Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Best and Worst Films of 2017

Best of 2017

Dunkirk- Simply a masterpiece of film making.
The Shape of Water- a most unusual but surprising and poetic love story.
I, Tonya- Terrific true life tabloid tale told from various viewpoints featuring wonderful acting.
The Florida Project- Practically a documentary on a segment of American life on the fringe with an adorable leading lady.
Logan- a comic book movie as mythic western taken to an entirely different level.
Land of Mine- fantastic story based on a little known piece of World War II Danish history.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri- Wildly original with a tremendous cast.
Get Out- race relations in today’s America disguised as a horror film.
Hostiles- terrific western with great performances by Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike.
Patti Cake$- Indy hip-hop film with an unlikely star in the making.

Honorable Mention

Lady Bird- perfect coming of age film.
Detroit- devastating story of the riots in ‘60’s Detroit with brave and meticulous direction by Kathryn Bigalow.
Roman J. Esq. – Denzel Washington as we’ve never seen him
Wonder Woman- D. C. comics finally gets it right and Gal Gadot is just terrific.
The Big Sick- girl in a coma produces big laughs. Who would have thought?
Baby Driver- a totally new way of syncing the soundtrack to the film raises the bar on this action crime film.
The Post- freedom of the press with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks

Worst of 2017

The Beguiled- This is art taken to new level of boredom.
Passengers- How can two exciting stars still sink a film?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets- Horrible casting makes this almost unwatchable.
The Only Living Boy in New York- I don’t even remember the plot.
Mother!- WTF!
Wonder Wheel- Woody’s losing it. Kate Winslet does try to save it though.
Downsizing- Conned by the trailers, this “comedy” turns very serious with great ideas never realized.
The Comedian- just a sad, sad film.
Life- Alien rip-off
Justice League- Wonder Woman is the best thing about this “boy’s club” mess.

The Greatest Showman

         As light and sugary sweet as cotton candy, this version of P.T. Barnum's life is homogenized and sanitized family fun. Hugh Jackman stars as Barnum and there is no doubting his talent as an actor and singer. After his wonderful dramatic turn in "Logan" earlier this year, this new film proves he can do pretty much anything.

            Mr. Jackman is joined by Michele Williams as his wife, Charity and Zac Efron as his eventual partner, Phillip Carlyle ( a fictionalized version of James Anthony Bailey). The performers of Barnum's circus are wonderful and standouts are Zendaya as Ann, the trapeze artist and Keala Settle as the bearded lady. Also co-starring are Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish singer, Jenny Lind and Paul Sparks as James Gordon Bennet, the founder of the NY Herald and an early critic of Barnum.

            There are memorable song and dance sequences and the film does exactly what it's meant to do despite the fact it takes much liberty with Barnum's real life. It speeds through his early years to concentrate on the adult version of P.T. Barnum and how his circus was born.Even if it is a fluff piece with no real depth, it's all good, clean, holiday fun for the family, 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Phantom Thread

       Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this film marks his second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis. Set in the fashion world of London in the 1950's, Mr. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned designer and dressmaker to royalty and the stars of the day.

        Woodcock is a confirmed bachelor (by his own words) too caught up in his work for a real relationship. Women come through his life as temporary muses and once he tires of one, moves on to the next. The only constant female in his life is his protective sister, Cyril, play by Lesley Manville. One day he meets Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, and once she enters his world, she becomes more than he expected and real love enters and disrupts his meticulous life.

         The film is gorgeous to look at, from the production value to the costumes and dress designs, it is exquisite. Mr. Day-Lewis is superb as always, giving himself over completely to the role of a perfectionist artist. Ms. Krieps more than holds her own in all their scenes together. The thread bare plot is about obsession, control and what happens when perfection is compromised by love. The relationship between Alma and Woodcock becomes a game of control, bordering on madness, with mutual love at stake.

          Flowing like a soft fabric in a light breeze, the film is quiet and orderly.  Woodcock's conservative and buttoned-up nature provides some unexpected comic relief with many a memorable line or expression. Mr. Anderson treats his film like the most delicate of lace and reveals his layers slowly and methodically.  It is a film more of style than substance, save for watching a master actor in what is rumored to be his last role.

Friday, December 29, 2017


        Written and directed by Scott Cooper, this is the best period western since "Unforgiven". It's pace is meticulous and deliberate with no wasted dialog. There are stretches where nothing seems to happen (and yet so much does) and then moments of horrific violence. It is a simple story yet filled with emotion that runs deep into your soul with a towering performance by Christian Bale.

         Mr. Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker who, in 1892 reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne chief and his family back to his tribal homeland. He is weary from all the death and destruction of the Indian wars and has no love for Chief Yellow Hawk, played by Wes Studi. But facing a court martial if he disobeys orders, they start out on the perilous journey. Along the way, they encounter the widow Rosalie Quaid played by Rosamund Pike, who's anguish and grief is heartbreaking. The three principles, all hurt and empty from their personal losses, develop great chemistry as the small band moves northward to Montana.

            Co-starring in various military roles are Ben Foster,  Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, Timothee Chalamet, and Peter Mullen. Adam Beach and Q'orianka Kilcher play Yellow Hawk's son and daughter-in-law. While it is a fine cast, the heart and soul of the film are the three leads. Mr. Bale, Ms. Pike and Mr. Studi can express more with just a look than any dialog.

             The film is beautifully shot with gorgeous New Mexico, Colorado and Montana landscapes forming the background. Mr. Cooper takes his time telling his story but pulls no punches making it clear we are all capable of being the hostiles.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

               Nothing will ever replace the original "Jumanji" starring Robin Williams but this new "reboot" for the digital age stands on its own as a fun, exciting and silly film.

                Instead of creatures from the game being released into our world as in the original, four teenagers are now sucked into the world of Jumanji after finding an old video game version in a school storage room. The four teens are stereotypes of the jock, the nerd, the self absorbed beauty queen, and the shy wallflower.

               The fun begins when they become their avatars in the game. The Jock turns into Kevin Hart, the beauty queen becomes Jack Black, the plain Jane becomes Karen Gillan, and the nerd turns into Dwayne Johnson (otherwise known as The Rock). While they may all look different, their personalities remain the same and that creates some really great laughs. Mr. Johnson gets to spoof his "He-man" persona and Mr. Hart is very funny as the football player trapped in his small frame. Mr. Black is also very funny as a teenage girl trapped in the body of a middle-aged, overweight professor.

                 Before they are drawn into the game, the four teens are played by Alex Wolf as Spencer, "the Nerd", Madison Iseman as Bethany, "the beauty queen",  Morgan Turner as Martha, the shy wallflower and Ser'Darius Blain as "the jock".  They are an engaging group of young actors.

                 While in the game and learning as they go how to "win" and return home, the four meet Nick Jonas, as Alex Vreeke, a teen who has been stuck in the game for 20 years. The five team up to defeat Bobby Cannavale who plays Van Pelt, a character from the original film, who has cursed the Jumanji world by stealing a rare jewel.

                 With only three lives each, the film becomes more suspenseful with each "death" of a character. There are all kinds of traps to avoid and puzzles to solve as the group moves through the different levels of the game. Along the way, there are plenty of laughs, lots of action, romance and even a positive message. In this season of serious "Oscar" contenders, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is refreshing and mindless fun.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

All the Money in the World

   This new drama from director Ridley Scott is yet another "based on a true story" film this holiday season. It tells the story of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty's grandson in 1973.

    One of the things that has the film getting so much attention is that Mr. Scott had finished the film with Kevin Spacey played J. Paul Getty. Once the sex scandal around Mr. Spacey broke, Mr. Scott recast the role with Christopher Plummer (his original first choice) and reshot all his scenes in an incredibly short time to still get the film released by Christmas. One may never know about Mr. Spacey's performance but Mr. Plummer is fantastic.

         Michele Williams plays Gail Harris, Getty's daughter-in-law and the mother of the kidnapped boy. What the kidnappers don't know is that Ms. Harris has divorced her husband, Paul Getty and has no money to pay the ransom. Mark Wahlberg plays Fletcher Chase, a private security agent employed by Mr. Getty and assigned to help Ms. Harris in her attempt to find her son without giving her the money for the ransom.

         As the frantic mother, Ms. Williams is terrific, desperate to find her son despite no help from her father-in-law. Mr. Wahlberg is an odd choice as Chase but he grows into the part and holds his own in scenes with Mr. Plummer. The film also co-stars Charlie Plummer (no relation) as the kidnapped teen, Timothy Hutton as Oswald Hinge, Getty's lawyer, and Roman Duris as a sympathetic kidnapper.

         Mr. Scott keeps the action moving and the story, even if you know the outcome, is suspenseful and tense. There is a great attention to detail and a testament to Mr. Scott for reshooting quickly and not missing a beat.  Mr. Plummer, at 80 years old, is all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination as his performance is so good, his presence is felt even when he's not on screen.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Molly's Game

  This new drama is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a young woman who ran high stakes underground poker games involving celebrities and mobsters, who was finally busted by the FBI. The film tells her story criss-crossing timelines and is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.

        Starring as Molly Bloom is the remarkable Jessica Chastain, who excels at these types of roles. This film will most likely get her another Oscar nomination. Her co-star is Idris Elba, who plays her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey. Both actors are more than up for the challenge of Mr. Sorkin's rapid fire dialog and have great chemistry. Also co-starring is Kevin Costner, as Molly's father and Michael Cera as one of Molly's very important poker clients. Mr. Cera may seem an odd choice for the role of Mr. X but he is very believeable in a serious role.

        Ms. Bloom got her 15 minutes of fame back when her story broke in the tabloids. Her memoir brought more moments in the spotlight and now with the release of the film, people will be talking about her again. It's an intriguing story and a fascinating look into the world of underground high stakes poker but Ms. Bloom herself doesn't really warrant your attention any longer than the running time of this film.

        The scenes of verbal jousting in Mr. Jaffey's office and in the courtroom are the best and Mr. Sorkin directs with the same razor sharp clarity and wit of his writing. He is intent on giving us a look into Molly's psyche in a few too many flashbacks and the film could have been shorter but it's always fun to watch talented actors vocalize his words. It's a sharp screenplay and as played by Ms. Chastain, Molly certainly appears to be a bigger than life character. It's these two elements that make Molly's story so appealing and the film that more entertaining.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


     The trailer for this new film is very deceptive. It is edited to look like a comedy and it most certainly is not. It even includes sight gags only found in the trailer. The beginning has some amusing bits but it turns rather quickly into a completely different film.   

          Co-written and directed by Alexander Payne, the film is filled with big ideas that, unfortunately, are also downsized along with its cast. Social class injustice and the environment are heady subjects and the film gets rather dramatic and preachy once our protagonist, Paul (played by Matt Damon) meets Ngoc Lan (played by Hong Chau). It flirts with these subjects and ideas but comes away empty and you feel unfulfilled. Discussing the film's ideas afterwards will probably be more enjoyable than the film itself.

          Mr. Damon is excellent as an average guy looking for a better life. Kristen Wiig is his wife who disappears early from the film. Co-starring are Jason Sudeikis as a downsized friend who also disappears from the film fairly quickly and Christoph Waltz as Paul's strange downsized neighbor who completed the downsizing process for profit. It's a good cast in a very disappointing film.

             If Mr. Payne had downsized the film (it runs over two hours) and explored his ideas more thoroughly, I may have enjoyed it. As it stands, I actually left the theatre angry about being conned by a good director and a charming actor.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Post

      This new drama is based on the true story of how the New York Times and The Washington Post published "The Pentagon Papers", classified documents about the Vietnam War that were leaked to the papers in 1971.

       Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, this story is as relevant today as it was in 1971. Ms. Streep plays Kay Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post and Mr. Hanks plays Ben Bradlee. her editor in chief. When the documents are leaked to The New York Times, the government, specifically President Nixon, files an injunction to stop the paper from printing. Soon after The Washington Post gets possession of the documents and the decision to print becomes the centerpiece of the film.

       Both actors are at the top of their game and are joined by a pedigree cast including Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross (a mini Mr. Bob reunion), Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Stulhbarg, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Ryhs and Carrie Coon. It's interesting to note that most of the actors in the film have been having wonderful success on television lately rather than film. Credit Mr. Spielberg and his casting director for recognizing the fine talent from that medium to create a terrific ensemble.  

       For such a dialog heavy film, Mr. Spielberg keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. Utilizing quick edits and a terrific score, he manages to make the most mundane things suspenseful and more importantly, the story easy to follow. His production team recreates the period perfectly and it's a wonderful reminder of how much could be accomplished before the digital age. 

       Reliving this true story through film, it's incredible to see how some things never change. Just when you think we are making strides in this country, freedom of the press, women's rights, and the rights of the governed, rather than the government are still threatened, more now than ever. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

       The wait is over for episode VIII of the Star Wars saga and the second film in this new planned trilogy. It's always a thrill to hear that Star Wars theme crash through space as the prologue scrolls up the screen however, this new film is far from perfect.

        While there are plenty of exciting action sequences, the space battles are starting to become repetitive and a bit dull. The story picks up just after the end of episode VII, and while it's only been two films so far, the character of Finn is really starting to annoy me. "I'm a, I'm a I'm a coward" is wearing me down and can he get more dialog besides "where's Rey?" or "we have to find Rey"?

          I also find it difficult to believe Adam Driver as the main villain. He tries so hard but lacks the gravatas to be all powerful, especially when he's throwing tantrums. I do continue to enjoy Daisy Ridley as Rey. Unfortunately in this film, she spends most of her time on a desolate rock training with Luke Skywalker, which has "been there, done that" written all over it. Can anyone say Dagoba system"?

          The late Carrie Fisher enjoys quite a bit of screen time as Leia, which is a fitting tribute to her, although her walk through space sequence is a bit laughable. It's also a shame that loveable R2D2 is overshadowed by the even cuter BB-8. Oscar Isaac, as Poe Dameron, returns as well and does his best Han Solo impression as the hotshot pilot. There are other returning characters and some fresh faces (Benicio del Toro is well cast in a small but important role but Laura Dern is wasted).

          Every weapon deployed by the bad guys is a variation on the Death Star. While the 12 year old boy in me still loves all the action, my adult side is finding everything becoming repetitive. It's even making me repeat the word repetitive in my review. 

           The script lacks originality as it's just variations on themes we already know and some of the dialog is just ridiculous. The writers seem to be catering to the younger audience. Some of the camera angles are first person POV and makes the film seem like a video game, which inevitably it will become.

           The new creatures are imaginative but I couldn't help thinking they were created just to make adorable toys to sell later on. And that's the core problem with this franchise, it's become a giant marketing machine that goes well beyond a movie. While I hope Episode IX finds a way to really refresh the story, I know that what made Star Wars special in the first place is probably gone for good, lost in the almighty dollar. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Disaster Artist

            This new film, directed by and starring James Franco, defies description. It is based on the true story of the making of the film, "The Room", considered by most to be one of the worst films ever made. "The Disaster Artist" goes behind the scenes. It tells the background story of the friendship between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero and how "The Room" was made.

             Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco) was a young struggling actor in San Francisco who met Tommy Wiseau (played by James Franco) in an acting class and a strange friendship developed between the two. Tommy is a mystery, older than Greg, apparently very wealthy, but no other details to be known about his life. The two men drive to Los Angeles to become actors but Greg with little ability and Tommy with his strange accent and no acting ability can't find work. One day, Greg half jokingly suggests they make their own movie and Tommy seizes the moment. Despite any ability or training, Tommy writes, produces, directs and stars in "The Room".

             The film is very funny, mostly at Tommy's expense. He is such a peculiar man, you can't help but laugh. James Franco is outstanding in the role, finding the heart of Tommy's passion. Dave Franco does an excellent job as well as Greg, especially later in the film, when the reality of their situation threatens his friendship with Tommy. The film co-stars Ari Graynor as Juliette, the lead actress in "The Room". It also features Seth Rogan, Jackie Weaver, Allison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Hannibal Buress, Zac Efron and Jason Mantzoukas in various roles. There are many other cameos in the film, including Sharon Stone, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow and Melanie Griffith. Even more actors play themselves at the beginning of the film talking about "The Room".

             Mr. Franco, as the director finds the root of the story in the friendship between these two men and succeeds brilliantly in straddling the line between comedy and pathos, while shooting and starring in a movie within a movie. There is a great side by side comparison at the end of both films showing how closely Mr. Franco actually mirrors the original. And stay through the credits for an absolutely bizarre scene between Mr. Franco in character and the real Tommy Wiseau.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie is outstanding as Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater, who in 1994 was at the center of an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, resulting in a broken knee sidelining Ms. Kerrigan from competition that year.

The film is biographical and is filled with comedic moments  born out of the tragic backstory of Ms. Harding's life.  We first meet Tonya as a three year old dragged to a skating rink by her overbearing and simply horrible mother, LaVona, played by Allison Janney.  The relationships between Tonya and her mother, and later, with her eventual husband Jeff Gillooley, played by Sebastian Stan are at the core of the film. Tonya is painted as a tragic figure who constantly laments "it's not my fault". The film is told from different viewpoints in a documentary style and occasionally breaks the fourth wall when characters speak directly to the audience. 

Tonya's horrific backstory is intercut with some terrific ice skating sequences, much of them done by Ms. Robbie herself (except for a CGI Triple Axel).  And of course, the centerpiece of the film is the planning and execution of the attack on Ms. Kerrigan, much of it conceived by Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff's best friend and Tonya's self proclaimed "bodyguard".  Mr. Eckhardt is played by Paul Walter Hauser, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Mr. Eckhardt, an outrageous character beyond description.

The film also features Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson, Tonya's coach and in a small role, Bobby Cannavale as an unnamed producer of " Hard Copy".  The film finds much humor in this real life story but you laugh as a response to the ultimately sad tale that was Ms. Harding's life.  An epilogue does explain that things are going better for her now. 

This is a perfectly cast film. Ms. Robbie completely disappears into her role and is bound for multiple award nominations. Mr. Stan has never been better as the dim witted Jeff, and Ms. Janney, as the most monstrous mother ever portrayed on screen, is simply remarkable and a shoe-in for an Academy Award supporting actress nomination.

The Shape of Water

      Co-written and directed by the always imaginative Guillermo del Toro, this new drama is unlike anything you can imagine and is his best since "Pan's Labyrinth". It has an outstanding cast but Sally Hawkins as the mute cleaning woman, Elisa, does her best work ever and is simply amazing.

      An easy description would be science fiction love story but it is so much deeper and richer than that. Elisa works in a government lab somewhere in Baltimore, circa 1962. When she discovers the lab's secret project is an amphibious humanoid creature, she feels a common bond with it and befriends the "asset", as it's called by the military, feeding it eggs and keeping it company whenever she can. The film co-stars Michael Shannon as Colonel Strickland, the head of security and one of the nastiest villains ever to appear on screen. Besides Mr. Shannon, the rest of the cast includes Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa's friend and neighbor, Octavia Spencer, as Delilah, Elisa's co-worker and Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler, another scientist studying the creature.

      The creature is not a CGI creation but rather actor Doug Jones, under a ton of excellent makeup. For the emotional core of this film to work, it's important that Elisa interact with a real being and not some digital creation. The film requires a leap of faith but Mr. del Toro's skills make it easy to accept where the story eventually leads. This off beat "Beauty and the Beast" is romantic, suspenseful and even musical. It's remarkable in it's plot, acting, cinematography, and the wonderful direction by Mr. del Toro. It's one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Wonder Wheel

          Borrowing heavily from "A Streetcar Named Desire",  Woody Allen's new domestic drama is a starring vehicle for Kate Winslet. The setting is 1950's Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.

          As he did for Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine", Mr. Allen has created a memorable, tragic character for Ms. Winslet as Ginny, a married waitress in a Coney Island clam bar. It is a wonderful performance in an otherwise mediocre film.

          Jim Belushi co-stars as her husband "Humpty" along with Juno Temple as Humpty's estranged daughter, Carolina, from a previous marriage and Justin Timberlake as the object of desire for both Ginny and Carolina.  While Mr. Belushi and Ms Temple are both well cast and do surprisingly good work, Mr. Timberlake is terribly miscast as an intellectual Coney Island lifeguard who starts an affair with Ginny but later becomes interested in Carolina.

           It's a tangled web that collapses under it's own weight but the saving grace is the powerful performance of Ms. Winslet as a downtrodden woman spiralling out of control. What is remarkable about the film is the fantastic set design by long time Allen collaborator, Santo Loquasto.  The Coney Island of the '50's  is recreated in marvelous detail. A curious experiment for Mr. Allen is the lighting of the film. For the most part the film is awash in bright colors and glowing sunlight but in many scenes the lighting shifts dramatically to purposely underscore the scene. I found it artificial and distracting.

           The only real wonder in "Wonder Wheel" is Kate Winslet.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


           Co-written and directed by Dee Rees, this period drama tells the story of two families, one Black and one White in the 1940's Mississippi Delta.  Henry McAllen, played by Jason Clarke buys a farm in the Delta and moves there with his wife, Laura, played by Cary Mulligan, his father, played by Jonathan Banks, and their two daughters. A tenant farmer, Hap Jackson, played by Rob Morgan, his wife Florence, played by Mary J. Blige, and their family also work the same plot of land.

            Henry's younger brother, Jamie is a pilot overseas at the same time Hap's oldest son Ronsel is a  tank sergeant fighting in Germany. Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund and Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell return home after the war and bond over surviving the horrors of war. Their friendship, however, remains a secret due to the racial divide that exists at the time.

             It is a fine ensemble cast that provide a depth of human emotion in every scene. The film shows the everyday struggles of life for both families at home while cutting to scenes of Jamie and Ronsel fighting respectively overseas. It is an uncompromising look at the racially charged south at the time as well as the social order of the day.

              Ms. Rees explores the microcosm of the day to day for both families and is at it's best capturing the smallest details, good and bad that cross the social and racial borders of a particular time and place.  I can't say enough about the cast and and the terrific work they do bringing life, in all it's beauty and flaws, to these characters. The film reflects the raw and sometimes brutal honesty of the period, with no easy answers. It is an artistic achievement in storytelling.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

              Denzel Washington outdoes himself in this new drama from  writer/director, Dan Gilroy ("Nightcrawler"). Mr. Gilroy has created a unique and memorable character and Mr. Washington disappears into the role which is unlike anything he has ever done. 

              Mr. Washington enjoys good dialog. He chewed up the scenery with verbal gymnastics in last year's "Fences". With Mr. Gilroy's intelligent and surprising script, he once again gets to show off his verbal skills but this time, the words come out honestly from the depths of the character and not Mr. Washington himself. Mr. Israel, Esq. is a lawyer, who as the film opens, is the man "behind the curtain" of a two man law firm, preferring to do the background work while his partner appears in court. Circumstances force him down a different path which is the central plot of the film.

               Colin Farrell co-stars as the head of another firm and while the film is about lawyers, it is not about "the big case" but rather about the characters themselves, their ethics and belief system that drive them through the legal system and the choices they make navigating that complex world.

               The film is continuously surprising and there are so many quotable lines, I wish had had brought a pad and pen to keep track. The less said about the plot, the better. It's a terrific film and Mr. Washington will surely garner another Oscar nomination.

Justice League

            After the critically panned Batman vs. Superman, DC tries again with it's follow up "Justice League". Using the first film to set up the characters and eventual storyline, director Zack Snyder (and later an uncredited Joss Whedon) tries hard to correct the mistakes of the earlier film. Unfortunately some things cannot be undone.

              Ben Affleck is not a credible Batman. His acting does not help the film at all and Batman is the central character bringing all the other pieces together.  The first part of the film is the recruitment phase where we meet the rest of what will become the Justice League. Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa, is the first of the underwritten characters. For a superhero who is master of the oceans, he spends most of the film literally a fish out of water. Hopefully his proposed solo film will feature character development as its main strength. Then we have Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher. Cyborg is a combination human/robot with angst as his main character description. Flash, played by Ezra Miller, brings the most humor to the film and is enjoyable enough (Marvel still did a better job with Quicksilver showing off his super speed though). And then we come to Wonder Woman, once again played by Gal Gadot. Ms Gadot is the best thing about the film. Her acting, action sequences, and beauty through it all belong in a better film. (Hopefully that film is "Wonder Woman 2").

                Since his name comes up in the opening credits, it's no surprise that Henry Cavill as Superman will eventually be resurrected to help save the day from the horde of CGI monsters led by a CGI villain named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). I imagine they are saving the bigger bad guy, Darkseid, for the next installment. Since Superman does return, we have the requisite cameos by Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Diane Lane as Martha Kent. And of course, if Batman is in the movie we need his loyal butler Alfred, played by a droll Jeremy Irons and Commissioner Gordon, played by the always dependable J. K. Simmons.

                 Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon are credited with the screenplay based on a story by Mr. Terrio and Zack Snyder. They try hard to lighten the tone but much of the humor seems forced.  Thankfully they managed to keep the film to a tight two hours and while not up to the successful Marvel formula, it's not a terrible superhero movie. An extended sequence after the credits sets up the next film so expect these characters to be around for a while. Maybe next time, they will even get it right.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Last Flag Flying

 The latest film from director Richard Linklater (who also cowrote the screenplay) is a meditation on friendship, loss, and patriotism. It is a very loose sequel of sorts to "The Last Detail" with both films taken from their respective source novels by Darryl Ponicsan.

The film stars Steve Carell as Larry "Doc" Shepard, a Vietnam Vet who is on his way to recover the body of his son who was killed in Iraq. He enlists the aid of his old Marine buddies, Sal, played by Bryan Cranston and Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne. While they haven't seen each other in years, the three quickly reunite and Sal and Mueller agree to accompany Doc to help bury his son.

This is a heavy drama but the character of Sal acts as the comic relief and Mr. Cranston is just terrific as the foul mouthed, unfiltered Vet who refuses to back down from anything. Mr. Carrell plays against type and is stoic in his grief and pain throughout the film. And of course, Mr. Fishburne is a towering presence as the now, man of God who holds the trio together on their unlikely road trip. 

Mr. Linklater's script does starts to grow weary as repetition creeps in. It could have benefitted from tighter editing but the final act is so beautifully conceived and executed, any excess baggage is forgiven. This is truly a power trio of actors in a thought provoking, heartbreaking story, filled with sadness and unexpected humor.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

       I must confess to be a huge fan of Martin McDonagh. Whether it's his plays or his movies, his dark comedies and tragic characters have always affected  me in many ways. This new film, written and directed by Mr. McDonagh may be his best work yet. To call it a dark comedy is an understatement.  It is a serious drama filled with dark comedic moments designed to either break the tension or make it worse. It is politically incorrect, filled with unexpected violence, and most certainly not for everyone.

     Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who has lost her daughter to an act of horrific violence and her murder remains unsolved. Woody Harrelson is Police Chief Willoughby, the target of her pain and grief. Sam Rockwell, is deputy Dixon, a racist screwup that Willoughby is convinced has some redeeming qualities. Ms. McDormand is ferocious and wears her pain in every facial movement and gesture. Mr. Rockwell's character is so easy to hate and yet he carefully conveys a potential for redemption that you end up rooting for him. And Mr. Harrelson brings a quiet strength filled with a overwhelming sadness to a role like nothing he has played before.

    Co-starring are John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, and Caleb Landry Jones. It is a great cast all doing fine work but the film is fueled by its three leads and they are just remarkable. Emotions run deep in this town as the unsolved murder of Mildred's daughter haunts everyone in different ways. The film cuts deep exploring all their anger and pain. But it's Mildred's pain that cuts the deepest.

     Mr. McDonagh's great script is filled with surprising dialog that will, at times, have you squirming in your seat for laughing during the most inappropriate moments. And his "no holds barred" direction takes chances that work. There is no justice if the film doesn't garner multiple award nominations.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

          The third film in the Marvel Comics Thor trilogy is by far the best in the series.  It takes the gravitas of the others seriously enough but infuses it with so much humor, the tone is lighter and more akin to the "Guardians" films set in the same Marvel universe.

             Chris Hemsworth is back as Thor and he seems to be enjoying himself almost way too much. Also returning are Tom Hiddleston as his brother Loki, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Idris Elba as Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. The villain of the story is Hela, Goddess of death played by Cate Blanchett, also having a ball and possibly having the most fun of all is Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, ruler of a planet where Thor is forced into fighting The Hulk. Additionally, Tessa Thompson is Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge. The les said about their characters, the better. There are also some fun surprise cameos.

               The film is big, bold, exciting and very funny. Directed by Taika Waititi, what we see on screen is the closest thing to reading an issue of the Thor comic. The look and feel of the production captures that world perfectly. The tone may be lighter and more humorous than the comics but that only helps make it more enjoyable. The action sequences are loud and violent but it's all comic book violence. Unlike the Avengers films set on earth in a more realistic way, this film takes us to other worlds that make it easier to accept the collateral damage and mayhem brought on by it's characters. 

               Since it's a Marvel brand, of course look for two short clips during the credits that both act as a tease for "The Avengers: Infinity War", coming next year and a comedic coda to this film.

Lady Bird

        Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this coming of age dramedy is a terrific first time project for the actress. While we've seen the basic plot hundreds of time, there is something so vividly original and refreshing about the film that it's easy to succumb to it's charms.

         The film stars Saoirse Ronan as "Lady Bird", am eighteen year high school senior in Sacramento California who dreams of a better life upon graduation. Ms. Ronan continues to impress with every film. She has a wonderful chameleon like quality to disappear into every role and illuminate the screen with confidence and natural ease. Her family dynamic is beautifully written with fully formed characters played by wonderful actors. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts  play her parents and the mother/daughter relationship is the center of the film.  The chemistry between Ms. Ronan and Ms. Metcalf is fantastic.

           Co-starring are Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Ladybird's best friend, Stephen McKinley Henderson as a priest directing the school play, Lois Smith as the kind but stern head nun of the high school, and Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird's first crush. It's a wonderful cast who bring these characters to life. 

             The story, at once familiar and yet original as well, takes unexpected twists and turns but stays on a course you will want to follow. Ms. Gerwig, already so good in front of the camera, has found a new home behind it and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Florida Project

Directed and co-written by Sean Baker, this new drama could be called docu-fiction. It's a scripted film about real people starring many non-actors living in a cheap motel along a strip just outside Disney World. Filmed at the real "Magic Castle" motel, the film centers on Moonee, a precocious six year old living with her young, single mom, Halley. Moonee, play by first time actor, Brooklynn Kimberley Prince spends her days playing with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) among the motels and seedy gift shops on the outskirts of the Magic Kingdom. They get into their share of trouble but are usually bailed out by the tough but kind hearted motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) .

Mr. Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones (who plays his son Jack) are the only"real" actors in the film. Moonee's mom Halley is played by Bria Vinitre, also in her first role. Mr. Baker takes us inside the world of a pocket of society, poor and living on the fringe, just trying to survive one day at a time. In many ways, the film feels like an urban version of "Beasts of The Southern Wild", another film starring a six year girl living in poverty in the Louisiana Bayou.

Ms. Prince is just terrific, wise beyond her years, filling her role with wonderful one-liners. She leads her band of motel kids like a modern version of "Our Gang" with Moonee the new "Spanky". Ms. Vinitre is raw and wild but underneath, a loving and caring mother. Mr. Dafoe gives one of his best performances as just a nice "normal" guy who does his best to keep things together at the motel, for himself and his residents.

The film is anchored by Ms. Prince's wonderful performance that is a delight to watch but also heartbreaking as it shines a light on an population living on the poverty line in America that is far too real. The irony of the final moments is not lost on the audience.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

           It takes a lot of guts to attempt a sequel to the original "Blade Runner". Director Denis Villeneuve takes his best shot and creates a gorgeous feast for the eyes and ears, but ultimately is too in love with his own filmmaking and the finished product is a pretentious, overblown, and boring letdown.  

            The film runs almost three hours due for the most part for dialog spoken in slow motion with pregnant pauses before and during every conversation. Also, endless shots of the futuristic landscape, while amazing, lose their "wow" factor as the film goes on. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Detective K, a "Blade Runner" hunting older rogue replicant models. Mr.  Gosling is well cast for his character but acts like he's slogging through quicksand. 

             The other big draw here is Harrison Ford, reprising his original role as Rick Deckard, however, he doesn't enter the film until the second half. Thankfully he does eventually show up as he injects a energy into both his co-star and the film that both were sorely lacking. The film also co-stars Ana de Armas as "Joi", a very unique character, Sylvia Hoeks as "Luv" (Ms. Hoeks has a great future ahead as a Bond villain), Robin Wright as K's boss, and Jared Leto as the head of the Wallace Corporation, the company creating replicants.

             From a basic plot perspective, there's nothing new here. Take one weary detective, have him assigned by his "tough as nails" boss  to find a missing person and throw in an evil corporation with a nasty henchman (or in this case henchwoman) to block his way. Mr. Villeneuve and his writers dress it up in self important Sci-fi pretension and pass it off as a masterful work of art. As with his last film "Arrival" (which I thought was highly overrated), this film is far from a science fiction masterpiece although in a visual sense, it is breathtaking. Credit Mr. Villeneuve and his team for creating a brilliant landscape for his actors.

            As with the original film, there are a few good twists crucial to the plot and fans will appreciate some welcome cameos. Having the unexpected opportunity to view it both in IMAX and in 3-D (don't ask), I can say with confidence, avoid the horrific 3-D at all costs. The IMAX is far superior in look and sound although bring earplugs because it is LOUD.