Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s crime drama Molly’s Game (B) is a crackling showcase for Jessica Chastain’s formidable acting skills as she portrays a woman who teeters dangerously close to the edge commandeering an underground poker league. Sorkin’s brilliant level of detail about the shady activities shines throughout, and Idris Elba is strong as the protagonist’s patient attorney. Kevin Costner adds a fine turn as her demanding father. The film doesn’t quite live up to its intriguing premise, but Chastain fueled by Sorkin dialogue is a crackerjack of watchability.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All the lasers and lassos and Aquaman kin can’t put this comic book franchise together again. Studio dictates, glimmers of personality from its female characters and slight moments of inspiration from temporary script doctor Joss Whedon are the only redeemable qualities of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (C), more a series course correction than standalone story of interest. After confusing the motivations of cherished DC Universe icons and draining them of literal color in the previous installment, there’s a bit more shine on this apple, although it’s still kinda rotten. The plot, centering on alien supervillain Steppenwolf who wields three dangerous cosmic cubes that would be the envy of Q*bert and Coily, is superfluous to getting the comic book ensemble together to fight him (great, another origin story with a bass-voiced CGI antagonist!) Jason Momoa is brash but hardly makes a splash, his superhero of the seas largely sidelined in battle. The miscast Ezra Miller’s fast-moving Flash is relegated to awkward comic relief. Ray Fisher as Cyborg is mainly seen fussing around with technology and might as well be mute, since he has so few lines. At least the luminous Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman improves every sequence she is in, and Amy Adams’s Lois Lane shows some signs of life in an extended cameo. Ben Affleck sleepwalks through his role as Batman, leaving a hollow core in the protagonist circle. So we are left with watching contemplations of re-animating Henry Cavill’s Superman and witnessing the super troop fight a bento box toting baddie and his army of insects for a very long final act. The best two sequences in the entire film are in the final credits. Ultimately this anemic entry into the DC canon wins just a little simply for stopping the hemorrhaging.
Movie remakes can be a bit like theatrical revivals when there’s a corker of a story to tell with a thrilling new ensemble, but Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express (B-) with the actor/director in the top-billed role as the intrepid Detective Poirot doesn’t add or enrich the story enough in any remarkable ways to make it essential. That said, this fourth adaptation of the Agatha Christie work is a handsomely mounted whodunit with some nice bits from the likes of Daisy Ripley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp and others. On the aggregate, however, none of the sprawling cast members gets anything close to the scenery-chewing delights that Branagh does. As an actor, he’s the film’s liveliest and most eccentric surprise, as he searches for the clues of a world out of its normal order. As director, he makes ample use of digital technologies to glide in, out of and around the titular locomotive, including some fun overhead shots of train car cabins. Ultimately the plot loses steam, and the novelty wears off. Although it’s heartening to have a new-Hollywood entry into the mystery genre, the best part of Branagh’s slick schtick is his old-fashioned performance.
Wonderstruck (C-), the new film by Todd Haynes from a screenplay by Brian Selznick, who adapted his prestigious book of the same title, feels like walking into an unfinished exhibit at a museum. There are some glorious visuals and some hints of breakthrough ideas, but it all simply doesn’t hang together. Child actors Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds unconvincingly play runaways in two interlocking stories, each mysteriously lured to NYC on inexplicable parallel quests in the ‘20s and ‘70s, respectively. Both kids are afflicted with hearing loss and a yearning to discover a missing parent, but there’s a stunning lack of urgency to their collective plights. Haynes fails to adequately plumb the mind and motivations of his young protagonists, and wisps of cameos by great actresses
Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams don’t get us any closer to satisfaction. It’s all fetishized set pieces built with loving care and little regard for what it’s all supposed to mean. For a director generally so in command of his craft, this seems to be a wasted opportunity, a pretty curated vessel of secondary outtakes and idea fragments.