, and again the screenplay chooses to sidestep just about every one for the easiest and most trite answer possible.  It all leads up to a forced climax and conclusion that manages to be both melodramatic and head-scratching at the same time.

Every Day, while never an unwatchable movie, simply infuriated me with how it seemed determined to ignore every possibility its premise presents itself.  There is so much that could have been done with its idea, and with the character of A.  Heck, multiple movies could probably be made about this idea.  I don't even object to the movie being a teen romance, as you could still fit these intriguing ideas into the formula.  Not only that, but Angourie Rice is fantastic as Rhiannon, and carries a screen presence that immediately grabs your attention.  By all accounts, this should have been a smashing success.  I was fascinated early on as the story began to open up numerous possibilities, only to have it focus on the most banal and trivial teen romance imaginable.  I wanted to feel things while I was watching this, but the emotion that entered my mind the most was disappointment.

Maybe some people will be able to lose themselves in the romantic fantasy that this movie creates.  More power to them.  I wish I could join them.  But all I could think about is that I wanted a different writer to have another crack at this script, and truly exploit its potential.  Again, for all I know, the movie is just being faithful to the book.  If that's the case, the screenwriter should have gone in a different direction.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Annihilation

Alex Garland's Annihilation has stirred up some pre-release hype the past few weeks over the fact that its studio, Paramount Pictures, doubts its chances at the box office, and are not only doing little to promote it, but are also completely skipping a theatrical release in some areas outside of the US, and putting it straight to Netflix.  My guess is that they're still feeling sore from the response Mother! got when it came out last fall, and are mentally preparing for another audience backlash.

This is, of course, ridiculous.  This might be a challenging and polarizing film that is hard to label (I guess it could technically be labeled a Sci-Fi drama with elements of a thriller, but that sounds a bit too basic), and of course audiences will likely be divided on it.  That's the whole point of the film.  I'm sure the studio execs knew this when they greenlit the script.  Now, likely because of a past film's performance at the box office, they are trying to squash this one before it even gets a chance for the public to make up its mind.  Instead of letting people see for themselves, they are slowly pushing this out like they're embarrassed by it.  They even withheld it from critics until just a few days before release. (As of this writing, the film is sitting at a 88% critic score and a respectable 72% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.) If this movie bombs at the box office, the studio will only have itself to blame, and certain people will have missed out on a great and thought-provoking film experience.

And this is a great movie, falling just short of an amazing one.  The only thing holding it back with me is that it employs a story-telling device that I seldom find successful.  That would be telling the whole story in flashback, with the film opening near the end of the story, and having the main character recount everything that happened.  In this case, a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman) is being questioned in a secure room by a man in a bio hazard suit.  There are multiple people standing just outside of the room, watching through the windows, also in protective masks.   The man questioning her asks about her mission, and what happened to those who were with her.  She tells him and us, so we already know the fates of the characters before the story proper has even begun.  I have never been a big fan of this story structure.  It can be used successfully, but most of the time, this approach of starting at the end and going backwards always kills a tiny bit of the mystery for me.  It's a personal thing, really.

As Lena tells her story, we flashback to the events that led up to this interrogation.  At the start, she's a successful biologist who has been grieving over the disappearance and presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier with the army who was sent away on a secret mission one year ago, and has not been heard from since.  Lena was in the very tentative stages of moving on, when Kane suddenly appears in their home with no memory of how he got there, or even what's happened to him or where he's been for the past year.  He is dead-eyed, distant, and then he starts spitting up blood.  In further flashbacks, we see how Kane was once a passionate and lively man.  That's right, we have flashbacks within flashbacks here, which is another personal pet peeve of mine.  It's not that the story is hard to follow.  Garland's screenplay actually pieces the story out very clearly, and even though it jumps around to different time periods, it's never confusing where the current scene we're watching is set.  Again, it's just a personal thing, and I'm not a fan of when filmmakers employ multiple flashbacks to tell the story.

Both Lena and Kane are sent to a research facility where Kane is placed under quarantine, and Lena slowly learns of the facility's purpose.  On the outskirts of the walls of the building, there is a glowing wall of light that the scientists at the facility refer to as The Shimmer.  It appeared when a meteor fell from space and struck a nearby lighthouse a few years ago.  Now, the wall of light is growing.  At the moment, it is mostly covering the surrounding swampland, but in time, it will grow large enough to engulf the facility, and eventually spread across the state and possibly even the nation.  No one knows the purpose of The Shimmer.  Field teams and soldiers have been sent through the wall of light to investigate, but nobody has come back out, and all radio communication goes dead.  Lena soon learns from a head scientist at the facility, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that her husband's secret mission involved entering the area within The Shimmer, and that he is the first person to come out of it.  It is presumed that anyone that goes within the wall of light either goes crazy and kills each other, or are killed by something or someone that may be within it.

Learning all of this and wanting to know about what happened to her husband, Lena signs up to join the next team that is going to venture inside The Shimmer.  The team is made up of female scientists from the facility, and include the tough Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the shy and timid Josie (Tessa Thompson) and the gentle Cass (Tuva Novotny).  The team is led by Dr. Ventress, and as they step through the wall of light and try to make it to the lighthouse where all of this originated, the movie expertly feeds us information while constantly keeping us intrigued.  We are still on Earth, and yet there is something very foreign and alien about the surrounding landscape, and some of the events that the team discover, which I will not reveal.  We also learn small tidbits of info about what happened to the previous teams (including Kane's) through writings that have been left behind, as well as video diaries and journals that hint at something truly horrifying.

Annihilation does an excellent job of not only earning out interest with the clues it doles out, but paying it off with some spectacular and truly suspenseful set pieces.  This is just as much a thriller as it is a Sci-Fi drama that asks important questions about humanity and how we may be viewed by a force or life not our own.  One of the more immersive ways that the movie creates tension is with the tremendous sound design.  There are two moments that come to mind, one is when the team of women come face-to-face with something that mimics the sounds of its victims, and another is during the climactic moments, which creates sounds so unearthly, it's enough to set you on edge.  Another aspect is the visual design, which can be beautiful and foreign all at once.  We are drawn in by the splendor of some of the settings within The Shimmer, because they do not seem of this Earth, even though we know they are.

I am certain that a lot of the answers the film arrives at are likely to spark debate within anyone who watches it, and there is never anything wrong with that.  If anything, it should guarantee that the film gets multiple viewings by those who appreciate the film. (I, for one, am looking forward to see if I like the film even more with repeated viewings.) This is a dense film, but it is not impossible to decipher.  It gives you enough information to make your own opinion as to what exactly is inside The Shimmer, while at the same time leaving enough open that it can spark imagination and conversation.  This is not a movie that provides more questions or confusion than answers.  It is not frustrating, vague or even that confusing.  It is dense in the best ways, and while we may not understand everything, we know more than enough that we walk out feeling engaged and fascinated rather than cheated.

Despite my personal gripes about the story structure, which is easy to forgive in the face of everything the movie does so well, Annihilation is a rewarding experience for anyone who is willing to give it the time it needs to process in their minds.  Unlike Mother!, this is not a film full of ideas that almost seems to be daring the audience to make a connection or figure it out.  It's challenging, but not impenetrable.  It's a shame that Paramount does not see this, and I hope their lack of faith in the project does not keep people away.


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Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Best Films of 2017

Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year" list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and get one out also, shouldn't I?  As always, I have a good excuse.  As a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait.  I did get to see most of the major end of the year releases (the only big ones that I never got to see were Call Me by Your Name and The Disaster Artist), so I feel the time is ready to make the list.  I apologize to those of you who were looking forward to my views on the two films I missed, but they never came close enough to my area.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2017.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in alphabetical order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2017

THE POST -  This is not the rough and shocking Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List.  This movie is a melodrama, and a soft one at that.  Where the greatness comes from is from the performances, and the way that Spielberg frames the story kind of like a great 1930s drama, filled with great actors in just about every role, and whip-smart writing that not only offers killer lines and monologues, but also fills in all the details we need, without giving us any unnecessary subplots or scenes.  Everything is connected beautifully, and no one can deny what an effortlessly crowd-pleasing movie this is.  It's a great entertainment that manages to tell the story swiftly without losing any of the power of the story.  It's impossible not to think of the current war going on between the current Administration and the Press while you watch this, and no matter what your thoughts on that situation may be, The Post gives a lot of food for thought.  This is a film to be remembered, and I highly doubt anything will be able to diminish the power that it holds.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2017 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

BABY DRIVER -  Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is not just the best all-out action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, it's a reminder of what summer blockbusters used to be before superheroes largely took over.  Fast-paced, plenty of kinetic stunts, a few breathless chase and action scenes, some laughs, a romantic angle, and a soundtrack that would become just as famous as the movie itself.  This movie is all of the above and more.  If the Fast and Furious movies were half this good, I'd be counting down the days to the next installment.  Baby Driver is the one of the very few times when music video-style editing and rhythm has been pulled off successfully in a feature film.  Every sound is perfectly timed with the music on the soundtrack, from the screeching of tires on the pavement, to the gunshots, right down to the sound of bundles of money being dropped on a desk.  This might lead you to think that the film is a gimmick, or perhaps an empty spectacle, but Wright allows us not just to be mesmerized by the choreography, but also drawn in by the characters and their individual quirks and relationships.  This is a high-concept film with heart to go along with the boundless style.  It's also simply one of those small cinematic miracles where everything just works.

THE BIG SICK - This is the best romantic comedy I have seen in a very long time.  Like the best films of the genre, we don't only root for the couple at the center of the story and want to see them get together, but it is also filled with undeniable truths about relationships to go with the laughs.  It has moments of sadness, sweetness and joy.  This is easily one of the most uplifting film of 2017, and helped clear the air a little after a string of stinker comedies aimed at adults that came during the year, such as CHIPs, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.  The film is loosely based on the real life relationship between the film's writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  They met some 10 years ago, when Nanjiani was a stand up comic working in Chicago, and Gordon was a therapist.  They fell in love, but eight months into their relationship, Emily got sick and had to be placed into a medically-induced coma.  The film uses this simple premise to create such a heartfelt and funny film that works on every level.  There is no forced sentiment, no situations that a real couple cannot relate to, and nothing feels artificial here.  With Kumail Nanjiani playing himself, and Zoe Kazan filling in for Emily up on the screen, they create a natural chemistry.  The Big Sick made me happier than just about any other movie so far this year, and is not only the funniest movie of the year, but also the sweetest and most charming. 

THE BREADWINNER - More than any other film I've seen recently, The Breadwinner is a reminder of just how powerful an artform animation can be.  But maybe it's not so surprising when you realize that the director behind this film is Nora Twomey, who is one of the founders of the Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon, and was a key player in the group's pair of Oscar-nominated features, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.  Instead of Ireland, this film is set in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, taking place during the last days of Taliban rule.  However, just like their previous works, this film shares a love of the culture of where the story is set, as well as love of storytelling and striking images.  The Breadwinner is often a harrowing story of survival, but it is also one of hope.  What I admired most about the film is despite the fact that it is animated, it never backs away from the harsh cruelty of the Taliban, and the cultural injustices that Parvana and other women face everyday.  There are some scenes of violence that can be surprisingly brutal, but are never flashy.  We are witnessing cruelty, and the movie never lets us forget it.  The Breadwinner is powerful both in its story and in the artwork.  Accompanied by a lush Afghan-themed music score by Mychael and Jeff Danna, this movie is truly transporting, and shows us a part of the world many seldom see.  The story itself is about bravery, but the movie itself is pretty brave as well. 

COCO - With its cast of skeletons and somewhat gentle macabre tone, this may be one of the riskiest and certainly the strangest film Pixar has ever done.  This represents the studio doing something that they have never done before, and doing so in a way that is certain to delight just about anyone who watches it.  It's not just the most visually stylish film that they have attempted, but it's also quite frequently funny and highly emotional, as all the best films to come out of Pixar are.  Even if this year had been a high watermark for the animation industry, Coco would still stand out as one of the best of the year.  What the directing team of Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina have done is given us a story that starts out being simple and effective, but gradually grows in complexity, and even tackles some fairly heavy and dark themes as a young boy journeys to the World of the Dead to learn about his ancestors.  Beyond the story, however, Coco is simply a joy to watch.  This is easily the most colorful and complex looking film to come out of Pixar, and just about every scene is awash in color, detail and imagination.  As soon as Miguel enters the World of the Dead, the movie never stops coming up with images that we have never seen before.  Coco has all the humor, heart and emotion that we have come to expect from Pixar, and seldom get from some of their recent efforts like the Cars sequels.  It's a lush and lavish love letter to Mexican culture, but it's also a genuinely involving and at times powerful experience.  This is the kind of animated feature that adults should seek out even if they don't have kids to go with them.  But this is more than just a great animated film.  It's simply a great movie in general, and one of the best of the year.

THE FOUNDER -  The Founder was, at one time, being groomed by The Weinstein Company as a big Award Season movie for 2016.  But, for whatever reason, the studio got cold feet, and instead dumped it in January of last year with little fanfare.  I honestly can't imagine why.  This is a great little movie, with a captivating lead performance by Michael Keaton.  It tells the true story of Ray Kroc (Keaton), a middle-aged fast-talking salesman who in 1954 had his life and his fortunes take a turn when he discovered a revolutionary little burger stand in California run by two forward-thinking, but naive, brothers.  Their restaurant, called McDonald's, was unlike anything at the time, creating a streamlined cooking process that could have your order in seconds instead of a half hour, and dreaming up many ideas that would become staples of the fast food world, such as having the food packed in wrappers, and a walk up window to order food from.  The film tells the story of how Ray appealed to the brothers to franchise the business, and then slowly but surely took total control of their empire by doing things on his terms, and generally rewriting history.  In a way, The Founder is not far removed from The Social Network, which also told the story of someone who had the ambition to take an idea like Facebook and fly with it.  Ray saw the "Golden Arches" logo (which one of the brothers had dreamed up) as a sign that could be as American as the flag, and he knew how to capitalize on it.  As Ray's ambition grew, and he started placing McDonald's restaurants all across the Midwest and eventually the U.S., he also found himself wanting to work away from the McDonalds Brothers themselves, and turn the franchise into something entirely his own.  The Founder inhabits a gray area with its subject matter.  It pulls no punches in showing that Kroc was essentially a crook who took a lot of people for a ride, and wound up laughing all the way to the bank.  Still, it is wise not to entirely vilify him, and to essentially make him the all around story of the American Dream.  How through hard work and determination, this man who thought life had passed him by was able to make it in the world.  The tone of the film seems to both admire and be just a little bit horrified by its topic, and I think the movie finds the right balance.  It gives the movie a certain darkly comic edge that we don't usually find in a lot of "based on a true story" films, which usually try to paint their subject in as grand a light as possible.

I, TONYA - Here is one of the most entertaining bio-pics I have ever seen.  It simultaneously managed to make me laugh, cringe, anger me, make me tearful, and ultimately make me feel completely and utterly enthralled.  Based on "irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly" (as the opening credits inform us), the movie is a whirlwind telling of Harding's life, leading up to the infamous 1994 knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s Olympic skating teammate and rival, and the aftermath that followed.  The movie is told using both dramatic recreations, and "interview" segments with the actors portraying the characters talking to the camera in documentary-style clips.  The genius of the film is how even though the film is told mostly from Tonya Harding's point of view, we also get the viewpoints of the other people in her life, and their contradicting opinions on what really happened.  Sometimes, the movie will go split screen, with Harding (played here in a career-topping performance by Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) giving us their personal view of what happened, and acting as bickering narrators.  I, Tonya is electric as it races through different points in Harding's life.  We see the awkward early moments of her relationship with Jeff, and how that relationship eventually became abusive.  Again, the genius here is that we get the point of view of both characters, with Jeff taking a kind of victim mentality, saying that he was the one abused instead of Tonya's narrative of him being a controlling monster.  The film works both as a pitch black comedy, and also as a tragedy, as we witness Tonya's constant and desperate need for acceptance.  It is this tricky balance that the film pulls off so flawlessly which makes it so memorable, combined with the fantastic performances from Robbie and Allison Janney, who portrays Tonya's chain-smoking, abrasive, physically and verbally abusive mother, LaVona Golden.

LADY BIRD -  This is a coming of age story that perfectly captures the intensity and honesty of teenage years.  It remembers the time when everything is just so important and all-consuming.  Every crush, every heartbreak, every betrayal - It all just feels so massive when you are at a certain age.  Gerwig is an actress who has worked behind the camera before, but this is her solo directing debut, and it shows her as a filmmaker who is able to not just be able to capture a voice from a certain period of life, but also a specific time and place. (The film is set around 2002 and 2003.) This is not a plot heavy film.  The heroine at the center of the film does not go on an amazing adventure, and there's really no manufactured elements or contrived crises to drive the story.  It's simply about a young girl experiencing high school and family.  Lady Bird really is a movie made up out of small moments.  Yes, we do get some scenes that are typical in the teenage film genre, such as when the heroine ditches her geeky best friend for some much cooler kids.  But that's really not what the film is about.  It is about her individual discoveries, her desires (she plots out exactly how and when she will lose her virginity), and how those can change at a drop of a hat.  Saoirse Ronan is excellent at portraying all of these angles of the lead role, and making her seem not so much like a written character, but rather a fleshed out girl that you have probably known or met before at some point.  Lady Bird is a small, independent film, but I think it has all the makings of a huge crowd pleaser.  Girls the same age as the main character will see someone they can relate to, and adults will find a lot of honesty and reflection in the film of their own past.  Gerwig proves herself here of not just being a great filmmaker, but also one who knows how to speak to audiences.  This is the kind of movie where everyone who watches it will walk away recognizing something in themselves.

THE SHAPE OF WATER -  Guillermo del Toro shows a supremely deft hand with The Shape of Water, a beautiful film that manages to be an adult fairy tale, mixing in elements of Beauty and the Beast, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Hollywood musicals, 1950s cinema, Shirley Temple movies, and a Cold War spy story.  It sounds ludicrous, and perhaps in the wrong hands, it would have been a bloated disaster.  But del Toro shows early on that he knows how to tell this story, and though there are a couple bumps along the way, he never loses his vision, which is to essentially make an unabashed love story.  The movie immediately grabs our attention with its heroine, Elisa, played with incredible grace by the wonderful Sally Hawkins.  She is easily one of the more unforgettable lead characters in recent cinema.  From there, it builds into a bizarre tale of this woman slowly caring and eventually falling for an aquatic sea monster man who is being held captive in a lab where she works as a janitor.  The movie also works as a giant love letter to classic Hollywood, with references to classic movies.  I feel I must stress again that I understand how bizarre this all sounds, but del Toro makes this work by creating a whimsical world where we can buy this stuff happening.  He is also aided by an exceptional cast who find the right balance of realism and fantastical charm in order to sell this material.  But it is the sentimental, strong and overall emotional performance by Sally Hawkins that not only grounds the fantastical story into some kind of reality, but is also whimsical enough that we are willing to follow where the movie goes.  She is what holds The Shape of Water together, and is a big part of what makes the film the magical and romantic experience that it is.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI -  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not just a great movie, it's a surprising one.  The path that the plot and the characters go are not what we are expect.  There are so many small surprises here that I will have to do my best to not reveal too much.  This is the kind of movie where you're better off knowing as little as possible walking in.  The characters who inhabit this strange, sometimes funny, and occasionally heartbreaking story include Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a grieving and divorced mother who lost her teenage daughter about eight months ago when she was discovered raped and murdered.  The police investigation has since gone cold, and Mildred is determined to keep them focused on finding the man responsible.   The police are represented by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who can be foul-mouthed and hot tempered at times, but is also a family man and genuinely seems to care about finding justice for Mildred.  There is also his officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is racist, violent, not very bright, and lives with his mother, who shares all of the same qualities, only stronger.  We accept these people, and think we know where they are headed.  But then, writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) starts throwing in twists to all of these characters, and we realize that we are not going to be able to predict the path that the movie is going to take us.  Not only is the plot not easy to predict, but so is the ultimate fate of these characters.  This alone is rare enough in just about any movie.  But when you throw in the fantastic performances, powerful moments, and even genuinely hilarious moments of dark comedy, you instantly get one of the best films of the year.  The murder of Mildred's daughter is constantly at the center of many of the film's scenes, and yet the movie manages to never be depressing and overbearing, while not trivializing the situation.  It has a wonderfully dark comedic sensibility to a lot of the scenes, with laughs that come naturally from a lot of the scenarios that these people find themselves in.  This movie draws you in, catches you off guard, and then draws you in even further with the different directions that it takes.  It's the rare film that captivates and surprises, and it deserves to be seen.  Just do your best to walk into it knowing as little as possible.  The experience will be richer for it.

YOUR NAME -  Just like The Breadwinner, here is Your Name to remind me of the real power of animation.  This import from Japan (which was the biggest money maker at the box office in its home country in 2016) is a beautiful, poignant and ultimately powerful story that really sneaks up on you.  At first, the movie seems like kind of a cute body-swapping lark.  But, writer-director Makoto Shinkai (adapting from his own novel) lets his characters and the drama build, until it grows into an ultimately moving and heartfelt experience.  The plot centers on two high school students (a boy and a girl) who live on the opposite sides of Japan, but become connected due to a supernatural event that allows them to share each other's lives, and wake up in the other person's body seemingly at random.  As the two try to figure out what is going on, they also become fascinated by the other person that they are inhabiting.  They start leaving messages for each other to discover when they return to their rightful bodies, wanting to learn about each other, and their lives.  From that point on, Your Name stops being your standard and cute body swapping comedy, and becomes something much more.  But even before the story starts to take some unique and interesting directions, we are already drawn in by the artistry of the film, as well as the way that Shinkai has written his two lead characters.  The eye for detail that the artists display here is something to truly admire, to the point that there were many moments sitting in the theater where I wished I could pause the film and study what I was seeing.  From the skyscrapers of Tokyo, to the small homes in the country village, everything has the feel that it was lovingly crafted and designed.  Despite its heavy supernatural tone, this is a deeply human story, and one that leads to some surprisingly thought provoking moments near the end.  This movie is the perfect blend of the honest and the fantastic.  It's genuine and heartfelt, but has a real sense of wonder.  It's rare to see such a balance pulled off this well, but Shinkai has done just that.  Your Name is a subtle film that ends up being capable of enormous emotional power.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

John Wick: Chapter 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Fist Fight, Get Out, Logan, Before I Fall, Kong: Skull Island, Going in Style, Phoenix Forgotten, The Promise, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Everything Everything, Wonder Woman, Captain Underpants, It Comes at Night, 47 Meters Down, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, Girls Trip, Detroit, Logan Lucky, The Hitman's Bodyguard, Wind River, It, Mother!, American Made, Blade Runner 2049, Brad's Status, Battle of the Sexes, The Foreigner, Happy Death Day, Professor Marsten and the Wonder Women, Victoria & Abdul, Only the Brave, Thor: Ragnarok, Murder on the Orient Express, Last Flag Flying, Wonder, Marshall, Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Ferdinand, Darkest Hour, All the Money in the World, Molly's Game


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread
Tom Hanks in The Post
Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins in The Shape of Water
Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ray Romano in The Big Sick
Andy Serkis in War for the Planet of the Apes

MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Ana de Armas in Blade Runner 2049
Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Allison Janney in I, Tonya
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water
Meryl Streep in The Post

So, those are my favorites of 2017 in a nutshell!  Hopefully, as we go further into 2018, we will get many more bright moments to come in the cinema.
 

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Early Man

Britain's Aardman Animation has made a name for themselves with their smart humor, and trademark stop motion animation style, which has a certain charmingly retro look to it in this day and age of expensive CG visual-fests.  (Although, the studio has tried their hand at CG films in the past.) Their latest effort, Early Man, is an unfortunately mediocre attempt by the usually reliable team.  Its visuals can only carry the film so far.  The movie itself is more or less a cliched and undercooked sports underdog story with some stone age puns that seem to have been pulled right out of The Flintstones.

Setting an animated film in the prehistoric times almost seems to be a curse for most animation studios, as it has largely led to mediocrity with past attempts like the Ice Age series, or The Croods.  The curse has now claimed the mighty Aardman, who are usually much smarter and brighter than the material they work with here.  Gone is a lot of the trademark wit and satire, and it's been replaced with a dull story about a largely inept stone age tribe trying to save themselves from a life of slavery by challenging a Bronze Age tribe to a game of Football (that's Soccer, to us Americans).  It would be different if the movie had some fun with the sports movie cliches that it uses, but director Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit) seems content to just follow the rules laid by too many films just like it.  And aside from the occasional funny line or background gag (a vendor in a city is seen selling "Jurassic Pork"), this is simply uninspired, and will likely appeal only to very little kids who just happen to be aficionados of British sports and prehistoric puns. 

The plot is kicked off by Dug (voice by Eddie Redmayne), a young caveman who is a member of a pretty stupid tribe who has somehow managed to survive by only eating rabbit, while avoiding the much bigger and meatier animals.  The Chief of Dug's tribe (Timothy Spall) wants things to remain the way they are.  After all, he's the eldest member of the tribe (he's 32), and feels his tribe should stay put where they are to survive, instead of seeking out mammoths to hunt.  One day, the tribe is attacked by a kingdom that has embraced bronze mining and making material out of metal rather than bone and rocks.  They are led by the flamboyant Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddletson), and conquer the land of Dug's tribe for the precious ore that is hidden underneath.  

The tribe is kicked off their land, and Dug quickly comes to the conclusion that the only way to get it back is by challenging the kingdom to a game of soccer.  The stakes are high, for if they lose, Dug and his tribe will be forced to work in the mines the rest of their lives.  Cue the training montage, where the tribe seems to be hopeless at the sport.  But then, they are aided by the spunky young Goona (Maisie Williams), who is not allowed to play the sport in the kingdom because she's a woman.  From there, anyone with the slightest knowledge of how these movies play out can figure out what happens next.  The girl who no one will let play ends up being a star athlete, the kid who wants to play but is kept on the sidelines (in this case, the "kid" is a wild boar named Hognob, who is Dug's pet) will have to step in and help the team out near the end of the game, one of the players on the good team will get injured at one point, and the evil team will cheat in order to win.  Do the cavemen end up winning the big game?  I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending.

Early Man just seems content to exist, and is never better than it needs to be.  The characters who make up Dug's tribe are largely interchangeable and are not interesting.  This goes for Dug himself, as he never changes or seems to learn anything during the course of the film.  He's just endlessly optimistic and cheerful, except for the brief moment where the evil Lord Nooth tries to talk him into forfeiting the match.  Even the jokes seem oddly uninspired, and often come across like holdovers from The Flintstones, with the cavemen using tiny crocodiles as clothes pins and a beetle as a beard shaver.  The only gag that works is a Message Bird (voiced by Rob Bryden), who mimics the voice of the person who has sent the message, and acts out their part.  This is clever, and frankly, the movie could have used more jokes like it.

There are some great visuals and a couple chuckle-worthy lines ("You haven't touched your primordial soup!"), but outside of these fleeting moments, Early Man seems like an effort that was made by great artists who had something else on their minds at the time.  It's far from terrible, but there's just very little to get excited about here when you get down to it.


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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther

Black Panther is the first great entertainment of 2018, and in my mind, is the best Marvel movie to come out in a while.  Yes, the movie has all the action and stunts you would expect, but it really has so much more on its mind.  It's a vibrant film, full of life, and with a large cast of characters who are all wonderfully developed and never once seem shortchanged or pushed to the background.  It also has a wonderful setting that we haven't seen in the movies before.  Not only that, it achieves what few superhero movies have been able to do, by giving us both a memorable hero and villain, and allows us to be engaged in their struggle.  This is a movie that fires on all cylinders.

I will admit up front, I knew little about the Black Panther character or his comics walking in, other than his previous appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (He was introduced in Captain America: Civil War.) I even walked into the film knowing little about it, as I tried my best to avoid the trailers, so it could be as fresh of an experience as possible.  I feel this is the best way to approach the film, as it holds many wonderful surprises.  Of course, this creates a problem for me the reviewer, as how do I express my thoughts on the virtues of the film without giving too much away?  I will do my best to be vague with the plot details, as director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed) has made a lot of smart choices in telling the story.  One of the wisest decisions he makes is to not waste a lot of time setting up the character.  This is more of an Introduction Story, rather than an Origin Story.

It also has a lot to say about certain issues.  The characters here talk a lot about their philosophy of inclusion, and competing the notions of isolation and nationalism.  A lot of the characters are against building barriers to the outside world.  This is very relevant, as the story is largely set in the fictional African country of Wakanda.  To the outside world, Wakanda appears to be a struggling third world land filled with poverty and strife.  This is all an illusion, however, as a technological shield covers the land and hides the truth from everyone.  The truth is that Wakanda is the most technologically proficient country in the world capable of wonders in science, mechanics and medicine unheard of to the rest of the world.  This is all due to a rare mineral from outer space known as Vibranium, which the people of Wakanda use to create all their technology and weapons.  The land's true power and purpose must remain hidden to the outside world, as there are a lot of forces who have been searching for Vibranium and the power it holds, and could use it for evil purposes.

Wakanda's new King, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes the throne after his father is killed in a terrorist attack, an event that was depicted in the previously mentioned Civil War.  If that makes you nervous that you will have to see a lot of previous films in the Marvel Universe in order to catch up or to understand what's going on, do not worry.  This is largely a stand-alone story, and it tells you all that you need to know without drowning in backstory.  He also takes on the identity of the Black Panther, a superhero clad in an all black technological outfit that the ruler of Wakanda routinely takes on in order to protect his people.  He is aided in his fight to keep the peace by his younger sister and scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright), who acts a lot like Q in the James Bond franchise, creating new gadgets and weapons for her brother, which she proudly shows off to him in her lab before he goes out on a mission.   The other two who stand by his side are his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the head of the military, Okoye (Danai Gurira).

This leads to one of the more unexpected and wonderful elements of Black Panther.  This is a very female-centered superhero movie.  All three of these female characters are fully fleshed out, and not only play a big part in the story, but are written with intelligence and wit.  Even T'Challa's mother (Angela Bassett) is not a passive character, and remains a strong presence throughout the film.  A lot of people praised last year's Wonder Woman movie for its female empowerment angle, but in a lot of ways, I found this film to be even stronger in that regard.  These are all supporting characters, and could have easily been pushed into the background or have simply disappeared when the plot deemed it necessary.  Instead, they stand and even fight alongside Black Panther for pretty much the entire movie.  Not only that, they are interesting, intelligent and well-written women characters who immediately grab your attention and hold onto it.  

The plot centers around a black market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who managed to steal some precious Vibranium weapons years ago, and is now attempting to sell them to terrorist armies.  He has even fashioned a mechanical arm for himself, which doubles as a powerful arm cannon.  The other central villain is Erik (Michael B. Jordan, who has appeared in all of director Ryan Coogler's films, creating a wonderful working relationship), who starts the film off as one of Klaue's lackeys, but his role in the story quickly grows for reasons I will not reveal.  All I will say is that both Klaue and Erik serve as perfect antagonists for different reasons.  Klaue is a somewhat comical, but definitely dangerous individual who murders without a second thought, while Erik is seemingly more controlled and maybe a bit likable, but just as unhinged, only by anger instead of madness.  His role in the story creates a complex blend of a character we can sympathize with as well as a someone who is easy to hate for some of his actions.  He's one of the better villains to appear in a Marvel film.

It is these wonderful characters and their expertly written and developed relationships that make Black Panther one of the strongest entries in the expanding cinematic universe of Marvel Comics.  Yes, the movie can be thrilling in its action, but it is just as thrilling because we really and truly care about everyone who inhabits the story.  Nobody here is unimportant, and the movie would be lesser if one character was removed.  There are no moments here that feel like padding or filler, and nothing feels out of place or unnecessary.  This is a script that has clearly been thought out, and has been brought before the cameras by an expert team.  The performances, the visuals, the cinematography, and even the music score all create a complete experience.  Most importantly, the movie does not go flat in its final moments.  The big "epic" battle sequence is grand, not chaotic.  And the final standoff between the Black Panther and the main villain is built from much grander stakes than you would expect, and is appropriately thrilling instead of anticlimactic. 

This is probably the most ambitious project to come out of Marvel Studios.  While it follows the basic template of a superhero story, it breaks the traditional mold in so many ways.  It not only creates a great heroic character that we want to see in many sequels, but it gives him an entire world and a rich supporting cast that we want to see more of as well.  A lot of superhero introduction films are content to just give us a memorable hero.  Black Panther does so much more.  It's intelligent, a hell of a lot of fun, brilliantly planned out, and just an all around superb entertainment.

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Peter Rabbit

When I saw the early trailers for Peter Rabbit, I shuttered a little.  It came across as crude and crass, and it gave me bad flashbacks of the infamous live action take on The Cat in the Hat with Mike Myers.  Needless to say, I did not exactly walk into the screening with a spring in my step.  Having seen it, I can safely say that the movie itself ends up being a pleasant surprise, with enough charm and warmth to make it harmless for young children and watchable for adults.  It's no classic, but if the trailers turned you off, I can assure you that the actual film is nowhere near as annoying.  I can only hope whoever was in charge of the marketing wises up, and is made to learn the error of their ways.

This is not a faithful rendition of the classic children's literary character, like the recent Paddington 2, which, truth be told, is a better film than this, and you should make sure your children see that one first.  The movie employs a lot of modern humor, pop songs, and the unmistakable voice of James Corden as the titular rabbit, who is essentially playing himself in the guise of a CG bunny.  You almost expect Peter to break into a Carpool Karaoke sequence at any minute.  Fortunately, this is nowhere near as bad as you might expect.  The movie does have quite a few quiet and sweet moments, and generally has a big enough heart that shows through when required.  It even caused me to chuckle a few times with some of the one-liners.  It also has to be said that the movie is technically great to look at.  The animation on the rabbits and other various animals who make up a majority of the cast is not only top tier, but they blend in perfectly with the human actors and live action backdrops.  There's no "Uncanny Valley" moments, and when one of the human actors pick up or handle one of the CG animals, it's entirely convincing.

In the film, Peter is seen as a bit of a rebel, fighting a continuous battle with grumpy old Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill) over the contents of the old man's vegetable garden.  Peter delights in stealing the carrots, berries and other fresh produce from the garden with the help of his three younger sisters Flopsy (voice by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voice by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton Tail (voice by Daisy Ridley), along with his cousin Benjamin (voice by Colin Moody).  When old McGregor passes away, Peter and his animal friends decide to take over the house and land, throwing a huge party.  Their fun is interrupted by the arrival of Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a distant relative to the farmer who inherits the house and land, and promptly sets out to fix the house up so he can sell it and open his own upscale toy store in London.

Thomas is a perfectionist and a control freak.  We see him at his first job working at a department store, and how no detail escapes his eye.  Being born and bred in the city, he is not very thrilled about the country life or about the new home he has inherited.  But then, he meets the lovely young Bea (Rose Byrne), a painter who lives next door and is a good friend to Peter and his fellow rabbits.  She often protected them when the elder McGregor would chase them out of his garden.  Thomas and Bea start a shy relationship, and this is what gives the film a lot of its heart early on.  I quickly grew attached to the chemistry that grows in the scenes that Gleeson and Byrne share.  It also leads to some slapstick moments that's sure to delight children.  Peter feels threatened as Bea and Thomas begin to grow closer, and so he begins devising some over the top ways to get ride of Thomas, including electrifying the doorknob on his front door, and setting painful traps around his yard and garden.

Is Peter Rabbit a great movie?  Not really.  It relies a bit too heavily on pop song montages at times, and some of the physical humor seems to be carried over from the Home Alone movies.  But that's not really what appealed to me.  I like that director and co-writer Will Gluck (2014's Annie) finds plenty of moments for us to get behind and feel for these characters.  The moments of physical comedy almost seem to be a requirement that he fulfills, but the movie is much more interested in the more quiet scenes where the characters reflect on themselves.  There's also some clever word play and humor, with plenty of gags that will rightly fly over kids' heads, and make the parents laugh.  The movie ultimately finds a nice balance of kid-friendly physical comedy and some slightly smarter scenes, and that's what ultimately won me over.

This is also a beautiful film to look at.  From its stunning English countryside setting, to the wonderfully detailed animation and artwork on Peter and his animal friends, there's always something here to grab your attention visually.  The animals have a nice look that is somewhat realistic, but still has enough of a cartoon sensibility that it doesn't look strange that Peter and the other creatures are usually wearing clothes.  The fact that the animals are depicted wearing tiny jackets and outfits does bring up an interesting aspect that the film never addresses.  During the course of the story, Thomas becomes convinced that Peter and the other rabbits are plotting against him, and causing him all the pain and suffering that he is being subjected to.  Bea does not believe this notion, as she believes them to be simple rabbits.  And yet, she never seems to address the fact that rabbits do not usually wear clothes, even though they are always clothed in her presence.  You would think that might tip her off a little bit that maybe Peter and his friends are not your garden variety woodland creatures.


Peter Rabbit does have enough warmth, humor and visual stimulation for me to recommend, but like I said, make sure you see Paddington 2 first.  If you must make the choice, that's the British talking animal movie you should watch.  Still, this movie is just fine.  It never offends, and it's a heck of a lot better than the ad campaign makes it out to be.

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