Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best of 2017

A ludicrous claim has been making the rounds lately, one that says 2017 has been a bad year for movies.  Attendance may be down, movie theaters may be closer to extinction than they've ever been, but the quality of movies?  I'd argue 2017 has been one of the most fulfilling years in a long, long time.

In the six years since I started this blog, 2017 is the first year I haven't felt I had to struggle to come up with a list of 10 really great films for my year-end list -- and the first that I couldn't think of 10 truly awful films to come up with a "10 worst" list.

Oh, there were some clunkers, all right.  mother! wins the award for the most pretentiously artistic and wildly ill-conceived big-budget, studio-backed "thrillers" of recent years.  Even when the film's symbolism is explained, it neither makes sense nor proves compelling.

Most overrated films of the year?  Certainly It, a CG-laden "horror" film that lacked suspense and cheated by not telling a complete story, instead blowing its final moments to announce a sequel; and Dunkirk, a formidable technical achievement with almost no narrative pull.  Blade Runner 2049 was the year's most lugubrious sludge, a slow-moving, lackluster sequel to a slow-moving, lackluster original.  Oh, and there were Alien: Covenant and Life, both bad sci-fi by any standards.

Yet countering that handful of bad movies was a bumper-crop of truly fantastic ones. Other 2017 releases that deserve to be sought out for various reasons but didn't quite make the cut:
  • Battle of the Sexes
  • Berlin Syndrome
  • Phantom Thread
  • Lady Bird
  • The Shape of Water
I wasn't quite as on-board the Wonder Woman bandwagon as others -- but if you're still of the super-hero movie mindset, there were far, far worse options this year.  "Franchise fatigue" is settling in, but
look beyond the cookie-cutter mentality of the big studios and you'll find some wonderful stuff.

Contrary to that cynical conventional wisdom, 2017 was a terrific year, and gave us some films I think are going to stand the test of time -- some in surprising ways.  So, here's my list of my 10 favorite films of 2017, starting with No. 10 and leading to my No. 1 choice, a film that will hardly surprise anyone who reads this blog regularly -- and by itself justifies anything else that happened in cinema in 2017.

  The Greatest Showman  

In one of its most rousing moments, The Greatest Showman presents sideshow "freaks" singing an anthem of redemption and self-acceptance: "I'm not scared to be seen / I make no apologies / This is me." And that's the way director Michael Gracey's movie presents itself, too: It's going to be criticized as too populist, too silly, too pretty, too colorful, too sugary, too sentimental, too everything -- so it embraces all of those values, and wonderfully.  The Greatest Showman is meant to be entertaining, and that it is, in spades.  You won't remember a single song, you may not even recall why you were moved and inspired in the first place, but unless you're soulless, you will be moved, inspired and entertained, even if you're rolling your eyes all the while. The Greatest Showman shuts out the rest of the world and makes you forget it for a couple of hours -- and that's a singular achievement for any film.

I'd like to pretend I never saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I can't -- it got under my skin, it bothered me and angered me and disoriented me like few movies have.  It's a thoroughly unpleasant film, perverse and upsetting, but told with incredible style and a commitment to its warped ideas that is impressive. A modern updating of the violent themes of classic Greek tragedies, in which the gods or the universe or both conspire against mere mortals, who are driven to insane lengths to protect themselves from such fury, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a puzzle.  It's not a film I liked, but it's a film so filled with daring originality and passionate commitment from everyone involved that it's impossible to forget.  Look, you might actually be better off not seeing it at all -- but if you do, you'll understand why it deserves mention in a roundup of the year's most noteworthy movies.

  Darkest Hour  

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk got cinephiles all hot and bothered with its technically superior but narratively slack retelling of one of the defining events of World War II for Britain.  Darkest Hour is a vastly better movie because it tells more or less the same story in a way that invites compassion, perspective, understanding and human-level drama.  Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in this well-crafted and shockingly coherent (q.v. Dunkirk) historical biography that concentrates on the month between Churchill's appointment as prime minister and the evacuation of Dunkirk.  By concentrating on Churchill and his motives, Darkest Hour illuminates British resolve and the importance of democracy and thoughtful leadership. Darkest Hour may not meant have been intended as a direct commentary on the political mess America is in at the moment, but it functions that way nonetheless, and its ability to put both individual battles and the era itself into perspective lend it a weight and meaning that turn it into a wonderful moviegoing experience.

  Get Out  

It's easy to classify Get Out as a horror film and to see it as a well-crafted thriller, which it is -- but it's a far richer, more rewarding, more shocking experience to learn more about what writer-director Jordan Peele is burying beneath the surface. Don't be embarrassed if you can't sort it all out on your own, it's a labyrinth of symbolism and double-meaning, diving deep into America's long and storied legacy of racism. Google it. Work it over and over in your head. Talk about it. And be amazed at how deep Peele is digging into territory most films wouldn't dare touch. And then marvel at the fact that it's all put together in the guise of a contemporary horror-thriller.  The easiest way to define it would be that it's a psychologically complex, horror-tinged update of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but what that film considered shocking 50 years ago is where this film starts.  Get Out is filled with meaning but hugely enjoyable on its surface-level terms, too.

  Baby Driver  

If every movie were as effortlessly enjoyable as Baby Driver, Hollywood wouldn't be worried about its future. Part heist thriller, part romance, part coming-of-age-story, part ... musical?  In fact, Baby Driver is propelled by the beat of the music its protagonist plays in his omnipresent ear buds.  Baby is played by Ansel Elgort as a fast-driving savant, a kid who understands the nuances of the big-time burglaries he help pulls off, and comprehends way more than his crime bosses would ever suspect. Director Edgar Wright is giddy with the possibility of modern cinema, and uses every trick in the book to deliver a film that's a triple-threat a genuinely thrilling thriller, a truly funny comedy, and a tune-filled musical bursting with inventiveness.

  Wind River  

An unfair and devastating piece of collateral damage in the (totally justified) war against Harvey Weinstein, Wind River moved from being a serious awards contender to being a film no one wants to talk about because of its producer -- and that's a serious shame.  This is a thriller whose intensity and filmmaking prowess rival the accomplishments of Best Picture winner The Silence of the Lambs, a film with which Wind River can be compared favorably.  Elizabeth Olsen is an FBI agent assigned to investigate the death of a young woman on a vast, frigid Native American reservation.  Teaming up with a local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agent (Jeremy Renner), they've got nothing but blank white space to explore, both literally and figuratively.  But against that snowy background, a violent, camouflaged truth slowly comes into view, leading to a brutal, shocking conclusion that writer-director Taylor Sheridan stages with vigor.  Wind River also has a lot to say about the treatment of Native Americans, both on a racial basis and as policy.  It never hits you over the head with its observations, but you're blindsided and clobbered anyway, because the movie is so damned good.

  The Post  

Movies like The Terminal and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have left his admirers worried, but fear not: Steven Spielberg has lost none of his power as a filmmaker.  The Post is one of his best works, a movie that tells a compelling story with the visual style and flair that are Spielberg trademarks.  How the Pentagon Papers were leaked and published, and what they meant both to global politics and to journalism, may not sound like the basis for a great film -- but The Post is a great film nonetheless, bearing no sign of being a standard by-the-numbers retelling of a pivotal moment in American history, but finding urgency, relevancy and even suspense by focusing on the struggle between Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). As if we needed any more proof of her status as the greatest of our living actors, Streep turns in yet another dazzling performance, playing Graham as hesitant, doubtful and lacking in confidence -- but Spielberg exhibits none of those traits in this unmissable movie.

We live in a world of violence and anger, and it eats at our souls -- though people are kind and wonderful and compassionate, so where does that leave us?  That's the inherent conundrum that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, explores.  This is a film of magnificent humanity, but it's also got a mean streak, a chip on its shoulder about the way people can be, and in that it's as complex and beautiful as the people whose lives it explores. Frances McDormand stars as the mother of a girl who was raped and murdered in a particularly violent way, and she's bound and determined to get to the bottom of it all.  She's convinced the police chief of her small town -- played with a wonderful droll wit by Woody Harrelson -- isn't doing enough, and she lashes out by buying ad space on the billboards of the title.  Her goal is to soothe her own anguish, but her action has consequences, and as it explores the way anger and sadness lead only to more unhappiness, director Martin McDonaugh careens wildly and effortlessly from deep compassion to absurd hilarity, sometimes in the same scene.  Three Billboards  navigates these tonal shifts spectacularly well, spinning a murder-mystery that's also deeply moving and more than a little troubling.  Three Billboards doesn't shy away at being angry its own characters, even while it offers compassion and absolution for their all-too-human mistakes.

  The Florida Project  

Poverty and homelessness are odd subjects for a movie as uplifting and beautiful as The Florida Project, which (like Three Billboards) is simultaneously distressed by and infinitely forgiving of the lives it explores.  The most vital of those lives belongs to Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a 6-year-old girl who lives in a seedy motel within fireworks-viewing distance of Walt Disney World.  Moonee and her best friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) mostly spend their days wandering aimlessly, trying to avoid -- but sometimes terrorizing -- the motel's manager (Willem Dafoe).  Director Sean Baker, who wrote the film with Chris Bergoch, seems to treat all of it as loosely as an open-verse poem to the resilience of childhood, but eventually a story becomes clear as Moonee's mother (Bria Vinaite), barely more than a teenager herself, tries to keep her tiny family afloat by whatever means necessary.  Every shot of The Florida Project is a stunning beauty, but none more than a scene in which Moonee and Jancey sit on a massive tree and make an observation about life that's so simple and profound it's one of the year's real jaw-dropping moments.  The final minutes of this meandering, lovely film have proven divisive, but I thought found them a perfect ending to a near-perfect little movie about dreams, destitution and deliverance.

  Call Me By Your Name  

A memory piece, a swooning romance, a love letter to Italy, a meditation on loss -- Call Me By Your Name is much more than just a story of two men who fall in love.  It's an essential and vital piece of gay cinema, yes, but it's also a milestone in romantic cinema, one of the rare films that takes sexuality and sensuality seriously and that understands the complexity of human emotion.  Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old son of intellectual, international parents who, deep in the summer of 1983, discovers that he's a sexual being -- and an emotional one, too. It happens when he meets American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is spending six weeks assisting Elio's professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg), who's both older and more breathtakingly handsome than Elio. The first half of director Luca Guadagnino's adaptation Call Me By Your Name (written for the screen by 89-year-old James Ivory) is about the half-glances and hidden body language that defined not only gay love in a closeted world, but are the hallmarks of first love.  The second half of the film is about the exquisite beauty and heartache of giving yourself fully to someone and being seen for who you are.  The penultimate scene, in which Elio's father (Michael Schulbarg) shares his understanding of life, love and loss is what moves many viewers deeply and -- apart from the age difference between the leading mean -- that generates the most discussion.  Deservedly so.  It's a spectacularly touching scene (likewise the remarkable final shot). But the most beautiful moment to me is a moonlit conversation between Elio and Oliver in which they marvel at how they found each other. We should likewise marvel that we've found this luminous, eloquent and passionate film.

"Phantom Thread"


Cool and detached, beautiful yet untouchable, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is like the haute couture at its core.  It's exquisite, even mesmerizing, but it's not intended for mass consumption, something that doesn't bother the film or the filmmaker in the slightest.

It's certainly more accessible -- and engaging -- than Anderson's last film, the inscrutable (and, I thought, insufferable) The Master, which is due in part to the galvanizing presence of Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor claims is his final role.  Yet for all the attention he's getting, it's really a three-person show, with a luminous Luxembourger actress named Vicky Krieps nearly stealing the film away from Day-Lewis, and an icily perfect Lesley Manville in a performance that might unsettle evenRebecca's Mrs. Danvers.

Day-Lewis and Manville play the brother-sister proprietors of the House of Woodcock, London's most fashionable, prestigious, exclusive creators of women's fashion.  The all gowns, bridal dresses, and impossibly high-priced, hand-made designs are created by Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), while sister Cyril makes the whole place run, overseeing the hand-crafting of a team of dressmakers.

And like the dresses, every individual moment, every single frame of Phantom Thread shows impossible care, with luxurious, almost tactile cinematography (by Anderson himself) and, of course, exquisite costumes and production design.

But it would be impossible to admit that the first half of the film labors against pretentiousness.  Anderson and Day-Lewis focus on the spoiled, embittered mannerisms of Reynolds Woodcock, meandering toward the story rather than heading into it full-bore; Phantom Thread, like The Master, makes it easy to long for the relentlessly hyperactive Anderson of Magnolia or Boogie Nights.

As Woodcock finds and woos a young immigrant waitress named Alma (Krieps, who's ravishing from her first moment on screen), it isn't clear exactly where Phantom Thread is heading.  Just as that becomes problematic, though, the film finds its way and becomes something quite unexpected.

Woodcock falls for Alma, but in a restrained and remote sort of way, and as he does the complicated and unnerving relationship with his sister Cyril looms at the edges of the story -- which veers yet again into a direction that it's almost impossible to foresee.  Gradually, Phantom Thread becomes a sinister sort of thriller, playing games both with its characters and its audience that are wildly intriguing and moderately off-putting.

Alma and Reynolds develop a perverse relationship in which they always seem to be jockeying for power both with each other and with Cyril.  The last hour of Phantom Thread is vastly superior to the first as Anderson finds the sweet spot between fetishistic filmmaking and the fetishistic business at the heart of the story.

How Anderson managed to delve into such a specific and closed-off world and come out with a story that illuminates dark areas of human interaction is in itself a fascinating accomplishment, one that makes the over-indulgences of the film's first half mostly worth slogging through.

Phantom Thread is indeed beautiful, but like the hidden messages that Woodcock stitches into the seams of his creations, it yields something surprising and unexpected.  It won't be to everyone's taste, in some ways I'm not entirely sure it was to mine, but just because I dress in jeans and sneakers doesn't mean I can't appreciate the wonders of high fashion, even if I have no interest in wearing it myself.

Viewed December 30, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


"I, Tonya"


Skating a fine line between comedy and pathos, I, Tonya is a quirky slice of Americana that includes all of the required elements and even picks up points for level of difficulty -- yet, like its main character, never quite manages to elicit our sympathy.

While it contains some fantastic performances, especially Margot Robbie's embodiment of the loud and crass figure skater who found herself at the center of a bizarre, violent scandal a quarter of a century ago as she fought her way, at all costs, onto the U.S. Olympic figure-skating team.  Tonya Harding never seemed to care what anyone thought of her, and perhaps the biggest fault of I, Tonya is how much it wants to be liked.

Sometimes hyperactive, sometimes silly, sometimes brash, sometimes insightful, sometimes offensive, I, Tonya never settles on one particular style, and in its effort to always keep its audience engaged and smiling, it loses focus.

Using an awkwardly integrated framing device of interviews with the fictionalized Harding, her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), mother Lavona (Allison Janney) and coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), the movie impatiently uses these interviews -- which also include a pointless appearance by Bobby Cannavale as a tabloid TV producer -- in an effort to bring some perspective to the story.

Only occasionally does the idea work, mostly it interferes with the flow of its ironic retelling of how Harding rose from obscurity to fame as a figure skater everyone admired but no one really liked.  About halfway through the film, Harding looks straight at the camera and indicts everyone in the audience as co-conspirators in her downfall -- and it's that moment, and that central idea, that works best. Harding was, inarguably, an early victim of celebrity-obsessed trash TV, until she was overshadowed by O.J. Simpson as a national object of fascination and scorn.

It's her brief moment of notoriety that I, Tonya wants to explore in more detail, but except for that one scene the movie can't quite find its way to be clear on what it wants to say: It certainly casts Harding in an unexpectedly sympathetic light, but was her notoriety a side-effect of her own obsession with success or the cause of it?

In spite of a bravura performance by Robbie as Harding, I, Tonya rarely tries for insight; even a strong supporting turn by Janney feels a bit strained, mostly makeup and mannerisms than character, and never quite finding the humanity beneath a slightly mocking attitude -- I, Tonya too often seems to be playing its story for shock value than for insight.

An uncouth, uneducated American mindset can be fertile ground for both satire and sympathy.  The bleak, black comedy of Fargo seems on many levels to be one of I, Tonya's greatest inspirations, but this film lacks a critical element of the earlier: It doesn't seem to like its characters very much, frequently struggling even with Harding herself.  If the movie can't find something to love in Harding's struggle, it's near-impossible to ask the audience to do the same.

Despite its flashes of wit -- both verbal and visual -- and its strong central performance, I, Tonya wobbles at first and ultimately falls, though there's something to be said for the effort it makes.

Viewed December 29, 2017 -- DVD

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"The Greatest Showman"


You may think The Greatest Showman is a biography of circus-master P.T. Barnum, but as Barnum himself famously never said, "There's a sucker born every minute." This isn't a biography. The Greatest Showman bears no resemblance to real life, there's not a shred of reality in the thing.

The Greatest Showman is rather a piece of modern moviemaking razzle-dazzle, a toe-tapping, smile-inducing musical whose only real fault is that it is all smoke and mirrors, even the songs are deceptively catchy; you won't come out of the theater humming a single note, and you may not even understand why that grin is on your face.

It's a fizzy, sumptuous concoction of a movie designed to go down easy, which it does indeed.  Why can the life of Alexander Hamilton be reduced to a giddy musical and earn such praise while the very same people who applaud that creation with gusto are likely to thumb their noses at this one?  Why, indeed -- cultural snobbery is one of the running themes of the movie, as if its makers are mildly apologetic for what they've made, which is a shame, because it is something else.

Every bit of it seems manufactured to wring the most possible enjoyment out of the moment; it's as if everyone involved in the movie had been told that the show could close at any moment; everybody seems to be having a miraculously wonderful time, almost like they expect they're performing in a flop. But it's not.  That's the biggest, most unexpected thing of The Greatest Showman -- it's so much better than it has any right to be.

It begins with an extended prologue that feels for all the world like a long opening number in a Broadway show.  It covers an enormous amount of ground with lightning speed and so little relation to reality that it sets the stage well for what is to come: None of this movie is to be taken as a serious reading of P.T. Barnum's life and times, it's merely artifice to share some of the same shameless showmanship of the man himself -- and in doing so, to become an uncannily effective, if knowingly schmaltzy, anthem for embracing individuality.

That first number features two back-to-back songs by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the songs for last year's splendid La La Land and begins with Hugh Jackman as an adult P.T. Barnum before flashing back to his Dickensian childhood in New York before giving us some simple shorthand for the romance that will define his life (and the film), and by the time it's over Barnum is married to the beautiful blonde Charity (Michelle Williams) and they're dancing on rooftops and having children.  A few more minutes and Barnum is out of a job and creating the idea of a uniquely American oddities, while one of his precious daughters suggests that maybe the unsuccessful venture needs some living creatures in it, and -- presto! -- Barnum has the idea for a circus.

And that's just the first 15 minutes of the ultra-lean 1 hour, 45-minute running time.  The Greatest Showman knows it can't let its energy flag for a moment, so it doesn't.  It packs as much into its story as it can.  There's Barnum's partner Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), and his own romantic affair with a trapeze performer (terrifically played by the multi-talented Zendaya); there's Barnum's own relationships with his performers, particularly a bearded lady played with both sweet emotion and a massive singing voice by Keala Settle; there's a trip to England where Barnum meets Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and brings her to America, finally winning over a particularly harsh newspaper critic (Paul Sparks) ...

And that's only half of The Greatest Showman.  There's a fire, there are elephants, there's Queen Victoria, there's the half-built Flatiron Building, there's racism and intolerance and bigotry, there's poverty and wealth ... this film has it all.

And that is not in any way a bad thing.

The Greatest Showman wants first and foremost to entertain you, and first and foremost it does.  While the songs may take on a rather pop-infused sameness, and while there are no nuanced characters or deep insight, there's fun, there's emotion, there's music that is more than sufficient for the task, there's nonstop visual eye-candy, and there's the impassioned commitment of Hugh Jackman.  He may not convey a particularly complex character, he does perform a particularly complex role.  Jackman seems mightily committed to ensuring the whole thing succeeds, and if it all rests on his back, you can be sure he's got some strong muscles there because he lifts it all up higher.

There are other fabulous moments, like the defiant anthem of self-love and self-acceptance This Is Me that comes roaring out of Settle's throat like a sonorous freight train; she delivers one of the movie's indisputable high points, as does Zendaya in a breathtaking love song that looks as if it were snatched directly from a Cirque du Soleil show.

Lightning charged, The Greatest Showman doesn't let up for a second.  It wants only to please, and in that it succeeds.  Find out more about Barnum by reading a book or revisiting the Cy Coleman 1980 musical.  There are plenty of ways to find out if Barnum himself deserves credit for creating an American art form -- or for paving the first step along an American road to over-commercialized artistic ruin.

The Greatest Showman doesn't care about any of that, and rightly.  It just wants you to love it for what it is, a rousing, splendid musical, a story that makes you smile and grin and move your feat to its incessant rhythm, a film that wants you to cheer when the down-on-his-luck hero gets the break he deserves.

In another era, The Greatest Showman would be exactly the sort of tonic we need for our angry, embittered, cynical times.  In the 21st century, we're not going to allow it to be that, I'm afraid; our voices are too scattered for just one voice of optimism to lift them all up.  But The Greatest Showman can at least make you feel better about things for a couple of hours.

If that's not the hallmark of a terrific film, I don't know what is.

Viewed Dec. 24, 2017 -- Reading Grossmont


Saturday, December 23, 2017

"Darkest Hour"


Just months after the technically remarkable but narratively inert Dunkirk comes a different side of the same story with director Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, which is both a rather shameless Oscar bid from Gary Oldman and an unexpectedly engrossing drama of resolute leadership.

Darkest Hour takes place over the course of one month in May and June 1940, days that shaped England and the world beginning with the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after a disastrous response to Hitler's invasion of Europe, and ending with the evacuation of 300,000 British soldiers at Dunkirk, an operation ordered by Chamberlain's successor, Winston Churchill.

Most of the time, Darkest Hour works best as a straightforward history lesson, providing the perspective, explanation and careful understanding of the Battle of Dunkirk that Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan assumed modern audiences already had.  Dunkirk left me feeling both overwhelmed by its visual and aural assault on the senses and hopelessly lacking in historical education; it cared not at all if you understood what was happening or its importance.

Darkest Hour director Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten are less presumptuous, and if the end result is not as flat-out spectacular as Dunkirk and sometimes veers a little too close to a History Channel re-enactment (or at least a 1980s ABC mini-series), overall the film is better for the effort to explain both the desperate situation that Churchill faced and his own reasons for taking the approach he did.

Darkest Hour clearly lionizes Churchill, and its glorification of one of the century's most gifted orators and eloquent leaders seems designed to stand in stark contrast to the globe's current political leadership. Though it is about the decision to use military force and to fight against a seemingly insurmountable foe -- without, the film makes it clear, the support of almost any other military power, including the U.S. -- Darkest Hour is a war movie that is concerned almost exclusively with the battles waged inside the government.

It's a remarkably intimate look at the way military decisions are made, and offers a nuanced examination of how Churchill went from being a figure of some derision within both Parliament and Buckingham Palace to becoming one of history's icons.

Though Darkest Hour picks up a couple of years after Chamberlain's infamous "peace in our time" comment, the inability of what had once been the political and financial center of world to suppress Hitler is the conflict that sets the story in motion, and to Wright's enormous credit he uses a swirling camera and his bold stylistic trademark to draw us in right away.  The opening moments may be a bunch of old white guys talking, but they seemed to me as absorbing as the first shots of Star Wars, insisting we figure out the situation on our own while making it clear who's on which side.

As for Churchill, Darkest Hour presents him as a man who has both longed for political leadership since "the nursery," as he puts it to his wife, and who is as overwhelmed and unprepared for the reality of a military invasion by the Nazis as anyone would be.  Churchill is both scared and confident, and Oldman -- covered in makeup and mumbling and blustering his way through a detailed portrayal that teeters (but never falls) toward caricature -- finds this balance delightfully.

Just when it looks like Oldman might chew the scenery to bits, he finds a quiet center to Churchill, and Wright continually uses his frame and the nuanced camerawork of Bruno Delbonnel to show how alone the man may have felt with the weight of the world on his shoulders.  There are some gorgeous moments in the film that emphasize how unlike modern leaders Churchill was, surrounded not by an entourage but by his own thoughts.

There's one dramatic (and almost certainly fictionalized) scene in which Churchill escapes his chauffeur-driven car to journey into the London Underground, daring to ride the Tube and speak directly to his people.  It's a terrific scene that leads directly into Churchill's decision to rebuke his own War Cabinet, and it's the film's high point.

Far less successful are scenes between Churchill and his wife, played well by Kristin Scott Thomas, whose formidable talents can't quite hide that there's nothing to the role.  She's merely a supportive wife, and the same goes for the very good but tremendously underutilized Lily James as Churchill's secretary.  Darkest Hour labors to dimensionalize Churchill through private moments with these women, but it doesn't need to try so hard.  Its failure to deliver on the intimate moments don't detract from the rest of the film as much as feel like they're missed opportunities to keep us in the tension Churchill faces with his senior advisers and with King George VI, who's nicely underplayed by Ben Mendelsohn.

Darkest Hour rarely ventures outside of Churchill's London, and relishes staying underground in the Cabinet War Rooms, with just a few sweeping shots of the war in action.  That puts it in stark contrast to Dunkirk, and it's hard not to imagine what kind of definitive British war drama could be made by taking the best of each and combining them into one epic.

But if you have time for only one, I'd strongly recommend Darkest Hour over Dunkirk, but put together, they make for quite a pair.

Viewed December 23, 2017 -- Pacific Sherman Oaks 5


Friday, December 15, 2017

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi"


The eighth (or ninth, from a certain point of view) installment of the Star Wars movies begins with a certain baseline of entertainment that comes from hearing the flourish of John Williams' fanfare, watching the opening crawl that fills us in on what's been happening in the galaxy, and the promise of some familiar characters.  Well, at least one.

There's an undeniable sense of excitement at the idea of seeing Luke Skywalker back on screen in a significant way, Luke who began the whole thing when he looked off into a twin sunset and wished for (and got) adventure.

It was always strange to me, though, how Star Wars took such care to set up the concept of Luke as the ultimate hero, Luke as the every-kid who can do great things, Luke as the mythical chosen one, only to lose sight of his story a bit.  In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke was largely relegated to a secondary role in the action, and Return of the Jedi separated him from the main action even further -- yes, Luke saved the galaxy by killing the Emperor and redeeming Darth Vader, but when he finally met up again with Han Solo and Princess Leia, they felt curiously detached from each other.

That detachment is all the more evident three decades later when a new hero of the story, Rey (no last name), sets off to find Luke Skywalker in a remote corner of the galaxy where he has gone to live a monastic life and -- very minor spoiler -- try to snuff out the Jedi religion by dropping out of society. Rey has come to train with him, something that has little appeal to Luke.

And meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, the battle rages on, with the rebellion led by Princess Leia, now General Organa, fighting not the Empire but the New Order, which is the same thing.

And meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy ... and this becomes the problem with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which starts to branch off its stories into seemingly endless permutations and wear out those of us unable to keep track, which I think will be a pretty large segment of the audience.  Following along with a Star Wars movie shouldn't be this hard.  And given that Luke Skywalker is at least ostensibly presented as the main character here, after a while you start to wonder what has happened to him.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is filled to the brim with plot points and digressions, mini-missions and narrow escapes, revelations and story twists, that even while it barrels along fairly merrily there's not a single plot that jumps out as the main one.  It wants to tell every story.  The narrative economy of its predecessors seems to have vanished.  It was easier to follow along when the stories were primarily about Luke, Leia and Han, or Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan. Star Wars: The Last Jedi gives us Rey and Luke, Finn and the newly introduced Rose, Leia and (also new) Holdo, Poe and BB-8, Kylo Ren and Snoke, and these are just the (more or less) main characters.  There are new supporting ones, too, and some returning ones -- one, in particular, who is the highlight of the movie and reminds us of the soul that seems so missing from these latest Star Wars movies.

That first trilogy of films, from 1977 to 1983, may have lost the Luke thread a little too frequently, but he was always front of mind -- here, it's hard to know who the main character is supposed to be.  Is it Rey and her destiny as a rebel leader?  Is it Luke and his seeming ambivalence toward the Jedi?  Is it Leia and her struggle to keep together the dwindling resources of the rebellion?  Is it Kylo Ren and his battle with inner demons?  Star Wars: The Last Jedi wants to be about all of that and more -- like the recurrent theme of losing hope, which leads to a final shot I found one of the weirdest in Star Wars history -- which unfortunately leaves it being about nothing in particular.

It settles instead for offering a long and convoluted series of interconnected vignettes. Its strengths are largely, and rather unusually for a Star Wars movie, in the commitment of its fine actors.  Mark Hamill is both wise and unsettled as Luke, Daisy Ridley is a determined Rey with a spark of fire in her eyes, the late Carrie Fisher has too little to do but clearly is relishing her role (especially toward the end), and Adam Driver is earnest in a role that comes across like Millennial Vader -- still a little whiny, a little angsty, and not yet a commanding or fearsome presence.  There's no really formidable work here, like that of Alec Guinness or Ian McDiarmid, but it's all more than solid.

Writer-director Rian Johnson takes the film on some extraordinarily long and unnecessary detours, including a very, very long sequence in a casino city that feels strangely as if it was designed for one of the visually overstuffed prequel films.  The casino scenes go on forever and add nothing at all to the plot, save for being an elaborate setup for an odd penultimate shot.  Everywhere the camera turns, there are weird creatures doing strange things and pulling our attention away from the story at hand.

That's not the strangest part of this oddly constructed movie, though -- that would have to go to ... well, I shouldn't reveal anything, but I'll say that even in Star Wars movies I'm pretty sure a few minutes in the vacuum of space would be fatal.  One sequence in the film suggests otherwise and strains credulity to the breaking point -- it took me out of the film entirely and left me giggling in the same way the "I hate sand" scene did in Attack of the Clones.

Have I become too curmudgeonly for Star Wars? Apparently so, and maybe I need to accept that. On the other hand, I keep thinking that maybe soon a Star Wars film will live up to even my impossibly high (or maybe impossibly low?) expectations, that it will catch me off guard and capture the spirit of why I fell in love with this grand adventure in the first place.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi largely sees the concepts of action and adventure as mostly interchangeable and they're not.  And that may be why there's the occasional sequence in The Last Jedi (I think now of a scene with Holdo, played snappily by Laura Dern, on the bridge of a ship) that captures a sense of scale, heroism, loyalty and commitment and almost redeems the entire film.

After two films (or three, depending) from the Disney-era version of Star Wars, The Last Jedi finally gets us to a jumping-off point for a continuing story populated almost entirely by new characters, at long last doing what those previous films frequently threatened to do and jettisoning the central storyline altogether.  It ends in a place so far from the original story of Luke Skywalker and his quest, or even Anakin Skywalker and his fate, that it's hard not to wonder if the final moments of Star Wars: The Last Jedi are intended as a hint of new adventure to come or a wistful little eulogy for the things Star Wars won't be anymore.

Viewed December 15, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, December 9, 2017

"The Disaster Artist"


You know the awkward feeling when you go to a party where everyone knows everyone except you? Everyone's out there laughing about stories you don't remember and people you've never met.  Before you give in and just enjoy the frivolity, it's awkward.

That's the sensation that comes with watching The Disaster Artist.  The movie it's based on is called The Room, and it's about how a real man named Tommy Wiseau made it with a bizarre, single-minded determination that is simultaneously ridiculed and admired by everyone who sees The Room, which is often considered one of the worst movies ever made.

The Room really is an awful movie, though the truth is it's less of a legitimate attempt to make a film than the result of an amateur who had a lot of money but very little talent and even less experience.

The Disaster Artist is the host of the party for The Room -- and it assumes that if you've RSVP'd, you're good friends with everyone who's showing up.  There's a bouncy, insouciant attitude toward the proceedings, which begin with celebrities talking about their love of The Room and the affectionate respect (or is that disrespect?) they have for Wiseau, who has become an object of ironic worship.  The on-camera celebrities are names like Kristen Bell, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam Scott and J.J. Abrams, and if those names are of only hazy awareness, that may be your first cue that The Disaster Artist is going to be a little too insiderish for your taste.

I've seen The Room once -- and for the most part, it really is a once-is-enough film, a kind of experience that somehow sears itself into your memory and consciousness, though it is genuinely not good, not interesting and funny only because it is so transcendently bad.

The people who made The Disaster Artist, especially director and star James Franco, have seen it way more than once, and they largely revel in their ability to recreate the film and its multi-hyphenate creator with uncanny perfection.

James Franco and his brother Dave are the two leads of The Disaster Artist, and it's the younger Franco who registers best even though his older brother has the far showier role.  James Franco embodies the role of this weird, hulking, disturbing man with both precision and glee.  But as the film goes out of its way to say over and over again, Wiseau is a cipher: No one knows who he is, where he's from, why he's rich, how old he is, or whether he's mentally deranged.  They just know he exists, and that's all the film seems to know, too.

The Disaster Artist fully expects (as was the case with the people sitting next to me) that his mere presence will elicit chuckles.  In Wiseau-speak: He crazy person. He funny and he so weird. But The Disaster Artist doesn't take it much further than that.  James Franco is insanely good in the role, but in the way a drag queen is insanely good: The very point is not to know the performer or the character.  From a narrative standpoint, that leaves The Disaster Artist a little slack.  Tommy Wiseau is Tommy Wiseau, he allows no insight into what moves him and the film offers none.

That's where Dave Franco does the heavy lifting.  He plays actor Greg Sestero as a loyal friend, a fool who buys into Wiseau's bizarre dreams, a willing accomplice who enables every bad behavior and lousy idea Wiseau has, at least in part because he's not too smart himself, and in part because he really does admire the way Wiseau can't see his own sheer lack of talent.  Dave Franco brings more complexity and nuance to the role than maybe it deserves.

Beyond Dave Franco, the rest of the movie is not too far removed from the other Hollywood in-joke silliness that the Franco Brothers and actor/producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have brought to their other bawdy, ironic industry satires like This Is the End and The Interview.  The Disaster Artist is a more wholly conceived and fulfilling movie than those, but only slightly.

That's because despite James Franco's surface level impersonation of Wiseau, there is something weirdly admirable about what he accomplished even with something as stupefyingly awful as The Room: He got his movie made. People saw it. They turned it into a cult classic that has (as The Disaster Artist points out) turned a profit. And now someone's made a movie about him.

That's an astonishing degree of success for a failure, and The Disaster Artist knows it.  If you're not friends with everyone in the room, you may find this party an insufferable bore -- it's not far different from the Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham comedies of the 1970s when everyone cracked up at each others' jokes and seemed to be having way more fun than the audience.  But if you stick it out, you may find that once you figure out who's who and what's what, The Disaster Artist offers you a pretty good time.  No one is having a bigger laugh or enjoying themselves more than the host, but there's fun to be had nonetheless.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2017 -- AMC Sunset 5


Friday, December 8, 2017

"The Shape of Water"


Guillermo del Toro has made a genuinely heartfelt, impeccably and lavishly constructed romantic fantasy with The Shape of Water.  The look of the film and its presentation of its fantastic world are unassailable; but when the movie heads into romantic territory, which is frequently, it has a hard time accurately conveying the emotional states of its two unusual main characters.

Elisa Espinosa (Sally Hawkins) is a janitor working in the top-secret laboratory area of a super-secret, national-security building.  When there's an experimental rocket that needs dusting or a lab that needs to be cleaned up after an accident, Elisa and her motherly co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) go take care of things, even the pee-stained bathrooms.

At night (or rather during the day, since they work the graveyard shift), they all lead lonely lives: Zelda has a husband who never speaks, while Elisa is a mute whose only friend is her closeted next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins).  Gloomy, yes, but their worlds are quiet and well-ordered, and they'll be changed by the arrival at the lab of a strange, humanoid aquatic creature.  As soon as Elisa sees the Creature she is mesmerized.

And while the Creature brutally attacks Strickland, the quasi-military security specialist assigned to look after it (he's played, as intensely and disturbingly as ever by Michael Shannon), it is gentle and tender with Elisa, who visits it at night. They develop a connection, and when Elisa overhears one of the doctors (Michael Stuhlbarg) implying that the Creature is going to be killed, she makes up her mind to save this gentle, fascinating specimen.

After a tremendously well-orchestrated and edited set piece detailing just how she gets the creature home, Shannon's security head begins a take-no-prisoners approach to questioning everyone who works there about what they saw that evening.  Elisa, Zelda, Giles and the shifty, possibly untrustworthy Dr. Hoffstetler fall into an alliance of protection, not just for Elisa, but for the sad and lonely Creature itself.

Played by limber-limbed actor (not politician) Doug Jones, the Creature, named the Amphibian Man in the credits, is from somewhere deep in the Amazon, just like his cinematic forebearer the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  The Shape of Water is that movie played from the opposite view, taking the approach that the classic image of the Creature holding a screaming woman could be a much different story if the woman were looking at him tenderly and locked in an embrace.

In its native environment, the Creature is revered as a god, and may indeed harness a bevy of untold powers, not the least of which is to make Elisa fall madly in love with it.  As much as it tries, though, The Shape of Water can never -- for me, at least -- quite get over that hurdle of interspecies romance.  There's a fine line between a giggle and a swoon, and though luscious to look at and listen to (thanks to Alexandre Desplat's score) and a marvel to behold as a technical achievement, The Shape of Water keeps landing on the side of the giggle.  (This romantic monster movie can be made -- just look at 1986's creepy-yet-lovestruck The Fly.)

Small subplots with Elisa's neighbor Giles and Shannon's security chief never really go anywhere or add much substance (though they amp up the weirdness, sometimes distractingly), and while thoroughly wonderful in her role Spencer can never seem to move much beyond playing the sidekick.

These are not insignificant hurdles for the movie, which pops with moments of seemingly unnecessary violence and gore, but still ... there is so much to recommend here.  The romance may not be as vivid or aching as the movie hopes it to be, but it is sweet and captivating nonetheless, and the movie goes overboard to place us in a highly stylized, glamorized version of its quite-specific setting: Baltimore, 1962.  The optimistic over-confidence in militarized science and corporate branding, underscored by a bright and bouncy mentality of super-consumerism, is everywhere.  It's deliciously undercut by a pessimistic self-awareness of what all of that Space Age sprightliness would lead to, and the ugly racial and social tensions beneath it all.

The Shape of Water may be more satisfying as a visual experience than an emotional one, though the real passion that del Toro and his cast try valiantly to bring to the romance will almost certainly feel genuine to many, especially with an ending that is undeniably gorgeous and affecting.  If The Shape of Water doesn't quite float for me, that doesn't mean the cinematic ocean in which it swims isn't worth diving into and seeing for yourself.  It's quite a beautiful thing.

Viewed December 7, 2017 -- Cinerama Dome


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"The Post"


Maybe I'm just a sucker for this story.  I mean, I still get the newspaper delivered at home, and one or the other of us still trudges out to the driveway in all kinds of weather to pick it up, unfold it and, it's true these days I fear, not read it.  There's no denying newspapers lack vitality and relevance, but there was a time ... oh, there was a time.

And what Steven Spielberg's intensely satisfying movie The Post reminds us of most urgently is that there is no more important time than now.  The thrum and pulse of the printing press may not be as vibrant, there is no hot lead, there are no ashtrays lining endless desks of newsrooms with ink-stained thumbs clack-clack-clacking on typewriter keys.  No, those days are over, and The Post treats them almost as legend, as days about which we can do little more than marvel because they will never return.

But the spirit of those days ... ah.  That spirit is what lives on most mightily, and is what we need to protect. The ability of people who do think, argue, talk, inquire and write is treated here as mythical and heroic, and who can argue that these people, whose feats are not physical and whose names are not household words, do things that move the world?

That's what Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham and Ben Bagdikian did.  Bagdikian -- there's a name most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, and yet he as much as Woodward and Bernstein brought down an entire government.  "Never forget," Bagdikian said later, "that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public."

Those words, more than any others, inform the yearning, beating heart of The Post, a movie that wrings suspense and excitement out of a story whose ending everyone in the audience knows, a story about people who don't do a whole lot more than discuss finer points of journalistic ethics.  So, how is it that The Post is so damned ... rousing?

Credit goes, of course, to Spielberg, who for a number of years now has been hit and miss, but who found his stylistic way back with Bridge of Spies and now seems to have resumed top-of-his-game status with The Post.

But huge credit goes to the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and I think, too, to the seemingly rash decision to make The Post.  The movie was just announced in March, and here it is on the screen in December, all the better for the kind of let's-just-do-this-thing mentality that pervades the movie.

And, of course, there are those huge names that dominate the poster: Streep and Hanks.  There is no way to overstate what these actors bring to the roles -- how is it they can be so visibly Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and yet allow us to so fully buy into their characters?

In The Post, Streep plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham with an unexpected timidity; it's natural to expect a replay of, say, Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher or maybe a toned-down Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, so its something of a shock to see the indomitable Katharine Graham come across as someone who's easily intimidated, not sure of her own role or its importance, aware only that she is frequently the only woman in the room, and when she's not the women are expected to go into another room to talk among themselves.

Then there's Hanks, who has the unenviable task of trying to make us forget that Ben Bradlee was played to perfection by Jason Robards Jr. in All the President's Men, which he might not do completely but maybe that's because no one, not even Tom Hanks, could erase the memory of Robards.  Here, Hanks finally manages to transcend his persistent on-screen affability; his Bradlee is not particularly well-mannered nor does he care to be -- he is tough where Katharine Graham is perceived as weak, and the way the characters (and actors) play off of each other is remarkable.

The whole cast is stellar, with Odenkirk taking a bit of an underwritten role as Bagdikian and turning it into a memorable portrait of persistence, while other actors like Sarah Paulson as Bradlee's wife, Jesse Plemmons as the Post's attorney, and Tracy Letts as one of Graham's key advisers prove that there are no small parts -- even ones that feel like something of an afterthought are given some vibrancy here.

The story, of course, turns around the Post's decision in 1971 to publish a series of articles about the "Pentagon Papers" report ordered by Robert McNamara (played eerily by Bruce Greenwood) and leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys).  The Post wasn't the first newspaper to publish the Papers, but its role turned out to be pivotal -- picking up the story after Richard Nixon attempted to prevent The New York Times from finishing what it had started.

While there's a lot of attention given to just how both newspapers came to get the Pentagon Papers and how they put the story together (co-screenwriter Josh Singer not surprisingly wrote Spotlight), what makes The Post stand so tall is that it realizes the story is only partly about the paper and even only partly about the ultra-timely and mesmerizingly relevant idea of a news organization's responsibility to investigate and reveal the truth behind the government's actions and motives.

The Post works so effectively because it's about the individual courage of both Bradlee and, mostly, Graham to take the stand.  And in that, it hits the same sort of underdog note as, say, Rocky -- it's about people who don't know if they can do what they need to do, and aren't even sure that they should, but feel a burning urgency to do it anyway.

Part historical drama, part political commentary (keep in mind, the script was written while Obama was still in office and Clinton was largely presumed the next president), and a large part personal drama, The Post is fantastic entertainment.  It's a return to form for Spielberg, a reminder of why he remains one of the most potent and accomplished of filmmakers, blending his visual style with narrative thrust in ways most filmmakers can only hope to emulate.

And it has a hell of an ending, to boot.  Go see it and you'll know what I mean.  Those last 45 seconds are sly, sleek, provocative, funny, disarming -- just like everything in The Post.  Like I said, I'm a sucker for newspaper movies, but The Post goes way beyond that; subject-matter aside, it's one of the best movies of the year.

Viewed Dec. 5, 2017 -- DGA Theater


Sunday, December 3, 2017



Wonder is a sweet, kind, gentle, tender little movie, a crowdpleaser, a tearjerker, an inspiration, and never once does it get messy or ugly or angry, which is what prevents it from being more than absolutely lovely.  There's nothing at all wrong with Wonder -- and that's sort of its problem.

The movie is based on a young-adult novel about a little boy who was born with a horrible disfigurement that has left his face scarred and mangled to the point that he never goes out in public without wearing a toy astronaut helmet.

His name is August Pullman, or "Auggie," and he's also really, really smart, maybe because he has been home-schooled and kept under the constant watch of his family.  But now they've decided he should go to school with other kids, and Wonder is about how he gets through that horrible first year.

Jacob Tremblay plays Auggie, and he's absolutely perfect in the role.  Shy, tremulous, his big eyes always searching for the next source of emotional pain, Auggie knows what's going to happen when other kids see him, but has learned how to protect himself from the inevitable ridicule and bullying.

His mother (Julia Roberts) is a perfectly angelic sort of mother who has raised her child alongside her quiet husband (Owen Wilson) and beautiful sister (Izabela Vidovic), all of whom have put their lives on hold to bring up Auggie.  That has led to some simmering tension, but otherwise things are perfect in their rambling and tastefully decorated Brooklyn brownstone.

It's the home life that's the most troubling aspect of Wonder. Not a thing is out of place in this splendid home, where everyone is always on his or her best behavior, where evenings are spent in a sort of suburban dream straight out of a catalog or an HGTV special.  The actors are all fine, and it's particularly nice to see Roberts in a role that deliberately keeps her in the back seat, but ... a sense of anger, hostility, tension or disharmony would have gone a long way toward bring some interest to this otherwise almost painfully dull existence.

There are efforts to make Auggie's sister, Via, into a well-rounded person, and some parts of that subplot works better than others.  One key indication Wonder is having trouble is its tendency to turn the focus off of Auggie and onto its secondary characters; Via and her friend Miranda get an awful lot of screen time, at the expense of digging deeper into Auggie's woes.

One of Auggie's biggest difficulties revolves around his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who at first is pushed into a false friendship but soon finds himself drawn into Auggie's splendid view of the world. Because the movie ambles about a bit, this friendship loses some of its focus -- had it been the film's singular focus, Wonder could have been something really special, as both Tremblay and Jupe are enormously appealing.

But that would have required Wonder to be more emotionally risky than it is, to be messier and even a little bit bitter about Auggie's place in the world.  It's not.  It's a super-sweet, sugar-coated view.  And that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable -- it is.  But somewhere under that sweet visage is something more curious and intriguing.  It's hard not to imagine what Wonder might have been if, like Auggie, it had taken off its helmet and let us peer into its heart.

Viewed December 2, 2017 -- AMC Burbank 6


Friday, November 24, 2017

"Call Me By Your Name"


Eroticism and sensuality are qualities that elude filmmakers with embarrassing frequency, but whether you're gay or straight, Call Me By Your Name is bound to make you feel the heat of the passion it portrays and the frank and unabashed way it approaches sex.

Strikingly sultry but never lurid, Call Me By Your Name is also an emotional stunner. Its story is about first love between two men, but it hits such rare notes of longing, discovery and joy that it seems unfair to categorize Call Me By Your Name as a "gay" movie, though it most certainly is a movie about the singular challenges that two men have when they find love with each other.

Some of the challenges, the earliest ones presented in the movie, are the same for everyone: When they meet, neither 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) nor Oliver (Armie Hammer) knows what to do, or whether the other feels the same. Their flirtation is at once overt and subtle; they kid each other, they dismiss each other, they compliment each other, waiting for a response.

Elio lives with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an American professor of archaeology, and his French mother in a ravishingly gorgeous Italian countryside villa, and each summer the family is visited by a student for six weeks.  Oliver is this year's student, and he's both impossibly gorgeous and intensely confident.  Elio tries Oliver as a vulgar American, but it's clear there's a fascination there, one that turns out to be mutual.

Elio moves effortlessly between speaking Italian, American English and French, and his sexuality seems equally fluid -- or, at least, uncommitted. Sex is on his mind in a big way, and what he can't try with Oliver he'll try with one of the local girls, Marzia (Esther Garrel), who's more than a little sweet on him.

If Elio is just discovering his sexuality in all its complexity, Oliver seems more adept at knowing -- and hiding -- his.  He's comfortable openly flirting with one of Marzia's friends, but it's impossible not to sense that he might have feelings for Elio, whose dazzling intelligence and classical beauty attract him.

Director Luca Guadagnino lets the story amble along, quiet and calm as one of the perfect summer days it depicts, until a bicycle ride through the countryside leads Elio and Oliver to a bucolic spot in which they are able to drop their guarded, tentative airs.  They fall in love, and Call Me By Your Name is a genuine rarity in the way it takes their romance seriously and brings to it an air of melancholy familiarity; their relationship is intense, sweet, fraught and sincere.

And sensual. While Call Me By Your Name does blush a little at portraying gay sex with the same forthrightness as its straight sex scenes, it's impossible to deny the intense magnetism on display between Hammer and Chalamet.  (They're both straight in real life, a fact that hardly seems relevant except for the convincingness with which they play their scenes.)  One scene in particular, in which Chalamet vents his sexual frustration on a peach, is going to have audiences buzzing, but the movie finds steaming sensuality in langorous shots of ultra-masculine Hammer and the more graceful Chalamet doing little but lying in the sun.

For all of its quivering, provocative physicality, though, Call Me By Your Name achieves its most breathtaking potency with the emotional intensity of the affair.  The inevitable scene of their departure is heartbreaking, but that pales in comparison to an astonishingly touching scene in which Elio's father opens up to his son about the transience of youth and the importance of love.  It all leads up to a final couple of minutes that opens the waterworks with as much ruthless efficiency as the last scene of The Way We Were.

And Call Me By Your Name earns and deserves comparison to great "straight" cinematic romances.  Sexual identity aside, no one who sees the movie is going to be unaffected by its portrayal of young romance, which is almost by definition doomed and impossible.  And few movies have as emotionally wrenching a final shot as this one.

But sexual identity can't be put aside.  Call Me By Your Name by its very nature is rueful about the way gay love was so long spoken about in hushed tones (and, let's be honest, often still is), the way that repression means young people aren't allowed to explore themselves openly and fully.  But it's also one of the most joyous movies about love you'll ever see, especially in one moonlit scene in which Elio and Oliver reflect back on how many days they wasted before letting themselves be in love.  That one moment is about as close to romantic perfection as you're likely to get in a movie; it's a scene, and a film, to be cherished.

Viewed November 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Catching Up: "Colossal"


With her bushy hair, long bangs, enormous eyes and too-wide smile, Anne Hathaway seems perpetually to be apologizing and in a mild state of distress, which has always served her harried comic characters well, and does so again in Colossal.

Gloria is a screw-up of, well, colossal proportions, far too old for the drunken shenanigans she pulls, far too self-absorbed to be aware of them, and so far past the point of help that she can't see that the handsome man (Dan Stevens) she lives with is a controlling bully. When it comes to her drinking and her lying, though, we sense his anger may have a point, but he's another in a long line of mistakes Gloria has made. When he finally kicks her out of the New York City apartment they share, she retreats to her now-empty childhood home.

She hasn't been back in town a day when she runs into her childhood sweetheart, the sweet-talking, aw-shucks opposite of the man who dumped her.  Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) also happens to own the town's only bar, and decides that alcoholic, desperate Gloria would make a perfect waitress, and his best friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) agree.

But there's a monster lurking in this charming rom-com setup -- Gloria is a full-scale alcoholic who can't accept responsibility for her behavior. And, oddly, the sweet and handsome Oscar thinks that hiring a known drunk is a good idea. He seems like a nice guy, but a nice guy wouldn't do that.  It's not long before the monster finally rears its ugly head, and in a most unexpected way.

Waking up from a drunken stupor, Gloria is shocked to hear that clear on the other side of the world, a giant, Godzilla-like monster is rampaging its way through Seoul, South Korea.  The monster is an oddity, but the damage it inflicts is real: people have died and parts of the city have been leveled.  Think back to 9/11.  A lot of people felt a strange sense of responsibility and personal investment into a disaster that was happening somewhere else. It's the same way for Gloria. She hears the news and the level of anxiety she feels seems out of proportion, but maybe it's just a human response.

Or, maybe not.

Gloria begins to suspect that maybe she is somehow responsible for this inexplicable turn of world history.  And, in fact, she is.

Gloria controls the monster.  And if that sounds like a metaphor, guess what?  Are you saying Frankenstein and the Wolfman aren't metaphors, too?  That the aliens Ripley faced weren't symbolic?  Gloria's monster may not be of her own making, but what's happening in Seoul is certainly her doing.  Her discovery of her rampaging superpower takes place during Colossal's relatively lighthearted first half -- as lighthearted as you can get with a borderline sociopathic alcoholic and the deaths of hundreds of people.

But Colossal manages a jaunty tone, and before long Gloria is sharing her revelation with Joel, Garth and Oscar -- who, it turns out, is a considerably accomplished alcoholic himself.

Gloria learns the secrets of when the monster appears and how, standing on playground in her little New England town, whatever she does the monster does, too.  Now Gloria, while deeply troubled and emotionally scarred, is not a bad person, so she learns to control her monster, and pretty soon the people of Seoul are enjoying the monster's funny hand gestures and silly little dances, along with a poetic apology -- the kind of apology the drunk leaves her husband on the dining table after she's done something awful.

But it's still a monster.  And the people Gloria has shared her secret with aren't really the most trustworthy and empathetic sort, and one of them even has a monster of his own.  This is where Colossal gets really interesting.

The script by director Nacho Vigalondo revels in the obviousness of its metaphors -- and in using them to explore a story that otherwise might be too painful to watch.  As Gloria realizes just what she and her fifty-story-tall giant monster avatar can do (most of the time, she watches it on TV), she grasps the complexity of the problem and, in a pretty terrific female-centric plot, realizes the men aren't going to be any help -- she's got to figure this out on her own.

Gloria's monster bestows upon her a power that is both frighteningly overwhelming and intensely self-empowering, and it's the latter realization that sees the film through to its unusually satisfying climax.

Colossus happens to come along at a time when women are finding their own inner giant robots and finally taking a stand against the unrelievedly lousy way they've been silenced, and though Colossus was made long before the latest revelations of sexual harassment and molestation came to light, it couldn't be better timed.  But it's not purely a story of feminine self-awareness -- Colossus works so well for the way Gloria's increasing awareness of her own power could relate to anyone who's trying to become someone other than who they are.

Yet, Colossus doesn't shy away from some pretty pointed, angry observations about men in general.  The one who seems best suited to her is meek and demure, he boyfriend is angry and controlling, while the nicest of all possible guys, Sudeikis's Oscar, turns out to be quite a monster himself. Sudeikis plays against his nice-guy image to uncover some grotesque anger, and doesn't shy away from Oscar's increasingly unsavory side, while Hathaway brings a giddiness to her character's growing determination to change.

Yet, this is above all a screen fantasy, and genre fans won't leave disappointed: there is a monster-on-monster smackdown that overcomes its lower-budget effects to be every bit as worthwhile as something in a Marvel film -- maybe even more, because the giant creatures mean something more than their digital bits.

Overlooked on its initial release, Colossal is available now on streaming services including Hulu, and to miss it this time around would be a Colossal mistake.

Viewed 11/22/27 -- Hulu