Spoiler-Free Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for a sensational three-ring outer space circus featuring amazing planets, phenomenal creatures, stunning acrobatics and very little believable plot or character development. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (B) is basically Rian Johnson’s Galactic Exposition of 2017, in which the visionary sci-fi writer/director assembles an absolute cavalcade of activity while neglecting the delights the preceding film breathed into a trio of new central characters, a bratty villain and a spherical droid. During its bloated running time, Johnson introduces far-fetched new technologies and powers for his ensemble but requires most of them to tread water until what is expected to be the conclusion of this trilogy when J.J. Abrams retakes the reigns. This middle film’s marvels include a pretty casino planet and at least one intergalactic dogfight with pizzazz, lots of cotton candy for the soul. Misfires involve both old and new characters, who behave with perplexing lack of clarity and continuity; some are done no favors through long periods of separation. There’s a gas shortage that rivals the taxation disputes of the prequels in terms of dramatic inertia and at least one moment of sky walking that defies both gravity and belief. Laws of space and time, be damned! Even for this fantasy space opera, this one hits some bizarro notes. For all its fussy audacity, you may leave this funhouse a bit dizzy and more confused than you should feel for the ride.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: The Disaster Artist (2017)

James Franco directs and stars in the lead role as a real-life filmmaker of a notorious contemporary cult movie in The Disaster Artist (B). It’s not necessary to have seen the source material (I have, and right now getting a DVD or watching rogue clips on the Internet is the only way to see it) – the colossally bad 2003 romantic drama The Room – but it helps to have a general idea of why it’s one of the worst movies ever made (namely, a loopy leading man/director, preposterous characters, staggering continuity errors and an inexplicable plot, not to mention some of the most oddball antics ever committed to film – including a really awkward three-way bedroom romp and “football in tuxedos”). Franco imbues the behind-the-scenes dramedy with an insider’s look at the abject miracle it is to find success in Hollywood, and the valiant attempts, even those that are foolhardy. Partnered with his own brother Dave Franco, the film is largely a buddy film about two misfits on a mission. James is at his unhinged best as the lanky auteur with a mop of a haircut and a Lothario swagger (it’s not completely clear what he wants or how he got the money to bankroll his film or even the origins of his unusual accent). Dave is quite charming as the more conventional leading man and does a credible job standing by his main man despite the train wreck that ensues from script to screen in the movie-within-the-movie. The inside Hollywood quotient is high with small parts for Melanie Griffith and Sharon Stone as well as contributions from comedic comrades such as Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron and Ari Graynor. It’s breezy fun, and the reenactments of incredibly bad sequences from The Room are precise and priceless. Alas it doesn’t add up to complete masterpiece status in its own right, but strong production values and the dynamic brotherly duo at the film’s center make it an enjoyable romp.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

A triumph of production design with a colorful supporting cast surrounding a bit of a hollow central storyline, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (B) reimagines The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1960s Cold War Baltimore with Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a military science lab who falls for Doug Jones’ captive Amphibious Man. It’s a visually arresting and solidly rendered fairy tale for adults, but the quirky central couple doesn’t get to do much more than display the traits of their tropes in an update of archetypes. Hawkins is effective in the quirky lead role, but the juiciest parts are played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as her wry sidekicks and Michael Shannon as a corrupt colonel with a penchant for popping pills from a grotesque gangrenous hand. His unhinged performance, marked by a myriad of deplorable traits, is one of the film’s most notable delights. Alexandre Desplat’s score, layered with stardust melodies from classic Hollywood, sets the mood gracefully for outcasts in love. Del Toro clearly has a singular vision for his monster romance, but the film suffers from tonal shifts as its final act revolves into a protracted waiting game. Ultimately this beauty is missing a few beats.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Darkest Hour

Joe Wright’s historical biopic The Darkest Hour (B) takes few creative liberties as it chronicles Winston Churchill’s resolve to protect England from Hitler’s military, but the film is most notable because it affords Gary Oldman a rich fully inhabited central performance as the decisive and divisive prime minister. The direction is physically and metaphorically claustrophobic, shot in tight quarters and in confined conversations, to show the encroaching danger. The film is a straightforward companion piece to the propulsive Dunkirk, depicting much of the same time period, and the dandy drama The King’s Speech in which its protagonist monarch overcomes personal adversity and rises to the occasion. Honestly, aside from Oldman’s lived-in characterization of mania and mumbled and his arch to make his actions soar as profoundly as his oratory, Hour rarely gets great lift. The supporting characters including Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Dillane are unmemorable, and the film’s muted color palette of mostly dim interiors leaves the actions a bit in the shadows. It’s recommended for history buffs but offers few surprises or detours from the expected except for seeing exactly what the PM eats, drinks and dictates and how he one time rode on a train with commoners. There are parallels to contemporary leaders, whose nil by tweet stubbornness could tilt the world’s fortunes for war or peace. The present day overlay offers more prescient daydreams of adventurous storytelling than Wright actually commits to the screen.

Thoughts from outside The Tara theatre in Atlanta:

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Posted in 2017

Awards News: Golden Globe Movie Nominees Announced

Awards season is in high gear! The Golden Globe nominations were announced today and are seen as a precursor to Oscar glory for many prestige pics. The Golden Globes ceremony will be broadcast live on NBC on January 7, 2018. Here are the biggest vote-getters, by numbers of nominations.

The Shape of Water: 7
The Post:
6
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:
6
Lady Bird:
4
All the Money in the World:
3
Call Me By Your Name:
3
Dunkirk:
3
The Greatest Showman:
3
I, Tonya:
3

Here’s a full list of the motion pictures up for awards this year. There are always a few curious nominees in a Golden Globes list. For instance, Get Out is competing in the comedy or musical category, I suppose because it is a biting satire. The Martian won in this category a few years back (it’s kinda the Island of Misfit Nominations category since the Hollywood Foreign Press divides its Best Picture nominees into two groups). Also notable is Christopher Plummer’s nomination for the re-shoots he did just weeks ago to replace and erase Kevin Spacey’s role in All the Money in the World. The biggest head-scratcher nomination is for the much-maligned The Boss Baby for Best Animated Feature, a slot many would have thought should go to The LEGO Batman Movie.

Best Motion Picture (Drama)

Call Me by Your Name
Dunkirk
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy)

The Disaster Artist
Get Out
The Greatest Showman
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

Best Motion Picture (Animated)

The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Ferdinand
Coco
Loving Vincent

Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Drama)

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Tom Hanks, The Post
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama)

Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Meryl Streep, The Post
Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World

Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy)

Steve Carell, Battle of the Sexes
Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy)

Judi Dench, Victoria & Abdul
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Emma Stone, Battle of the Sexes
Helen Mirren, The Leisure Seeker

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Hong Chau, Downsizing
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Best Director (Motion Picture)

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Ridley Scott, All The Money in the World
Steven Spielberg, The Post

Best Screenplay (Motion Picture)

The Shape of Water
Lady Bird
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Molly’s Game

Best Original Score (Motion Picture)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Shape of Water
Phantom Thread
The Post
Dunkirk

Best Foreign Film

A Fantastic Woman
First They Killed My Father
In the Fade
Loveless
The Square

Best Original Song (Motion Picture)

Ferdinand – “Home”
Mudbound – “Mighty River”
Coco – “Remember Me”
The Star – “The Star”
The Greatest Showman – “This Is Me”

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Movie Review: Coco

Lee Unkrich’s animated Disney Pixar adventure Coco (B) is alive with vibrant detail in painting a compelling Día de Muertos fantasia of light, color and music. The story of a Mexican boy torn between heeding a duty to family and following his clarion call to become a mariachi musician, the film toggles between Lands of the Dead and the Living in which the young man’s ancestors, sometimes skeletal relatives, help guide him to his destiny. Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt are among the voice actors breathing life into wholly original characters. The story starts and ends strong with fun surprises around every turn, even though there’s a long portion in the film’s center that drags with too much exposition. It’s such a breakthrough to secure inclusion of so many specific Latin traditions that the film sometimes seems overstuffed in its own bounty, with superfluous characters and a few too many bells and whistles. Also for a film about music, there could have been more of it, and it could have been better. Ultimately it’s a thoughtful and positive entry into the Disney Pixar kingdom, and it could have only been accomplished via animation.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Wonder (2017)

A wholesome and uplifting tale of empathy and inclusion, Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder (B+) traces the impact a middle schooler with disfiguring Treacher Collins syndrome has on his family and classmates. The story isn’t especially revolutionary – it’s full of familiar tropes with friends and bullies and overcoming obstacles – but it’s the heartfelt grace and gravitas that Chbosky and his game cast bring to the enterprise that provide the film such incredible lift. Jacob Tremblay anchors the story and provides a lived-in realism piercing through the prosthetics. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are bright spots as his encouraging parents. The supporting cast also includes Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs as role model educators. Izabela Vidovic is particularly poignant as the family’s “other sibling” facing her own outsider status as she embarks on college life. Other child actors are uniformly effective. The filmmakers play a game of emotional Rashomon by depicting a particular series of sequences from multiple character POVs, and this is a nice touch to show what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. In light of many cruel events out of today’s headlines, the film delivers sterling instruction of individuals and families and communities to do better. It joins Rudy and Lucas as a triumph of this genre. Pack handkerchiefs for the viewing.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Mudbound

One of this year’s most acclaimed movies from Sundance and a film that is generating Oscar buzz is now available on Netflix while enjoying a limited theatrical release. Dee Rees’s Mudbound (A) is a modern American masterpiece centering on a black and white family with intertwining destinies in and around the era of WWII. Shared tenants on a cotton farm on the Mississippi delta, the families are swept up in an engrossing drama that plays out with striking effect. Rees’s film addresses deeds both physical and metaphorical that get celebrated or punished as families struggle to live together and rise above the sinking, shifting soil under their feet. Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund play two men who go off to war in Europe and return to the farm, only to find that much of the progress they witnessed as liberators abroad has not made a budge in their homeland. Mitchell and Hedlund are superb, and their central friendship is one of many intriguing relationships on display in this sprawling ensemble. Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige are among the standouts as family members coping with the evil that men do. Handsomely produced with lush period detail and evocative themes of a bygone era, Rees’s work based on Hillary Jordan’s novel is resonant and remarkable. Voice-overs from each of the characters add a poetic touch to the film’s propulsive series of events. Tamar-Kali Brown’s music underscores the action beautifully. If this film is waiting in your smart TV queue, push the button.

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Posted in 2017, Rent It Tonight

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s unconventional revenge drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (A) is one of the finest films of the year, upending expectations about a collection of well drawn characters in Small Town, America. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell give rich performances as a grieving mother of a murdered teenage girl and the seemingly incompetent local policemen she coerces into action to solve her daughter’s cold case. McDormand in particular delivers a performance for the ages, showcasing an indomitable spirit as she waged a grassroots campaign to right her family’s fissure in a world that’s gone out of its Ebbing mind. Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes are superb as her son and ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage adds a droll turn as a mysterious townsman. McDonagh maintains a dark comedic tone as he plumbs thorny issues in a shadowy microcosm of the justice system. For folks who enjoyed Hell or High Water, Fargo or this director’s own In Bruges, this will be your film to see this awards season.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird

Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s coming of age dramedy Lady Bird (A) is witty and wise and recognizes the nuances and power of mini revolutions afoot in the life of a teenager. Saoirse Ronan is sensational as the titular protagonist, a high schooler who feels trapped in the first world problems of life in Sacramento. The plot centers largely on the pivotal final two semesters of Lady Bird’s senior year as she tests her wry, unconventional outlook against the backdrop of cliques and friendships, parochial rules, drama club, college applications, counseling and school dances. The rhythm of fights with her tough mom, played masterfully by Laurie Metcalf, anchors many of the film’s most poignant moments. These actresses are spectacular at depicting the tempestuous mother/daughter dynamic. Lucas Hedges is also fantastic as Lady’s first love. Gerwig nails the tone and observational humor of episodes that build up to unexpected life lessons. Filled with a blissful Jon Brion score and subtle reference checks to Steinbeck and Sondheim, the film represents an auspicious debut for a talented actress trying her hand behind the camera. Gerwig and her uncanny muse Ronan have created a funny and tender work of utter joy. Moviegoers will enjoy watching this Bird fly.

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Posted in 2017

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