Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2017 - Part 1





The worst part of 2017 cinema happened off the screens, as the dark side of Hollywood and the industry as a whole was exposed to the world. Men in powerful positions, behaving badly or like children, were revealed to have been committing atrocities against women and children for decades, and although it is a good thing that they have finally been outed, it’s a shame that it took so long for it to come to light. 2017 may have given movies a black eye, but women in cinema and everywhere else will emerge the better for it.

Other bad news to come out in 2017 film was the passing of industry favorites such as Jim Nabors, Della Reese, Robert Guillaume, Bernie Casey, Frank Vincent, Tobe Hooper, Jerry Lewis, Sonny Landham, Robert Hardy, Sam Shepard, John Heard, George Romero, John G. Avildsen, Adam West, Powers Boothe, Michael Parks, Roger Moore, Jonathan Demme, Erin Moran, Don Rickles, Bill Paxton, Richard Hatch, John Hurt, Martin Landau, and William Peter Blatty.

Back on the screen, this Blogger was a little more selective in choosing films to review, with almost 50 films in the theatre, down from the usual 60-something average. Avoided were critically drubbed stinkbombs such as THE EMOJI MOVIE, THE MUMMY, FLATLINERS, THE SHACK, or anything made by Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry. Out of nearly 50, this Blogger can only come up with five that should have, and could have been better than what they were. But oddly enough, all five of these films have one thing in common (besides stinking); none of them should have ever been made.

This is what happens…

5. THE DARK TOWER – Even if we ignore the fact that author Stephen King’s massive eight-volume story was condensed down to a 95-minute movie, this lame adaptation was still a wasted opportunity. Excellent actors such as Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughy were way too good for this movie, which looked like a cheap knockoff that even the SyFy channel wouldn’t touch. It was rushed, bland, predictable, and not nearly as epic as it told us it was. And the biggest sin of all is that it was boring; which is something that a fantasy film should never be.

4. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES – Every movie should be judged as if no other movies exist; that is, on its own merits and faults seen on the screen. But, for franchise movies we have to consider consistency, and that’s where this fifth entry in the PIRATES series runs aground. One has to wonder if the filmmakers here ever saw any of the PIRATES films, because they literally throw out every major rule and plot point that was so well established before. It’s a break in continuity done for the sake of a sequel which accomplishes very little. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow had his moments, but not nearly enough to save this sinking ship.

3. ALIEN: COVENANT -  Ridley Scott continues to muck up his once famed franchise that he started back in 1979. COVENANT had the job of mopping up the sloppy loose ends that were left out there by its predecessor, PROMETHEUS in 2012. That was done all right, but once it was, there was no movie to be found as characters had little to do but make dumb decisions and stand around to get killed. Worse, the mythos behind the famed alien creature and its creators became dumber and weaker. And it’s still not finished with even more loose ends punted down the road.

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – Critics have been drooling all over this remorseless slog all year, all while ignoring the glaring issue of a grown American man travelling to Italy and having a sexually-charged love affair with a 17-year-old boy. Even if we buy into the idea, the American (played by Armie Hammer), is given zero backstory to justify his fascination with young boys, and worse, the kid’s parents actually endorse it. There are no ramifications or consequences for their dubious affair, and in a year where Hollywood is constantly being accused of pedophilia, it is mind-boggling that a film would be finding ways to justify it. It also had zero climax or buildup in character and plot, and pacing that made it seem 900 hours long. Everything about this was wrong.

1. JIGSAW – No one expected very much from the 8th entry in the SAW horror series which should have ended after the first film, and released seven years after the supposed finale in 2010. This pile of nonsense steals from one of its predecessors with some time manipulation that could be seen from a mile away, and continued to mess up the backstory of the famous Jigsaw killer with more useless flashback. The traps were ridiculous and well beyond the suspension of disbelief, and the acting awful. But the dealbreaker is that it commits the worst sin of all for a horror movie; it wasn’t scary. At all. That’s requirement number one for any horror film, and a failure to do so is reason enough alone to earn a spot as the worst of the year.

The Worst Films of 2017 
  1. JIGSAW
  2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
  3. ALIEN: COVENANT
  4. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES
  5. THE DARK TOWER

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Thursday: The Best of 2017.



Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Reel Review: I, TONYA



In 1994, figure skater Tonya Harding had everything going for her. At just 23 years old, she was a skating champion who had already made history by becoming the first woman to land the famed triple-axel, and was on her way to her second Olympic games. Then, she became implicated in an assault on her competition, Nancy Kerrigan, and her life became a media frenzy and a punch-line for all time. How and why she went from a champion to an outcast is the basis for Craig Gillespie’s I, TONYA.

Harding (Margot Robbie) becomes a famous figure skater despite her rough upbringing, which includes abuse by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her tough-love mother LaVona (Allison Janney). With just six weeks to go before her second Winter Olympics, she is implicated in an assault on her competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), and has her life turned upside-down forever.

Based on thousands of interviews done on the real-life Harding and now ex-husband Gillooly, I, TONYA is a film which has two distinct missions; first, to tell her life story, and second, to seemingly explain the motives behind what would ultimately be one of the dumbest decisions in all of sports history. The film follows Tonya as a talented figure skater from the age of three, as she battles a tough industry which wants their skaters to look and act like princesses, and not girls who swear, hunt, chop wood, and fix car engines. This is an essential element to Tonya’s story, as her rough background, which includes beatings from her husband and mother, forge the character who feels she can never get a fair shot.

Justification is the name of the game, and it works. Gillooly’s initial plan to send threatening letters to Kerrigan, with the help of his idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) comes from a place of just wanting to help Tonya out…and when the idea turns into an actual assault, all parties involved seem as shocked as the rest of the world would be. But director Craig Gillespie does such fine work in making this a human story, with everyone getting their due, that the motives behind everything are relatable, and amazingly sympathetic. Everyone’s actions boil down to downright stupidity and growing up with a lack of love, and that seems to be the true message of I, TONYA.

Gillespie tells his story through the eyes and words of his main players, with Tonya, LaVona, and Gillooly facing the camera and telling their side of things. The film is snappy, funny, packed with rock music from the era and has a tremendous sense of energy and momentum. The skating scenes are tremendous; many are filmed in long, unbroken takes and drop us right on the ice, and the re-creations of actual events, especially the ones we’ve seen on TV many times over the past two decades, are excellent and stunning. The scenes of abuse where Tonya is taking a beating from her husband or mother are tough to watch, and the assault on Kerrigan is also a pulse-pounder.

Margot Robbie is a joy to watch as Tonya at all times; whether she’s going through training, skating, taking a punch, or dealing with the pain of a mother who doesn’t love her…Robbie delivers. Sebastian Stan takes on Gillooly in both look and mannerisms, and Paul Walter Hauser is practically a clone of Eckhardt. But the film is stolen by Allison Janney, who as Tonya’s chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, swearing-like-a-drunken-sailor mother is one of the most despicable characters of all cinema; first to throw a punch at her kid and last to ever say “I love you”.

Both sides of the story are told, and no one comes out looking innocent by movie’s end. Tonya’s knowledge of the assault on Kerrigan is left open for endless debate, but at the very least the world should have a better understanding of the human being that was, and still is underneath that rough exterior. Craig Gillespie has created one of the most unique sports films of all time here, one that can inspire despite being about one of the most controversial figures of all time.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Monday, January 8, 2018

A Reel Review: THE POST



In 1971, The New York Times and The Washington Post brought the attention of the world to what would be known as The Pentagon Papers; a large, secret volume of the history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The papers revealed that the government had been lying and misleading the public for decades; including official reports on how the Vietnam War was going for the U.S. It would become an unprecedented war between journalism and government, and the decisions made leading to that battle is the story for Steven Spielberg’s THE POST.

Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), is the first female publisher of The Washington Post, which is struggling financially and about to go public on the stock market for its survival.  With investors breathing down her neck, the challenge is intensified when she and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), wrestle with the legal and ethical decision of publishing The Pentagon Papers, which details four Presidential administration’s involvement in Vietnam…and contradicts the official story from the government.

The thrill of THE POST lays within the hard decisions made behind the scenes, with Bradlee wrestling with legal teams over the publication of the papers, and Graham dealing with nervous investors who could possibly pull their financial support. On both fronts, the future of The Washington Post is at stake, with the publication of the damning documents holding consequences in both the stock market and the court of law.

The clock is ticking here at all times, and the pressure is on. The Washington Post is scrambling to acquire the documents and print stories, while the government has already taken The New York Times to court (they broke the story about the existence of the documents first). With government bearing down, the stakes become wide and far-reaching, but director Steven Spielberg still finds a way to make this a very human story. Graham has the biggest pressure to deal with as the first female publisher for the paper and has to prove herself in a man’s world, and her friendship with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), whom the documents do not paint in the best light, puts her in a precarious position. Bradlee on the other hand has journalistic ethics to grapple with, and his past friendship with former President John F. Kennedy has the famed editor wondering if he had been completely fair in the past. For a film with such far-reaching implications for the media and government, it’s the two main characters that drive it, and that is the true draw of THE POST as it is a very human story.

Spielberg keeps the pacing tight and the scenes full of tension and fun. Shots are meticulously framed and express that feeling of larger things bearing down on our characters. The film looks great, and John Williams’ score is superb.

Acting is excellent. Tom Hanks is a little grumbly as Bradlee, but is still a blast to watch and it seems Hanks had fun in the role. The film belongs to Streep as her character feels the pressures of the decisions she has to make, and she expresses more emotion and thought in a single glance than most actors today can express in spoken words. Another strength of the film is in its supporting cast; Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all great.

The events of THE POST occur during the Richard Nixon administration, and the film utilizes Nixon’s old White House recordings in which the President angrily lashes out against the media and sets out to bar reporters from The Washington Post from attending White House events. It’s a startling, and on-the-nose parallel to today’s political climate, which makes THE POST a very relevant film. But politics aside, Spielberg has delivered a tight and engaging film; one that we can all learn a lot from.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2018 - Episode I



The first two months of the year are traditionally Movie Siberia; where films deemed not good enough for Oscar Season or the fun Summer blockbuster months are sent to die. Cinema goers would be better off checking out the late-season awards contenders as they slowly move into wide release this month, but for what it’s worth…here are the notable new releases for the first month of 2018.

PADDINGTON 2 – The sequel to the 2014 adaptation of the beloved children’s book. Ben Whishaw (SPECTRE), provides the voice of the cuddly bear, and he is joined by Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, and Hugh Grant.

THE COMMUTER – Liam Neeson stars as a commuter who is approached by a stranger on a train with an odd deal with dire consequences. Vera Farmiga (THE DEPARTED) plays the stranger.

PROUD MARY – In the spirit of the blaxpoitation films of the 1970’s, Taraji P. Henson (HIDDEN FIGURES), plays a hitwoman whose latest job leaves her with an orphan boy.

DEN OF THIEVES – Gerard Butler (300) plays a Los Angeles detective on the trail of a group of high-end thieves. Co-stars Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

12 STRONG – One of the better-looking films of the month, based on the true story of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan just after the 9/11 attacks. It stars Chris Hemsworth (THOR), Michael Shannon (THE SHAPE OF WATER), and Michael Pena (ANT-MAN). 

PLEASE STAND BY – Another good-looking film in this month. Dakota Fanning plays an autistic writer who enters a competition in the 1960’s to write a STAR TREK episode. Co-stars Alice Eve, Jessica Rothe, Toni Collette, and Tony Revolori (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL).

*

Next month, Episode II previews the month of February.




Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Reel Review: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME



Cinema has embraced the basic premise of Romeo and Juliet in many shapes and forms over the decades; the idea of lovers separated by rules and/or class has been seen on screens in titles like TITANIC, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and KING KONG…with love being the justification for all actions by man, woman, and beast. For director Luca Guadagnino and his love story CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, love is certainly the message he wants to press, and absolutely nothing else matters.

Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a 24-year-old doctoral student who spends a summer as an intern at a professor’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) family home in southern Italy, and begins a love affair with Elio (Timothee Chalamet), the professor’s 17-year-old son.

Light on plot and heavy on character, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME spends most of its time with Oliver and Elio, as they meet, argue, feud, and eventually begin a sexually-charged affair. Most of the film shows us the two in their down-time (of which Oliver seems to have a lot of for someone working on a doctorate), lazily spending the summer Italy heat at swimming holes and bicycle paths.

Forbidden love isn’t the obstacle Oliver and Elio have to overcome as much as coming to grips with their feelings, and while that is still familiar territory, the idea of a man actively showing interest in a 17-year-old boy is the new element. A young man crushing on someone older is quite natural, but Oliver comes off as a creep right away…hitting on the kid almost immediately after he arrives at the family home. The age difference between the two is what makes their love questionable (yes it’s Italy where the rules may be different, but Oliver is an American and so is Elio’s father), and neither character bothers to grapple with the morality of it. No one seems to think that their affair is wrong, not even the parents (slight spoiler: they know the whole time and are cool with it), and the film just winds up with a creep-factor to it.

While Luca Guadagnino is busy justifying having sex with underage boys and showing us what a boy does in his bedroom when he’s alone, he’s also editing a joyless slog. Pacing is brutal and the film feels like it’s 900 hours long. There is also no buildup towards anything; no real climax or arc for any character and the film just seems to run out of things to do. The countryside of Italy is presented beautifully and the film works better as a tour-guide video than an actual story. But nicely re-created is the time-period; the clothes, music, and styles of 1983 look and work great.

Acting is all over the place. Armie Hammer is as one-note as his character; just bland and one-dimensional and nothing for him to work with as no explanation is given for his desires. Timothee Chalamet on the other hand is very good, getting the most work to do as a confused boy, and his emotional turmoil at the very end of the film is executed beautifully. Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as always.

The two things that make a forbidden love story work are (a) making us want the characters to be together, and (b) dire consequences for their actions. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME has zero consequences as every creep in the film is OK with it, and the age difference between the two lovers is hard to get our heads around. The message that the film is pushing is love, but it’s also saying that love justifies men sleeping with boys as long as it happens in Italy. And with the lack of anything for the characters to overcome, the film shoots blanks in all directions. Everything about this movie is wrong.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Reel Review: PHANTOM THREAD



The last time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis worked together, we were treated to the magnificent THERE WILL BE BLOOD in 2007; often considered to be one of the finest films ever made and the best of this millennium. Their newest, and perhaps final collaboration, PHANTOM THREAD, does not match those heights, but it does not aspire to, nor does it need to. Like any good follow-up, their new film is very much its own thing, and doesn’t reach for the stars but instead digs in deep.

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a dress designer in the 1950’s who caters to London’s rich and famous and royalty. He meets and falls for Alma (Vicky Krieps), a humble waitress. Soon the two have a love affair which leads to Vicky sharing a home with Reynolds and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is responsible for maintaining the delicate routines so her brother can work.

PHANTOM THREAD does not have a lot of by way of plot, and spends most of its time exploring the relationships between Reynolds, his love-interest Alma, and his sister Cyril…with the bulk of the film concentrating on Alma’s various ups and downs as she figures out how to function in the household which doubles as Reynold’s workspace. The pressures of high-end dress-making takes its toll on Reynolds, and daily routines are absolutely vital to him…and Alma finds out the hard way that even buttering toast too loudly can upset that delicate balance.

Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson weaves in and around the three principal characters as they figure out how to live with each other and get their task done. A virtual love-triangle is created as Alma and Cyril each want the best for Reynolds but approach it different ways; some methods work, some don’t…and in addition to exploring relationships, Anderson digs in to explore the nature of being an artist and how art and love co-exist. But the true brilliance behind Anderson’s script is that just when the film seems to be heading into familiar and clich├ęd territory, it takes a drastic left-turn and re-invents itself. PHANTOM THREAD goes into areas that are surprising, dark, shocking, and even downright hair-raising and bone-chilling. There is an episodic nature to it, with each new chapter keeping the pages turning.

Anderson films a lush and beautiful looking movie, fully capturing the feel of the 1950’s and the painstaking process of creating high-end dresses. There is an intimacy between characters and the dresses just as much as the characters have with each other. Pacing is a steady slow-burn with the unpredictable nature of the script keeping things moving. The film is also extremely funny without going overboard.

Acting is tremendous. Daniel Day-Lewis is hypnotic with his soothing voice and quietly intense demeanor; there’s always indications that there’s something brewing underneath his handsome looks. In what may be his final role, Day-Lewis once again shows us just far above the acting world he really is. As great as he is, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville match him nicely.

By movie’s end, Reynolds and Alma aren’t quite living happily-ever-after, but the events of PHANTOM THREAD have armed them with the tools necessary to work on the inevitable bumps they are sure to encounter. Like any beautiful garment, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis have crafted something that can be admired from afar, and deeply appreciated for its detail. This is a wonderful statement on life, love, and art…perhaps the three most vital elements for any film.

BOTTOM LINE: See it