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January 02, 2018

DARKEST HOUR

Darkest_hour_ver3Joe Wright is a director who specializes in period kitsch. His 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice” is a well-defined dollop of cinematic tough love as experienced through Jane Austen’s emotional turbulence of class struggles.

“Atonement” (2007) found Wright following his muse Keira Knightly through the war-torn romantic terrain of Ian McEwan’s novel with emotional grace notes played in ringing succession. The keen-eyed filmmaker maxed out with his visually embellished adaptation of Anna Karenina, once again featuring Keira Knightley, this time as the title character of Tolstoy’s epic love story.

However deft Joe Wright clearly is with clearing his theatrical space for actors to deliver finely crafted performances in “Darkest Hour,” the filmmaker is hamstrung to liberate the film from screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s staid text and dull plotting. There is no question that Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill is a portrayal for the ages. As well, Kristin Scott Thomas is purely grounded as Churchill’s wife Clemmie. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George VI casts a long shadow that few living politicians could pretend to fill.

Churchill

The problems with this dull, drawn-out film announce themselves early on through Dario Marianelli’s bombastic musical score that attempts to mask narrative shifts that clash rather than mesh with the aural hamburger-helper. The story takes place over a one-month period during May of 1940, when Winston Churchill took over as Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Germany was winning World War II. For as unpopular as Churchill was at the time, he put his head down and got to work, or so the story goes.

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The movie gets overwrought and fussy regarding Churchill’s mistreatment of his youthful secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who has to develop much thicker skin if she is to endure the demands of taking dictation from the head of the British Empire. We accept the sub-plot ruse in the beginning, but it runs threadbare by the time Churchill is pressured toward engaging in peace talks with Hitler.

References to Dunkirk come across as gratuitous considering that awful film’s recent engagement to a plethora of fawning critics who seem to have never seen a competent war film in their lives. There should be a moratorium on World War II films considering that era's disconnected irrelevance to our drone-dominated modern warfare, and the fact of Cinema's already mile-high coverage of World War II.

When Oldman’s Churchill boards a London subway to get a feel for the will of the people, it’s clear that the filmmakers have sunk to a new basement level of pandering to their audience. The scene works in spite of itself, but it nonetheless represents an unforgivable sin of sewing up a mess of a movie with a flurry of hand-stitching. “Darkest Hour” is a brief, and presumably misleading, biopic aimed more at winning awards for acting than in connecting our modern political problems with those of the past. Here is a film to sip tea over, rather than watch with any sense of urgency or relevance beyond the endearing performances of its cast.    

Ben Mendelsohn

Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

December 07, 2017

LADY BIRD

LadybirdposterAlthough dramatically flat, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age directorial debut covers its Mumblecore tracks with jabs of humor and a breeze of earthy authenticity.

Set in Sacramento, California (Gerwig’s hometown), the story focuses on the fraught relationship between Lady Bird (a.k.a. Christine — played by Saoirse Ronan) and her overworked mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose emotions run hot or cold. Marion’s Scorpio tendencies are exacerbated by the family’s unemployed father Larry (wonderfully played by Tracy Letts in a thankless role).

The armpit city of Sacramento will forever be indebted to Greta Gerwig for making it seem like a much better place than it is to live.  

Lady-bird

It’s Lady Bird’s senior year at a private Catholic girls’ high school from which our self-named heroine attempts to assert as much independence as her small town surroundings will allow, which is to say more than any kid living in 2017 should expect.

Participating in the school play sets up a romantic endeavor with Lucas Hedges’s Danny, a boy with a secret. Talk about being mad about the wrong boy, Lady Bird is no judge of character or of sexual affiliation.

Lady bird

Other social opportunities arrive as predictable let-downs for our girl-with-a-problem. Even losing her virginity occurs with a whimper. Lady Bird (“Amelie” reference — check) wants/needs to get as far away from her mother, and Sacramento, as possible. You can’t blame her one bit.

But to be clear, "Lady Bird" is far from a perfect film, it's just not the mumblecore disaster you'd expect from Greta Gerwig — one of the mumblecore movement's prime progenitors. There are dozens of coming-of-age films that far outweigh this lightweight contender. Think "Kes" or "Murmur of the Heart." Greta Gerwig has a long way to go as a filmmaker before she can pretend to approach a Ken Loach or a Louis Malle, much less Céline Sciamma's tour de force "Girlhood" from 2015.

Lady

If Lady Bird were true to her character, she'd never speak to her mother again after asking mom for the "number" that represents the amount of money she spent raising her so that she (Lady Bird) can pay her back and have nothing to do with her ever again. Lady Bird's mom earned that amount of disgust from her daughter; she deserved it. Lady Bird doesn't have the courage of her convictions after all. If ever there was a signature mumblecore trait, this is it. 

Rated R. 94 mins. (C+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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November 29, 2017

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Shape_of_waterThe five years that Guillermo Del Toro spent writing and developing “The Shape of Water” (with co-writer Vanessa Taylor) pays off handsomely for this return-to-form behind Del Toro’s most recent masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

The wildly imaginative auteur once again delves into magic realism, albeit with a determinedly America-based story that presses on social issues of racism and sexism in a methodical way. Everything about the film is balanced to an acute degree. The result is an instant classic of magical realism that takes the viewer deep into the souls of the narrative’s six primary characters; no simple feat, especially considering that one of them is a tall sea creature capable of biting the head off a cat or of falling in love with a human.

Richard Jenkins

“The Shape of Water” is a movie that works best the less you know about it going in. Suffice it to say the story is set in Cold War era Baltimore where a mute cleaning woman (played with earthy aplomb by Sally Hawkins) finds an unexpected soulmate. The ubiquitous Richard Jenkins gives a beautifully nuanced portrayal of a closeted gay ad artist living in the oppressive political landscape of 1962 America. Michael Shannon is ideally cast as a Government agent brought in to investigate, assess, and supervise a sea creature (elegantly embodied by Doug Jones) that is considered to be a God in his country of origin.

Sally Hawkins

Paul D. Austerberry’s flawless production design supports Del Toro’s mercurial approach to a stunning color palate of watery blues and greens. You will never think of turquoise, or “teal,” the same way again. Few films achieve the stunning beauty that this one does.

Most pronounced is Del Toro’s effective use of sexuality to ground his characters in their humanity, or lack thereof. The terrain is magically real, but the characters are anchored in their humanity and corporal needs.

Shape-Of-Water

“The Shape of Water” is an unapologetically adult movie that commands multiple viewings. It is not a film to be watched on a small screen. This film’s estimable visual impact requires a large scale in order to drink in and digest its narrative weight. As the title implies, this is a movie that surrounds the viewer’s psyche and physical being. It is a film that achieves everything it sets out to accomplish. The cinematic experience of watching it is truly breathtaking. That Del Toro was able to make the movie on a budget of just $19.3 million, with Toronto sitting in for Baltimore, is a testament to his visionary and communicative abilities as a gifted filmmaker capable of creating real magic.  

Rated R. 123 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five stars)


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November 26, 2017

LOGAN

LoganIf indoctrinating child audiences into accepting, and enjoying, brutal deadly violence was the intent of the filmmakers responsible for making “Logan,” then their mission is accomplished. Audiences not wanting to be party to such a disgusting cause will want to avoid this cinematic abomination like the plague.

How much senseless killing can an audience member be expected to endure, especially when it's committed by a child? You’ll be asking yourself that question when “Logan’s” third act slips into gear after a black family are brutally murdered in their plantation-posited home after they have the bad luck of receiving charity from Hugh Jackman’s Logan and Patrick Stewart’s Charles during a runaway horse episode on a local highway.

Logan2

As superhero movies go, this one seems poised to put a final nail in their long overdue coffin. Where spectacle was once the genre of song-and-dance musicals, superhero movies have turned Hollywood into a profit-fueled anti-Cinema war zone. Profit does not equal quality, and in the case of superhero movies it doesn't equate as Cinema because their storylines are dumbed down to the point of being amoral. You never have to worry about being talked down to as an audience member in this arena of blood for blood's sake. This is pro-violence propaganda for the masses. 

In 2029, long suffering mutant Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) cares for his wheelchair bound mentor Professor X (a.k.a. Charles) in a fenced off compound somewhere near the Mexican border. Logan drives a limo to provide a meager financial backing for the ailing Charles, whose weird episodes can have far-reaching negative effects on the people and atmosphere around him when they strike. Things get especially strange when Logan takes over caring for a similarly hand-blade equipped child, the [seemingly mute] mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) who desperately wants/needs to be transported to the Canadian border where “Eden” awaits. The “Antichrist” reference seems apropos as there is far more graphic violence in this film than there is in Lars von Trier’s psychological thriller. Breaking character is etched in stone as a rule of dramaturgy to never cross, and yet it occurs in this movie like a fart that can't be held in. Screenwriting teachers take note. This is a sure-fire way to make your cinematic cake fall. 

Logan3

Naturally our of trio limo-ensconced travelers are pursued by a militarized gang of soldiers overseen by an evil doctor (played by Richard E. Grant). Chase scene after redundant chase scene gives way to repetitive sequences of decapitating violence. Blood spews, characters yell in monstrous glee after bringing mutilation and death to their victims. There are more murders committed by a child (Laura) than in any film I can think of.

Logan speaks the film's theme when he says, You have to learn to live with hurting people. Kids aren't the only audiences this film seeks to indoctrinate into a sociopathic mindset. How anyone could think this is a responsible message to teach young people is beyond me. 

Logan

“Logan” is a film that will scar your psyche. I cannot in good conscious recommend that any peace-loving person expose yourself or your children to viewing “Logan.” There is nothing to be gained; it’s not entertaining, and it will leave you with memories you don’t need to have rolling around in your brain.  

Rated R. 137 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)


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November 24, 2017

I, TONYA

I_tonyaCraig Gillespie, the Australian director behind the great magical realist film “Lars and the Real Girl” (from 2007) is destined to become a household name based on his work for this unforgettable film. “I, Tonya” is a beautifully crafted and executed brief biopic of Tonya Harding, an American figure skater made notorious by the same American media landscape that that gave rise to the presidential ascendancy of Donald Trump.

The film is as much a snapshot of American hypocrisies, and its ingrained ideology of cruelty, as it is a diligent portrayal of a gifted figure skater trapped by her impoverished social circumstances and abusive relations with the people closest to her — namely her mother and her husband.

With its convincing depictions of Margo Robbie [apparently] executing Harding’s signature triple axel in mind- blowing competition figure skating sequences, “I, Tonya” (written by screenwriter Steven Rogers) adopts a narrative style that flips between direct-to-camera confessionals and straight-ahead drama.

The subject matter is pitch dark but the film's tone frequently borders on slapstick. Robbie’s performance is an exercise in acting-chops virtuosity; she holds nothing back. Even when Robbie’s audacious portrayal turns her natural beauty into a monstrous visage, you can’t help but accept and respect Tonya Harding as a human being doing her best against impossible odds. An Oscar nomination most certainly looms for Robbie. 

I tonya

Intimidated, bullied, and ruthlessly punished by her self-promoting mother LaVona (brilliantly played by the ever-dependable Allison Janney), Tonya Harding is shown to have grown up indoctrinated by a white trash mentality synonymous with Donald Trump’s reckless approach to the world. Romantically following the first boy who pays her any attention brings a streak of bad luck when Tonya takes up with, and marries, Sebastian Stan’s Jeff Gillooly. Every bit as physically abusive as Tonya’s mother, Jeff Gillooly delivers love with his fists, and even with a gun, when he’s sufficiently frustrated. He doesn’t keep good company either, as evidenced by his best friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a man clearly suffering from intellectual developmental disorder.

I  Tonya

This is not by any means a feel-good movie. Every beat of mental and physical anguish that Margot Robbie nails with her pitch-perfect portrayal of Tonya Harding, brings the audience to an intimate understanding of story misstated and mishandled by the media and by the judge who oversaw Harding’s case related to a brutal attack against fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by Shane Stint (Ricky Russert).

Itonya

Even this film’s supporting roles are perfectly cast. Julianne Nicholson is wonderful as Harding’s skating coach Diane Rawlinson. For his part Bobby Cannavale does a lot with a little as a “Hard Copy” tabloid producer whose bent for exploitation runs as deep as TMZ’s Harvey Levin.     

Rated  R. 119 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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November 19, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3The title “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” sounds like an oh-so-earnest independent movie based on [ostensibly] real life events that NPR would rally around as a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in the Midwest. It's a clever hook because it fits the deceptive tone of this hilarious satire so well.

And, indeed, that is exactly what NPR’s tone-deaf film critic Bob Mondello took away from this cleverly concealed pitch black comedy based on the age old thesis that “violence begets violence.” Of course, the movie is anything but a fact-based rendition of an actual location in America. Oh the beauty of a well-made allegory.

Well-crafted filmic satires, such as this one from writer/director Martin McDonagh, can sail over the heads of viewers such as Mondello, and still land heads-up every time because they subvert cinematic clichés and dyed-in-the-wool social mores.

Martin McDonagh’s 2008 debut feature “In Bruges” made a splash for its self-referential setting — not unlike “Three Billboards” — that the sharp witted filmmaker utilized to maximum dramatic, and humorous, effect. Since then, McDonagh has made only one other movie (the over-cooked “Seven Psychopaths”) before creating a satire so scathing and cynical that many audiences will take the film’s sucker-punches without even knowing where, why, or even that they’ve been hit.

Francis McDormand

A key element of McDonagh’s subversive success lies in the equal balance he gives to his characters. Each one is revealed in fully formed ways that allow the audience to feel connected to his or her personal perspective without being expected to judge them beyond their immediate actions. For all of its anger and violence, this movie is filled with love.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is a single mother to a teenaged son (played by Lucas Hedges) and to Angela (Kathryn Newton), a similarly aged daughter who was “raped while dying” seven months prior to where our story begins. Understandably distraught over the local police department’s inability to track down her daughter’s killer, Mildred decides to rent out three dilapidated billboards that sit 100 yards from her front door, on a rural backroad that few people travel on anymore. A giant black font on a bright red background connects the three billboards in a unifying all-cap message of furious discontent. In close succession the billboards tell the story. “RAPED WHILE DYING” leads to “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” before attacking Woody Harrelson’s local police chief with, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY.”

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We, the audience, are effortlessly drawn to empathize with Mildred whose outrage seems utterly justified. Chief Willoughby’s personal visit with Mildred exposes his doomed fate with death due to a cancer that threatens to dismantle the search for Angela’s murderer even more. During the scene we get a taste of Mildred’s escalating bitterness. She doesn’t invite sheriff Willoughby inside her house. When the cop discloses his medical dilemma, Mildred callously responds that everyone is dying. Tuned-in audiences might begin to pull back from empathizing with Frances McDormand’s reliably unreliable protagonist.

After the town’s [anti-Mildred] dentist attempts to extract a tooth from Mildred without anesthetizing her first, Mildred wrangles away the drill and buries it deep into the doctor’s thumbnail. For as funny as the scene plays, the violence is disturbing, just as such a thing would be in real life.

Sam rockwell

Mildred’s mirror character is Sam Rockwell’s unhinged dumb-as-bricks police officer Dixon. Sam Rockwell’s keen performance is stunning for his unfettered ability to weave between slapstick and realism with deceptive grace. As the plot plays out, the filmmakers shore up the seeming opposites that unify Dixon and Mildred. In the end we are able to access the victims and the abusers for the harassment and violence they attract, and inflict, on themselves and those around them. This is not a true-to-life depiction of a small town community in America; it is an allegory of Western culture’s ideology of revenge that permeates everything we do in a society overrun with brutality and violence. Figuring out when to laugh or cry, and why, is what this unforgettable black comedy is all about. You'll do both. 

Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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November 15, 2017

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

Killing_of_a_sacred_deerGreek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthamos is, in the words of Blondie’s Debbie Harry, “a case of partial extreme.” Since making his overwrought and under-executed feature debut “Dogtooth” (in 2009), Lanthamos has veered into the mainstream via A-list actors. If you saw his 2015 film “The Lobster” (starring Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Rachel Weisz) then you have an idea of what I mean by partial extreme. An unsatisfying movie with a good cast is nonetheless a disappointing experience.   

Lanthamos’s visually drab film’s all begin with a promising high-concept first act that crumbles into an unrecognizable pile of filmic detritus by the time the third act grinds into gear. They represent a cinematic hoax. His 2011 film “Alps” is his best effort, but that isn’t saying much. Lanthamos is a self-styled auteur who drafts artsy screenplays infected with magical realism that he attempts to pawn off as surrealist in nature. Needless to say, Lanthamos's grasp of surrealism is vague at best. 

Sacred deer

Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”), Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”), and Ulrich Seidl (“Import Export”) are clearly Lanthamos’s idols, but he doesn’t possess the intellectual or practical rigor of those established filmmakers. Lanthamos’s films don’t even begin to step into the superior realm of surrealist allegory laid down by the great Mexican-Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a glacial revenge fantasy involving Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiothoracic surgeon with a wife (Anna — Nicole Kidman), his young son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a pubescent daughter who all come under attack by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a man who died on Steven Murphy’s operating table a decade before. Steven is a recovered alcoholic who very will may have been drinking on the day he operated on Martin’s dad.

The_killing_of_a_sacred_deer

Martin is special. He has the ability to put a curse on Steven’s family that renders them unable to walk. Eventually the curse will cause them to bleed from the eyes before killing Martin’s entire family unless Martin murders one of them, hence the “sacred deer” of the film’s title. Clearly, we are in the genre land of a psychological thriller concealing a social satire (think Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”).

Whatever allegorical connection Yorgos Lanthamos is attempting to make regarding King Agamemnon’s experiences after killing a deer owned by Artemis, the polemic presented in this film is too abstract and drawn out to flourish. If you’re going to spend two hours of misery in a darkened cinema there had better be a thematic reward. The only just desert that this film deserves is being ignored with a vengeance by audiences who know better than waste their time. Pay your respects to Von Trier, Haneke, and Seidl rather than to this third-rate hack.

Killing-deer

Rated R. 121 mins. (D+) (One star — out of five / no halves)


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