by Philip Price
I was born in 1987. Meaning I turned a perfect eight years-old in 1995. I don't know if I first saw Joe Johnston's “Jumanji” when it opened that December, but I know I saw it within a year of that release and many, many times after. Admittedly, I haven't revisited the whole of the picture in quite some time, but what I clearly remember about the experience of “Jumanji” at that impressionable age was the unexpected grandeur of it all-the substance the film carried in the tragedy of this child disappearing from this pristine town and the unfortunate dynamic between he and his parents that, when he did finally return, would lead to a lifetime of regret. These were big themes for a little kid and maybe even the first time I'd really been forced to contemplate as much. It was a movie that made a big impression if not for the mystery and implied scale, but for these themes of loss that resonated with me and now allow me to have these fond and rather heartfelt memories of the film. And so, it goes, I could not have been less excited for a 22-year later sequel that would seemingly have no connection to the original, but instead be branded as such to entice the interest of audiences such as myself while selling the movie to younger crowds on the concept of stars like Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan appearing in an all-out action adventure with a cool premise. I wasn't ready to think this kind of backwards engineering of new franchises by mining old movies that appealed to those who now have disposable income and children of their own to get as many butts in seats as such brand recognition could, but dammit if this twenty-two-year later sequel isn't a whole lot of fun. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” isn't going to break any barriers or win any awards, but that's not its intention and given that intention and my lowered expectations out of nothing more than my affection for the original I went into this new film hoping the well-rounded cast could turn what undoubtedly had to be a half-hearted story into something at least remotely entertaining. Not only is ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ entertaining though, but it is consistently engaging in the obvious, but well executed video game-level structure it possesses as well as offering far more frequent and less obvious laughs than I would have expected the script to deliver. At just under two hours (credits and all) this belated, but welcome (who would have thought?) expansion on the world of “Jumanji” is certainly an adventure worth taking for those of us that seek to find a place to leave their world behind (and for those who just want to have a good time at the movies).
In this sequel that certainly intends to reboot the series if as much is successful we begin in 1996 and are introduced to a man who, while jogging, happens to stumble upon a board game in the sand-that game being the titular one the characters at the end of the first film apparently did not get rid of well enough. This man turns out to be Mr. Vreeke (Tim Matheson) who has a young son named Alex (Mason Guccione) that he naturally gives the game to upon returning home, but given it is 1996 and kids don't really play board games anymore we learn that not only is Jumanji able to suck players into its world, but that it is also able to adapt with the times and essentially transforms itself into a video game for the console Alex happens to have in his room at that time. Within the first five minutes of the movie those (if you've seen the original and you don't necessarily need to to enjoy this) familiar drums start to pound for a second time, waking up Alex, convincing him to play the game, and ultimately sucking him into the world of Jumanji. Cut to twenty years later and we're introduced to modern teenagers Spencer (Alex Wolff) who is something of a nerdy outcast that was once best friends with now football star and all-around jock Anthony AKA "Fridge" (Ser'Darius Blain) whom he now writes history papers for so that Fridge might remain on the football team. There's also the perpetual example of the popular girl as embodied by Bethany (Madison Iseman) and the perpetually anti-social girl in Martha (Morgan Turner) who each happen to do something just upsetting enough to land themselves in detention on the same day. Once in detention and once given a stirring speech about finding out who they really are and who they really want to be by the consistently dry and always hilarious Marc Evan Jackson as their principal they are whisked off to the basement of the school for their punishment: de-stapling magazines for the recycling plant. Of course, this quartet of kids don't get very far in the de-stapling business given the fact that somehow, Alex Vreeke's gaming console has ended up in the school basement, and both Fridge and Alex are curious enough to check it out while coaxing Martha and Bethany into joining them. This version of Jumanji doesn't mess around and as soon as our four main characters choose their avatars for the game they are sucked into the world of Jumanji transforming the timid Alex into the noble leader that is Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge into the petite, but efficient weapons valet in zoologist Moose Finbar (Hart), Martha into the scantily clad, but more than capable Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and Bethany into Professor Shelly Oberon (Black), a renowned cartographer who is also an overweight, middle-aged man.
Once we arrive in the world of Jumanji and with the stars that no doubt factored into the reason a lot of people will show up to this thing outside of whatever percentage brand recognition can still claim is when we naturally get into a more obvious structure. This is literally a movie set inside of a video game and so there are obvious levels and tropes to those levels that will inevitably play out, but the movie has a lot of fun with each of these and each of the actors are very clearly having such a good time in each of the scenarios they are presented with that nothing ever feels stale or trite despite as much certainly being an option. Furthermore, outside of these scenarios the actors can play up the personalities of these pre-established teenagers within their already well-defined personas as well as the skills attributed to the avatar they represent in the game. For instance, Johnson is very much supposed to be a version of Johnson when playing Bravestone-an alpha male with huge muscles and superior athletic skill who is also good with weapons; essentially everything we imagine The Rock to be like in real life-but within this persona Johnson is also meant to play this timid, nerdy kid named Alex who must adapt to be the leader and having the skills to accomplish as much. With Hart, Finbar is supposed to be a well-educated, but grateful companion to the physically superior Bravestone whereas, once Fridge inhabits his body, he becomes this never-ending machine of quips and jabs that attempt to cover up his insecurities about not being able to be as physically dominating as he would normally be. This allows for the arcs of both Alex and Fridge to develop naturally over the course of the movie with each of them coming to understand the other's perspective better given the expectations placed on their avatars. For the two females the dynamic is slightly different, but they're both still meant to take away a lesson from being trapped in a body other than their own. Bethany is introduced to us posing for countless selfies to make herself look and feel as effortlessly cool and beautiful as possible for when she shares it with the world. In her inhabitance of Professor Oberon not only does she learn the obvious lesson of it not always being what's on the outside that counts, but more that she learns how to support and build up others who aren't as confident; encouraging Martha specifically to embrace who she is, the skillset she has as Ruby Roundhouse, and owning it to a degree the meek, but defensive Martha wouldn't typically care to project. That said, Gillan also gets a few choice scenes set to Big Mountain's version of "Baby I Love Your Way," that are fantastic. Having the likes of Black essentially play a teenage plastic is a genius move, but it is the camaraderie between these characters that is deepened by their journey in these new bodies that make the movie fun to watch, the characters easy to relate to, and their friendship even more genuine.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is, by all accounts, everything one could want in a family-friendly action adventure given the recognizable faces, the familiar yet still fresh concept, and the general air of comedy that surrounds every facet of the film; and to such promises, the movie lives up to what it intends to be. There is no overstating how much fun can be had at this movie as it is a legitimately good time, doesn't take itself too seriously, or try to get too sentimental in the end to inject real heart as this heart is present throughout the entire journey of our four main characters figuring out the meaning of that cheesily placed thesis from their principal at the onset of detention. Rather, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ finds its notes of meaning and fulfillment in the performers and their commitment to what could have easily been dismissed as material too corny to convey any kind of authentic emotion. Johnson and Hart once again play well off one another as seen in their previous collaboration, “Central Intelligence,” while throwing a personality as big as Black's into the mix was again genius. Still, though it might be easy to assume Black will be playing a version of his goofy personality the comedian doesn't make things so easy on himself as he wholly commits to the bit of playing this stereotypical mean girl and then giving her layers by revealing the good intentions she holds and the lack of any real hateful spirit that might have just been a facade to go along with her pre-determined look in high school. Once Bethany looks like Oberon, Black takes the hits at his age and weight like a champ and still carries himself as if he were Bethany-in every scene and in every instance. Solely focusing on Black in each scene to see to what degree he inhabits this character is worth the price of admission alone, but add to this the fact that the four-man screenwriting team have come up with a handful of good to great jokes in the film that aren't totally obvious given the circumstances as well as a couple of great running jokes, one in particular involving Black's character, that land so well I can't imagine anyone being unhappy with the film as the otherwise obvious plot resolves itself and we end on the obligatory, but fittingly happy note. I was nervous director Jake Kasdan, having only worked on mid-level comedies like “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Bad Teacher,” might not be the guy to helm a major action/comedy that required equal parts heart, comedy, and adventure while mostly pandering to the younger members of the audience, but the balance is on point here with Nick Jonas showing up to also please a certain demographic (and doing a better than expected job at such) and Bobby Cannavale making a menacing if not exactly memorable villain (which is in line with most video games from the ‘90s). All things considered, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is an entertaining, funny, and often thrilling experience that is more than worthy of a place to venture into if you're seeking to leave your own world behind for a couple of hours.
by Philip Price
In the first scene of writer/director Martin McDonagh's (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) new film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Mildred Pierce (Frances McDormand) drives past three billboards that are falling apart on an old road outside the titular small town she lives in that no one has used since the freeway opened. Hell, the last time a company even utilized the billboards for actual advertising was Huggies in the mid-‘80s. Due to the contemplative look on Mildred's face we know the inciting incident is set to occur at any moment, but more important is the fact we take in the appearance of Mildred. Her hair is down, her clothes rather casual, and while Mildred never seems like she was ever the kind of woman to get too made-up, she looks to be in a certain place in her life that, while not peaceful, is one where she's come to terms with the reality of her situation. You see, Mildred's daughter was murdered a year or so prior to the beginning of the film and the investigation by her local police department seems to have waned over time-Mildred stating she hadn't heard a peep from them in at least seven months-prompting her to take matters into her own hands, but not in the manner of a revenge fantasy a la The Punisher or a recent Quentin Tarantino flick, but more in the vein of calling out those responsible for seeking her daughter's killer and rapist and holding them accountable for failing at their civil responsibilities. If you've seen the trailers you know Mildred does this by renting the three billboards to send a very clear message to the Ebbing police department, calling out Police Chief George Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in particular. Once Mildred goes through with this though, her look changes and, in turn, so must her mentality. No more does Mildred ever look as casual as she does in that first scene. No more does it feel as if Mildred might ever be at peace with what has occurred in her life. Rather, from the end of this scene on through to the end of the movie Mildred pulls her hair up into a tight ponytail, the back of her neck now shaved as if to say she has no frills about what she's doing. Never again do we see her in public with her hair down or her wearing anything resembling khaki or flannel, but rather Mildred only wears her industrial work uniform and bandana. This outward exterior that takes no crap from no one is key to her surviving the ramifications that come from her actions and the complexities she didn't expect because of those actions. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” takes on this exterior as well, but don't be fooled as this is one of the most brutal, funny, dark, sad, and best movies of the year.
What is so impressive about the film though, is that despite having this unbelievably original and intriguing premise of a mother who has lost her child who goes to unexpected ends to ensure she finds some type of solace in the fact the scum who defiled her daughter before killing her are brought to some type of justice, this isn't all the movie is about. While this would seemingly be enough to tackle for most movies and for most writers and directors McDonagh goes past the point of his premise to investigate the inner-workings of each of the people involved in his narrative. While this is Mildred's story, and undoubtedly McDormand's movie as she gives a genuine whirlwind of a performance, this is also about Harrelson's Willoughby, Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon, and to smaller, but vital degrees to the extent they inform the perception of some of the main characters, are Caleb Landry Jones' Welby and Lucas Hedges as Mildred's other child, Robbie. Each of these individuals feel like proper individuals in that they are fully drawn characters and not just archetypes that exist to help get our more complicated main players from one emotional state or plot point to the next. As much as Mildred kind of dictates the actions of everyone around her by her own brazen choices, the people in her life and community are very much their own people reacting to what is going on. This is especially true of Rockwell's Dixon who, when we initially meet him, is a cop that has been labeled as explosive, violent, and largely irrational. There is a stain on his reputation after he beat up a black man who was already in custody and while Rockwell plays the guy as a largely unstable and unpredictable mental health case McDonagh vaguely outlines why Dixon feels so insecure and enraged at this point in his life as he's still living at home with his Momma (Sandy Martin) who very clearly offers him no respect and has recently lost his father which seems to have sent him into a tailspin of seeking a masculine validity of sorts in the workplace. It is in McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell's characters that McDonagh sets up these people who audiences think they might recognize or will be led to believe are the heroes and villains of the piece, but there are no single-faceted characters here. These are real people, people who have lived in this small town their entire lives and know everyone for better or worse. These are people who can be both easy to hate and the next scene evoke a large amount of sympathy. There is one scene in particular where this change happens within the scene in that the characters go from arguing with one another to being there for one another and this translates to the reactive side of the partnership of movie and audience in a striking way that tells us these aren't just vehicles to make a statement for McDonagh, but rather they are human beings who each have their own lives happening that just so happen to contribute to the overall arc that McDonagh has detailed for us.
All this anger. It just begets greater anger. Charlie (the always welcome John Hawkes), Mildred's ex-husband, advises his ex-wife of this despite the fact he heard it from his new, nineteen year-old girlfriend, Penelope (Samara Weaving), and while the source may be a little shaky for Mildred to deal with it is a saying that comes into the fold in a scene in the last act of the film where it's necessary for a kind of revelation to take place-a kind of clarity for this town that has devolved into full-fledged chaos-that hints at the greater objective of the film. Like I said before, though “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” isn't exactly interested in making a broad statement or expressing any main ideas it can't really help but to do so with as eclectic and varied a group of personalities as it has assembled. Rather than allow his screenplay to explicitly state its intentions at the end of the first act though, McDonagh allows what might be his desired topic of discussion to be expressed through these characters and the humanity they each possess. What does it stand to say then, you might ask? Well, the rest of that saying goes, "Anger begets more anger, and forgiveness and love lead to more forgiveness and love." So, one can imagine where McDonagh is going with this, but of course this is never stated outright and if you know McDonagh's past work and/or his style at all you'll know this idea is never presented in a way that feels as if he's lulling what he wants to say at the audience as he is actually doing the opposite and going as hard into the fold as one can in order to show audiences how ugly things can be if there is no room for ideas such as forgiveness and love. There are plenty of other quotes about anger that the director could have used-ones that would indicate that no matter what Mildred does out of such emotion, that she will be the one who ultimately gets burned-but this isn't the perspective McDonagh wants his audience to see this situation from. No, McDonagh uses the quote as spoken by Hawkes to state this isn't about one person learning a lesson from another or from such experiences, but more that we all learn from our experiences and, if nothing else, he hopes that a situation as terrible as what these characters are going through will ultimately produce more love and understanding rather than continued hatred and bigotry. It's not like we couldn't all use a reminder that it's possible for light to come at the end of a very dark tunnel right now, either. In short, McDonagh doesn't care if you like these characters, he just wants you to find them interesting and go along on this journey with them. The best of these people still have flaws and the worst still have their redemptive qualities; it seems we'd be wise to remind ourselves of that more often right now.
The most striking aspect of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” though, is how it becomes a better and better movie the longer it runs. It is impossibly difficult for a movie to accomplish this as most tend to start well or at least deliver a solid set-up before running into the problem of not knowing to do with what they've set up. It is this point in the screenwriting process when most writers will default to familiar and/or the recurring devices, motifs, or clichés of other movies. In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” McDonagh is somehow able to kind of blow past traditional structure and instead just deliver an experience that feels as if it is flying by the seat of its pants. This was something I didn't necessarily expect as the first 25 or so minutes of the film play as the same sequence of events outlined in the trailers, but there is a definitive turning point in the film where the story then continues past the information that viewers were sold in the trailers and from here McDonagh only continues to up the stakes and create scenarios in which he's allowed to infuse as much with his sharp and unabashed dialogue. This is only to say that as it goes on and as the turns the narrative take are more and more surprising and shocking the writing and performances only serve to enhance the experience even more. By the end of the film and for hours after and into the next day now I can't help but to continue thinking about all the different aspects included in this script and all that could be taken from it if so desired. On top of that, I can't stop smiling when considering McDormand's performance and how her Mildred lives by her own code and how she is more than determined to seek this brand of justice no matter what it does to other people in her life. How, even with this shameless edge of hers, McDormand is still able to produce a side of real humanity and decency where we fully respect the mission Mildred is on even if we don't always agree with how she goes about it. I couldn't stop reminding myself of all the other great characters that are in the film outside of the major players as well such as Peter Dinklage as a dwarf who sells used cars and has a drinking problem or Zeljko Ivanek as a Sergeant who's been stressed about keeping the rest of the force in line and politically correct as far back as he can remember with Abbie Cornish being the lone exception in an otherwise stellar ensemble as her accent is atrocious. Moreover, the film has stayed with me as certain moments replay and the epic tragedy of what all is depicted in what do otherwise basic and humble appearances consistently move me to admiration; as such, I can't help but to feel “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is truly a rarity.
by Philip Price
There is a line in “Lady Bird” that goes, “different things can be sad. It’s not all war!” Which not only served to make me feel more validated in times of my own sadness despite knowing there are countless others who have much more to complain about than myself, but this line of dialogue also kind of reassured me that all kinds of films could be great-not just the serious dramas that carry a weight of self-importance. Maybe “Lady Bird” does this somewhat intentionally as it knows its target audience will be the twenty to thirtysomethings that grew up in the early aughts as depicted in the film, largely compiled of the more artistic and individualistic states of mind that flock to such indie fare, who will inevitably contemplate if a coming-of-age comedy, such as “Lady Bird,” can be as great a film as anything else they've seen this year despite not necessarily being about something as earth-shatteringly important as other movies undoubtedly will be. Maybe writer and first-time director Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) understood who her audience would be and wanted to reassure them of the safe intellectual zone where it would be okay to praise her debut to levels of near perfection it ultimately wouldn't be able to match triggering the inevitable backlash that she would blindly blow past due to her effortless charm. Maybe Gerwig recognized all of this amid writing the film and decided to consciously insert this line of reassurance reminding all of us that it's okay to love her movie as much as you admire whatever Steven Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson are putting out this awards season, or maybe she was simply re-living a feeling from her youth when someone made her feel small about something she felt was big. Either way, the fact of the matter is that “Lady Bird,” while admittedly specific to a certain demographic of the population (I'm all for diversity, but that doesn't mean we have to denounce films where there isn't as much we think there could be), is not just a straightforward coming-of-age movie, but one that is more about the navigation of that period in life that does the seemingly impossible task of collecting all these moments and disparate elements that no doubt each felt like defining moments in Gerwig's own adolescence and brings them together in a film that allows each to permeate throughout the entirety of the movie while at the same time shaping a thorough, comprehensive picture of our titular character.
In what might be one of the best opening scenes of the year we are introduced to senior in high school Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (the consistently great Saoirse Ronan) who is riding shotgun with her mom, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), as they're on their way home from a college tour and finishing up listening to "The Grapes of Wrath" on cassette. The discussion starts simple enough with Marion requesting Lady Bird resist her urge to immediately turn on the radio, but instead allow the two of them time to really soak in the wealth of what they've just spent countless hours absorbing. This sparks a weightless debate between the two of them which quickly escalates into a squabble that doesn't even have anything to do with the original disagreement that spawned the argument. Things continue to rise, the words becoming more and more heated until Lady Bird decides to do the only thing she can do to escape her present confines. A smash cut to Lady Bird in the middle of mass wearing a pink cast that is marked with a certain obscenity aimed at a certain maternal figure caps off this scene that immediately tells us what we're in store for. It's downright fantastic, totally human, and just really, funny. It's 2002 and Lady Bird is ready to leave behind her hometown of Sacramento for somewhere with "more culture" as her parents, including recently unemployed father Larry (Tracy Letts), have restricted her to Catholic school for what is said to be her own well-being after her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), saw someone get stabbed outside the public school. The point being, the McPherson's are decidedly middle class and Lady Bird has her sights set on more in life. Marion works double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, Miguel and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) are college graduates who are biding their time bagging groceries, and Larry inherently feels like the kind of father who would do or give up anything for his children-which includes whatever dreams he might have had prior to those kids entering the picture. As someone whose ambitions always seem to outweigh my actual talent I wholly identified with Lady Bird's hopes of attending an East coast college like Yale, but not Yale because she would never have the credentials (or the last name, or wealth) to get in, but somewhere akin to it. Marion isn't keen on her only daughter and youngest child moving so far away while Larry, who has seemingly always played the good guy in the parenting roles, has a great conviction to help his daughter make her goals a reality. At school, Lady Bird has a best friend in Julie (the wonderful Beanie Feldstein) who together brave their final year of high school and the many challenges that come along with that including the inevitability of boys and the unpredictability of drama club.
What makes “Lady Bird” so appealing and so achingly real though, is what makes all Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach's, works so cutting and honest, but equally as beautiful which is the naturalistic quality of the writing. Of course, great performers who can convey these meanderings in meaningful ways certainly helps, but Gerwig has spoken openly about how much she dislikes the thought of improvisation and how much she appreciates sticking to the words she has worked so hard to put to the page. This doesn't necessarily indicate a desire for dialogue that is flashy or flowery, but more Gerwig desires to stick to the script due to the fact she clearly puts in the effort to make her writing not sound like writing at all. Gerwig instead uses the improvisational impulse of the given scenario and then sets it up to give it the quality of feeling spur of the moment when in fact the actors follow the script down to the punctuation. This is a task, for sure, but this is where so many of Gerwig and Baumbach's collaborations have succeeded in the past and “Lady Bird” is thankfully no different. While overall, I really liked the movie and much of what it had to say, how it said it, and how searingly funny it is, what I genuinely loved about it was the fact it never allows you, the audience member, to pin it down as one single thing. Sure, it would be easy to label the film as a coming-of-age tale that exists in the realm of a high school comedy, but this structure and the familiar beats of that genre are only present to form an opening to what's on Gerwig's mind. From the moment Lady Bird jumps out of the moving vehicle in that opening sequence it's obvious Gerwig is intent on upending each of the familiar tropes she touches upon in her movie. The difference is that Gerwig, in her writing, has included details-specific details-that by default make the story ring true to a broad audience who has experienced some form of that specificity in their own lives. And so, yeah, you bet your ass there is a scene that takes place in an airport at the climax of the film that involves a mad dash between two family members, but Gerwig is intelligent enough to know that while structure and plot devices are necessary if one is sly and/or subtle enough they can bury the tropes and structure under the originality of the story-if the story and the characters are strong enough. We may recognize these moments from movies that have come before, but “Lady Bird” manipulates them to appeal to the familiar while adding an unexpected layer to the sequence. In terms of this airport sequence it is both very movie-like and it isn't. This sequence doesn't represent relief or a reunion, but rather it reinforces the level of regret so many of us live within our daily lives while contrasting this with what it so liberating about our titular character in the she chooses to live without such a thing.
This structure and the familiar beats of the genre it fits snuggly into are only present to form an opening into what's on Gerwig's mind. So, what is it that's on Gerwig's mind you might ask? That would be this idea of one person's coming of age being another person's letting go. In “Lady Bird” specifically, this is about the mother/daughter relationship between Ronan and Metcalf's characters who play off on another wonderfully as the story shows us time and time again how those emotions of resentment, of strong hatred, and annoyance are ones only Lady Bird can feel about her mother. If anyone outside of her father even looks as if they're considering saying something slightly offensive about her mom-she pops up and is the first to defend her. This is what the film is at its core: a love story between mother and daughter and how they fight, and they love equally as hard. There is a scene between Ronan and Metcalf in the film that encapsulates this relationship perfectly while demonstrating how good both performers are as well. The pair go to a thrift store to try and find a dress for Lady Bird to wear to Thanksgiving with her new boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), as she'll be meeting his family for the first time. Speaking of Hedges, he gets a scene that will absolutely destroy you if any semblance of a heart exists within your chest. While shopping for dresses though, Lady Bird sees that her mother can be nice to others, but not to her. Lady Bird feels that typical constant nagging as is done by mother's, while constantly nagging at her about such things as dragging her feet and then in the moment she finds her dress they are best friends again. It is through this relationship and through these key lead performances that Gerwig executes her sentiment of coming around to appreciate home or what you've known as home, but never appreciating it until you're on the cusp of leaving. This is one of those broad generalities that hooks the audience, while the deliberate details of chronicling Lady Bird and her mother's favorite Sunday pastime of touring open houses far outside their price range, that of watching a junior varsity football coach try to apply his skills to drama club, or the fantastic details courtesy of 2002 that include the likes of t-shirts that say, "Save a Horse, Ride A Cowboy," and the consistent use of Dave Matthews Band, "Crash Into Me," that make the film overwhelmingly specific to a particular experience and thus all the more connecting with each individual viewer. Beyond Ronan and Metcalf, whose performances truly are fantastic, you will automatically fall in love with Feldstein's Julie, you'll want to hug Letts' Larry, while wanting to punch Timothée Chalamet's alt-rock, anti-establishment Kyle. The Catholic school Lady Bird attends is also something of a major player in the way Gerwig seems to view how much it influenced her own youth (“Lady Bird” is most definitely at least semi-autobiographical), but Gerwig nor her film ever look down on the church or demean it in the snarky way one might expect (there is a great practical joke played on a nun though, and an even better payoff to that joke later), but rather Lady Bird more comes to embrace the time she's spent there and the friends she's made while appreciating the silent understanding that seems to exist between she and the staff that includes Sister Sarah (Joan Smith) and Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson). In so many ways, “Lady Bird” flies past so many other coming-of-age tales, but it is the film's consistent ability to hit raw nerves in such honest fashions that really allow it to soar.
by Philip Price
There is a sense of un-education that comes with viewing “The Florida Project.” It seems as if director Sean Baker (who broke out with 2015's “Tangerine,” but has three prior features to his credit) is intent on showing audiences that the magic of the cinema can exist without the typical three act structure that Hollywood films have conditioned audiences to expect and it's not that other films haven't done the same thing or attempted to prove as much, but this seems a point of real effort and focus on the part of “The Florida Project.” That isn't to say the picture becomes sidetracked or caught up in this endeavor, but rather that it makes for an interesting take when going into the film. This won't even necessarily hinder expectations, but it is a facet of the film that is to be observed in terms of craft as the film slyly deconstructs our expectation of what a movie is supposed to be by showing that such a product can still be engaging and entertaining while not necessarily delivering an outright objective for our protagonist to accomplish by the time the hour and 45-minute mark hits. Rather, “The Florida Project” is a beautiful rendering of childhood on the fringes with the central subjects not necessarily being aware of their surroundings or situations, but more it addresses how the innocence of childhood tends to take away any association of status and instead replaces it with the simplicity of making the most of what one must work with. In this way, “The Florida Project” accomplishes the difficult feat of being both incredibly light and fun in the way it elicits smiles from the audience as we witness the preciousness of youth while being simultaneously just as heartbreaking when it comes to the realization of the reality these people are living. It is a testament to innocence in many ways as the film exercises this abandonment of structure by chronicling the adventures of three six to seven-year old's during the summer months as they live just outside Orlando and in the shadow of Disney World-the happiest place on earth. It abandons structure because these children know nothing of such a thing in their lives while what comes to pass is necessary, undoubtedly for the best, but also incredibly emotional because of the nearly two-hour journey we've just experienced with these characters. It's a chronicling of that transition from innocence to experience in many ways, but this isn't the focus of the film and neither is the backdrop of this poverty-stricken community, but rather it is the wonder and hope that makes childhood universal and, in turn, “The Florida Project” so affecting.
It's clear from the outset, and I mean from the first frame of the film, that “The Florida Project” is not your typical fare in terms of dramatic movie-making, but instead this serious-minded, albeit bright colored film is more a comedy than anything else. That opening shot of our young protagonist, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), sitting against a lilac wall with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) as Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" blares from the soundtrack makes it instantly memorable. It also instantly sets the tone for the kind of inherently free-wheeling attitude both the movie and its young main characters exhibit. Moonee and her friends run free through the back ditches and grassy islands between the budget motel, The Magic Castle, where Moonee and Scooty live and the similarly run down complex where Dicky lives. They are bored and must entertain themselves in the months when they aren't occupied by school while their parents are forced to figure out how to both look after their children while coming up with enough money to keep their regular motel rooms week to week. Moonee's mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is a child herself and someone who can't seem to hold a steady job. Whether this is due to the tattoo's that plague every open section of her body, the multiple piercings on her face, or little more than her general bad attitude and problem with authority the fact of the matter is there's no ambition to do otherwise. While Halley is by no means a good mother and possibly the worst kind of role model for a young woman the performance of Vinaite and her ability to make Halley both this road that obviously holds nothing but bad things and the same lack of opportunity for her daughter while also presenting moments of real adoration for her daughter that places a firm belief in the viewer that she loves her daughter does not go unnoticed. And Moonee loves her mom. There is never any question in this as the two never engage in a single argument, but instead they exist on this wavelength where no matter what the other does there is an unspoken understanding that this is simply how life works for them. Moonee knows nothing else and thus has no reason to imagine anything beyond these endless summer days where she and her friends run around causing trouble, swindling strangers for ice cream money, spitting on car windows, and then coming back to The Magic Castle where Scooty's fast-food working mom provides them dinner. The movie navigates these potentially endless waters to individual microcosms of the day to day quality of life for this subset of the population that aren't technically homeless, but are maybe more devastating for being so as they are a group hidden from the public view; a group not living paycheck to paycheck, but day to day with no idea what tomorrow might hold.
It is in Baker's ability as a director to essentially string these disparate vignettes into a cohesive whole that “The Florida Project” finds its thriving heartbeat. This lack of order, but ultimate unity is due to the lack of any real driving plot devices, but such freedom allows for Baker and fellow screenwriting partner Chris Bergoch to explore as many aspects of these people's lives as they so desire. First and foremost are the children and their day to day. We meet Moonee as mentioned in the previous paragraph, but come to be aware of the fact rather quickly that she's not the sweet, well-rounded, or polite little girl the movies would have you believe most little girls are. Rather, we see that Moonee is something of a troublemaker. This isn't surprising given what seems to be the nature of the family she was born into while a main idea of the film deals in this population being products of their environment to which they grow comfortable in and only breed more individuals nurtured by the same environment. Baker is also keen not to ask how we might solve this epidemic nor does he judge his characters in any way with his filmmaking, but rather he allows them to breathe; simply observing them. In one of Moonee's first acts in the film she, along with Scooty and Dicky, vandalize a car that belongs to Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who has just moved into the same complex as Dickey, the Futureland Inn, with her grandmother who is acting as her mother to both herself and her little sister. What at first is a source of conflict and resentment between Jancey's grandmother and Moonee's group of hooligans (affectionately referred to as "the kids from the purple place") is the beginning of a rather special friendship between Prince's Moonee and Cotto's Jancey, especially after Dickey moves away and drama that ignites between Halley and Scooty's mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), forces Scooty and Moonee apart. It is in this friendship that Baker finds his emotional throughline. It may seem a given that Baker would invest the biggest emotional arc in the core relationship of Moonee and her mother, but he doesn't go this route as that is a relationship that is already established and understood when the film begins. Instead, “The Florida Project” tracks the relationship of Moonee and Jancey in a way where it is key we see Moonee as the leader of her own ragtag bunch of mischiefs and that she is this unbreakable and bold persona that sustains as she assists her mom in buying perfume at wholesale prices in order to re-sell them to unsuspecting tourists at "discount prices", or when she and her friends break into condemned houses and experiment with lighters, to the little things such as disobeying motel manager and maintenance man Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who inadvertently becomes a kind of father figure to all the lost children that end up finding their way to and making The Magic Castle something of a safe haven. This is all critical because, despite Baker's aversion to standard structure, the movie does eventually reach a climax in the building inevitability's evidenced by the mounting acts of desperation from Halley that creates one of if not the most heart-wrenching moments in cinema this year when we see that facade Moonee has vigilantly carried throughout the movie finally crumble. It's just a shame this moment of raw emotion and pure, honest confusion is followed by one of the most visually ugly and abrupt endings of the year as well.
It is in these, what feels like, largely improvised performances that “The Florida Project” really thrives. Prince is especially charming in her lead role that is meant to allow the audience a trip back in time to when we too were children and there was no need to be aware of or care how much you had or didn't, but rather the chance to explore this enchanted world you created for yourself out of the familiarity of it all-a place where each day was truly a new adventure. Prince and Cotto capture this in their genuinely funny and equally precious interactions. The fleeting innocence of Moonee is then juxtaposed with the harsh reality of what we know Halley is facing. Seeing both perspectives proves insightful enough that the audience grasps what Baker is looking to discuss while most importantly, striking that balance between what he clearly wants the film to feel like and what he hopes viewers take away from the experience. “The Florida Project,” as said earlier, is largely a comedy, but that doesn't automatically mean it carries no real dramatic weight. This high-wire act of tone and being able to sell, but do so in an understated manner, what the film is hoping to preach as the line separating these contrasting world views begins to fade as Moonee is forced to mature and comprehend faster than she might have under different circumstances. Vinaite is equally as impressive as a first-time actor as Halley is a source of both great frustration and deep sympathy. One can't help but to wonder what circumstances in her life must have brought her to this point while at the same time realizing she is undoubtedly mirroring her upbringing with Moonee who, if she continues the relationship as it is with Moonee at six up through to her pre-teen and teen years, Moonee will most certainly end up in the same boat as her mother. What these kids are witness to, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, is shaping them and as they seek out these daily thrills and inevitably find trouble along the way it's not difficult to see how such escapades would naturally progress. Dafoe is the MVP of the piece though, as his Bobby kind of holds these families together and supports them as well as he can despite having no dog in the fight other than his compassion. Finally, the other most notable character in the film is that of the city itself. This is not the Orlando of Disney's Magic Kingdom, but rather the one where all of those who work inside the park or work at the restaurants around it go after they leave work. Baker is sure to highlight all the extravagant architecture along the strip that is meant to entice visitors who are looking for vacation wear, but not looking to spend Disney prices. These bright and sometimes unintentionally frightening buildings only add to the idea and feeling that where Moonee and her friends exist is in this kind of sun-drenched Neverland. If only childhood, especially those of the ones we see depicted here, were in fact eternal-the world might be a brighter place for more of us, for much longer.
by Philip Price
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” may as well be one of those holiday Hallmark originals for all of the dopey, saccharine spins it puts on Charles Dickens coming up with "A Christmas Carol" and the overall quality of life in 1843, but luckily director Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”) was working from a screenplay by writer/actor Susan Coyne (“Mozart in the Jungle”) as adapted from Les Standiford’s 2008 novel of the same name where distinctive features of those Hallmark originals (or hallmarks of those hallmarks) come to be non-existent. There is no gushing love story at the center of it, no excessive amount of perfectly pressed pants or flannel (or whatever the equivalent was in 19th century London), but rather there is this overriding feeling that came to pass throughout the entirety of the experience that was one of lovable cheese. The usual suspects of certain clichés and plot points might not all be present, but that feeling of the overwhelming power of pure holiday love and all that it can conquer, is. And while this may just be due to the fact I’m a sucker for the Hallmark channels block of holiday programming to the point I draw every holiday-themed movie back to these standards “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is so family friendly and earnest in its intent that it’s hard to discern between what the movie wants you to feel and what this material should make you feel. As another in a line of “story behind the story” films that have, for one reason or another, decided to catch on some 13 years after “Finding Neverland” made it a hot idea to studio execs “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is perfectly serviceable in delivering all of the broad moments required by an audience that craves what they already know; the name Marley coming from a waiter at a restaurant where Dickens was eating for instance coupled with the tidbit that he “collected names” for his works from his everyday life. Things one could have just as easily assumed without having concrete proof of them, but this is the kind of depth and insight “The Man Who Invented Christmas” offers: facts that might not have been necessarily well-known, but ones that are rather obvious in that they aren’t surprising and offer little to no real drama that would justify this story about Dickens writing his career-defining novel being a story.
At the onset of our story it is 1843 and Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is three books past the success of Oliver Twist and has yet to yield another hit with each of his last three works amounting to little more than simultaneous critical and commercial flops. It is at this juncture that Dickens and his friend as well as seeming agent Mr. Forster (Justin Edwards) decide to part ways with the publishing houses they have relied on to garner Mr. Dickens the prominence that he is presently enjoying and instead self-publish Dickens latest work when it becomes apparent those who were once happy to profit from Dickens name and talents no longer believe in his vision. The problem with this is that, when “The Man Who Invented Christmas” begins, Dickens doesn't have much of a vision for himself much less his latest book. Dickens, who is married to wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) and has four or five of his eventual ten children in 1843, has encountered writer's block, but along with Forster sets himself a deadline for which to deliver his next work that he ultimately gains inspiration from via his family's new house maid, Tara (Anna Murphy), who he overhears telling the children a bedtime story dealing in spirits and their returning from the dead. With multiple children, many more on the way, and the expense of such excesses as multiple maids and cooks not to mention the renovations taking place at his home, Dickens feels a bit in over his head with the bills beginning to pile up. Determined to recover and make it through with all facets of his life still intact, Dickens decides to write a Christmas story and self-publish it in less than two months. As Dickens labors writing on such short notice, his estranged father (Jonathan Pryce) and mother (Ger Ryan) come to bunk with him bringing about painful memories of his father and the negative effects the man's presence had on his childhood-largely focusing on the senior Dickens lack of financial responsibly, that often left young Charles curious as where his next meal might come from. The aforementioned case of writer's block and the arrival of his father essentially forces Dickens to confront his personal demons which, once such context is provided, this film essentially does through displaying Dickens creative process as he imagines his characters, names them, converses with them to find their voice, and so on and so forth. Here we're privy mainly to his creation of Ebenezer Scrooge (a delightful Christopher Plummer) whom Dickens struggles for inspiration against in this account of how challenging creating something truly memorable is, but how rewarding it can be as well-especially when it comes to define the essential soul of modern Christmas.
With as much taken into consideration “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is also a brisk hour and 45 minutes that accounts for every single moment in Dickens life at this time that would come to influence the writing of A Christmas Carol and not much else, leaving audiences no choice but to think that every little occurrence in every aspect of Dickens life no doubt ultimately made its way in some capacity into his writing. There are connections at every turn, which gives the misleading impression that it is easier to coerce such details into a cohesive story when you decide to utilize everything that is thrown at you when the real skill is deciphering what's inspiring, what's worth keeping, and what is not. That “The Man Who Invented Christmas” reduces every moment to be a key one is the major disservice it does to aspiring writers who will look to the film hoping to catch some glimpse of what might have been one of the great's approach to the craft, but if you're an aspiring writer you should also know not to get your history from the movies and so, as with everything, it's all about balance, folks. And while Nalluri's film may be anything but well-rounded with its excessively sweet and sentimental core flourishing over every one of the more dramatic beats the film dares to hit it’s not difficult to see all is meant well and done with a kind of ambition that is necessary to even get a film such as this off the ground in the current cinematic landscape. Sure, the film knows nothing of the meaning of being understated, but when we get scenes where Dickens goes to his publishers to have a discussion about his latest idea and what they are willing to pay for it and pitch how they might publish and promote it while then simultaneously citing the inspirations for Scrooge’s view towards Christmas there is a sense of pleasure in the obvious-a communal feeling that is inspired by the fact we all understand what is being inspired and, while obvious, is still fun to behold even if it isn't wholly factual; the essence of what might have happened feels justified, at least. There are other moments though, sequences really, where Stevens’ Dickens locks himself in his study and works through character creations, allowing Plummer to really flourish in this unique opportunity to play Scrooge as an amalgam of ideas rather that the caricature he has become so many years later, that are more informative in respect to Dickens writing process than those obvious sources of inspiration the film trots out to display. It is in these moments where “The Man Who Invented Christmas” genuinely hypothesizes over what it must have been like to step inside Dickens’ mind, something no one can be sure of, but that the film is at least is ambitious enough to formulate an opinion on that it succeeds the most.
Everything else here is somewhat muddled in the confines of how the film presents the many sides of Dickens' life and all he was dealing with at this moment in time when we meet him. At any given moment outside Dickens' office it's difficult to get a grasp on the frame of mind of our protagonist. As it is, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” prefaces the audience with a few cards of text prior to the film beginning and then drops us into his writer’s block and personal life where we're meant to piece together the strands of current life events to understand both the character and the source of inspiration for the novel (or novella) in question. As mentioned, those scenes where we see Dickens holed up in his home office working through his creative process are some of the best, but unfortunately, they are too few and far between to really carry the whole of the picture. Instead, we lie witness to Dickens having issues thrown at him from every direction outside of his safe place to the point it's understandable why he can't concentrate on a single idea as well as why he can't seem but to want to escape there day after day. Hell, maybe this is the intent of the script to emphasize Dickens' need to write both for a creative outlet and financial reasons, but it feels as if these elements should be secondary to those of the author working through and coming up with the ideas that would create the Christmas classic this movie is about the creation of. This is no fault of Stevens or the rest of the underserved cast though, as Stevens once again proves why he is one of the more interesting talents working in Hollywood today. Three years ago, when writing about “The Guest” I would have never imagined the same actor playing the killing machine in that movie would, in as much time, be playing Charles Dickens in a movie where he purposefully camps it up in the hopes of capturing the coziness of Christmas in a single facial expression. The rest of the cast is fine if not necessarily notable (it's a shame Pryce is given little to nothing to do) whereas most of the narrative outside Dickens himself is more by the numbers than that of the internal conflicts we're witness to that tend to present themes and ideas to ponder past the inevitable which is the fact A Christmas Carol gets finished in time and is a massive success. Those previously mentioned daddy issues and painful childhood memories that the author was still working through by the time he reached this, his ninth publication are hit repeatedly when once would have more than sufficed. These kinds of obvious markers deliver the movie audiences no doubt expected to receive and are likely more than fine with, but “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is far more enthralling when it dares to step outside these markers and inside the depths of Dickens brain that reveals why his storytelling tends to still resonate today.
by Philip Price
Rome and Israel. They share quite the history with one another; a history that is splattered with wars over ideals some of which deal in economics, but those most notably that deal in religious and/or philosophical dealings. In the latest from writer/director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) it seems the use of these two titles that exist in the realm of common knowledge as opposing forces is to illustrate another kind of philosophical war-the one within a person who has principles, a code of ethics he has lived by his entire life, and the choice to betray those principles, a choice he is totally justified in, due in large part to the fact the world doesn't understand him. One could draw many conclusions as to why Gilroy might have chosen these two words to identify the unlikely hero of his story, but it seems to make the most obvious sense that Rome and Israel are these two ideas, these two kinds of states of consciousness that are constantly at odds with one another. In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” these two pillars of opposing thought form the basis of Denzel Washington's character, a savant of sorts who has worked behind the curtain at a law firm for thirty plus years while his partner, an unseen enigma of a man who was nicknamed "The Bulldog", handled all the courtroom dealings that Roman didn't have the desire nor the social skills to navigate. It is when our titular character is unexpectedly put under this spotlight and then further humiliated by the realization he's invested his life in a practice that has seemingly invested nothing in him that he comes to this fork in the road where his ideals no longer seem to matter and so the point or validity in continuing to try to fight for them is futile. On a broad scope that all may sound like a fancy way of saying this film deals in themes of doing what one feels is right for the recognition and doing what one feels is right because it's right and the difference in character that dictates the difference in intent, but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” goes a little deeper than that for Washington's Roman gladly worked in the shadows for years doing work he needed little recognition for, but that he at least thought was making a difference. When Roman is forced to awake from his routine he comes to realize the system he has worked under all these years has allowed for little change after all, but has instead been replaced by a world that isn't based around right or wrong or bad or good, but more around what deal can be made to avoid circumstance if possible.
For the first hour or so “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” was shaping up to be one of my favorite movies of the year as it has this insatiable appetite to dissect and devour the justice system as well as both its strengths and shortcomings through the eyes of a character who, by nature, would seemingly be unable to comprehend the minutia in between the black and white-the informalities of the system, if you will. Roman doesn't do informalities, you see. Roman is the kind of guy that has a massive record collection at his small apartment in New York City as well as over eight hundred songs on his dated iPod that he listens to constantly with the same pair of (Sony) headphones. Another constant is JIF peanut butter as it is seemingly stocked to never run out in Roman's small apartment where he eats a sandwich over the sink for dinner every night. Roman, as someone who is clearly on the spectrum, desires order and consistency in as many aspects of his existence as possible. Consistency is comfort. Through this mindset, and through what is another stellar Denzel Washington performance, we are brought into a world where that comfort is being threatened daily which causes both compassion on the part of the viewer because we sympathize with Roman's situation while also intrigue with how such a character will handle the sudden and dramatic shifts his life is taking. It is in this first hour that these kinds of avenues are explored and investigated-leading Roman to make friends with a local leader of a civil rights group in Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) with whom he finds someone, the rare person, that sees him for who is, what he's sacrificed, and the good he can genuinely do as well as Roman's new boss at a new law firm run by a former student of his long-standing partner, the flashy George Pierce (Colin Farrell). George is more interested in profit than he is bettering the world which initiates this conflict in Roman that he's never had to invest effort in before. While the film never outright states what Pierce's intentions are or how sincere some of his proclamations are meant to be taken, though some are clearly telegraphed to be generalized boilerplate for the sake of gaining business, this leads one to believe Farrell might be a bit miscast here due to extenuating circumstances that have to deal with roles played in the past, but overall these avenues in which Roman travels create interesting questions of identity and even more layers for Washington to play while at the same time continuing to reveal plot points that are engaging so as to not allow the film to lose itself in these thoughts of the nature of how we all continue to tick. It is in finding this balance that the first hour or so of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” reaches moments of inspired greatness.
At one point in the film a woman asks Roman what the Esquire on the end of his name means to which he replies that it is a title of dignity, just above a gentleman and just below a knight, in the legal arena. It is seemingly another example of Roman's taste for the formalities of life, but as this pattern comes into question the film becomes more about how far Roman will go to the other side before realizing he's fallen victim to a perspective he could never truly believe in. This becomes the crux of the movie, but is positioned as that beginning of the third act slump where we typically see a character mess-up, or ruin whatever was going their way so that they might redeem themselves in the climactic act of the film. What Gilroy might be saying with the fact the moment this man, Roman J. Israel, turned on his principal that he then falls victim to the pitfalls of such a lifestyle rather than prosper in it could mean something, but I'm not sure I've quite settled on an opinion yet. As Roman clearly states, "he's tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful." It's a great line (and make no mistake, Gilroy has come up with a handful of solid ones here) and it summarizes the breaking point we see Roman reach perfectly. This is a character we've come to care about and are invested in-this is a man who would risk his well-being for an instance of righteousness when most of us live day to day hoping we aren't forced to make such choices-who turns away from the truths he's always believed upon realizing the movement he once stood for no longer stands with him; it has morphed into something else that Roman can't fully comprehend. This realization he is a man out of time is legitimately heartbreaking and understandably complex. Gilroy never forces these complexities on the audience though, for they can be as layered as one wants to see them-Washington certainly offers a performance worthy of and that could withstand heavy scrutiny and the picking apart of-but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” could just as easily be about little more than a man who decides to abandon the conflicting ideas in his head, the effort it takes to have as much, and the decision to look out for himself for once. Roman concludes after the succession of events in the first act that purity can't survive in this world and maybe he's right, but there is always those, such as Maya, who can't believe as much it true. It doesn't seem Gilroy can convince himself of this either, for as much darkness and pessimism that is present in his screenplay it is impossible to believe a man who ends his film with a The Spinners track doesn't believe there is some good in the world. Speaking shortly to the extraneous factors that add to the overall feel of the film, James Newton Howard's score feels appropriately dated in its use of a haunting choir that serves the tone in a more suggestively epic way than expected. Robert Elswit's (“There Will Be Blood”) cinematography is also to be noted as it captures Los Angeles in this light that doesn't feel familiar whereas the whole concept of Roman and who he is, the staples of his appearance, and what Washington is doing with these to better inspire interest in the arc of this character are each element that only enhance this complicated, but involving character study.
It is at about the halfway point of the film (the movie runs just over two hours) that one can feel the shift in tone that Gilroy employs to begin the back-half of the discussion he's started on identity and how we balance doing what is best for us and what is best for all of us. While Gilroy walks the line between story and plot to impressive degrees what ultimately stands to not necessarily be the downfall, but more so the less interesting side of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the fact Gilroy more or less paints himself into a corner where there can be only one way in which the majority of what he has set in motion resolves itself in a realistic and rather dignified manner and so this second half of the film comes to be more a confirmation of what we know has to happen in order for the movie to have the necessary impact rather than a movie that continues to surprise the viewer in the perspective it takes on the material and the themes it is tackling. And yet, despite this slight level of predictability I still found myself invested in these characters-hoping against all odds that Gilroy might come up with a way in which to avoid the obvious conclusions viewers would draw and instead wrap his story up in a satisfying, but maybe even more profound way than could be gleaned from where it seemed everything was headed. And while the second half of the film certainly doesn't derail the movie completely it certainly knocked it down a few pegs for me as it went from being a movie that puts its own spin on the character study by utilizing a unique set of circumstances and a different persona Washington has yet to explore onscreen to the kind of conspiracy drama that feels the need to push actions on its characters that might otherwise fall outside the realm of that grounded reality of social activism that roots the first hour so strongly. Like “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy uses this very particular, very strong personality as an "in" to discuss an aspect of society that he finds fascinating and so, while “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is meant to be a conversation around the judicial system and the decline of activism in general, it becomes so much about the arc of its titular character that the latter part of the film feels like it's trying to recover a handful of the scenes that dissect these conversation pieces. The uncompromising nature of Roman and how it applies to this world of the judicial system and activist groups that he once felt a part of is arguably the better way to convey Gilroy's main ideas anyway, but the movie seems to feel as if it needs to make up for lost ground when, to have followed this character who is his own worst enemy through to a natural conclusion instead of a more concocted one might have allowed this to rank among the best of 2017. I get it though, endings are tough.
by Philip Price
At the heart of all Pixar films there is a journey. There’s the journey to get the thing or the person to the place to save the day. This is a template Disney and Pixar have used time and time again to ensure a structure and beats that the youngest of audience members can seemingly recognize and appreciate, but I didn’t consider this initially. As an adult viewer I was simply bummed to discover that the studio was once again leaning on this crutch in “Coco” in order to convey what seemed to be a unique narrative from a marginalized culture. “Inside Out” did the same thing when it took these original ideas and concepts it had and then used them in service of the hero’s journey arc we've seen countless times before, and especially in films whose target audience is largely children. What “Inside Out” did to ultimately reverse this expectation by the end of the film was to of course use that template in service of those original ideas and concepts to explore them as well as the ideas and themes the filmmakers were keen on conveying. It worked. I teared up. “Coco” more or less does the same thing in that this is a heroes journey of self-discovery for our protagonist, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), and it is an entertaining one at that, but while these familiar beats are present to allow the younger audience members a sense of connection and understanding it is the emotional strands of family, legacy, and pride in that family history that are woven throughout this otherwise standard structure to be the connective tissue for what “Coco” is truly meant to represent. This dawned on me as the credits began to roll and I was feeling content with what I'd just experienced if not bowled over by the visual prowess that Pixar is now achieving, but as I looked down at my three-year old daughter sitting next to me and asked her if she enjoyed the movie it became obvious as to why there needs to be this accessible structure by which the character's and their story arcs relate to younger viewer's otherwise Pixar would strictly be making films for adults. Pixar does make films for adults wrapped in the facade of colorful children's fables, we've known this for years, but with “Coco” it became more evident why this approach has been so important in that, as my three-year old grows up and continues to watch “Coco,” she will only gain more from it on each viewing. In this way, “Coco” carries on the great tradition of Pixar while continuing to diversify and expand that special brand it has now seemingly perfected.
Beginning with a great epilogue as told through the decorations hanging in the small village where our story takes place we are first informed of the history of the Rivera clan and why they have been shoemakers for generations upon generations as well as the small detail of why they hate music and why everyone in the Rivera family has been banned from both listening to and playing music. Naturally, this restrictive (and frankly ridiculous) rule against music doesn't jive well with the young and exuberant Miguel (I get it, it's a plot point, but so extreme!) as he idolizes a famed singer known as Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt) who has long since died, but is still known as one of the greatest musicians in the history of Mexico. We come to meet Miguel on Día de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead, where Miguel's family is preparing their altars and food in honor of family members who have died before them. While Miguel struggles with his identity as part of the Rivera ancestry and wanting to strike up his guitar and perform in front of his small village of Santa Cecilia it is his Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) who puts her foot (which may or may not have a shoe on it, depending on if she's thrown it at Miguel yet) down definitively on where Miguel's future stands. His parents, Luisa (voice of Sofía Espinosa) and Enrique (voice of Jaime Camil), side wholly with Abuelita though Miguel's great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), seems to still have a soft spot for the sounds and melodies music produces despite it being her mother, Imelda (voice of Alanna Ubach), who banned music in the first place due to Coco's musician father walking out on his wife and daughter when Coco was only a small girl. Despite his family's words of warning Miguel can't help but to want to play music, signing up for a talent show that takes place in the town square on the night of Dia de los Muertos. The only problem is, Miguel needs an instrument-a guitar-to play his music ultimately deciding his only option is to break into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and steal his guitar. However, during obtaining the guitar Miguel becomes a type of ghost unable to be seen or heard by the living except for Dante, a street dog he's taken to. In the cemetery, Miguel meets his deceased relatives who are surprised that Miguel can see them and is there with them and immediately connect it with Imelda's inability to cross to the other side. This prompts his family to take Miguel with them to Land of the Dead, an afterlife dimension where the deceased live outside of being able to come visit their relatives on Día de los Muertos.
There are several things in “Coco” that are worth noting, but what struck me almost immediately was the flawlessness of the images and the rendering of this fully fabricated world that felt tangible in ways Pixar hasn’t reached before. There are certain shots in “Coco” where the animation combined with the camera movement make it feel as if one could visit this Land of the Dead if they so desired. It’s visceral and immersive which aren’t terms I use lightly, but it is arguably the movie’s strongest trait. Both the unprecedented quality of the animation as well as the world building that occurs. To draw comparisons once more with “Inside Out” the environment that is Riley’s brain, while layered and inventive, can’t touch the authenticity that is the norm in “Coco.” This Land of the Dead is a real, lived-in community where the world economy is solely based on the memories of the living. The currency and therefore the livelihood of these spirits, these already dead, but still very much alert beings, depend on how great their legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew them. And so, someone like de la Cruz, who was adored by millions, continues to live a lavish after life whereas someone such as Héctor (voice of Gael García Bernal), who can’t even cross over to the land of the living on Dia de los Muertos because no one puts out his picture, stands to be forgotten completely and is relegated to the slums. It is in the introduction of Héctor that the film begins to really dig into both this world as well as some of the deeper themes writers Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina (“The Good Dinosaur”), who co-directed the film with Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”), are interested in discussing. While the animators spoil the audience in lavish production designs-wide and aerial shots of the neon-lit cityscape of the Land of the Dead are worth the price of admission alone-and fantastical creatures that are typically a mash-up of a jungle animal and wings as viewed under the most intense black light ever and come to be known as spirit creatures are among other visual treats “Coco” consistently delivers, but as it turns out it is actually Héctor that comes to serve as the audiences spiritual guide through both the Land of the Dead and the movie itself. You see, “Coco” does this weird thing where it begins with an intriguing enough concept through this celebration of Día de los Muertos, but if you saw “The Book of Life” from a few years ago you'll quickly realize this isn't the most original lens through which to take this journey of self-discovery, but Pixar knows that if the story itself is striking enough that similarities in look and tone and backdrop will come to matter very little. This is true as “Coco” quickly steeps us in the Rivera experience, reminding us that we're all more alike than we are different, before plunging us into the thick of the plot where we already know we'll be satisfied with the outcome because this world that has been created is so exciting to exist within. Where the movie gets you though, is with the introduction of Héctor and the realities of the afterlife we come to be made aware of through Miguel's interaction with him that strengthens that connective tissue.
Legacy is something that has seemingly always been squabbled about. Specifically, the conflict of whether it is more important that you make a great and lasting impact on those closest to you that you love and who love you back or if the more venerated path of being regarded with great respect and honor by countless numbers of people, most of whom one will never meet, is the more rewarding one. “Coco” gives one of its characters this choice, exemplifies the inner-struggle associated with said choice, and then adds tragedy to it by sprinkling in plot points that serve to emphasize the constructs of this world they’ve built. That connective tissue specifically coming into play when a character, a dead character, must ask themselves if they’re going to be remembered long enough to see the ancestor who is the last one to remember them one final time. It was this moment in the film when what Aldrich, Molina and Unkrich were trying to accomplish hit me in a way I didn’t expect and frankly, wasn’t prepared for. There are tons of movies every year that claim to be about the importance of family, but often times these “messages” feel more like scape goats of morals given the broad range of examples that can be shuffled under such an umbrella idea, but with “Coco” it's clear this isn’t just a message or vague thesis, but something the movie genuinely means when drawing these supporting characters who are deeply concerned with those who come after them and how they are remembered; not only for their own sake, but because it is vital to them that they make their family proud. This is the lesson Miguel must ultimately learn. It’s not about defying your family out of spite, but earning their respect to feel blessed with their endorsement in any path you choose. Everyone needs a support system and “Coco” is most genuine in relaying why it’s vital to keep those ties that bind as strong as possible. Yes, the film can be fairly predictable and if you’ve seen any movie ever in your life you can probably see a certain twist coming from a mile away (my wife and I figured it out about mid-way through the second act), but this goes back to the story beats not being for the adults-these are for the kids and these are fine enough as they are-for Pixar saves the more poignant idea of not being relegated to being one of the forgotten that dissipates even in the afterlife for the adult gut punch just when you think you might get out unscathed. This was always next to impossible, especially considering the added value of Michael Giacchino’s score and a handful of original songs penned by “Frozen” songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez, but while Coco may feel familiar in certain aspects it is truly a startlingly beautiful contemplation on the ones we leave behind, what we leave them with, and how resolved we need to feel when our time comes for the sake of our own contentedness. It’s heavy stuff for a PG-rated adventure/comedy so it’s a good thing those tropes and that predictability are there to rope in the movie from becoming too heavy-handed leaving us with this engulfing, enjoyable, and meaningful film that can be embraced by the whole family because it’s about family in the truest sense of the word.
by Philip Price
Sometimes we forget there is more to the movies than entertainment. Sometimes, it seems, we forget that there can be more to a story than information, simple insight, or distraction, but rather that a story can genuinely move you. I mean, truly move you to the point it inspires a change in mentality, a refreshed outlook, or even just a slight alteration in compassion. As sappy and excessively sweet as it may sound that is what “Wonder” does. It is a movie that has all the trappings of a melodramatic dramedy that plays on the sentimentalities of the audience in false ways and if you're a seasoned movie-goer of any kind it's easy to see why this would be pinpointed as such. The trailers and other marketing material have made “Wonder” look like something that ranks somewhere between a Hallmark made-for-TV movie and an after school special that shows children the repercussions of bullying, but walking out of the theater it is beyond evident that this movie is so much more than these dismissive descriptions would have you believe. “Wonder” never succumbs to the sappiness of it all, but more importantly is when it does reach for its peak emotional moments or dare to try to move the audience-it owns it completely. “Wonder” is a movie aware of what it is meant to do without being self-aware in the slightest. The word is humble. “Wonder” is a movie that defines being respectable without having to feel like it needs to announce its importance; it just is. Manipulative by nature, but unassuming and wholly modest in its execution writer/director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) finds the perfect balance in understanding the specifics of what his movie is intended to accomplish while making the audience wholly aware of it without flat-out exploiting their emotions. As a dad though, this thing hit me right where it was supposed to and while I understand that what is presented on screen is to a large degree a completely manufactured world where the schools are exaggerated, family time is strictly mandated, and there seems no financial concerns whatsoever these are also all things that aren't critical to the main idea and morality that the film is trying to convey and much can be forgiven when your movie promotes a simple idea like kindness this well and moves you this effectively.
The first time I heard about “Wonder” was in a text from my wife asking if I'd heard anything about an upcoming movie. I hadn't, but I was curious as to why she suddenly seemed so eager and excited when anticipating movies wasn't typically something she made a hobby out of. Turns out my wife, who is a high school librarian and reads A LOT, was during the novel of the same name that this Stephen Chbosky adaptation is based on. The book, a New York Times bestseller by author RJ Palacio, is by all accounts a solid piece of work that is genuinely moving and heartfelt as the wife described it as a work that nearly every middle schooler she encountered had read with some teachers even electing to teach the book as a part of their curriculum. This speaks to the resounding positivity of the book and how much it has resonated with the generation first introduced to it while also speaking to its popularity. While I personally only read the first three or so chapters for nothing other than lack of time prior to seeing the movie it is fairly evident from the get-go that screenwriter Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) as well as Chbosky were keen on giving the material an accurate presentation as not only does “Wonder,” the movie, remain candid and conscious of itself in terms of the characters understanding where they stand in their family and in society, but a few title cards hint at the approach to structure the film will have which, while I knew the book utilized multiple perspectives, was somewhat surprised the movie decided to adapt this aspect as well. Given “Wonder” is essentially about a boy with a physical deformity front and center on his face who is tasked with going to public school for the first time in his life as he gets ready to embark on the fifth grade the film might elect to solely follow our protagonist's journey with anecdotes filling in the exteriors that concern those in his family as well as the friends and enemies he inevitably males. By not doing this though, Chbosky makes it clear that he isn't interested in only how August Pullman, Auggie for short, deals with his deformity and the life that comes because of it, but how as much informs the lives of those around him. It's a tool to better demonstrate that this isn't a black and white situation of bullies and victims or of good and bad, but a world of opinions and perspectives that can draw everyone to different and/or opposing conclusions even if all anyone wants is the same peace and happiness. As Auggie, Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) is certainly still the star of the film, but Auggie is as much a reminder of the kindness that needs to exist in this world as his sister, his father, and his mother come to be.
As he did in adapting his own work with “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Chbosky is able to take a broad canvas of potential emotions and narrow it down to the specifics of those characters whose lives his film is zeroing in on. This is always the best alternative when it comes to dealing in movie that carries a lesson or reminder as the face of what the audience is being told is more than obvious, but by dialing the details back to certain individuals and chronicling how we each tend to deal with daily struggles “Wonder” automatically becomes more personal. Beginning with Auggie, the film allows the audience to be privy to the anxiety he feels about going to school for the first time along with the lack of transparency he picks up on when dealing with his parents, Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts), and their opposing views on if sending Auggie to public school at this moment in time is the right decision. Auggie isn’t an only child though, despite the fact his older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), sometimes feels as if he is. Initially we peg Via as one of the most understanding humans on the planet, just as her parents do, but we soon come to understand the extent of the pain and loneliness she is feeling. Vidovic never makes Via the archetypal scorned other sibling who comes to resent her younger brother though, but instead Via goes and reaches her breaking points in quiet away from those she loves because it’s true-she understands why things are the way they are and is compassionate to that fact. As the narrative continues, Via becomes one of the more engaging characters for the layers that have lent her in terms of her own friendships with Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) and its inherent drama as well as a budding relationship between herself and fellow dramaturge Justin (Nadij Jeter). It is in Via’s thread that “Wonder” especially reinforces this idea that there are not only two sides to every story, but that there are often many shades of gray to both sides. We are given Via’s perspective on her little brother, but are pulled into her issues with Miranda only to also be given Miranda’s story which ultimately comes to be something not so easily pegged and specific to the point it's more honest than might be expected from a movie that is coated with as much sweetness as the façade that has been painted upon “Wonder” does. The same is true of Auggie and the friends he eventually encounters at school that include Jack Will (Noah Jupe, who was one of the two redeeming qualities in last month’s “Suburbicon” and is so obviously destined to be a movie star), Summer (Millie Davis), as well as class bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Julian may not necessarily come to be more than we think he is, but the movie brings more understanding to why he is the way he is. This is all to say that “Wonder” may initially seem little more than surface deep with its outwardly schmaltzy premise and spotless aesthetic, but the more you get to know the characters the more it seems this was done intentionally to reinforce that basic principle of not judging a book by its cover.
Furthermore, a key point in the film’s success is also knowing its own limits. Never does Chbosky attempt to go bigger or deeper than he needs to which, either way, might have veered the film into confusing territory tonally. Rather, the writer/director utilizes his all-star cast and inherent charm of the well-intentions the film carries to take his film through to its genuinely affecting conclusion. Full disclosure: I didn’t necessarily expect “Wonder” to be a bad movie and I certainly thought it seemed to have the potential to be an inspiring tale in ways that had been done and seen before, but never in a million years did I think that it would give me the type of gut punch that it does in the third act when a key moment happens that includes the whole of the Pullman clan and specifically Roberts’ Isabel having a moment of clarity and realization that is something I tend to struggle with on a daily basis. It is this thought of time, of actual quality time, and the impression, and vitality of spending time with your family and your children that wracks a parent with constant guilt and concern. What is enough? What is too much? When being present am I the best version of myself I can be for them? Roberts communicates this flood of emotions in a single look and an isolated moment that Chbosky and his editor cut together expertly to accomplish that balance of nailing the idea that needs to be communicated without stating it explicitly. Considering this it should also be noted just how good movie star Julia Roberts is in this role and I reiterate “movie star” Julia Roberts exactly for the reason of saying that if anyone ever needed proof as to why Roberts has been a staple of Hollywood royalty for so long now, “Wonder” is a fine example of just that. And while I wish the movie would have given Wilson more to do (or at least told us what the guy does for a living) it is something of an unspoken understanding from the outset that, as the stay at home parent, Isabel is the one who factors more strongly into the minds of her children and it is her approval, her attention, and her love that is almost more meaningful than that of the goofy dad who makes sure everyone is taken care of and always has something to laugh about. That isn’t to say Wilson doesn’t fit this specific bill perfectly, he does and is growing into roles such as this quite nicely, but knowing that the actor is capable of more while not having the opportunity to show as much in a movie like this is a little disappointing. Both Mandy Patinkin as Auggie’s principal and Daveed Diggs as Auggie’s homeroom teacher should be noted as well as both have key scenes that could have played as little more than mawkish, but both come across as times you want to literally stand up and cheer. Of course, “Wonder” has a few shortcomings in the form of one too many tacked on endings and a fight scene that plays false, but again this is a movie that clearly states what it is and what it wants to teach you while simultaneously being an introspective and sensitive piece that states and tell its audience these things in the most earnest fashion possible.
by Philip Price
I guess I should start out by saying that I am and always have been a fan of Zack Snyder. Without much effort I can recall sitting in the theater and experiencing “Dawn of the Dead” along with that moment when it clicked that this wasn't just a fun horror flick, but it was a good movie. I can remember seeing “300” several times if not for the admittedly thin story, but for the ways in which the director was pushing the boundaries of the visual medium. My heart almost dropped out of my chest upon first glimpsing that opening credits sequence to “Watchmen” in glorious IMAX and with “Man of Steel” it felt as if Superman had never been so epic; that the whole scope of his being had been presented, warts and all, even if most didn't agree that Superman should have warts. I loved “Man of Steel” and to a certain degree, I loved “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” as well. I'm not one to say that film is without its flaws, there is a convoluted nature to the proceedings that are unnecessary, and it devolves into a CGI crapfest for the last 40 minutes, but for me ‘BvS’ was very much a personal film and one that was as grand in scale as it was deep with heart and rich with themes. Though the marks against it have their validity it is a film that arguably has more to say and more at stake than any other superhero film produced in the last seventeen years and certainly in the last nine or so since Marvel has streamlined the process. This brings us to “Justice League,” a movie that is hard for me to even call a Snyder film for, despite having the trademark look of the director during certain sequences, is undoubtedly the least Zack Snyder film to have ever been produced. It's sad and disheartening in the way that “Justice League,” or what Snyder began in 2013 and has been building through to up until recently has culminated with this, a vanilla action film with people dressed like characters we know and love, but to the benefit of a story that is paint by numbers if not the simplest example of such, a barrage of unfinished CGI and shortcuts, with no real stakes to be felt. Say what you will about those civilian casualties or the lack of awareness for them in previous films, but they added a weight to these proceedings that reinforced that for evil to be avenged evil first must occur. Warner Bros. and Geoff Johns have gone out of their way to ensure “Justice League” took into consideration the complaints from previous endeavors and it does, resolving it to be the broadest and most generic theater-going experience one might have this year. The masses will no doubt love it.
Everything requires balance and while I may not be a fan of this new direction the DC Extended Universe is shifting toward if all their movies are going to feel as safe as Justice League (here's looking at you, James Wan) I can at least appreciate that they are searching for that balance. They may have gone a little too far to one side with this one in the wake of the complaints lodged against ‘BvS,’ but “Wonder Woman” certainly proved there can be a happy medium. Where this first needs to come to resolution though is in the storytelling. I'm a fan of mythology and in both “Man of Steel” and ‘BvS’ there was a sense that something bigger than ourselves was taking place; that unknown entities and unknown consequences for their actions would come to pass while also suggesting that there was a bigger purpose to all that was happening even if some of the characters and much of the audience couldn't yet comprehend the complexity of it. This mythology lent these Snyder superhero films, despite being so broody and dark in mood, an outlying ethereal tone that very much kept these heroes, and in turn myself and at least a few other audience members, aware that there was a level of perfection being chased after; a goal of peace, if you will. Unfortunately, this mythology that made the previous films feel inherently epic is gone in place of a straightforward narrative that makes no qualms about depth or substance around the action that is taking place or the events that are occurring. To be clear, there isn't anything wrong with having a simple, throughline plot that goes from point A to point B and resolves itself nicely at point C, but the best examples of the medium are films not solely concerned with or about what you see happening on screen, but the ideas and transformations that you see through the characters and what is happening around them. With team-up films in general it was always going to be tough to accomplish as much for all involved and especially in “Justice League” as three of the six main heroes have yet to be introduced to audiences. With a script developed and written by Chris Terrio and Snyder that was then undoubtedly wrangled in and streamlined (there's that word again, huh?) by the presence of Joss Whedon who was brought in to re-write and finish directing the film after Snyder had to leave the project due to a family tragedy, it feels as if this thing has been stripped down to its bare bones and is now being hung out to dry in hopes of pleasing the focus groups and internet trolls. Still, in the opening credits of “Justice League” it proclaims this both to be a Zack Snyder film and is directed by Zack Snyder. While there are shades of what Snyder's original vision for his “Justice League” film might have been, what we have in front of us is a movie that is quick to identify its main players, quick to define the threat to earth in one of the worst CGI villains in super hero history, and seemingly even quicker to cut all former ties with story threads that have come before it. In doing so, the mystique and grandeur of Snyder's visual sense and the raw intensity of both his construction of action and dramatic sequences are diminished to passable entertainment that is, given the rocky production, admittedly more coherent than expected.
If you weren't a fan of either “Man of Steel” or ‘BvS,’ but agree that “Wonder Woman” helped put the DCEU's best foot forward (I think we can all agree on “Suicide Squad”) then odds are you will likely also enjoy what “Justice League” at least promises for the DCEU's future. And while I am certainly disheartened by the fact Snyder won't be able to complete his vision I like a lot of the ideas that “Justice League” proposes without executing and I look forward to the kinds of filmmakers Warner Bros. brings in to deliver on these proposals. That said,
“Justice League” begins by feeling very much like an episode of the nineties animated series where Ben Affleck's Batman lurks around on Gotham rooftops, in a Gotham that very much resembles the forties inspired architecture with hints of the "dark deco" that defined that series' aesthetic while still functioning within the technology of the modern day. To boot, Danny Elfman's score and the utilization of the theme from that series and his Tim Burton's 1989 film only adds to the air of similarity Snyder and Warner Bros. were likely going for to hit the target audience square in the nostalgia; it certainly got to me a few times throughout. That isn't to say, “Justice League” rises to the quality that “Batman: The Animated Series” often did, but rather that there is a clear objective to mimic that same style. At the onset, Affleck's Batman is tracking down small-time crooks to produce fear and attract those pesky Parademons that he had a vision of in the previous film. Batman isn't sure what these giant bugs are or where they're coming from, but the Amazonian's, Atlantian's, and a certain Star Labs employee named Silas Stone (Joe Morton), father of Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) AKA Cyborg, might each have a better idea. We get a fantastic re-introduction to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman via a classic bank robbery scenario that is arguably the best action sequence in the film in terms of both doing something interesting artistically and different in terms of how the action is handled. What this sequence does show is that after a century Diana Prince might be willing to put herself back out into the world as Wonder Woman. The film then introduces us to the main antagonist of Steppenwolf (at the very least voiced by Ciarán Hinds) who audiences might be familiar with if they saw the deleted scene from ‘BvS’, but otherwise feels like an odd choice as the big antagonist for the first team-up of the super friends. Steppenwolf is introduced through his descent into Themyscira where he collects the first of three MacGuffin's, I mean Mother Boxes, which are items that don't contain power, but when all three are brought together embody power themselves. With the other two Mother Boxes having been hidden by the Atlantaians and the other currently being researched after it started acting up after the arrival of Superman it's not difficult to see why Batman AKA Bruce Wayne thought it best to gather the gang for this one.
So, what about the team itself? That's what we're here for, right? That's the point of all of this, correct? Sure. Fortunately, the interaction between the team members and the personalities established by each of the newcomers as well as carried over by the returning cast are what make up the best aspects of “Justice League.” Though the story may be slim, and the CGI ridiculously spotty for a film that cost upwards of $300 million, the interaction between the team members counts for a lot here. Beginning with Affleck's Bruce Wayne/Batman the actor (who has been consistently rumored to be on the outs since July) at least feels committed to the journey he understands he is meant to go on in this arc. There isn't much time to deal with the double life aspect or the running of a major business as 20 years into being the Batman are finally starting to wear on the caped crusader. Affleck plays this role with the appropriate amount of his discouraged scowl, but there is also a sincerity to his determination to find others who can save the world while coming to terms with the fact he is out of his depth and can no longer handle things on his own. Some may read this as Affleck being disinterested or tired of the baggage that comes with playing such an iconic character, but as in ‘BvS’ we understand this is a Batman/Bruce combo that has been in the game far longer than we've ever seen represented on the big screen and thus understand his weariness and seeming anxiousness to not necessarily pass the torch, but of ensuring that someone will be there to save the world when he can't. As she did in the biggest film of the summer, Gadot carries this film with ease as well. It is her Diana that possesses all the charm, wit, and virtuous mentality that makes her capable of truly leading the team and this shines through most not when we're seeing Wonder Woman save the day or slice the bad guy (or be shot in more male apparent ways than what we saw in the Patty Jenkins-helmed origin story), but more when she and Bruce come to butt heads over the ethics of certain decisions and/or discussions around what it means to be a leader; the authority, but also the responsibility that comes along with it. In these two fleeting scenes where such quiet, but stirring conversations take place “Justice League” enters some of its most fertile terrain as it begins to dig into of themes that might be allowed to breathe were they not so quickly stuffed out by the cutting to of the next scene. There are battling perspectives, opening the film up to the varied backgrounds of where these characters have come from with both how and why they see the world the way they do and, as a result, how they feel is the best way to fix it. Like I said, this is all quickly resolved as if Warner Bros. feared getting into too heady of territory and reminding fans of what once made Snyder's takes on these characters so much deeper.
As for the new additions, if you've seen the trailers know that you've seen the entirety of the introduction of Ezra Miller's Barry Allen AKA The Flash. We do in fact get a few notable scenes where Barry interacts with his incarcerated father, Henry, as played by Billy Crudup, but otherwise this version of The Flash is a loner who is looking to find himself as well as still figuring out his powers and his potential to the point he's not much help to the actual team, but he could be. Miller is hamming it up a little too much for my taste to the point that he may as well be wearing a sticker on his forehead that tells the audience he's the comic relief, but that he pulls off most of the one-liners helps. I'm anxious to see what a Flash stand-alone film will look like with Miller in the lead as we get a sense here that he is very much a supporting character and nothing more despite the fact there is seemingly plenty set-up for which the DCEU can explore. I only hope Miller can handle the weight of a solo film as his take on the scarlet speedster can hardly handle himself in the field in this first outing. All of that said, The Flash is a part of a pretty great post-credits scene that, if it's any indication of where the DCEU is heading, could prove to be a closer mix of that balance this cinematic universe is still searching for. Next up is Jason Mamoa's Arthur Curry AKA Aquaman who is also the biggest departure from the character in terms of how he's been traditionally portrayed in the comic books. As Aquaman, Mamoa seems to be little more than a version of himself that also happens to be able to talk to fish. Meaning, this version of Curry is a badass metalhead who has parental issues that deal with his Atlantian mother dropping him off on the doorstep of his human father thus having forced him into a pattern of self-proclaimed selfishness while secretly keeping seaside villages fed when the water freezes on their shoreline and boats with supplies aren't able to get through for months. One can't help but feel with this iteration of the character that people will either love it or hate it. Personally, I've never had enough of an attachment to the character to care either way, but in his own words, "I dig it." Mamoa is a welcome slice of machismo and vulnerability that makes the sillier aspects of the character feel as badass as possible and making those already cool aspects even cooler. I only wish this film utilized him a little more as his personality gives the impression of greater influence over the movie despite being on screen less than Cyborg. And as for Fisher's Cyborg, he is certainly the one who gets the least development despite having as equally a tragic backstory as Allen. While the “Justice League” script utilizes Cyborg often for his skills and capabilities it rarely allows us to get to know the young man inside the machine past his initial reluctance to join the team out of an insecurity for still being alive when he feels he should be dead; a trait that is given a nice touch in the finale, but is seemingly forgotten throughout the middle section of the film.
Despite my fear for what “Justice League” could have ultimately been the final product is admittedly sounder than I expected. There are some great moments with the League itself, but this thing also sports a rather expansive cast that sees Jeremy Irons taking on our most involved Alfred yet, Amy Adams and Diane Lane not necessarily passing the Bechdel test (they're failing it miserably), but talking nonetheless in a quiet room about quiet things like loss and the inability to move on. Connie Nielsen reprises her role as Queen Hippolyta and is given the opportunity to lead another of the more sweeping battles in this effort (come to think of it, the action sequences become more and more dour and more and more darkly lit as the film goes on) whereas the likes of J.K. Simmons and Amber Heard are present and accounted for, but have very little to do. It's understandable that these things happen when your movie is centered on a core group of heroes yet each of those heroes have their own lives and their own people that must also be incorporated into the fold. “Justice League” does an admirable job of attempting to make sure these facets are at least included, and this is kind of the mentality across the board. “Justice League” is an enjoyable theater-going experience. On the surface there isn't much to complain about for, as far as the standard template for super hero movies goes, this thing fills it out adequately and delivers some winning dynamics between heroes whose stories we can't wait to see more of. That is essentially all one can ask of a big budget studio film made for the sole purpose of making more films in a franchise, but given this super hero resurgence has now been ongoing for nearly two decades that standard template doesn't always suffice. The genre has evolved, and the heroes and movies produced within it have evolved as well. While many will undoubtedly feel as if “Justice League” is a step forward for the DCEU, and it likely will be in terms of public opinion, in terms of art and the championing of original, voices this is a big step backwards. Come what may though, “Justice League” may be remembered as the final corner turned before the DCEU finally found its groove and began focusing on its individual heroes rather than rushing them into their cinematic universe and I truly hope that happens as I will and always have been a fan of the mythology imbued on these modern-day Gods, but chances are “Justice League” won't be remembered much at all.
by Philip Price
I will admit, and not necessarily begrudgingly, that I didn't mind 2015's “Daddy's Home.” One might even say I liked it to a certain extent. Did I understand why stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg were reuniting with something that was a more standard studio comedy rather than following up their 2010 Adam McKay film, “The Other Guys,” despite the fact it was likely because that film only made $170 million worldwide on a budget of $100 million? No, despite that evidence I still didn't and yet, somehow, “Daddy's Home” was something I laughed at consistently enough and had a warm enough time with that I was more than happy to recommend it to those looking for a light watch on a weekend afternoon. This was undoubtedly all it was ever meant to be. That was, until that second Ferrell/Wahlberg collaboration ended up going bonkers and making over $240 million worldwide on a production budget of only $69 million and thus is the reason we now have a “Daddy's Home 2” that cost just a little more ($31 million more to be exact) with the addition of granddaddies Mel Gibson and John Lithgow present to up the antics of Ferrell's Brad and Wahlberg's Dusty as they try to co-dad in peace. Paramount was also keen to release this sequel prior to the holiday season as a whole thus kind of inadvertently kicking it off itself (“Bad Moms Christmas” obviously helping with this as well) as the studio looks to capitalize on their family-friendly PG-13 comedy playing through the Thanksgiving break and having collected all it needs prior to “Star Wars” coming in and claiming all the screens. That said, is this strategic approach going to work? Does “Daddy's Home 2” offer the same comforts as its predecessor without succumbing to the stupidity that first film was always on the verge of flirting with or without becoming a carbon copy of that initial film? For the most part, sure. “Daddy's Home 2” ups the antics in the way that sequels do without being maybe as consistently funny as it should be given the talent on hand. All things considered though, “Daddy's Home 2” does further the story of the scenario set-up in the first film in natural and organic ways while adhering to the wacky tone that first film defiantly established. We are introduced to more family members to spice up the proceedings and from keeping it from becoming that total retread of the original while the dynamics of such relationships are explored, and caveats of others revealed to add layers to characters we might have imagined we already knew everything about. That isn't to say writer/director Sean Anders (“ Horrible Bosses 2”) and writing partner John Morris (“We're the Millers”) have delved into the anxieties of blended families and come up with a film that analyzes the dynamics and struggles of such situations-this is very much of a movie world where no one has any problems except the ones in their personal life as created by their personal life with money being no object-but there is something to be said for “Daddy's Home 2” as it doesn't simply rest on the laurels of its predecessor when it very easily could have.
Maybe more than summarizing what happens in “Daddy's Home 2” the more appropriate thing to do (without spoiling things, of course) is to tell of what one probably expects to happen, but might not necessarily think it will explore in this admittedly obvious sequel. From the trailers released, one might draw the conclusion that in “Daddy's Home 2” there will come to be a battle over which grandfather gets more attention between Gibson's Kurt and Lithgow's Don and that the film might then proceed to unfold in a similar way to the first film, but you know, with grandpas instead of the biological dad and the step dad fighting over affections. This storyline is only given a nod upon the arrival of both Kurt and Don at the Whitaker household. Brad and wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) seem to typically keep her and Dusty's children and Brad's step-children, Dylan (Owen Wilder Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez), with their new, younger brother Griffy (triplets Connor, Daphne, and Dylan Wise) who is Sara and Brad's child together though I don't recall this sequel explaining how Brad was all of a sudden able to successfully inseminate his wife or if they went through some kind of procedure given Brad's past run-in with an X-ray machine. While this rivalry between Kurt and Don is hinted at for a moment, the film's script quickly backs away from this implication and instead uses the evidence that Kurt's biological grandkids know their step-grandfather better than they do him as motivation. Meanwhile, Kurt isn't too fond of the new and improved Dusty that is more accepting of others and more open to change which may lead you to believe “Daddy's Home 2” will largely focus on Dusty finding a balance between being a co-dad with Brad while remaining true to the badass he once was and the guy his father would be proud to call son-which is something it seems Dusty has been striving for his entire life. And while the movie covers some of that ground, “Daddy's Home 2” becomes more about both Kurt learning to be a better father and grandfather than it is about Kurt refusing to stray from the values and ideals that he's been beholden to his entire life. Everyone in “Daddy's Home 2” tries, begrudgingly or not, to be more than they've been in the past which is a nice change of pace, especially given the dynamic that is immediately introduced between Don and Brad that, as viewed in the trailers, would seem to be little more than a one-note joke played for laughs, but in fact comes to mean a lot more when that uniquely close relationship and the trust that exists within it is betrayed. Meanwhile, though Dusty is having to deal with his own daddy issues the movie doesn't let him off the hook on the other end of the spectrum either as he now has another party with which he must also co-parent in John Cena's Roger, the ex-husband of Dusty's new wife, Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As Brad did in the first film, Dusty is given the run around from step-daughter Adrianna (Didi Costine) showing that even the coolest among us are privy to feeling insecure. Again, this isn't to say, “Daddy's Home 2” turns the expectations set for it completely on their head, but it doesn't hit every beat in a way one might expect either.
Much of these points are in support of the fact that “Daddy's Home 2” likely deserves more credit that it will receive, and I genuinely think the movie is deserving of a similar recommendation as the first which is also to say that “Daddy's Home 2” has many of the same issues that could be logged against its predecessor. Whereas something like the aforementioned “The Other Guys” is a comedy that also felt like a film, an actual, real, weighted film with an objective and a structure that felt inspired without being standard whereas both “Daddy's Home” and “Daddy's Home 2” admittedly feel like rushed jobs from a couple of funny guys getting together and seeing what they can come up with out of obligation rather than inspiration. It is worth noting that I found Anders trio of films prior to “Daddy's Home” to all be pretty solid efforts in terms of bawdy, raunchy R-rated comedies that were inherently fun and genuinely funny despite a premise that sounded hokey (“Sex Drive”), that were willing to go for the dirtiest joke possible for little more than guaranteeing a laugh (“That's My Boy”), and for making a sequel to a comedy I adored that was arguably better than the original while proving what would seemingly be narratively impossible to in fact be possible (“Horrible Bosses 2”). That each of those films possessed their own kind of mojo gave me hope for what the director might bring to the pairing of Ferrell and Wahlberg, but it seems that with the watered-down PG-13 rating Anders wasn't ready to deal with how to make people laugh without having every cuss word and sex gag possible at his disposal. And so, it's as if Anders resorted to what he knew might work and has thus now constructed two studio comedies in what could rightfully be labeled as the most generic examples of the genre as both “Daddy's Home” and “Daddy's Home 2” have seemingly been dropped off the Hollywood assembly line. With the hope of appealing to as wide an audience as possible this sequel offers just as much insight, the same type of light chuckle humor you won't remember three days later, and just enough product placement to make you feel like there are still commercial breaks despite your theater setting (which is another odd point to bring up later) as the first. And yet, somehow the movie still retains just enough character development, appeal, and several other endearing qualities that, while completely recognizing what it is and the place it comes from, make it hard to hate. This is still a movie that stars the likes of Ferrell and Wahlberg both of whom are likable, but have a winning chemistry that only gets more effortless with each outing no matter how pedestrian the package is they're wrapped in. Add to this the supporting cast that includes the always-pleasant Cardellini, the one-two punch that Lithgow and Gibson bring to their relationships with the two leads, and a scene-stealing Cena as well as a couple of cute kids saying inappropriate things (despite the movie giving them some weird choices) and this is enjoyable enough if you go in expecting exactly what has been advertised.
The moral of the story is: it's all about expectation; as it is with most things. And though it was easy to gauge what one might get from “Daddy's Home 2” prior to buying a ticket the big question mark was always Gibson and how he might factor into this light-hearted tone of a holiday Christmas comedy despite anyone vaguely familiar with popular culture knowing enough to associate the guy with anti-Semitic remarks and drunken, derogatory words towards an ex-wife. First, it says a lot that the likes of Ferrell, Wahlberg, and especially Lithgow in a sense are willing to share this opportunity with him as there have been many opportunities for stunt casting Gibson since his fall from grace, but “Daddy's Home 2” is kind of the first one to roll the dice. Going one step further, Gibson plays into these pre-conceived notions the audience likely has of him as Kurt is a former astronaut who favored shacking up with Dusty's teachers and so on rather than staying to watch his son perform in the school glee club. Kurt is the type of guy that scoffs at men showing emotion and believes men are the ones who hunt the food while the women wait in the kitchen to cook it. It's kind of ballsy, really-the way in which both Anders and Gibson himself are so willing to accept the public perception, play into it so hard, and then only give the character a tepid moment of redemption at best given the closing button doesn't work as well as one might expect. That said, both Gibson and Lithgow seem to be having a blast playing off one another as well as their co-stars here as the alliances between the core four are constantly shifting from scenario to scenario. There is a moment about halfway through the film that deals in Adrianna adjusting the thermostat at the cabin everyone is staying in and Dusty not bringing the hammer down. Kurt, Don, and Brad are all aghast at the fact Dusty has allowed such a blasphemous act to occur and while the joke could have certainly gone somewhere better (or anywhere at all, actually), the idea counts for a lot given how well it plays through these actors. And while it may just be rose-tinted glasses playing tricks on me I still feel as if the first “Daddy's Home” edges out this sequel despite other winning sequences that include Ferrell wearing an all-time fantastic jacket at a family bowling outing, a living nativity brawl, and a finale that Cena absolutely kills with each line of delivery. Speaking to the finale, I only hope theaters this holiday season are as full as “Daddy's Home 2” thinks they will be for, as strange as it was to be watching a Christmas movie in a theater with a finale that takes place with our group of characters watching a Liam Neeson Christmas caper in a movie theater, “Daddy's Home 2” is exactly the kind of movie one would end up watching with a large group of family and/or friends over the break as it has something for everyone and goes a long way on the charm of its cast to make something by no means exceptional or even necessarily very good, but totally and completely reliable.