by Philip Price
For me, 2017 has been something of an off year. It seems most avid movie-goers and critics have found much to enjoy-too much even to be able to narrow down their favorites of the year to a simple top 10. For me, I have struggled to find ten films worthy of what I would say are exceptional pieces of work that will stay with me past the calendar year into which they will forever be categorized. Sure, there have been films with exceptional moments-glaring omissions from my favorites list that will make many others are that of “Lady Bird,” “Call Me by Your Name,” and “The Shape of Water.” I couldn't agree more that each of those films possess inspired moments that transcend the art form, but where they film that made an impression on me that will last, if not forever, but at least a few weeks after seeing them? Not at this point, no. I have thankfully managed to whittle the 200-plus new releases I've seen this year down into ten that have stuck with me, but this admittedly pessimistic discourse thus far doesn't mean I couldn't fill out a top fifteen or twenty. There are films not present on the list below that I would highly recommend and that would no doubt come in somewhere in the next five spots just outside my top ten. Though 2017 has been something of an odd year for my own personal tastes and the lack of as many being able to meet or exceed my expectations it would be a shame not to mention the likes of the pigeon-holed “Stronger” as it is much better than its Oscar bait facade would have you believe, the weird and deliriously entertaining “The Disaster Artist,” the criminally underseen and overlooked “Brigsby Bear,” Steven Soderbergh's return to feature filmmaking in “Logan Lucky,” and Sofia Coppola's re-make of “The Beguiled” with a handful of pitch perfect performances all deserve your love and attention if they haven't received it already. I've pretty much seen everything I imagine might have a shot at making my list except for maybe “Phantom Thread” (which isn't scheduled to open in my neck of the woods until January 18th), but Paul Thomas Anderson has always been hit or miss with me given his films always feel easier to appreciate rather than enjoy. With the film being touted as Daniel Day-Lewis' final bow as an actor though, it demands to be seen and I'm eager to see what all the buzz has been about once it does open near me. Furthermore, I look forward to re-visiting award season heavies like “The Post” and “Molly's Game” when they make their national debuts in January as they were both films I liked, but came nowhere close to be the giants many in the press touted them to be. All things considered, please know that I went into every film this year really wanting to like it and the ones that follow are the ones that surprised me with their quality or surpassed every expectation I held for them. Enjoy!
10. “Gaga: Five Foot Two”
I have a lot of feelings toward Lady Gaga, but mainly I just have a ton of respect for her. Having loved how much of an understanding she's had over the years as to what was necessary to make herself into this kind-of iconic figure she has become it was startling to see this documentary from director Chris Moukarbel break that all down. These walls and the mythic status Gaga has crafted over the years come tumbling down, but at a point in her career when it was necessary. A new layer needed to be added to the facade to sustain the intrigue and ‘Five Foot Two’ gently captures Gaga's passion for creating music, her understanding and handling of the fame that has come along with the gift of being able to create art as a lifestyle, as well as providing insight on where she pulls inspiration from. There is a scene in the film where Gaga AKA Stefani Germanotta plays a song for her grandmother, her father's mother, with her father present that is about her aunt who passed away when she was 19 and who served as the inspiration and namesake for Gaga's last album, Joanne, that will outright wreck you. "She had a lot of talent, but she didn't have enough time."
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. 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 “Wonder” would be pinpointed as such. The trailers 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 that. “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.
8. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
The most striking aspect of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is how it actually becomes a better movie the longer it runs. It is impossibly difficult for a movie to accomplish as much given most films tend to start well before running into the problem of not knowing how to handle what has been set up. It is at this point when most screenwriters will default to familiar and/or recurring devices, motifs, or clichés of other movies to round out their third act. In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” though, writer/director Martin McDonagh is somehow able to blow past traditional structure and instead just deliver an experience that feels as if it is flying by the seat of its pants. This is only to say that as the film goes on and as the narrative takes continuously surprising and shocking turns the writing as well as one of the best ensemble casts of the year that includes the likes of Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges and Zeljko Ivanek only serve to enhance the experience even more.
7. “A Ghost Story”
It's not what “A Ghost Story” is saying. It's how it says it. Like chimes gently rustling in the wind or chills slowly creeping up your arms “A Ghost Story” somehow manages to give a sense of being so distant you're not one hundred percent sure what is causing the noise or the feeling, but at the same time feels so deeply personal and so intimately cutting that deep down in your soul you know exactly what it is. It's difficult to describe past these dumbfounded attempts at articulating something meaningful just how much “A Ghost Story” hits you-that is, if it hits you at all. While it's difficult to describe all the emotions and thoughts the latest from director David Lowery left me with I realize it will be just as difficult for some people to understand what the movie is or what it's trying to do at all. It's a film I find difficult to comprehend fully and thus is likely the reason it continues to resonate with me. I've returned to images, sounds, and thoughts it instigated in my brain since seeing it back in August. It's a movie not for everyone, but if you find it's for you it's something special.
One of the leading voices in filmmaking of our current generation puts his stamp on the "war film" by largely obeying the laws of another type of film. “Dunkirk” is a horror movie. Make no mistake about it. We never see the villains and yet, the presence of these antagonists looms over every scene. It is so inescapable in fact it is nearly suffocating. There is no relief from the situation at hand and much like a horror movie more steeped in that genre's conventions you know only one thing is certain: bad things will happen, and people will die. Christopher Nolan has slyly crafted his characters only to the extent that one largely puts themselves in the shoes of the characters present on screen. As with any good scary movie there is an allure to the uncertainty that could not necessarily be labeled as enjoyable, but is engaging nonetheless and that essentially describes the emotions one feels throughout the entirety of “Dunkirk.” Nolan ratchets up the tension and holds it as tight as he possibly can for an hour and 45 minutes. Never letting us off the hook; barely allowing hope to even be an option.
5. “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”
In the strongest year for super hero films in quite some time (“Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Thor: Ragnarok”) it is seemingly the least likely to be the most innovative that turned out to be the most innovative. The only outright sequel of the bunch besides ‘Thor 3,’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is not only an unconventional sequel or super hero movie, but it's the kind of movie that makes you wish they'd quit rebooting and retooling ‘Star Wars’ and just continue to make movies that pay homage to those films as the filmmakers who saw that original trilogy in its original theatrical run are now well into their tenure as big Hollywood directors. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” bucks the trend we all assumed it would fall into by delivering the best villain in the MCU since Loki while also giving our heroes a real and emotional investment in the plight of Kurt Russell's antagonist. Director James Gunn's ‘Vol. 2’ exceeds in balancing the exploration of these relationships while still relaying an effective story, the Guardians story, and there's just something special about a ginormous, big-budget, special-effects extravaganza that is still able to feel this personal. Also, Baby Groot.
4. “I, Tonya”
The story of Tonya Harding is one of a true American tragedy. Tonya Harding is America. She is unapologetic for the way she was raised and is either embraced or rejected immediately because of that. She is emblematic of America's tendencies to always need someone to laugh at, a necessary punchline to fool ourselves into believing we're better than something or someone despite the outward appearance of wanting to be welcoming and/or tolerant of all walks of life. “I, Tonya” is a portrait of this single woman's life that would seem the perfect vehicle for a rags to riches story; the kind of story America typically likes to celebrate and champion in showing how much we, the people, promote this idea of advancement and the improvement of one's status through nothing other than hard work, while never actually allowing those that are born outsiders to be allowed into the bubble they so often deserve to lead. “I, Tonya” becomes a culmination of multiple accounts of the infamous figure skater's life that paints a portrait of this tragic character’s tragic arc doing the impossible of not only making you care about Tonya Harding, but allowing you to sympathize with her.
3. “Blade Runner 2049”
With “Blade Runner 2049” I walked into a film where I had no particular affinity for or connection to the original and walked out adoring this world director Denis Villeneuve had advanced. The visual grandeur courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, the monumental set and production design, and the engulfing soundscape from both Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's that this film possesses make this thirty-five year later sequel fire on all cylinders as the story supports it all by digging further into what that first film only scratched the surface of. “Blade Runner 2049” amplifies and examines the themes of what it means to be alive and have memories and how those memories inform our past and future. Essentially, “Blade Runner 2049” is a $150 million art house film as it is the sole the product of Villeneuve and the team he has put together to bring this new chapter to life in the best and most respectful way possible as it is clear the filmmaker adores Ridley Scott's original. It is a movie I want to see again and again and for a movie that runs just shy of three hours, that's really saying something.
Like “Wonder,” I went into “Gifted” expecting something along the lines of a sappy melodrama with better actors and production values, but within the first 15 minutes “Gifted” convinced me of its validity-it had convinced me of its sincerity that was ingrained in its otherwise competent execution. Sure, many will dismiss “Gifted” for being the type of film that is emotionally manipulative because it wouldn't be mad if you shed a few tears and/or formulaic in the way its premise is an old cliché that has been used before, but just because a movie might indeed be full of cliché or formulaic tropes doesn't mean it's automatically bad. Director Marc Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn can prove certain tropes aren't always bad and that doing the opposite isn't always good by delivering all that is predictable and formulaic about “Gifted” with a warm and wholly wonderful sincerity that comes straight from the heart. You may be thinking, "That's all well and good, but number two for the year?" Yeah, number two for the year as it is without a doubt the film that had the biggest emotional impact on me in 2017.
1. “Get Out”
If you'd told me back in February after I saw “Get Out” for the first time that I'd just seen my favorite film of the year and that nothing would surpass it I 1) might not have seen as many movies in the subsequent months and 2) probably wouldn't have believed you. That said, writer/director Jordan Peele's feature debut is a striking thriller that provides a topical conversation around racial tensions that then amplifies and exaggerates the inherent tensions of its presented scenario in a way that it both plays with the tropes of the horror genre while delivering commentary on innate and unavoidable fears in the black community. I heard someone explain the film as, "playing on black people's fear of white people's fear of black people," and it's hard to put it any better or more simply than that. “Get Out” is a film that plays on facets of ourselves we'd rather not acknowledge-those that say no matter how much we believe ourselves to be above stereotyping or forming preconceptions-that there is still truth to such ways of thinking. Peele uses this unavoidable, unflattering truth to draw out a fair amount of anxiety; playing on these anxieties and social standards through to the very last frame. “Get Out” is another example of the rare film that sticks the ending as the film keeps things as taut as any horror movie in recent memory throughout while never losing sight of its inherent purpose. It is a true film of the moment as well as being one for the ages.
by Philip Price
That Winston Churchill was a pretty interesting guy. You've heard of him, right? Maybe? The man who was the 61st (and 63rd) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom with 50-plus years of experience in government prior, wrote over 50 books and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, painted over 500 paintings with exhibitions at the Royal Academy, and defied to be defined by societal lines, flip-flopping between political parties twice. Yeah, you know-that one you thought you knew well enough, but are now feeling you barely knew anything about. Don't worry, I felt the same way heading into “Darkest Hour” thinking I had it all figured out. And while I did to a certain degree with the prominent director recovering from a flop with rather safe material as made prominent by a well-regarded actor going full method and fully into prosthetics to play a historical figure of note to, if nothing else, check another challenge off his thespian bucket list, what I hadn't figured out was the unexpected layers to be brought to such a character. Churchill is a man we've seen on so many pages of our history books over the years and who, with his recognizable silhouette and famous markers such as the bowler cap and cigar, is embedded into the consciousness of generations who go through public school leaving us this very surface-level and mild idea of a man who many will desire to leave at that and delve no further into. To undo the myth around the man, but emphasize his influence all the more director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”) make their film more in line with something akin to Lincoln than they do a full cradle to grave biopic which, ultimately, is suitable and more compelling given the plethora of material and other motion pictures that are available around the famous figure (heck, there was another movie just this year about Churchill starring Brian Cox in the title role). As “Darkest Hour” zeroes in on these crucial days during World War II and the Prime Minister's decision to either negotiate with Hitler or fight on against incredible odds the film itself finds a comfortable rhythm that it remains within; offering what is an insightful and oftentimes compelling portrait of this man that is just different and specific enough to feel relevant while crafted with enough care to be commendable if not necessarily wholly impressionable.
An extraneous factor Focus Features, Wright, nor anyone else in the production might have had control over is the fact that four to five months prior to their film opening there was a little movie called “Dunkirk” that opened and that kind of serves as the story of this conflict told from the perspective of the soldiers on the beach whereas “Darkest Hour” tells of the perspective from those making the decisions that would determine the chances of the characters in the former's survival. Fortunately, these films paths rarely cross in terms of ideas and/or content, but the companionship of them and more, the well-rounded picture produced by having seen both within a short time period is an interesting angle to take and one worth noting if you've not already seen Christopher Nolan's near masterwork and plan on seeing this. Told over the course of only 26 days “Darkest Hour” begins on May 10, 1940 with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) with whom, following failure in Norway, the United Kingdom had no confidence in with regards to his prosecution of the war and thus forcing him to resign. The commonly accepted version of events states that Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) turned down the post of prime minister because he believed he could not govern effectively as a member of the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons. Although the prime minister does not traditionally advise the King on the former's successor, Chamberlain wanted someone who would command the support of all three major parties in the House of Commons which, by default, was Churchill. In this way, “Darkest Hour” is the story of how Churchill went from a derided outsider to saving the world from that of a tyrannical dictator who others saw compromising with as an option. This change of power that comes to be defined by the sometimes reckless, but often time's well calibrated attitude of Churchill is what defines the tone of the film. There is a lot of people yelling back and forth at one another in seemingly eloquent patterns of speech while the point to be taken from all of it is much the same in that Churchill doesn't come to meet any one parties political needs or wants, but rather that he is here to whip the country into shape and to do whatever it takes in order to defend their island from the Nazi scourge that are on the precipice of conquering the entirety of Western Europe in the few days after he is appointed his new position.
And so, what does “Darkest Hour” do to differentiate itself from the horde of other content that has been produced around this greatly revered historical figure? Well, that would of course be to attempt to humanize the man as much as possible. This is done through numerous fashions as McCarten introduces us not only to Churchill's wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), but to a new typist that is brought in at the top of the film to capture Churchill's speeches and serve as his secretary in the form of Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). Layton is meant to serve as this kind of surrogate for the audience into the bowels of Churchill's day to day in dealing with each blow Britain's army is taking as well as to serve as this exemplary marker as to where Churchill begins and how his arc comes to shift across this narrative based on their relationship. There is a few touching, even genuinely human moments that come about because of this dynamic and James is as charming as she can be in a role that is little more than that of a tool to display said change, but does a figure such as Churchill necessarily need to have an arc in a movie that covers only 26 days of his life? Aren't the actions he took and the courage it took to make those actions happen captivating and development enough to justify the goal of this story? One would think, but it seems McCarten's intention here is not simply to document the events of this tense time in Churchill's existence, but rather to examine how the common man might come to relate to this giant; how to shrink Churchill down to a more manageable size as it were. How does one do this with a man who is in fact uncommon though as is documented through the multiple achievements noted in the first paragraph. Early in the film itself, Oldman's Churchill asks himself, "Which self should I be today?" as he gazes upon the numerous hats that hang on the wall of his home making it clear the man is well-aware of his facade-the persona most assume he represents-and having to decide which of these identities will be appropriate for the discussions taking place that day. Strangely enough, McCarten enters the character then through feelings of self-doubt and angst over these decisions he must make. We see Churchill as a loving husband and celebrated father, but it is Thomas and her portrayal of this counterpart in the life of Churchill that serve the story McCarten is more interested in telling better than the route of the conflicted and indecisive emotions the writer decided to employ. As her husband's equal and something of his backbone, Clementine humanizes this larger-than-life historical figure more so than tearing down the single quality he was most revered for-his resolve.
Obviously, none of us alive today was present in Churchill's chambers when he was deciding what to do or how to go about dealing with the pressures from Chamberlain and Halifax to discuss the possibilities of peace, but to question as much-to question that Churchill ever wavered from doing whatever it takes for victory is to seemingly undo all that history has tried to build up since World War II entered those books. And maybe this is fair, maybe this is the point McCarten wanted to highlight, and that allowed Wright a way into the film-by making Churchill a more relatable guy, but it seems to do the opposite of what they thought it could do for their film. To add this layer of indecision and insecurity would seemingly amp up the drama of the piece given the context of the days surrounding those in which “Darkest Hour” documents, but rather the film tends to plod along from speech to contemplation to another speech all to come to the same conclusions becoming repetitive instead of compelling. Of course, what does make “Darkest Hour” compelling is that of Oldman's much discussed performance. The man is buried in make-up and is barely recognizable and, yet he turns in what is undoubtedly the most performance-y performance of the year as we come to see that human side McCarten was so intent on capturing though not through his actions in the political arena, but rather in the small moments outside of them where we deal not in the man who must lead, but in the man who is formulating plans as to how he will carry out his leadership. The moments where Churchill is writing and delivering his speech simultaneously as James' character stylistically captures them and better learns to read her new employer's disposition is fantastic as is any scene in which Oldman and Thomas can bounce off one another to reveal genuine humanity and a loving relationship between the characters without devolving into re-writing those aforementioned history books. I won't pretend to be overly bothered by McCarten's choices as I'm by no means a Churchill historian or expert, but “Darkest Hour” in its effort to deconstruct the controversial choices Churchill had to make and fight for ends up only painting a rather straightforward picture of unquestionable good guys and unquestionable bad guys that plays out as we know it will. Still, “Darkest Hour” is strengthened by Oldman's showing and his strong supporting cast (Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI is solid and shouldn't go without mentioning) as well as Wright's stylized eye that makes the film not necessarily about the scope of this new role in the landscape of Churchill's life, but more how he comes to deal with this role at this crucial juncture in history when it was thrust upon him out of circumstances beyond his control, but in his favor.
by Philip Price
“The Greatest Showman,” a wholly original musical from the mind of Jenny Bick (and ushered through the big studio system via Rob "Dreamgirls" Marshall) that tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), is a weirdly fascinating experience. There were instances throughout this brisk, but admittedly epic in ambition musical that at one point might feel alarmingly slight and free of any such substance while at other points-specifically during the musical numbers-it could feel akin to a religious experience. Crazy, right? Like most things, “The Greatest Showman” is a balancing act, but surprisingly-so is gauging one's reaction to the film. While the film, narratively, falls into refurbished clichés of countless other rags to riches stories it also doubles down on sweeping love stories, including large themes of inclusion and tolerance for those different than what society and humanity have deemed as normal and then, somehow matches all of this up with the terms of a musical that require dance numbers, songwriting, and lyrics that both explore these themes and narratives as well as pushing as much forward. The viewer's balancing act comes from the then aforementioned disparate elements of those cliché story beats and the rather impressive soundtrack of songs as composed by “La La Land” composers Justin Paul and Benj Pasek. It's so strange, even now, 24 hours after having seen the film and I can admittedly understand every complaint I've since read about it; sharing many of them regarding the boxing in of Barnum's story to that of a standard Hollywood storyline. And yet, there is this undeniable aspect of the film and all the joy and hope it provides in these moments that says something about the movie, the craft behind it, and the reaction they garner. First time feature director Michael Gracey (who has mostly worked in the visual effects departments on other projects) certainly seems overwhelmed by the scope of what he has taken on here as glimpsed in both how he captures and conveys the themes as well as a majority of the musical numbers, but seriously-by the end of nearly every number and, as a result, the film-what has just occurred on screen leaves you feeling so gleeful and allows the characters to be so endearing that it's impossible to deny the appeal of “The Greatest Showman” despite its many, many flaws.
Beginning by outlining the rags part of the riches story with a flashback to that of Barnum when he was a young child (as played by Ellis Ruben) and the sparks that were undeniable between he and a young Charity (Skylar Dunn before becoming Michelle Williams) despite Charity coming from the socialite side of the tracks with a father that doesn't believe in the promise of the young Barnum we are treated to the rather touching and gorgeously rendered number that is "A Million Dreams". Against these odds and through this song, Barnum and Charity grow up, get married, and have two beautiful daughters in Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), but with Barnum's jumping from job to job he realizes he has yet to provide his family with the life he promised them as well as refusing to give up his own ambitions for himself. While much has been made of the liberties the film has taken with the real life of Barnum, primarily that of his interests in exploiting rather than empowering those he took in under his circus tent, “The Greatest Showman” seemingly plays it safe in most areas forcing Barnum's existence into a well-defined three-act structure rather than shaping the movie to Barnum's life in any authentic fashion. As someone only familiar with the history of Barnum through his name being on the sign of every "The Greatest Show on Earth" banner prior to its final curtain call in May of this year I won't pretend to know how well or how discouragingly “The Greatest Showman” adapts Barnum's intentions, but if the movie is only true to who Barnum actually was in the broadest of strokes it ultimately only serves a story that anyone who has seen even just a handful of movies over the course of their life can tell is formulaic. We watch as the movie presents Barnum as a risk-taker, someone willing to take out a loan from the bank he can't even honestly leverage to becoming a literal overnight success after buying a museum and storing stuffed animals and odd mannequins in before becoming inspired to make his theater come alive with those considered to be "freaks". As soon as Barnum's "circus", which he borrows from a scolding review by theater critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), begins to take off though, Barnum's ambitions become more than that of just having "made it", but now he must fight the battle of still being looked down upon by the social elite which then informs more conflicts, and more greed before Barnum ultimately comes to realize what's important in life and steps back to finally appreciate all he has built. This of course comes after nearly losing everything; his museum to a fire from angry protesters and his family to that of a will they/won't they dynamic with world-renowned singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) that Barnum takes on tour to make himself feel more credible.
In the first number after the opening, as Barnum rounds up his outsider performer's things start out rough. Rough enough to the point that the sound mixing feels off and the singers timid as if they are just coming to the realization they are in a musical. As the music picks up and, in turn, so do the cuts in terms of editing for the sake of montage Jackman finds his stride and takes control of the ship as Keala Settle's Bearded Woman then joins in to solidify the confidence in the direction we're now taking. Settle, a performer who has largely been Broadway-based prior to this role, lends the whole of the production a kind of spirit that is undeniable and true. Later in the film she is given the chance to lead what is the flagship song of the picture titled "This Is Me" (AKA the one featured in all the trailers) and it is in this moment that “The Greatest Showman” gives up both its greatest strength and biggest weakness as a wholly original musical. While the song is undeniably catchy and the performers more than convicted in the words they are singing (the spirit of these performers, especially in this number, transcends the screen) it is the awkward staging and lack of any real building to a culminating visual that shows the lack direction from Gracey. With no reference point to the stage it's as if the filmmaker was unsure of how to make his $84 million picture visually reach the heights of the music he'd been given to work with. This is a point one can make peace with in that, could it have been better? Sure. Is it passable or done well enough? I guess. What’s not as easy to forgive is that of the fact this show-stopping number, this one with real soul, wasn’t enough to make Gracey, Bicks, or Marshall realize where their real story was. The story here is that of the outcasts that are brought in and find a home and community among one another where they’ve never felt they belonged that teaches this lesson of inclusion, but rather than stay with this narrative the film diverts itself to be more about Barnum, which is ironic considering he took the acts of others and made himself the main attraction, while crafting that other lesson around his arc. To add to this unawareness of what really makes the heart of their movie beat Bicks and Marshall add in a secondary character to Jackman in Zac Efron’s completely fictional Phillip Carlyle who is meant to show a reformed socialite that has a knack for show business and is sympathetic to Barnum’s cause. Carlyle develops a relationship with one of the trapeze artists, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), which we are led to believe might highlight some of the ideas behind this wonderful lesson the movie is teaching, but unfortunately only turns out to be a half-baked romantic subplot that reiterates the struggle of the character most like Barnum in the film rather than that of the one who has a history with adversity. Not exploring Wheeler's feelings, but how Efron's character must cope shows a real deafness in the approach to the writing and the appeal of the story. That isn’t to say the performances aren't all they can be as, Enron and Jackman especially, are putting everything they have into this production, but the fruit of their labor simply isn’t filled with as much consistent passion as they were passionate about it.
So yeah, the story around the songs and the depiction of as much could be greatly improved by a more authentic tone and of having been placed in more capable hands, but it is the numbers themselves that are consistently impressive. Granted, there are still complaints to be logged with some of the choices made in regards to the direction of the music, but not in terms of the music itself. Pasek and Paul are keen to pen distinct tracks for each section of the film sans the aforementioned "This is Me" and the introductory ensemble piece that is "Come Alive" as the melodies somewhat run together in the aftermath, but are striking enough in the moment that your attention is held. Jackman and Efron have a solid duet that is maybe the most "musical" performance in the movie as it possesses lyrics that actually move the story forward as well as containing actual plot details, but the real highlight is seeing Efron return to the genre that gave him his big break and though his character is rather one-note his turns in the musical numbers are solid and feature a performer who seems to be re-invigorated by this choice rather than just coasting along in another raunchy R-rated comedy. Efron's second duet of the film with Zendaya, while emotionally barren due to the fact the script uses this relationship more as an instrument to make a point than hone actual affection, is probably the most beautifully choreographed of the film as it utilizes the trapeze to symbolize the push and pull of the dynamic that presently exists between the characters and the context of their would-be relationship. It is rather odd to think these two different generations of Disney-produced stars are coming together in a broad Hollywood musical as love interests, weird even, but for as lacking as the romance is in connection both bring enough heat to the moment in "Rewrite the Stars" that, again, you almost want to forgive it. Ferguson's Jenny and her unnecessary subplot get the most lifeless sequences in the film as we watch the actress essentially mime a song titled "Never Enough" that is sung by “The Voice” contestant Loren Allred. Williams' only solo moment and the most she gets to do in the film period comes courtesy of "Tightrope," a song that is highlighted by its simple elegance and placement in the film as something of a prelude to the finale that is "From Now On". "From Now On" is the number that will take the audience to church and send them home in a rousing mood. It's a fantastic moment in the movie, but the key issue with these is that the film is a period piece and the music feel more than contemporary which isn't overly difficult to adjust to, but is certainly jarring in the beginning. Like the music itself though, the modernisms and small detractors throughout are never explicit enough to feel intentional in the kind-of schlocky ways they come across thus leaving us with a movie that could have taken advantage of its inherent campiness, but is instead a largely cheesy affair with glimpses of genuine inspiration that push it over the edge into one of the more strangely moving experiences of the year.
by Philip Price
Guillermo del Toro films are typically notable for their aesthetic choices, their production design, and their attention to detail. One can look back at the filmmaker's body of work and quickly see that there are countless themes that re-surface time and time again, much of this happening within the realm of the types of stories del Toro likes to tell and the visual prowess with which they are presented in. With his latest, “The Shape of Water,” the director is still very much working within his wheelhouse, but for the first time in some time it feels as if there is nothing more important to the movie no matter the extravagance of the sets and costumes or the practicality of the monster make-up than the story itself as well as the core relationship that both grounds this story and lifts it up. Now, if you know anything about ‘The Shape of Water” prior to going into the film then you know that this core relationship is formed between a human woman and a mysterious sea creature that is housed in the bowels of the top-secret facility where she works as a maid. If that initially weirds you out a bit just think of it as the opposite of Ariel and Prince Eric; this way you can find some solace in the fact you at least understand you were holding a double standard against the picture. I understand there is a slight difference in the two because of the full-on creature feature being portrayed in this film whereas the scenes featuring Ariel and Eric being romantic in “The Little Mermaid” were ones where she was walking on land, but the concept still supports it and more, “The Shape of Water” completely owns this relationship from the moment we first glimpse our meager protagonist in Sally Hawkins' Elisa Esposito. Yes, of course “The Shape of Water” is a gorgeously rendered portrait of some alternate universe in the early sixties where government experimentation goes as far as studying a God-like merman and feels like a fairy tale of sorts for adults where not everything is perfect, ideal, or even necessarily magical, but what “The Shape of Water” does find and allow are these fantastical elements that breathe a fresh life and perspective into what are otherwise some dark and troubled times both in this universe and in the lives of characters who were seemingly never given a fair shot at life in the first place. This is effectively why “The Shape of Water” succeeds for as much as one can go on about all the beautifully crafted extraneous factors it is this belief that comes to be sustained in this abnormal relationship and the beauty of the affection it conveys that we are, maybe unexpectedly, moved.
In what is a naturally beautiful and bleakly ominous opening tracking shot we are exposed to the daily routine of Hawkins' Elisa as she bathes, and pleasures herself, and shines her shoes, and gets ready to go to work only to be late and have her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), clock her in to the dismay of fellow co-workers. A crucial detail we come to realize soon after Elisa enters her place of work is the fact she is mute and so her mousy facade is not completely due to the fact she has a meek personality, but more because she has been forced into as much of a personality by this disability. In her work as a janitor on the night shift at this facility Elisa is often relegated to as much of a routine as she seems to fill her own, personal life with. That is, until one evening when the likes of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with the creature that he supposedly discovered in the rivers of South America. The arrival of this amphibious humanoid creature (played oh so poetically by del Toro regular Doug Jones) sparks something of an immediate connection with Elise when she isn't even fully aware of what lies within the coffin-sized tank that Strickland and his men roll in. As these things go, “The Shape of Water” then lapses into some rather typical storytelling traps in terms of Shannon's clearly defined bad guy and his superiors having the intention of killing the creature and harvesting the body for ways in which they might get ahead in the space race or other competitions with other countries whereas the undoubtedly more intelligent, but less important scientists, namely Robert Hoffstetler (the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg), request to study the creature to better understand him, his species, and to paint a more well-rounded picture of our own world. These varying perceptions of what the right thing to do with the "asset" play out as one expects though del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (“Hope Springs”) certainly try their best to throw in a few twists. Essentially, this storyline plays out alongside that of Elise and Jones' creature from the black lagoon better getting to know one another and coming to better understand one another until Elise is tasked with a critical decision that will ultimately lead to the survival of the sea creature or his certain demise at the hands of the increasingly psychotic Strickland. This simple throughline plot of the good guys interest versus the bad guys interest brewing until one or the other takes preventative action is one that almost makes the film less mythic, but thankfully this isn't the story the film hinges on-that would be the one where each of these well-drawn characters interact and form relationships through the beats of the tired plotting just described. This is where “The Shape of Water” draws both its most beautiful moments and expresses its deepest ideas.
It is in these characters and the dynamics that develop between each of them that the whole conceit of the film comes to feel complete. Of course, this movie belongs to Hawkins and she is operating on a whole other level here as she doesn't speak a word in the film and yet we are almost immediately on her side. We trust, simply by the honesty exposed and the almost private preference we can see Elisa possesses that she has settled into a role in the world where she knows she can function well-enough. In other words, Elisa has found a content way to exist despite it being 1962 and despite the lack of any technological advancements that might assist in her inability to speak. She lives in a loft above the Orpheum in Baltimore in what is a choice that will inherently appeal to every cinephile in the audience as del Toro will casually pan down from the floor level of Elisa’s apartment into the nearly empty, but ornately designed theater house. Elisa also lives next door to a closeted painter, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who seems to have been pushed out of his marketing role at a major corporation to now only being commissioned to paint certain adverts and thus spends much of his time inside his loft and with Elise. These two, together with Spencer's Zelda, form this gang of outcasts that band together to not do what necessarily all of them even believe in, but more to help Elise because they know no one else has ever believed in any of them and out of this respect and obvious care for one another “The Shape of Water” becomes this tale of these people in pain and how they have learned to cope with the cards the world has dealt them. Whether any of them were ready or not this feeling of responsibility comes to fruition when they realize they can make a real difference in the life of their fellow (mer) man who has been dealt a similar hand. It is in these intensely executed escape scenes and further, into the moments we can be a fly on the wall for that pertain to Hawkins and this creature wordlessly coming to understand and be one with each other that the film diverts the story expectations and takes on the meaning implied by del Toro's grand sense of tone. It is in these scenes where we understand the idea del Toro was seemingly chasing from the conceit of this story. And it is through Hawkins and Jones' ability to capture this unspoken bond between these two characters have that made this viewer feel more involved in the story and more invested in the relationship between these two beings that might otherwise have felt too weird or taboo in terms of buying into the authenticity of it. As it is presented by the delicate Jones and the elegant Hawkins though, there is a pureness and even a certain amount of naiveté that is easy to expect in any new relationship, but hard to capture on film and “The Shape of Water” just nails it.
Interestingly enough, “The Shape of Water” doesn't relegate itself to a specific kind of movie despite coming off initially as another dark fable from del Toro. The gist of the movie comes from this underground facility setting and the conflict that would seemingly place it automatically in the realm of horror movie and while there are certainly elements of such-this would be nothing new for del Toro-it is just as much a love story as anything else with that love story in turn making the film something of a love letter to different kinds of cinema throughout Hollywood's past. Thankfully, the film references such moments where it leans toward the science fiction side of things or will swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and have an ode to musical numbers of yesteryear in ways that don't feel cheap or imitative, but more as a genuine homage to such genres from characters who communicate or relate to those kinds of movies and worlds. While such a mixed bag might typically lead one to think a singular project is trying to do too much and will fail to have a distinct voice because of as much, “The Shape of Water” mixes these genres not for the sake of style or tone, but to bring out and better define the personalities of these characters who can't speak for themselves. That said, this also makes for the overall story being one of del Toro's more accessible narratives in the way that it aligns more with the average movie-goer's expectations of story and plot than some of his other work. That isn't to degrade the film in any way, but more to say that after “Crimson Peak,” where del Toro's prowess for designs and details were on full display while his narrative leaned a little too much into the traditional side of things, that “The Shape of Water” finds a better balance of being both everything we expect from the auteur from an aesthetic perspective while providing a story that is both clearly understandable as well as multi-layered. It is also in this aspect that I tend to find my only complaints about the project and not necessarily complaints in terms of things I didn't like about the film-I generally admired everything and everyone that was on screen and all they were working together to accomplish-but more regarding my lack of investment in the events as they unfolded despite caring about the characters involved. It is almost impossible not to be moved in some manner by this core relationship between Elise and the sea creature as well as in the endeavors of those surrounding our core couple (you can't go wrong when you have Shannon and Stuhlbarg in a movie together), but in terms of the movie overall, what moves these characters through the plot, and what determines their fates-I simply wish I cared more as the final act climaxed and those fates were revealed. I wanted to feel more. “The Shape of Water” is a well-executed metaphor for falling in love with someone different from yourself or finding love in a place you least expected it, but given how moving the film can be in its best moments I wish it was more memorable than it ultimately turns out to be.
by Philip Price
Full transparency: I love Hollywood stories. This fact may be questioned when I tell you that I haven't yet read actor Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell's book that documents the behind-the-scenes look at the making of, "the greatest bad movie ever made" that is “The Room,” but I assure you I am. I know, I know-this may be an even less convincing statement when I tell you that I've still yet to see Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film that Sestero and Bissell's book, The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, is based on which James Franco has now adapted into a movie of his own with “The Disaster Artist,” but I assure you-I am. I listen to the You Must Remember This podcast, if that helps my credibility at all. The point being that, even without having little to no reference point beyond the handful of clips I've seen of “The Room” on YouTube Franco's “The Disaster Artist” is still very much an accessible and easy to understand piece of work that is as much about chasing one's dreams of stardom and realizing your own passions into a formidable career as it is a good movie about a really bad movie. That said, I loved this movie in a way I kind of haven't loved a movie in a long time. I mean, I've loved other movies this year and loved other movies more, but there is this unique relationship with “The Disaster Artist” in that it is a movie made completely endearing by the total lack of awareness of its main character and the complete willingness of the second lead to fling himself into whatever he must do to make his ambitions become reality. Sure, some of these decisions are ill-advised, but the point is that, for an aspiring artist of any kind that feels the industry is designed to keep you out, “The Disaster Artist” offers a portrait of a couple of guys who decided to take things into their own hands and build their careers on their own backs in the most bizarre and questionable way possible. The idea that this story is being re-created by two brothers whom Hollywood has accepted with open arms and who book consistent, high-profile work is a little ironic, but so is the existence of this movie at all. This caveat of Hollywood elite making more money off of the (once) failed aspirations of those looking for a way in aside, “The Disaster Artist” is not a movie that looks down on those who want to create, who want to make movies, and who want to be actors, but rather it is a movie about embracing the struggle that finds great affection for the drive of these people that is made into a story worth telling for the pure mystery and oddity at the center of it that is Tommy Wiseau.
It's 1998 in San Francisco and Sestero (Dave Franco) is a 19-year old who has had some prominent modeling gigs, but who wants to be an actor and is attending the American Conservatory Theatre for acting lessons in his hometown. We see that Greg, despite his desire to be an actor is a rather timid personality and scared to expose too much of his emotional vulnerability as pointed out by his instructor (a nice little cameo from Melanie Griffith) whereas when Griffith's character asks for someone who can really lay it all out on the stage we get our introduction to James Franco's Tommy who performs this sprawling scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” in what is mostly just a series of him climbing on different pieces of the stage or laying on the ground to writhe around on the floor while yelling bit of dialogue to the amusement of everyone, but the understanding of so few. Apparently, Greg saw something in this ability of Tommy's to put it all out there though, and approaches him after class to see if he might mind working on a scene with him. Tommy seems guarded when Greg first approaches him, surprised even that this individual wants anything to do with him, but it is in this moment where “The Disaster Artist” switches from a movie that began by allowing us to laugh at Tommy to a movie that shows us why this character deserves our empathy no matter how bizarre or weird he may initially come off as being. As both the director and lead character, Franco then follows the path of cementing this odd couple relationship between Greg and Tommy that, while initially difficult to understand, ultimately comes to serve as this genuine point of emotion where the two are open and honest with one another. This is no doubt the reason why it felt like the right time for Franco to work with his brother, Dave, as the two naturally have this connection and unspoken understanding of one another that is necessary to convince the audience this relationship between our two main characters is in fact authentic and not just Greg using Tommy for the seemingly unlimited amount of resources he possesses. As their relationship grows, Tommy and Greg move from San Francisco to Los Angeles in November of '98 where, within a few months, Greg is signed by the Iris Burton Agency (where Sharon Stone, in another great cameo, shows up as Burton) whereas Tommy simply struggles to hide his European accent in auditions. As Greg settles into life in L.A. and even gains a girlfriend in Amber (Dave Franco's real-life wife Alison Brie) he begins to realize things won't be as easy as it seemed as his agency calls infrequently and Tommy, despite his wealth, can't book a job for the life of him. It is at this point, forty minutes into the film, that Greg suggests they make their own movie-sending Tommy into a three-year spiral that eventually produces the script for “The Room.”
And while the set-up of the dynamic between these two characters and the struggles they face once arriving in Hollywood are interesting enough largely due to Franco's whirlwind performance as Wiseau the meat of the movie really comes into being when he and Greg begin pre-production on the movie. Quirks such as Tommy deciding to buy all the equipment to film the movie instead of just renting it from a company run by Hannibal Buress and Jason Mantzoukas as well as deciding to shoot simultaneously on both digital and film are just the beginning of the interesting facets that come to light in the latter half of the film. What really makes up the best aspects of “The Disaster Artist” though is Franco really selling the small details of the mysteries around Wiseau. No one really knows where Wiseau comes from or how he ended up in San Francisco though he will attest to being from Louisiana, "you know, the bayou", no one knows how old the guys are though he will claim to be Greg's age to Greg's concerned mother (Megan Mullally) who can clearly see the guy is in his late 30s to early 40s, and no one knows where he gets his money. There is one scene where the script supervisor Tommy has hired for his movie, Sandy (Seth Rogen), goes to the bank to cash his check and half expects the thing to bounce due to the general air of questions and mystery that surround Tommy, but the teller informs Sandy the account he's drawing from is essentially a bottomless pit. I must wonder if this detail was included in the book and to what extent the film embellishes as it almost seems too good to be true; too easy a route to go to avoid explaining how Tommy funded “The Room.” It is in these moments, when questions concerning any of these topics arise that Franco's Wiseau so effortlessly glides past them without a second that as to them coming back around time and time again. To this point, what is so strange about the whole situation is the way in which Tommy seems to be doing so much of it to help Greg and to allow him to achieve his own dreams of success and stardom. Whether money was an object or not there is something more, what many labels as "malevolent" in the movie, about Tommy's intentions. Franco and his writing duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”) are keen to not lean too far into the sexualized component of the dynamic, but there is certainly an aspect here that indicates there is jealousy on Tommy's part when it comes to Greg. This is most obviously stated when Greg and his girlfriend decide to move in together, meaning Greg will move out of Tommy's place, but whether Tommy is attracted to Greg or it's more that Tommy is attracted to the idea of Greg and wants to be an All-American, good-looking guy like Greg is left up to the audience to decide.
That Franco and his team make the arc of this relationship the arc of the film though leaves us asking these questions and wondering how such a dynamic might ever end in a way that is reconcilable for both parties. Dave Franco presents Greg, who the audience is made well-aware is "in" on the understanding of how odd Wiseau is from the get-go, as this guy who is at first inspired by Tommy, but comes to more or less use the guy for his place in Los Angeles and his ability to produce this movie that offers him a steady paying gig while Tommy comes to terms with the fact that he feels everyone betrays him because of these very things: Tommy impresses with what he has and not who he is because he is unapologetically himself and while not self-aware, understands that people aren't necessarily taken with him. It's an interesting case of these two guys using one another to accomplish their own goals and being just tolerant enough of each other to make it through their day to day together. That this is the truth we come to at the end of the movie is the film's biggest downfall because “The Disaster Artist” wants us to believe that Tommy and Greg become best friends again and remain so through to the present day, but while this is likely the version of the story Franco and team had to agree to to get these people's life rights Franco and team are also sly enough to know they need to suggest something deeper. And whether this deeper understanding of this relationship at the core of “The Disaster Artist” will be claimed as intentional or not it is certainly there and gives the film this great dichotomy that is true of the real world as well when talking about how we present ourselves in public to meet the requirements of what feels acceptable as opposed to how we think, feel, and act in the privacy of our own home. Because movies are typically seen in large dark rooms with only a few other people surrounding you they feel safe and a space where our most private of thoughts and largest of inhibitions can be set free in a way that will serve little to no consequence, but to get to that point someone had to let those things go very publicly to create the product you see on screen. This is what Wiseau seemingly did with “The Room” and what Sestero did with the book “The Disaster Artist” is based on with the larger idea being that Franco's movie not only captures the surface-level story of the behind the scenes making-of for the "best worst movie ever made", but that it also hints at the real, genuine, and raw emotions that forced this product into existence. The fact Franco and his supporting cast that features the likes of Ari Graynor doing a spot-on Lisa, Josh Hutcherson nailing the Denny awkwardness, Zac Efron stealing every scene in which he appears to hilarious results, or Jacki Weaver tenderly talking about her love for acting as the woman who played Claudette re-enacting these infamous scenes is only gravy on top of all the fascinating, weird, and consistently funny things “The Disaster Artist” chronicles and offers.
by Philip Price
One might summarize “Wonder Wheel,” this year's offering by the prolific Woody Allen, as being the epitome of what many would call, "meh." "Meh" is what one would call expressing a lack of interest or enthusiasm. "Meh" is what one could define as uninspiring or unexceptional and in the pantheon of Allen-produced films over the past 50 years “Wonder Wheel” certainly falls into the category of "meh". That said, the visual elements that see legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”) shooting Allen's ‘50s-set melodrama like it were a postcard where the colors are saturated to the point they are about to burst off the screen are fantastic and serve to be the only thing that is somewhat memorable about Allen's latest effort. The sweeping sequences that involve Storaro's re-creation of Coney Island that is partly comprised of practical effects, part location B-roll, and other part full-on digital trickery would seem to encourage the movie to immerse the viewer in this setting and yet, even as the strongest facet of the film, the location serves as little more than a backdrop. A backdrop for yet another of Allen's explorations of the kinds of characters made famous in the likes of Tennessee Williams works that he's already explored in “Blue Jasmine” and has probably explored multiple times before that, but my Allen filmography knowledge gets a little spotty prior to 2005 sans the obvious stand-outs. What I kind of expected from “Wonder Wheel” given Justin Timberlake's (yes, Justin Timberlake is your Woody Allen stand-in this time around) delivery of certain lines in the trailer was that of an homage of sorts to (or even parody of) the big melodramas of yesteryear where the actors were performing with a knowing sense of what they were going for and of letting the audience in on the fact of what they were going for. Were this true and we, the audience, ended up laughing with the movie instead of at the movie it might feel like a completely difference experience, but as it is “Wonder Wheel” is a movie out of touch with what it should be and what it needed to be to pull-off what it seemingly wanted to be. But hey, it really is visually stunning, so there's that.
And so, there we are in 1950-something Brooklyn, at the Boardwalk on Coney Island where we are first introduced to our narrator, Timberlake's Mickey, who is a lifeguard on Bay seven, but also a writer who had to drop out of NYU because of Uncle Sam. Mickey comes to notice the beautiful, but visibly sad Ginny (Kate Winslet) walking down the beach one day after everyone else has fled due to the threat of impending thunderstorms. The two strike up a conversation after making their way inside somewhere dry where Mickey can flaunt his reasons for not having yet returned to school and why he is biding his time as a lifeguard when what he claims to be and so often speaks in the language of, is a playwright and dramatist while Ginny only continues to ask questions for fear of having to answer similar questions about herself. The two not so slowly delve into a relationship that seems to very clearly be something of summer fling for Mickey, but something other-worldly for Ginny who is looking for a reason, any reason at all, to get out of her current situation. That current situation includes a waitressing job at the local oyster house, a second husband named Humpty (Jim Belushi) who runs the carousel on the boardwalk, and her young son, Richie (Jack Gore), an arsonist who can't seem to shake the habit. Ginny feels trapped in her current situation as she apparently married Humpty more out of gratitude than love and goes on and on to the young Richie about how it's her fault his father isn't around anymore and as such, has turned the kid into an incendiary that allows him to express the rage he feels against and for his mother who he otherwise seems to feel sorry for and towards a stepfather that obviously doesn't understand him. Add to these troubles of feeling inadequate and unfulfilled the fact the young, attractive daughter of Humpty comes back into the picture after years of resentment having been built-up between the girl and her father. Carolina (Juno Temple) comes into town at the onset of summer after leaving her husband, a gangster, who has marked her for knowing too much or for...some reason-it never really gives us much information around this set of circumstances other than the fact Carolina is a marked woman. Naturally, Humpty takes to trying to protect his daughter no matter how estranged they've been as of late, but what is more threatening to Ginny and the little world and life she and Humpty have created above the boardwalk where the titular carnival ride can be seen from their window is that of Mickey's interest shifting from the older, married woman to that of the young, damaged divorcee.
Typically, in Allen's lesser movies it is at least charming to see the performers, especially the new ones, try out his dialogue and take on his style for the first time, but even that is somewhat tainted here with Timberlake. In all honesty, Timberlake is kind of terrible and doesn't convey the right inflections or necessary snark to be the Allen surrogate in the same way Jesse Eisenberg, Joaquin Phoenix, or Colin Firth have done as of late. The multi-hyphenate doesn't even make Mickey his own type of scorned, romantic writer in the way Owen Wilson did in “Midnight and Paris,” but more than ever-Timberlake's recognizable bravado and natural swagger don't carry over to his acting work and ring totally false for this intended persona who is an academic and not an international pop star. On the other side of things, Winslet literally must carry the entirety of the picture-including the core of the conflict that is her relationship with Timberlake's character. The more interesting facet of Winslet's character is that of her loveless relationship with Humpty and his seeming obliviousness to her feelings when it comes to her failed dreams. He gets her a birthday gift that he openly admits he bought for extra cheap off a drunk guy on the boardwalk who stole it or that Carolina is better than being a waitress her entire life to which Ginny questions why she doesn't fall under the same perspective as his daughter. Why is she not better than being a waitress for the remainder of her life? This would seemingly have an obvious answer, but it is through this kind of dysfunctional dynamic and association of who deserves what more that, as the film goes on, Ginny becomes more and more unbearable herself. Ginny becomes more and more wrapped up in the fact that the older she gets and the less she has accomplished only mean that the chances of her accomplishing as much grow smaller and smaller. Ginny is a woman whose ambitions never became a reality and she doesn't seem to understand how she is pushing away everyone in her life when she feels she has so much to offer. This is a movie that chronicles two people who have never owned up to who they eventually thought they would become and are forced to come to terms with the fact that taking avenues that are instantly gratifying rather than putting in the hard work to pay dues and have a real shot at their ambitions is what they seem to excel at. It is in this voyage of self-discovery that “Wonder Wheel” hits upon its most interesting facet, but it is a mix of too little too late in terms of drama and intrigue as everything in the film has led to this certain point, but it is this point that produced the best part of the story rather than the story leading up to it that we've been subjected to for an hour and a half prior.
In essence, “Wonder Wheel” becomes this chronicling of a woman slowly losing her cool-going into "massive hysteria" if you will, and while Winslet goes for broke here her performance isn't enough to make it feel like anything of note gets accomplished in the film. And naturally, this is the biggest detractor for any movie-audiences want to feel like they witnessed something-anything at all-but while Allen's picture certainly has a lot of intended drama within its standard love triangle set-up and all the complications that come along with such it can't help but feel as if each revelation Allen takes his time with here could be seen coming from a mile away and are therefore little more than natural progressions in the story and not the revelations they are positioned as within the context of “Wonder Wheel.” Rather, these vaguely interesting character arcs become recognizable patterns through dialogue and action where Ginny is a woman who brings about her own downfall time and time again; unable to get out of her own way every time something potentially promising or inspiring happens to her. I will admit that this characterization and Winslet's portrayal of such does lead to a few choice monologues where, for a moment, it seemed the film might inhabit that cognizant quality as touched upon in the opening paragraph, but these are too few and far between to really register in the long-standing impression of “Wonder Wheel” or what did or did not work about it. “Wonder Wheel” will be remembered fondly for the gorgeous photography of the period location while often overlooked and even dismissed for the familiar themes and terrible miscasting of Timberlake in one of the lead roles. This doesn't necessarily make me sad, “Wonder Wheel” isn't a good movie, but there are good things about it. Mostly, this will fall on Winslet's tragic human condition and how she must lie to herself to live with any kind of peace. There is also the running bit with the kid who makes fires and aside from the cinematography and periodic moments in Winslet's performance, is the best thing the movie has to offer. This feels explicitly like a piece from Allen's own life that he took a note of and held onto until he found a script that could use such a subplot. I don't know if “Wonder Wheel” necessarily was the film calling for such a subplot, but I'm glad Allen included it here as it is one of the few elements that allow it to stand apart from being an otherwise pointless exercise in themes and ideas Allen has explored in other, better offerings.
by Philip Price
My first experience with a Yorgos Lanthimos film came two years ago when, in a spur of the moment decision, I decided to see what “The Lobster” was all about while attending my first Toronto International Film Festival. I walked out of that film a little mystified and largely confused about what I'd just experienced and, looking back, that was undoubtedly appropriate. While I wasn't overly fond of the film I found myself thinking about it day after day in what likely ended up being the film my brain latched onto the most out of that festival as far as contemplating what it meant and how it was crafted. There were other films I liked more, but I was more than fascinated with “The Lobster.” Months later, I found myself eager to purchase the Blu-ray when the film arrived on home video and eager to re-watch what had perplexed me to see if I might gain new perspective or insight. I made it through about half of the film before it started to feel like this great concept that Lanthimos was tracking began to wear thin. Funnily enough, this is like the experience I've now had with Lanthimos' follow-up, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” as well. To this end is to say that, while it's best to go into the film cold, it's hard to know what to expect even if you have seen a trailer or read the synopsis. With either kind of expectation, the first 40 or so minutes of the film prove to be especially engaging. There is a frankness to the whole affair that is rather shocking while at the same time wholly engulfing due to the fact these characters can and do say literally anything that is on their minds at any given moment of conversation. While the basic character dynamics are established within the realm of this first hour there is still no real indication as to why it's vital to know who these people are or why they're in each other's lives. Moreover, Lanthimos is crafting this off-kilter universe where we, as a race, still operate under the same societal structures (which you couldn't say about The Lobster), but our behavior as such is completely altered. In this type of scenario, one can't help but to be naturally intrigued as to what the hook with such a set-up might be, but as it comes to be in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” I would have much rather been allowed to just exist in this strange world for, as soon as the general conflict kicks in, the rest of the film feels largely senseless and hollow.
In short, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” follows a teenager's attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family which takes a series of unexpected turns. From the outside, this would-be Colin Farrell's surgeon, Steven Murphy, whom the young teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), has recently met and struck up a close, almost kinship with. The origins of this relationship are never really explained aside from a few throwaway lines that only serve to make the relationship all the odder. At the end of the day it is probably safe to assume that Farrell's character believes he is doing the work of a Good Samaritan as Martin is an ambitious, but fatherless young man who aspires to be a surgeon one day as well. Having taken Martin under his wing, Steven feels he might be of some source of guidance. Steven even goes so far as to introduce Martin to his picturesque family that includes his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) who is also a doctor, and their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). The Murphy's live in a lovely house in an idealistic suburb and it's not hard to see from the moment Martin sets foot among them that he's envious of all they have though one doesn't imagine he is immediately plotting to dismantle this picture of perfect existence in any way he can. You see, Martin lives alone in what he refers to as a lesser house, but it is still very much a pristine picture of what Lanthimos must imagine represents genuine Americana. In this house lives Martin's single mother who is played, in an all too brief appearance, by Alicia Silverstone (another touch of Lanthimos' that seems to suggest the idea of the All-American girl). The problem with “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is that while it seems to have seeds of ideas throughout, the emphasis on the American dream and the consistent showing-up of symbols that represent as much for instance (this was shot in Cincinnati, if you needed further proof), there is nothing of note that is ever stated or comes to feel of any real weight around such topics from either Lanthimos or writing partner Efthymis Filippou. Rather, Lanthimos and Filippou allow their film to lessen rather than evolve as the picture becomes more a revenge thriller rather than the kind of psychological horror movie it seemed that first hour hinted at. While “The Lobster” is my only previous experience with Lanthimos' work there was still something within that film the writer/director was discussing and weighing in on whereas here, while one could make the argument that he is commenting on people dealing with loss and coping with loss-that idea of abandoning all reason because it's all emotion-this didn't resonate with me as the characters all felt too stilted and forward (which is a fun stylistic choice) to sympathize with or invest in.
That said, what I did find overwhelmingly appealing about the film was that of its aesthetic choices. This is a gorgeous film with style to spare and atmosphere for days. There's a coldness to it all, sure, but whatever this choice does as far as story is concerned it still has an impact on a completely visceral level where the looks, sounds, and composition of it all are impressive on their own no matter if the movie connects or fails to connect on an intellectual level. This was apparent from that first, haunting trailer where Cassidy's rendition of Ellie Goulding's "Burn," allowed for the song to take on a whole new meaning as it was paired with images of Farrell carrying kids through white hospital hallways and dropping them on their knees or of kids crawling across the floors of their picturesque houses. Lanthimos is keenly aware of what he wants to utilize music and sound for and thus is the reason he keeps the full rendition of "Burn" in the actual feature, but this time remains focused on the innocent-seeming Kim while juxtaposing it against Keoghan's devious, but currently mysterious Martin to add this air of uncertainty to everything in with this layer of the familiarity. Furthermore, Lanthimos doesn't use a single composer to score his film, but instead the soundtrack is an amalgam of Schubert, Sofia Gubaidulina, Janne Rättyä, and sound designer Johnnie Burn that builds this overarching mood of the piece. The sound and music are a crucial part of Lanthimos' movie and that is more than apparent as many times these elements will overtake the dialogue to move or dictate what the audience should be feeling while consistently suggesting this grim level of foreboding. I have heard others liken this to Lanthimos' version of a Stanley Kubrick film given its large open spaces, cavernous hallways filmed with epic tracking shots, and other pastiche elements such as the symmetry and quality of lighting throughout (one critic even noted the similarity of Kidman's appearance here and how she looked in 1999's “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is worth more than it might initially seem). This is a fascinating way to approach the film, especially if one feels themselves becoming detached from the story the film eventually divulges. Watching for how often the camera slowly zooms in on its main subject as the scene at hand unfolds (hint: a lot) or from which angle Lanthimos shoots his subjects in certain scenes and how the content of that scene might suggest why this decision was made. These are all interesting facets especially when they create this sense of stalking or of hovering as they do to make the audience feel as if we shouldn’t be seeing what we’re seeing and that we’re constantly on the fringe of being discovered, but these are also things we shouldn't notice at all as they should serve to enhance the narrative and not become it.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” opens with a shot of open heart surgery. Of the heart, the organ itself, pumping within the restraints of the medical devices used to keep all the parts of the patient's breastbone from obstructing what was a procedure presumably being done by our protagonist. It is one of those visual choices-those visceral moments where, right off the bat, whatever pre-disposition you have to any element of this be it blood, flesh, doctors, austere procedures, or that of the power surgeon's must feel they hold in the palm of their hands or the will of their being-that grabs our attention and forces us to react; the reaction quickly going from that of rational fears or ideas to that of more philosophical ones. In this way, it would be impossible to completely dismiss “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” as little more than style over substance, but unfortunately-this is kind of what it comes down to. That isn't to say there isn't effort to do otherwise, but more that this effort fails to communicate in such ways that the cold atmosphere purposefully intended to reinforce that stilted way in which these characters communicate as well as the bleakness they face and have no escape from becomes how we feel about the film-cold and detached. Admittedly, I dig the approach Lanthimos takes in terms of how he presents the situations unfiltered and without complications, but more so matter of fact to the point it feels there is no other way this situation could have gone. I like the precedent that is set for how these characters will interact with one another and it is even more enjoyable to see how much the likes of Farrell and Kidman understand this tone and understand what Lanthimos is going for to the point they execute it in a hilariously, but equally disturbing deadpan fashion. I like it, sure, and it's entertaining, but why this stylistic choice-what purpose does it serve or how does it better help accomplish the story being told or the topic being discussed? This is where the film falls short for me as with all the care and craft that has clearly gone into creating this world and these people and the way in which Lanthimos will capture what he has conceived the final product ultimately has nothing remotely commentative, or profound, or anything, really, to say at all about what it has just put the viewer through by the time the credits begin to roll. More, it has likely left the viewer with more questions than answers, but not in the way of contemplative ponderings, but more in the vein of, "I feel like the basis for that whole movie falls through because I don't know how Martin could possibly even accomplish what he is accused of doing." That said, Keoghan is a revelation in his role as someone essentially exacting emotional torture on his victims, but as this becomes more a movie that is weird for the sake of being weird it becomes more apparent the film itself is more paralyzed in its thoughts and ideas than those of its own characters that it incapacitates.
by Philip Price
It doesn't end with a space battle. It does begin with one though. And it does still come down to stopping a big laser from destroying what is positioned as the final stronghold of the resistance. This is The Last Jedi simplified, of course, but the point is, patterns. Stanzas. Everything in “Star Wars,” since the days of George Lucas, has worked in this recurring metrical unit where the past predicts the future and the future dictates the fate of our favorite characters. There is a great sense of scope and history in these films and with “Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) has utilized this rich history in a way that kind of upends those patterns. Those verses that were seemingly an inherent part of the “Star Wars” DNA. Typically, this would be something unexpected, but applauded as it would lead one to believe there are bold choices being made and new directions being taken and while this is true to a certain extent, what happens when you don't always like or agree with the choices being made or the direction being taken? With ‘The Force Awakens’ J.J. Abrams created a revival for a new generation balancing the tasks of paying respects to the previous trilogy, setting-up new parts of the universe to be explored, and establishing a new generation of characters that fans could fall in love with. Key to this was Abrams backdrop of this great mythos and grandeur that only hinted at the darkness that had befallen the characters of the original trilogy since we'd last seen them. ‘The Last Jedi’ would then seemingly follow through on the promise of this mythical status that had befallen Luke Skywalker and so there was much to be excited for going forward in the series. In fact, ‘The Force Awakens’ put in place so much to build this aura of mystery and gravity that it was probably impossible for Johnson to deliver on all of them, but with the re-introduction of Mark Hamill's Skywalker here it is clear this is in fact, "not going to go the way we (or at least I) thought," as Johnson immediately dispels this sense of mysticism in favor of a joke. A moment of deadpan humor that put me in a hesitant state of mind from which I don't know that I ever recovered. I've now seen the movie twice and I felt the same way both times. To be clear, I'm more than up for a movie that is self-aware to the point of not taking itself too seriously, but this almost broad comical direction and unwillingness to divulge that rich history or take advantage of it in the way ‘The Force Awakens’ so gracefully set it up is nothing short of disappointing and may in fact be the most depressing aspect of what ‘The Last Jedi’ seemingly promised and failed to deliver.
So, the opening space battle is fantastic. Visually, all the major action set-pieces are. In this opening sequence we are first delivered a joke that works with both the history of the character and in the context of what he is trying to accomplish. This allows Domhnall Gleeson to play up the caricature elements of his uptight General Hux and for Oscar Isaac to once again ease us back into the world of “Star Wars” through his more than endearing Poe Dameron. From here, this initial space battle shows us the spirit of the resistance and the stopping point for First Order in their tolerance for the resistance. Doing everything a good action sequence should as it establishes proper stakes and pushes the story forward while simultaneously providing some sweeping and truly cinematic eye candy, this is nothing less than a promising start. It's smart, thrilling, and affecting while not allowing the audience to get away with the celebration of the small win while forgetting those who sacrificed themselves for the cause in the process. This is a rather complex theme as far as themes in “Star Wars” movies go that ‘The Last Jedi’ introduces and carries through to the climactic sequence as it is an aspect my more mature mind appreciated while at the same time being one that eight-year old's may initially glean over, but come to appreciate in time upon re-watching and re-discovering this trilogy. This idea of "they blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow" that doesn't so cleanly differentiate the good guys from the bad guys as our naive minds would like to believe. The good guys still must buy their weapons from somewhere too. This is interesting, this is the headier space it seemed ‘The Force Awakens’ was ushering this trilogy into and in these aspects as well as a fair amount of the character arcs and progression, there is some fantastic work being done by both Johnson the writer as well as Johnson the director. Still, it feels it takes ‘The Last Jedi’ a while to get into this groove and feel comfortable with itself after this first, extended section. There is a sense of unevenness in the first hour that tends to play as if it took Johnson a while to figure out his writing process before writing himself into the direction he desired to go. That's fine, that happens, but for this feeling to creep into the final product is not. It's almost as if Johnson didn't go back enough times in that writing process to smooth out the disjointedness in the first act where he was finding his footing; leaving the audience with this impression that largely suggests the movie is biding its time-not answering questions the plot knows it must in order to move the story along, but that it isn't willing to give up too quick for fear of having nothing left to offer when the third and climactic act finally arrives.
After then getting everyone's feet back on the ground Johnson re-introduces all the necessary players in Carrie Fisher's General Leia (this swan song performance doing great justice to the legacy of the late Fisher) and John Boyega's Fin as well as new characters such as Kelly Marie Tran's Rose, a maintenance worker for the resistance, while pulling the veil out from in front of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who is more impressively rendered than I imagined he would be and the right amount of intimidating to both Hux and Adam Driver's Ben Solo AKA Kylo Ren. The hindrance that then never fully allows ‘The Last Jedi’ to find its groove is the splitting of these players into three distinct scenarios and jumping back and forth between each for most of the running time. Oddly enough, the pacing is not an issue for, at two and half hours, the movie zooms by-hardly letting you catch your breath because there is so much to be aware of even if some of the time there isn't anything particularly interesting happening or much going on. For instance, there is a plot point that feels as if it comes out of nowhere in this idea that the First Order is now able to track the small resistance through lightspeed. It feels unnatural and inessential to the overarching goal and more a diversion that will give Fin and Rose something to do as well as an excuse to introduce DJ (Benicio Del Toro) while Poe remains on the resistance ship to develop a confrontation with another new character, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). That said, and just so this is on the record-Del Toro is indisputably great and adds real flavor to an otherwise bland sequence on a new planet in a city known as Canto Bight. The idea and design are there and it's an interesting excursion that is well-imagined and provides a fresh, lush world, but feels very much out of touch with the rest of the film. That is, until it isn't which then only makes the Canto Bight sequence feel even more wedged in for the sake of little more than hinting at what is to come which is arguably the film’s greatest strength in that it sets in motion several unexpected character dynamics and curious narrative threads that will (hopefully) be addressed in the final installment. Still, it is the splitting of these storylines that contributes the most to this disjointedness as Johnson is very clear in his intent to move forward instead of continuing to look back-a drive and direction I should state I fully support-as the film introduces and develops more new characters rather than utilizing the rich catalogue of those already in existence and established in ‘The Force Awakens.’ There is hardly any Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) suffers from the same expectations versus reality dilemma she did in ‘The Force Awakens,’ and the appearance of Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata is almost laughable, but thankfully the Porgs are used sparingly and don't approach anything near Jar Jar or Ewok levels.
This brings us to the meat of The Last Jedi. There are segments, several in fact, which require Driver and Daisy Ridley as Rey (see how long it took me to mention her? That should tell you something) to act opposite one another without physically being around one another and in these interactions both actors prove to be more than capable of making what is rather silly material work in a way that the mystery of their circumstances feels greater than the tone would suggest. Unfortunately, it seems Johnson was equally as interested in exploring the mythos of “Star Wars” as he was the aspects that made it what was initially a series for children. This is more apparent than ever in the early scenes between Rey and Luke. I know I keep going back to it, but given these three chapters are intended to form a single, cohesive story I don't believe it's unfair to do so. ‘The Force Awakens’ opened an avenue of such intrigue by way of this potential deep dive into the Jedi lore and the origins of the force and how it has transformed over time and come to manifest itself presently in Luke with the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi’ even highlighting this element of why the time had finally come for this order, this religion to end, but we hardly get any of this in the final product. The plodding of the first act is represented wholly in the way the film handles the dynamic between Rey and Luke as Skywalker is hesitant to engage anymore future Jedi and instead of eventually coming around to give into Rey's wishes he only gives into them to a degree before we realize that Luke is still learning himself. That said, there is a great moment of reunion between Luke and R2-D2 that utilizes fan service in the best way it can, which is to say it propels the story forward. This internal struggle within both Rey and Kylo Ren that serves as the backbone to the plot is endlessly fascinating and there is much to appreciate in the new ways Johnson has devised for this new generation of Jedi to use the force, but even in this-the strongest of the three individual storylines-the film plods along to a point that the things each of the characters are contemplating and/or are doing to try and work through them feels repetitive. There is a sequence where Rey goes to the pit of the island where she found Luke to get the answers she's not getting from the Jedi Master and while this sequence is visually stimulating it still somehow feels empty in that feels like it's experimenting for the sake of experimenting and not actually providing any real insight or progression within the character. One could say such excursions only deepen the conflict within Rey which eventually forces the movie to reveal the history between Luke and Kylo Ren, but like so much in ‘The Last Jedi’ even the reveal of this backstory feels like a missed opportunity. The Knights of Ren, remember all the talk around the pupils Kylo took with him from the temple Luke built that was glimpsed in the first teaser for ‘The Force Awakens’? Yeah, nothing comes of that great legend here-at least not yet-when it would seem most opportune.
"Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you see it then you'll never make it through the night." I don't want to be as bleak as to say that this is the darkest chapter of the series as it certainly isn't in terms of tone, but in terms of being compared to ‘The Force Awakens’ it is the lesser of the two. Though thematically ‘The Last Jedi’ is dark and puts our heroes in desperate and trying times to the point there is seemingly little chance of survival much less winning the bigger battle there is nothing for the first hour and a half aside from that opening space battle that gives the sense our heroes might not make it out alive. I certainly won't be as bleak as to say that because I'm not a fan of the direction Johnson took in this chapter that I no longer believe in the series for, despite the seeming insurmountable odds, there is little doubt the resistance will make it through the night and see the sun once again, but it isn't the obvious points we know the narrative will hit that matter-it's the character moments and the small details that make “Star Wars” what it has become. In other words, I'm happier than ever that Abrams will be the one guiding this new trilogy to its landing. It may seem as if I'm incredibly down on ‘The Last Jedi’ and I realize that to a point it was the unbelievably high expectations that everyone, including myself, held for the picture that might be preventing it from living up to the hype, but it isn't just my personal expectations that weren't delivered on, but the promises of the previous installment. “Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi” is a good movie, but it is not a great “Star Wars” movie. It possesses one of the single greatest cinematic moments in any of these movies and in the whole of 2017 at the beginning of the third act that I will not spoil here. It is visually stunning in each of its three main action set pieces and the persistent theme of letting the past die and of killing it if one must couple with the prevalent idea of no good or bad, but just made up words and labels for such is appealing in that it conveys in an honest manner the conflict both of its main characters are experiencing. In many ways, Kylo Ren's plight is a noble one. This desire to rid the galaxy of the parties and lines that have separated them for so long to unify the remaining, new generation is fair given what we've seen in ‘Episodes I’ through ‘VI.’ Even Luke's state of mind, this idea the Jedi need to be no more, is in line with this same thought. Of course, the question of intent would always linger as to where Kylo Ren's heart truly lies, but ‘The Last Jedi’ - while milking every other aspect of this internal conflict for all it's worth-doesn't give this possibility but a minute to feel real. Instead, the narrative quickly devolves Ren back into a stock character that is only elevated by the committed and intense performance of Driver. Even Ridley feels somewhat stilted until the third act when she is finally allowed to breathe and become the recognizable and charming Rey we met in the previous film.
The third act of ‘The Last Jedi’ was positioning itself to be one of the best of the year and on the verge of turning the whole experience of the film around for this viewer until it didn't. Johnson, in certainly having found his direction in his writing by this point, resolves the storylines dealing with supporting characters such as Poe, Fin, Rose, and Princess Leia in satisfactory fashion while lending this conclusion a handful of nice character moments between each of the. These moments give the film a rare glimpse of hope that has otherwise been absent from the film sans the few outright goofy moments Johnson was no doubt adamant about including (a certain cameo's execution, a certain character’s would be "moment", Luke's daily routine and nutritional intake, and ... Justin Theroux? All feel just weird enough to be baffling). To this point, I find my own self conflicted as I tend to lean into and love the darker, messier, more complex, and sometimes even more mean-spirited angles that middle chapters often take on as their identity, but while ‘The Last Jedi’ perpetrates itself to be a work of relative darkness it is more a film that highlights the good by emphasizing the bad even when as much doesn't feel organic. And then it happens. The moment we've all been waiting for since the quite literal cliffhanger at the end of ‘The Force Awakens’ where Luke Skywalker finds himself face to face with the apprentice he feels he failed by not believing in. Lightsabers are drawn, the scope is present, and the tension as high as it could possibly be and then...nothing. The confrontation goes nowhere with the ultimate outcome being that of the path of least resistance; meaning the one audiences most expected, but done in such a fashion that, while in line with precedents set-up earlier in the film, is bewildering in the way of making sense and being necessary. To this end, such decisions can't help but cast a doubtful air over the ability of ‘Episode IX’ to recover in a satisfying manner. There are certainly multiple perspectives to take in these final decisions and, of course, the main decision I'm referencing is in line with the wishes and main ideas that are touched upon time and time again in ‘The Last Jedi,’ but that symmetry isn't there and, strangely, neither is the magic. The force ultimately doesn't feel as strong with this one despite all signs seeming to suggest what could have been the biggest, deepest, and revelatory epic of them all.
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.