Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Films of 2017

2017 was quite an eclectic year for film. My list runs the gamut from coming-of-agers to an adult fairy tale, to an animated film, to a horror film with something on its mind and others that are harder to pigeonhole. While this is the first year I have only given three films perfect scores, there were still plenty of films that I would have been comfortable putting on my Top Ten list. Out of the 150+ films I saw from January to December of 2017, here is a list of Honorable Mentions, runners-up and my list of the top ten films.

Honorable Mention: Beauty and the Beast; The Beguiled; Better Watch Out; The Big Sick; Blade Runner 2049; Brawl in Cell Block 99; Columbus; The Devil’s Candy; Dunkirk; Hounds of Love; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The LEGO Batman Movie; Life; Phantom Thread; Prevenge; Raw; Split; Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi; War for the Planet of the Apes; Wonderstruck

16 - 25: A Cure for Wellness; The Greatest ShowmanWonderI don’t feel at home in this world anymore.; Ingrid Goes West; Brad’s Status; I, Tonya; Patti Cake$; Tragedy Girls; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Gerald’s Game


15) Good Time - To anyone living under a rock, Robert Pattinson has come a long way, baby, after glittery, pale-white vampire Edward in the “Twilight” saga. In effectively grimy indie crime-thriller “Good Time,” his creditably volatile, Pacino-level performance is proof of that. Pattinson plays Connie, a reprehensible but charismatic con artist rushing through a seedy New York City to turn things around after a botched bank robbery that ends in the arrest of his mentally handicapped brother, and with every choice he makes, he only digs himself a deeper hole. With a synthy, ‘80s-style score and handheld cinematography creating a propulsive energy, filmmaking brothers Benny and Josh Safdie deliver gripping, electrifying work.

14) Okja - Tonally and narratively, Bong Joon-ho’s audacious genre-shifter “Ojka” is many different things at once, not unlike “Snowpiercer”: a “Lassie”-esque fable about a girl and her pet pig; a scathing satire of corporate evil; an eco-friendly message movie that could make any meat-eater a full-time vegan; and an activism action adventure. In spite of Jake Gyllenhaal’s jarringly screechy performance belonging in a different movie, this is one wild, wacky, singularly strange beast that is unlike anything else in the theater or on Netflix (where it premiered), and it’s a sight to behold.

13) The Florida Project - Cinema can be a window into someone else’s experience contrary to our own, and indie writer-director Sean Baker’s tough, compassionate, heart-wrenching “The Florida Project” does just that with an observant, non-judgmental authenticity for the kids, single mothers, and a motel superintendent (Willem Dafoe) living in the Orlando motels less than a mile away from Disney World. At times, the film is so raw and real that one wants to pause and call Child Protective Services, however, there is even empathy for trashy, tattooed mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) who might smoke in front of impressionable daughter Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince), among other awful things, but will do anything to keep a roof over her head and food in her stomach. For a film about people living on the fringe in a squalid bubble, “The Florida Project” has a dreamy innocence and ends on an extremely moving note that's somewhat hopeful.

12) Logan - It would be hard to imagine after watching Hugh Jackman return to this iconic Marvel character for 17 years that this focused, fittingly final entry would be able to take more risks than one might expect. At once a western, a road picture, a meditation on mortality, and a closing character drama, “Logan” is blessed with an R-rating, lasting pathos, and deadly serious stakes without being humorless. Adult-oriented, angry, and visceral but also emotionally resonant, it’s a film that lets its retractable-clawed hero be human at last.

11) It - A coming-of-ager about the woes and anxieties of being a kid in a looking-glass town damned by an an evil entity, “It” is elegantly mounted, classically confident, adult-minded, goosebump-inducing and never without a beating heart. Out of the slew of Stephen King adaptations to choose from, this is decidedly one of the very good ones. Pennywise the Dancing Clown will certainly be getting many horror fans floating into the theater, but “It” wouldn’t be what it is without fully realized characters who are always in the forefront and collectively share a warm, close-knit underdog camaraderie. If he’s not already, King should be awfully proud. 

The 10 Best Films of 2017

10) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriDemonstrating yet another tonally deft balance and an ear for sharp dialogue that makes one wish we could all pull out quips like this on a dime, Martin McDonagh's “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a barn-burning statement, pitch-black comedy, soul-searching drama, tragedy and morality tale about the lengths to which people will go when coping with loss and injustice. There’s simmering rage but also biting wit, catharsis and truth. McDonagh wrote the script with Frances McDormand in mind, and based on her work on screen, one can’t imagine anyone else more right for the role of Mildred, a Midwestern woman who calls out the police using three open billboards seven months after the murder of her daughter. McDormand is a commanding force of nature and leads an excellent ensemble, including nuanced work from Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Smart and unpredictable with shocking bursts of cruel violence, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missour” keeps zigging where the viewer thinks it will zag.

9) mother! - Daring in ways a lot of modern filmmakers would not even try in fear of failing, writer-director Darren Aronofsky is one of cinema’s most courageous cinematic artists who really swings for the fences and never lets his audience know where he’s taking them. His latest offering may be the last word in his thoughtful, challenging auteur sensibilities. Shrouded in cagey mystery, “mother!” is, no contest, the least commercially viable and most polarizing studio film of the year, and amen to that. While reactions to this unsafe, studio-produced art film with household names will undoubtedly be split down the middle on what works and what does not work, and what it all means, there is always a place reserved for movies that trigger an emotional response, shake you up and change your mood, and leave so much room for debate. A cinematic Rorschach Test, anxiety attack, and hallucinatory nightmare unlike anything else, “mother!” is a tour de force that is hard to process after just one sitting but even harder to ignore and worthy of discussion for years to come. 

8) Super Dark Times - A remarkably haunting feature debut to be proud of, director Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” sets an unsettling mood and sustains it from there with the aftermath of a bloodied deer that has smashed its way through a school window and takes its last breaths. It’s disconnected from the plot proper, but it efficaciously casts a dark cloud over this coming-of-age tale in a pre-Columbine era that disturbingly and authentically dissolves into an earth-bound nightmare of innocence lost and the collapse of friendship. For a film not classed as a horror film, though just as bleak, visceral and frightening, it still tests the viewer’s handling of stress, intensity and paranoia. Though its final shot leaves a shred of hope and regained innocence for one of its scarred characters, the film leaves the viewer shaken to the core with a lingering emotional resonance. Not dissimilar to “River’s Edge” and “Stand by Me” (both released in 1986) and 2004’s “Mean Creek,” “Super Dark Times” is harrowing, excellently acted, sensitively observed and vividly moody, earning the right to be placed in the same sentence as those three films before it. 

7) Coco - Breaking the tradition of sequels, Pixar returns with an original in the winning “Coco.” While 2014’s Guillermo del Toro-produced animated effort “The Book of Life” highlighted Mexican culture first, director Lee Unkrich (2010’s “Toy Story 3”) and screenwriters Adrian Molina (who receives a co-directing credit) and Matthew Aldrich come up with their own rich, personal story that is at once culturally reverent and thematically universal. Celebrating the importance of family is a common throughline in many Disney pictures, and themes of believing oneself and seizing the moment may seem theoretically basic for a film targeted at children, but the filmmakers also have something to say about memory, regrets, family ties and mortality. As thoughtfully written as it is rousing and dazzling to look at, “Coco” is an inventive, touching and flavorful treasure that delivers on every level. All that has gone before the film’s last five minutes won’t prepare one for the beautifully moving, smiling-through-tears final moments, making “Coco” pretty perfecto.

6) Get Out - Jordan Peele, one-half of sketch-comedy duo “Key and Peele,” must have had the foresight to know the America that would be born around the release of his directorial debut. It being a horror film, “Get Out” marks Peele’s first foray into a genre one doesn’t ordinarily equate him with, and his intentions are devilish, thoughtful, and courageous. Racism still exists and it’s an unsettling thought, so Peele dares to repurpose the taboo of an interracial relationship from 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” through a looking glass by way of 1975’s “The Stepford Wives.” Blistering, disquieting, slyly satirical and entertaining, this is worth celebrating as ballsy, incendiary genre filmmaking ready to take chances. With the help of the fiercely indie-minded Jason Blum getting a picture like this greenlit within the studio system, Jordan Peele sticks to his guns and seems to have fully made the film he wanted to make without any tinkering or mainstream pandering. He is such a trailblazing talent behind the camera that one gets excited just thinking what ideas are festering in that mind of his for a sophomore project. Giving one plenty to think about and discuss later, “Get Out” is as important as “12 Years of Slave,” and suffice it to say, it might be more scarily relevant now than ever. 

5) Baby Driver - When so many studio movies come off as safe, assembly-line, personality-free products connected to a franchise, writer-director Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is alive with bona fide flavor and energy, flooring it with an identity all its own. Wright, he of 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, never lets his vision turn too arch or self-indulgent when concocting a bracing tossed salad of a genre picture. It’s a heist caper, a love story, and a visual mixtape all thrillingly rolled into one crowd-pleasing joyride. When almost everything clicks in a movie, it is like a shot in the arm for cinephiles, and “Baby Driver” is a creatively fresh, criminally fun and awesome rush. If it isn’t the most thematically meaty film of the year, few others this year will match this one's infectious exhilaration. A blast of cinematic ecstasy, “Baby Driver” is exactly as cool as it strives to be, affirming that they still do make quality summer movies like they used to.

4) The Shape of Water - “Romantic” isn’t typically a descriptor one would use to describe a Guillermo del Toro film. “The Shape of Water,” however, is decidedly del Toro’s most daring film, too, with unquestionable echoes of “King Kong” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” if the beauty and the beast actually fell in love and actually consummated their bond. Not unlike the fantastical filmmaker’s 2006 adult fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro brings a fairy tale sensibility to this otherwise real world, while adeptly juggling romance, suspense, horror and comedy. A whimsical, enchanting, beautifully tender and unexpectedly moving tale of love, loneliness and connection at its core with the backdrop of Cold War paranoia where anyone who fell into a subset of “other”—mute, gay, black, Russian—was a suspect, the film is also a dreamy, rapturous love letter to classic monster movies and movies of all kinds. Sally Hawkins is sublime, soul-stirring and just plain lovely as mute cleaning lady Elisa, wordlessly but expressively communicating everything one needs with her eyes and infectious smile to see when her heart aches and what brings her joy. Unusual and wonderful, "The Shape of Water" is sheer magic.

3) Lady Bird - More than a decade ago, quirky indie darling Greta Gerwig might have starred as the titular character of “Lady Bird”—not a biopic of Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife—but Gerwig actually makes it her solo writing-directing debut. The project feels undeniably personal that one can just hear Gerwig’s voice through the performance of Saoirse Ronan, although not in a self-consciously quirky way that reminds one of the many times Woody Allen sometimes unsuccessfully cast another actor as his stand-in. Rather, Gerwig’s title character is an offbeat original and Ronan in the role only enhances the longing and adolescent emotions found in the already-terrific writing. Not only a coming-of-age film about living on the cusp of adulthood and trying to navigate pre-college life but also a love story between a mother and daughter, this is a lovely slice-of-life that feels freshly observed and deeply felt with a confident voice. Sharply funny, insightful and poignant, “Lady Bird” is close to perfect, the kind of film the viewer doesn’t want to end with characters one doesn’t want to see go. On second thought, it is perfect.

2) Call Me by Your Name - First love and sexual exploration are memorable touchstones in one’s life. There is the thrilling buzz, the nervousness, the heartbreak and all the feelings of experiencing an attraction to someone. Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel by writer James Ivory and directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name” beautifully captures the unspoken yearning and feelings that are finally acted upon before it’s too late. A ripe romance but also a coming-of-age story, the film is as gentle, sensitive and observant in gaining insight into two people who find a deep connection. The story here is simple, taking its time patiently unfolding like the relaxed, leisurely nature of basking in the sun during a summer in Italy, but as told through the eyes of worldly 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in love with his father’s 24-year-old American intern Oliver (Armie Hammer) during the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy, it is rich, subtle and complex in emotion. Swooningly sensuous, breathtaking and impassioned, “Call Me by Your Name” is intoxicating cinema for all of the senses, and it wouldn’t be premature to call this an all-timer of all the love stories ever told. 

1) A Ghost Story - What happens after we die and leave those we love? Does the memory of us vanish or remain in our house? Do we leave behind anything? “A Ghost Story” is certainly not a conventional haunted-house film or even a horror film for that matter, but it ponders such questions of loss and leaving behind one’s legacy, as well as the mysteries of the hereafter. An elliptical, cosmically linked journey through the history of one house, spanning time and space, the film is a work of art about a dead man (Casey Affleck) returning back home to watch his wife (Rooney Mara) from afar but in the form of a ghost under a sheet. Should anyone dismiss the film for being soporific or not be taken with it will be missing out on writer-director-editor David Lowery’s singular and poetic meditation on life, death, grief and the overall human condition unlike any other, leaving the most open and willing viewers unprepared for its cumulative power and reflecting on his or her own life. Indefinable as an elevator pitch though it may be, “A Ghost Story” lingers and resonates as pure cinema that never dies. It’s forlorn and tender, beautiful and strange, quiet and lyrical, and challenging and evocative, and if one goes in with an open mind, it's an experiential tour de force that makes you feel alive.

The Worst Films of 2017

The good news? There were actually fewer bad movies seen this year than last year. Granted, I dodged a bullet by skipping both “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “The Emoji Movie,” although by saying that, I’m judging two books by their covers (in these cases, I think it’s okay). I granted no “F” grades to any films this year, but there was a single “D -,” so that’s bad enough. Without further ado, here is one opinion of the five worst films of 2017. Happy New Year!

Dishonorable Mention: Boo 2! A Madea Halloween; The Circle; Ghost House; The House; Jeepers Creepers 3; The Mummy; Rings; Rupture; You Get Me

5) Leatherface - The idea of exploring the genesis of a boy and his chainsaw could have germinated into a worthwhile, compelling companion piece. Unfortunately, rote, half-hearted origin story “Leatherface” undercuts everything that was so frightening and unknown about Leatherface and lacks the insight or psychological examination to even warrant being made about the making of a murderer. It squanders no opportunity to rub the viewer's nose in the ugliness and unpleasantness on screen to the point that the film feels gratuitous in every way. While it is still a notch above the campy one that had no help in making stars out of Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, “Leatherface” counts as the second most worthless addition to the series.

4) The Bye Bye Man - One can actually see this creepily folkloric concept—an entity having the power to force a person to see things that aren’t there, not see things that are there and commit generally horrible acts when its name is spoken or given any thought—playing well with a smarter script that didn't under-think everything and more confident direction. As it stands though, there aren’t many nice things to say about the inane PG-13 horror film “The Bye Bye Man.” “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” the characters repeatedly say as a warning to themselves and others, but let’s just call it a day and say what everyone is so predictably thinking: don’t see it. 

3) The Layover - How baffling and depressing that William H. Macy chose his second directorial feature to be “The Layover,” a female-centric comedy that hates its female characters. There’s no way to defend a film that sets two best friends against each other and reduces them to stereotypically petty, immature, unpleasant, regressive gargoyles who destroy their lifelong friendship over a hunky man. As if any movie ever needed to evoke the nightmare of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway sabotaging each other after neither one would give up the same wedding venue and date in 2009’s equally insufferable “Bride Wars,” “The Layover” is lazy and desperate at best, and insulting and misogynistic at worst. Alison Bechdel should be furious.

2) Friend Request - Following the same blueprint as the ingeniously conceived “Unfriended,” “Friend Request” is like the lame, conventionally shot Lifetime Original knockoff. The filmmakers tried forging their own path with a witchcraft angle, but they are so beholden to staging a tedious parade of jump scares, none of which work due to being predictably telegraphed and unsparingly used. Reliant on pandering to the teenybopper crowd who will no doubt be hiding behind their cell phone screens and probably checking their own Facebook, the exceedingly moronic “Friend Request” easily occupied the lowest rung of theatrical horror releases of this or any other year. Friends don't let friends see bad movies like this.

1) The Snowman - The first (and presumably last) adaptation of one best-selling novel in Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s crime series following policeman Harry Hole, “The Snowman” could have been, at worst, a standard-issue but watchable and reasonably involving investigative procedural and whodunit. Despite top-notch talent on both sides of the camera, the reality of it is actually a disaster unfit for release. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but this was an example of a film that has obviously been through extensive reshoots and cuts after a tight production schedule left 10-15% of the script unfilmed that the finished product resembles nothing short of a half-finished muddle. With results this shockingly calamitous, the filmmakers have instantly melted away any chance of turning the rest of Nesbø’s crime fiction into future cinematic projects. Something was definitely lost in translation because this final cut can’t possibly be the riveting cat-and-mouse thriller anyone signed up for, not even ticket-buyers. Not even a little visual competence makes “The Snowman” any less of an abominable slog.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

One Good Woman: "Molly's Game" finds a great fit for Chastain and Sorkin's crackling wordmanship

Molly’s Game (2017)
140 min., rated R.

Inimitable wordsmith Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with “Molly’s Game,” an overlong, if smart and entertaining, film about real-life “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom who made a fortune running high-stakes poker games for the wealthy, some of them celebrities. For fans of TV’s “The West Wing” and films like “A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network” and “Steve Jobs,” they will be in awe of the crackling, fast-talking dialogue that is Sorkin’s bread and butter. Hyper-articulate and intelligent in ways that could turn tiresome to some, Molly Bloom is very much a Sorkin character and a savvy, fierce player in a male-dominated world, and it’s a great fit for Jessica Chastain who plays Bloom and handles the dexterity of Sorkin’s speedy, quick-witted verbal gymnastics with aplomb.

Based on the real Molly Bloom’s 2014 memoir, the film begins with Molly (Chastain) as an Olympic-level skier, ranked third in North America in women’s moguls, until an injury during the trials at Deer Valley forced her to change the direction of her career. (Previously, when she was 12, her back exploded when it turned out she had rapid onset scoliosis and needed a 7-hour surgical procedure to remaster her spine, but she was back to skiing in a year.) Despite the constant demands of her tough-love psychologist father, Larry (Kevin Costner), who would push his children to their limits, Molly postponed law school and moved to Los Angeles. There, she worked bottle-service jobs at nightclubs until landing a second job as an office assistant for club regular and investments partner “Dean Keith” (Jeremy Strong), who was a crude jerk but introduced her to the most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game. She would soon break away from “Dean” and run her own private games in a Plaza Hotel room in Manhattan and deal with movie stars to members of the Russian mob, and soon land a book deal, telling her story but keeping the names confidential. Now facing criminal charges, her only ally happens to be her honest criminal defense lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who begins to realize there is more to Molly than spearheading an illegal gambling operation.

Before being framed as a narrated flashback structure, “Molly’s Game” is rooted in the present, twelve years later after her skiing accident, when she was arrested in the wee hours of the morning by seventeen FBI agents in her West Hollywood apartment, even after she hadn’t run a gambling operation in two years. Scenes that go back even further than the time she built her empire shows traces of Molly’s independence and rebellious streak when she was a teenager (played by Samantha Isler). With poker driving the story—and even if one barely knows the game, the scenes at the table are exciting to watch—the real core is Molly Bloom’s strength. How she made her way to become known as the “Poker Princess,” Molly was a quick study, organizing the weekly games, collecting the players’ buy-in money and sitting in on their games, learning poker by looking up her key words on her laptop, while also keeping track of winnings with her spreadsheets. The film also doesn’t let Molly off the hook, particularly before her arrest as she is confronted by the Russian mob and given a painful message within an inch of her life.

This is, first and foremost, Jessica Chastain’s film, and everyone else is just co-starring in it. She can’t help but form a fascinating, direct and complicated person as Molly Bloom. Idris Elba at least gets to be on her level, challenging her and then supporting her as Charlie Jaffey, while Michael Cera is another standout making an against-type turn as one of Molly’s clients (who may or may not be based on Tobey Maguire) after turning his socially awkward on-screen persona on its head in “This Is the End.” Other players who are mere pawns in Molly’s scheme are played by Bill Camp, Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy James, and Joe Keery (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”). The daddy’s issues of Molly’s story only feel wedged-in with a false, contrived scene on an ice rink in New York when Molly finds herself at her lowest point, but luckily, Chastain and Kevin Costner make the scene more effective and cathartic than it has any right to be. Overall, “Molly’s Game” is an auspicious first hand behind the camera for Aaron Sorkin, but it’s his central performance and expertly written repartee that keeps the viewer rapt and the pacing snappier than a 140-minute running time would suggest. 


Step Right Up: "The Greatest Showman" an unapologetically earnest show of jubilation

The Greatest Showman (2017)
105 min., rated PG.

If one is hoping for “The Greatest Showman” to be a historically accurate, warts-and-all biopic of circus showman P.T. Barnum, who may have been a man of more flaws and contradictions, that isn’t the movie that was made, and why does it have to be? Coincidentally not based on the musical “Barnum” that debuted on Broadway in 1980, this is a splashy, shoot-the-works original, an old-fashioned musical extravaganza that evokes quixotic wonder and tingly moments of jubilation like the greatest movie musicals do. Debuting director Michael Gracey and screenwriters Jenny Bicks (2014’s “Rio 2”) and Bill Condon (2006’s “Dreamgirls”) unapologetically burst with heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness and sentimentality in a passion project about leading with your heart, making dreams a reality with pennies to your name, and proving 19th-century society wrong and pleading for acceptance in the most glorious of ways. While cynics will balk and call it popcorn—emphasis on the "corn"—others only wish putting on a show could be this joyous, disarming and exhilarating nirvana every time. “The Greatest Showman,” indeed.

Born into poverty as the son of a tailor and left with nothing, Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) slowly rises from his humble beginnings and marries first love Charity (Michelle Williams), a young woman who came from wealth, with whom he has two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). After losing his job at a shipping company that goes bankrupt, Barnum is determined to make something of himself and give his family a life of happiness, so he takes a risk with a new venture and cons his way into taking out a large loan from a bank. In downtown Manhattan, he opens a museum of the macabre, exotic and bizarre, showcasing wax models of animals, but brings in few sales. When Barnum gets the idea of finding real people with unique differences—some may say “oddities”—on display, he sets out to cast those who are called “freaks,” like a little person (Sam Humphrey), a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a man with full-body tattoos, a giant and others. The show becomes enough of a success with the public that he brings on high-society playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his business partner. Using bad press to draw a crowd, while Charity and his girls stand by with support, Barnum turns his show into a “circus” (a theater critic’s word), but with a taste of wealth, the showman loses sight of everything he already has when hearing the nightingale voice of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

“The Greatest Showman” surely takes creative liberties and glosses over the grittiness and hard truths of circus founder P.T. Barnum, but both end up being moot points. The dramatic connective tissue knitting together the rapturous production numbers is decidedly not as strong, coming across superficial and cursory, and it’s a missed opportunity to see most of Barnum’s "human curiosities" becoming relegated to playing extras without many individual moments. With that said, the original songs by Oscar-winning team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who wrote the music and lyrics for 2016’s “La La Land” and Broadway’s Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen”) transcend the narrative and push it forward. They are all catchy and arranged as musical numbers, almost all of them showstoppers with exuberant choreography and the lively brio of the entire ensemble. Going in step with Barnum being ahead of his time, Pasek and Paul write their own rules by bringing modern sound to the music. 

The foot-stomping, giddily larger-than-life opener “The Greatest Show,” with Barnum in his red ringmaster coat and top hat, gets the show rolling, setting expectations so high as if no number that followed could top it, but as it turns out, there are plenty to choose from. Magical duet “A Million Dreams” efficiently follows Barnum and Charity’s love through thick and thin, where they are separated and write to each other as children (played By Ellis Rubin and Skylar Dunn), to the time they meet again as adults and build their life together; a moonlight dance on their apartment rooftop among line-drying sheets is enchanting and expertly choreographed. The start of Barnum and Phillip Carlyle’s business partnership plays out in another toe-tapping number, “The Other Side,” set at a bar where even the shot glasses slam down to the beat, and it’s an electric sight to witness the combined sing-and-dance cred of Jackman and Efron. “Rewrite the Stars,” a winning aerial duet between Phillip and mixed-race trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), is dazzlingly choreographed like a ballet in the empty circus ring on a trapeze rope. Jenny Lind’s power ballad “Never Enough,” which she first performs in New York, equally brings down the house, and even if Rebecca Ferguson is only lip-synching to singer Loren Allred’s voice, it is Ferguson who sells it and makes one understand why Barnum nearly puts his marriage in crisis. The film’s biggest powerhouse of all, though, is “This Is Me,” an empowering anthem of conquering adversity and celebrating diversity, led by divine Broadway performer Keala Settle as bearded lady Lettie Lutz, who leads the “freaks” after being shut out of a fancy party by Barnum and gets her moment. From Settle’s powerful voice, to the way the scene is beautifully staged and edited, the entire sequence is so immensely moving that it has the power to bring goosebumps to one’s entire body and catch in one's throat. The same goes for “Come Alive” and “From Now On,” both sublimely performed by Barnum and his talented troupe.

“The Greatest Showman” is what happens when filmmakers amass bona fide musical talent. Now that he had his swan song as Logan/Wolverine, Hugh Jackman gets another chance after 2012’s big-screen adaptation of "Les Misérables” to showcase his Broadway clout and prove that he is a showman himself. Even if the role is a sanitized, less off-putting version of the real impresario, Jackman is ideal casting as the slick, charismatic P.T. Barnum. A luminous Michelle Williams smiles on and provides a beacon of warmth and support as Charity Barnum, but even when her husband neglects his family when going on tour with Jenny Lind, Williams still gets a stirring eleventh-hour ballad, “Tightrope.” As star-crossed lovers Phillip and Anne, Zac Efron and fellow former Disney star Zendaya (2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) have a nice spark with each other and find a sweet tenderness in their obligatory interracial romance that is frowned upon by Phillip's small-minded, well-to-do parents. The amount of theatrical spectacle is no humbug when “The Greatest Showman” makes the hearts of the audience so full, including a theater critic who even comes around and finds joy in P.T. Barnum’s showmanship. It has the impact of a true crowd-pleaser that forces one to embrace its spirited and timeless “celebration of humanity,” as well as seek out the irresistible soundtrack. Behold, a new, sparkling movie musical favorite for dreamers.

Grade: B +

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Price of a Life: "All the Money in the World" a solidly riveting kidnapping yarn

All the Money in the World (2017)
132 min., rated R.

It seems pertinent to address the fascinating production challenge that could have fatally done in “All the Money in the World,” the latest film from director Ridley Scott (2017’s “Alien: Covenant”). Six weeks before the theatrical release of the completed film, Scott chose to reshoot all of the scenes with actor Kevin Spacey as John Paul Getty in hammy-looking old-age make-up with the recast Christopher Plummer, due to Spacey’s headline-grabbing sexual misconduct allegations that have now since shoved him out of the film and Netflix world. Typically, this would spell disaster—and it seemed impossible for the film to retain its original release date, which did get pushed back by only three days—but the tireless Scott sets a precedent in pulling off this feat seamlessly without any distractions, and given that Plummer was his original (and more appropriate) choice to play the richest man who ever lived, “All the Money in the World” is a better film for it. Adapted from John Pearson’s 1995 book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” by writer David Scarpa (2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), the film is a riveting, classily crafted true story that takes dramatic license as any film inspired by real events must but still makes for one hell of a yarn.

In July 1973, 16-year-old Paul (Charlie Plummer), aka John Paul Getty III, is kidnapped by a van of Calabrian criminals entangled with the Mafia in Rome, Italy, and held for a $17 million ransom. Paul’s divorced mother, Abigail Harris Getty (Michelle Williams), is frantic when she receives the call from her son's kidnappers but doesn’t have that kind of money, so she hopes that her wealthy father-in-law, painting-collecting oil baron J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), would without question pay the kidnappers to have his grandson set free. That isn't the case, as his logic came down to this: “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Instead of paying the ransom, Getty dispatches his security and business manager, ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to go to Rome and help Abigail secure the release of her son.

“All the Money in the World” hops back and forth in time, fleshing out the history of the Getty family, and takes a while to claim its footing, but the flashbacks are necessary in displaying at least a little humanity within Getty before proving he holds a mean, cold heart. As the kidnapping investigation spirals almost preposterously, the film remains tensely gripping with a few of Paul’s near-escapes and a fake-out that Getty may be coming to his senses to pay the ransom. Enhanced by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s lensing and shifting color palettes, Ridley Scott’s film can’t help but look crisp and substantive. The opening sequence is a Federico Fellini-inspired beaut, tracking Paul taking a nightly stroll through Rome and bypassing a few cars with prostitutes who insist he get back home to his mother before he gets snatched by his kidnappers. The aural uses of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” also help create the specificity of the time period.

Michelle Williams is exceptional as the independent Abigail, giving herself over to the raw emotions of wanting to get her son back but also making interesting choices in her performance in which she changes her vocal inflection and the way she handles herself in front of her father-in-law. Rather than play a plainly drawn Concerned Mother, Williams gets to dig into the way the character has been written, which is strong, savvy and steely when she needs to be. When her husband, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), fell into addiction, she learned to adopt her father-in-law’s thrifty approach by refusing alimony during their divorce to gain custody of her children. Even when Abigail is bargained by a Rome newspaper to publish a story about her son’s missing ear that arrives in the newspaper’s mail, she refuses and instead buys over a hundred copies to be shipped to not her home address but to the Getty estate. When all the papers get taken by the wind and fly in Getty’s face, it’s a satisfying moment. 

With little to no indication that anyone else ever played the role before him, Christopher Plummer brings indelible force to the miserly, ruthlessly penny-pinching John Paul Getty. Though there is no sugarcoating Getty and his cheapskate methods, Plummer gets to be darkly funny by wallowing in the richest man in the world’s tight-fisted awfulness, keeping his fortune to himself and saving a few bucks where he could, like hand-washing and drying his own clothes in a hotel, even when he would spend $1.5 million on a rare Duccio painting of Madonna and Child. If there is any weak link, it is Mark Wahlberg, who doesn’t seem well-suited to the part of suave kidnapping negotiator Fletcher Chase, but there is a coolness and roughness to the character that ends up working, and Wahlberg gives his all to a soliloquy that indicts Getty. Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) does what is asked of him as Paul Getty, but in a well-calibrated supporting role, Romain Duris adds complicated layers and unexpected sympathy as kidnapper Cinquanta, who forms an unlikely bond with Paul and turns a blind eye on a couple of occasions that lend to Paul’s escape; in a way, one of Paul’s kidnappers shows more decency than his own grandfather. In spite of sometimes sluggish pacing that could have been tightened here and there, "All the Money in the World" profits from so much meticulous craft behind and in front of the camera, proving the finished product on screen is all that matters. 


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Summer of Love: Sensuous, achingly real, beautifully acted "Call Me by Your Name" makes one fall in love

Call Me by Your Name (2017)
132 min., rated R.

First love and sexual exploration are memorable touchstones in one’s life. There is the thrilling buzz, the nervousness, the heartbreak and all the feelings of experiencing an attraction to someone. Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel by writer James Ivory and directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (2016’s “A Bigger Splash”), “Call Me by Your Name” beautifully captures the unspoken yearning and feelings that are finally acted upon before it’s too late. A ripe romance but also a coming-of-age story, the film is as gentle, sensitive and observant in gaining insight into two people who find a deep connection. Swooningly sensuous, breathtaking and impassioned, “Call Me by Your Name” is intoxicating cinema for all of the senses, and it wouldn’t be premature to call this an all-timer of all the love stories ever told.

It’s the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy. Worldly 17-year-old Italian-American musician and book worm Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the season with his parents in his family’s villa, surrounded by an apricot orchard. His scholarly father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and translator mother Annella (Amira Casar) rent out a room every summer to a doctoral student for a six-week internship. This year, the student is a hunky, confident, preppy 24-year-old American named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is everything Elio is not. Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading, swimming, riding his bike and flirting with a French young woman, Marzia (Esther Garrel), but when he offers to show Oliver around town, the arrival of this man stirs something in Elio, as he no longer knows how to hide his feelings for Oliver. Though there is a difference in age and experience between them, Elio and Oliver are intellectual equals and become much more than friends.

“Call Me by Your Name” is a simple story that takes its time patiently unfolding like the relaxed, leisurely nature of basking in the sun during a summer in Italy, but as told through the eyes of Elio, it is rich, subtle and complex in emotion. When anybody feels a connection with another human being, there is always that rush of infatuation but also a sense of hesitancy, questioning whether or not the feelings are mutual. Director Luca Guadagnino lets the tension between Elio and Oliver simmer with long glances and neck rubs, and the emotional beats come organically at unexpected times. When their true feelings are finally revealed and they meet at midnight in Elio’s bedroom where Oliver is staying, the moment between them makes one’s own heart flutter. The only villain here is time. Their connection is powerful and life-changing but ephemeral. It can’t last, but the viewer wants it to as much as Elio and Oliver. For those who might question the relationship between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old, Elio and Oliver’s summer romance is completely consensual and conveyed without any judgment. Love is love.

There is never a whiff of contrivance or artifice that anyone watching just feels like they are living along with Elio and Oliver, and that is a large testament to the performances and how they make the sense of longing so palpably strong. 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet is astonishing as Elio, who’s intellectually mature but not emotionally there yet. He’s still a boy with a gangly, boyish body, but the actor seamlessly veers between English, Italian and French, which goes to show that this character is quite wise beyond his years and yet still figuring himself out. A strapping, handsome adonis in his own right, Armie Hammer proves that he is much more than that and makes a bold career move here. As Oliver, he is articulate with a natural charisma, and yet he is understandably tentative about acting on his desires toward Elio, considering he is a guest in Elio’s parents’ home. There might be a certain American arrogance to Oliver at first; for instance, his way of excusing himself from the breakfast or dinner table and saying goodbye by saying, “Later,” comes off glib to Elio, but that swagger might also be something that attracts Elio. Together, Chalamet and Hammer have such an intimate, overwhelming chemistry that sizzles and gives one butterflies in his or her stomach. When Oliver later whispers to Elio, “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine,” after they consummate their secret relationship, it is such a tender and true form of pillow talk that it makes one hope their love can survive. As Elio’s progressive father, Michael Stuhlbarg (who’s having a banner year) remains mostly in the background for much of the film, but he is excellent and turns a heart-to-heart with his son into one of the wisest, most open-minded and most compassionate monologues seen and heard on screen in a long time. It encapsulates the entire film without feeling like hand-holding because the scene is so eloquently written with the utmost humanity and all of these characters have been established as polymaths.

Director Luca Guadagnino somehow has the gift of making all of the senses feel vivid and tactile, from the sound of wet swim trunks hung up to dry, to the smell of cigarettes, to the taste of a peach, to every touch, and never before has a piece of fruit been the source of such erotic pleasure. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s luscious 35mm images are shot with the inviting warmth and lushness of Italy, and without ever coming off exploitative or even safe, the scenes of sexuality are simultaneously passionate and artfully restrained. Sufjan Stevens’ original songs “Mysteries of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” are even dramatically resonant, and one is bound to never hear The Psychedelic Furs’ bouncy ‘80s New Wave song “Love My Way” the same way again as it is used to truly joyous, alive effect. By the stunningly melancholy final moments of the film, where the camera dares to stay on Elio’s aching face, the viewer feels exactly what Elio feels. Not every film has one carrying with them the lingering, poignantly felt punch of its final shot, but “Call Me by Your Name” is a moving, truly special film that means as much to us as Elio and Oliver mean to each other.


Friday, December 22, 2017

New Game: "Jumanji" sequel surprisingly good fun with game cast

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
119 min., rated PG-13.

“Jumanji” was a childhood favorite in 1995, casting Robin Williams as the grown-up player of a board game that made him disappear as a teenager and brought back the dangers of the jungle with him into the real world. It was an effects-laden fantasy adventure, based on a 1981 novel by Chris Van Allsburg, that delivered exactly what it set out to do. 22 years later, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” functions more as a sequel of sorts than a reboot, where the board game Jumanji magically transforms into a video game that drops its players into the game world. No one needs to cry foul that the 1995 film was sequelized because this update turns out to be a pleasant surprise that mines more laughter than could possibly have been expected. Directed by Jake Kasdan (2014’s “Sex Tape”) and co-scribed by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner (TV's "Zoo"), “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a written-by-committee studio comedy capitalizing on a ‘90s brand, but how entertaining the comic situations are is predicated on the ace casting and the game performances.

Following a prologue set in 1996 where a father (Tim Matheson) finds the board game in the sand on a beach and gives it to his son, this version of “Jumanji” then sets up a situation right out of “The Breakfast Club.” Four disparate high school students—dorky, neurotic gamer Spencer (Alex Wolff); football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), who used to be friends with Spencer and now has him do his school assignments; brainy, reclusive girl Martha (Morgan Turner); and vain, phone-obsessed pretty girl Bethany (Madison Iseman)—get served detention together and are ordered by the principal to clean up the school’s basement storage room. While the others begin their punishment, Spencer digs up an old gaming console with the “Jumanji” cartridge and controllers, and once they decide to play the game and pick their individual avatars, they all get sucked into the game. Landing in the jungle, Spencer realizes he’s bald and musclebound as archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); Fridge is a few sizes smaller as zoologist and weapons valet Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Kevin Hart); Martha is uncomfortable wearing a skimpy shirt and short shorts as the Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and in the shocks of all shocks, Bethany is cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), not a “curvy genius” but an overweight, middle-aged man whose real name is Sheldon. As they find out, Spencer, Fridge, Martha and Bethany each have three lives apiece (which they keep track of with tattoos on their arms), so if they die once, they come dropping out of the sky with two more left. Realizing they have to actually play the game to survive, the foursome is tasked with returning a green jewel to the eye of a jaguar statue to save the jungle of Jumanji from cursed explorer Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). The fate of Jumanji is in their hands, as are their own fates.

Whereas the first “Jumanji” relied more on animal stampedes and encounters with spiders, this one has a little of that but puts more of an emphasis on the playful humor of a body-switching comedy as the four teens learn to grow more comfortable in their avatar bodies. The core cast does the heavy lifting and goes a long way, as if they took actual time to study the mannerisms of their younger counterparts. Dwayne Johnson gets to play on his persona in that he admirably never takes himself too seriously, and as Dr. Smolder Bravestone by way of Spencer, he effectively sells the uncertainty of a teenage boy who has never kissed a girl but now has a “smoldering intensity” and a hulking body with huge biceps and pectoralis majors. Kevin Hart mostly gets to be Kevin Hart, but this might be his most memorable screen performance, as his manic personality becomes a great fit for a body-swap concept, particularly when it comes to Mouse's strengths and weaknesses.

Karen Gillan gets to not only show her physical comedic skills, like when Bethany gives pointers to the demure Martha to distract a couple of guards with some flirtatious moves and hair-flipping, but also proves Ruby Roundhouse’s “dance fighting” strength, infectiously played to Big Mountain’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” Jack Black is the comically inspired standout as Bethany in Sheldon’s body. While it would have been easy, acting as an effeminate a la Rob Schneider in “The Hot Chick,” he finds little details in the way he carries himself and makes enough sly choices in the name of comedy that the viewer never forgets there’s really an entitled teenage girl in there. It’s also just a plain hoot to hear Black complain, “I, like, can’t even with this place,” like a selfie-obsessed millennial girl would, and the gag in which Bethany gets to try out her newfound penis is a lot funnier than it sounds.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” won’t be confused for being high-minded cinema, but as escapist entertainment released around Christmastime, it’s an undemanding, briskly paced romp. For gamers, there are also clever details, like how the characters learn more about their avatars by triggering boxes that list their strengths and weaknesses, and how non-player characters keep spouting the same exposition over and over without answering anyone’s questions. The viewer might start to feel the film pushing two hours, as the evil Van Pelt still has to confront our heroes, but the stakes are high enough to remain invested in whether or not the four teens return to the real world. Each character has his and her own arc, and while each of them are pretty simple, the actors make sure they feel earned. Even with the inclusion of a fifth character (the avatar being played by Nick Jonas), there is an unexpected emotional tug that works. Without overselling what is just good silly fun, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” could arguably be a study in how to make a quality video game movie.