Thursday, December 28, 2017

Top 20 Films of 2017

Honorable Mentions:
Brigsby Bear
Patti Cake$
Logan Lucky
Wind River
It Comes At Night

The Top 20:

20. Coco
Pixar's latest gem Coco is a vividly-tuned celebration of music and passion. It's is so rich with themes of family, legacy, memories, and yes -- death. But for a film that does approach the subject of death so often, it's incredibly full of life.

19. The Lost City of Z
The beautifully shot Lost City of Z is a sweeping, sprawling epic of exploration and relentless desire that hearkens back to classical adventures of the past. It's one of the most under-the-radar films of the year, and it shouldn't just be hidden away, so go seek this one out.

18. Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen star in this California dreamin' excursion of social media age antics and web celeb obsession. It's over-the-top, thoroughly absorbing, and rich in relevant substance. It's practically a moving postcard with a lot of baggage. And actually, the film's use of "All My Life" by K-Ci & JoJo alone was enough to get my click of approval.

17. Baby Driver
A playlist-inspired action flick with a high-octane spin, Baby Driver is a film that fires on all cylinders. The flashy editing and kinetic camerawork... The escalating conflicts within each beat of the narrative... The way the rock & soul music synchronizes with the exhilarating tempo of the chase sequences and shootouts...  It's all crafted with stylish precision.

16. Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart gives a captivating performance in Personal Shopper, an unorthodox ghost story that consistently intrigues and perplexes. What's in the mind and what isn't? Grief, trauma, delusion, and paranormal activity all seem to be at work. It's the type of film that will make you think, while coming up with your own theories about it, which means it's worth watching more than once. The end is unsettling and ambiguous, and given the nature of the film, you wouldn't expect anything else.

15. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Yeah, I enjoyed it. 

14. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The crew of ragtags-to-lovable heros return for another round of space escapades. From the dazzling visual effects to the charming, sometimes Looney Toons-esque camp -- to the well-curated soundtrack of classic rock & soul songs that pop against the film's arcade colors and cosmic splash aesthetic -- to the zany sense of humor -- Vol. 2  is a rollicking, gooey, extraterrestrial fun time.

13. Thor: Ragnarok 
Taika Waititi makes an impressive leap to blockbuster fare with the wildly warping blast of cosmic revelry that is Thor: Ragnarok. Simply put - it's a smash. Oh, and Korg rules.

12. John Wick: Chapter 2
As Kanye West once said in a song, "Any rumor you ever heard about me was true and legendary." The same could be said of John Wick. The guy keeps reiterating his desire to retire, but for the sake of us all -- let's hope he doesn't.

11. Wonder Woman
Dashing in as one of the most fantastic superhero journeys of the year, Wonder Women is a triumph in so many ways. It's a film worth rooting for. It'll give you chills, and it'll make you want to pump your fist. It has a shining, glorious soul.

10. Dunkirk
A technical marvel. An expertly crafted World War II thriller that leaves you breathless. Dunkirk is a very straightforward, matter-of-fact tale of rescue and survival that's told with minimal dialogue, and it's just as impactful as anything Christopher Nolan has ever done.

9. Logan
Not your usual Wolverine movie, Logan is a dark and grisly swan song for Mr. Claws that slashes with potent violence and pierces with affecting tenderness. This film honors the end of an era. The last of a dying breed.

8. Good Time
Robert Pattinson gives the best performance of his career in Ben and Josh Safdie's wickedly intense and tenaciously dirty New York City crime-drama. This thing is jarring, the stakes are high, and it's chalked full of danger. Every maximal scene is designed to get your heart racing. It's a visually stylish adrenaline rush, through and through.

7. Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve delivers an astonishingly-realized dystopian epic. The picture is so sublime and provocative that you just have to sit back and stare in awe. The soundscape is hypnotic too, as the reverberating post-Yeezus score virtually sends waves into your head and swallows you whole. I found the pure artfulness, innovation, and neo-noir vibes of it all to be mesmerizing.

6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
A darkly comic, potently tragic, and thoroughly entertaining display that features a prominent, tour de force performance from the great Frances McDormand. It's a small-town story, but it burns with resonant and relevant themes, sending smoke signals of scathing commentary on abuse of power, racism, predators, hypocrisy, and misplaced priorities.

5. The Florida Project
A spirited and empathetic juxtaposition of childhood wonderment against the backdrop of working-poor struggles within the fractured cracks of America. It's winsome, observant, transient, and as enchanting as it is harsh. The last 10 minutes breathtakingly set off fireworks of swirling emotion that will turn you into a blubbering mess.

4. Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a coming-of-age comedy gem that's spunked with a consistently delightful energy. It flaunts a well-written script, memorable characters, and a superb turn from Saoirse Ronan. Everything about this film is brilliant.

3. Get Out
Jordan Peele's feature directorial debut is one of those wildly blended cinematic experiences that you don't often see pulled off with this much success. It's all at once an effective horror film, a sly commentary on race relations, a searing satire on the terrors of white supremacy, and a psychological cult escape thriller. This film will make you jump. It'll make you squirm. It'll make you laugh. It'll make you sweat. And it'll make you desperately want to yell "Get Out!"

2. The Big Sick
Co-written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick is a semi-autobiographical dramedy that is as pleasant as it is poignant. The film is about the complicated relationships we encounter, the doozies that life drops, the intricacies of family and culture, and the power of comedy that can sometimes help us through it all.

1. The Shape of Water
Weird, wet, wild, and wonderful. The Shape of Water is a deeply majestic fairytale that would only come from the mind of visionary director Guillermo del Toro. The film is definitely filled with a melancholy undercurrent of social themes, but what shines through the most is del Toro's obsessive ode to French and golden age Hollywood cinema, creature features, and outcasts. In the end, it becomes quite clear that The Shape of Water is love.

Will return.

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

[Review] Bright

Netflix's "first Blockbuster" is more like a C-film that you'd find at the bottom of a DVD bargain bin in a sketchy Pawn Shop that somehow has managed to stay in business all these years. It's called Bright -- a title so vague and uninspired that it sounds like a script placeholder that no one ever bothered the change. The film haphazardly takes the concept of a buddy cop movie and smashes it together with magic and fantasy elements, and the results are appalling.

This monstrosity is set in what appears to be a modern-day L.A. -- except humans live alongside fairies, orcs, and elves (it's never really explained how this came to be). Will Smith plays a cop who reluctantly teams up with a gravelly-faced Orc (played by Joel Edgerton). The Orc is frowned upon and bullied by the humans at the precinct -- not sure why, because he looks like he could kick everyone else's ass, and possibly eat them. Anyway, the plot sees the mismatched cops cruise around and get caught up in a weird web of characters and mystical forces that even Harry Potter would scoff at. They also beef with a villainous, suit-wearing elf that resembles Elrond on acid.

When the movie begins with Will Smith talking to his wife (who ends up disappearing for the entire time) about how a fairy threw a handful of its own shit into his cousin's eye when they were little, you know exactly what you're in for. This is one of the ugliest, most unfunny, obnoxious, ridiculous things you could possibly see. Bright is a movie that looks like it smells bad. It's the pink eye of hybrid flicks. Director David Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis have somehow managed to create something even pukier and less engaging than Suicide Squad. This is type of thing what would happen if Dungeons & Dragons poofed out a spellbound fart onto Training Day. And of course, I wasn't expecting the dialogue to be good here, but the dialogue is remarkably horrendous here. Although I did get a kick out of Will Smith forcibly shouting "We have a MAGIC WAND!" with a straight face. Unfortunately, the film's stabs at social commentary sound like your Facebook friend who just recently found out that people are treated unequally in this country.

But Bright's biggest crime is that it's boring. Once all the initial amusement and head-shaking stuff wears off, this just turns into a messy, tone-deaf slogfest with erratic logic. I'll be honest with you, I didn't even know what was going on the entire second half of the two-hour duration. I have to at least admire the film for trying something... different, but I'm going to go ahead and say that this one did not work. From now on whenever a new buddy cop movie comes out, my guess is that probably we'll probably be saying "Hey, at least it's better than Bright."

( 3.5/10 )

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

[Review] The Shape of Water

Weird, wet, wild, and wonderful. The Shape of Water is a deeply majestic fairytale (an adult one) that would only come from the mind of visionary director Guillermo del Toro.

This story dives into the life of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who's been mute since she was an infant. She works a thankless nightshift job as a janitor at a secretive laboratory that happens to be cruelly researching an amphibious humanoid that looks a lot like the Creature from the Black Lagoon (or Abe Sapien from Hellboy, depending on who you ask -- he's played by Doug Jones). The gentle Elisa befriends the beast, and what unfolds is a strange, surreal, and sublime tale of love and loss.

As you'd expect with a del Toro film, the imagery is exquisite. With its Cold War Americana backdrop, stream of high-concept fantasy, and old-fashioned essence, the lush production design is like stepping into a whimsical museum from a dream. Glowy aqua blues and greens uniformly flood the color palette, while the nifty editing builds a steady flow (the art of the scene transition is strong here and shouldn't go unnoticed). The narrative punches in with the rhythm of a ticking clock or a heartbeat, and it eventually launches into exhilarating thriller mode, not unlike the "Lockjaw" episode of "Hey Arnold" where Arnold and his grandma free a tormented turtle from an aquarium.

Sally Hawkins (who was also superb in this year's Maudie) gives an absolutely ravishing lead performance. She's so expressive, so emotional, so convincing -- without uttering a single word. Her face says it all. This thing also contains a top-notch (and I mean top) supporting cast. Richard Jenkins greatly plays Elisa's friendly, closeted, repressed artist neighbor. The always pleasant Octavia Spencer clocks in as Elisa's best and funniest co-worker. Michael Stuhlbag (who might be in a total of 3(!) Best Picture nominees this year) is perfectly cast as a sympathetic scientist. And frequent scene-stealer Michael Shannon broods in classical villain form. The true monster, indeed.

The film definitely is filled with a melancholy undercurrent of social themes, but what shines through the most is Guillermo del Toro's obsessive ode to French and golden age Hollywood cinema, creature features, and outcasts. In the end, it becomes quite clear that The Shape of Water is love.

* 9.5/10 *

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Friday, December 22, 2017

[Review] Call Me By Your Name

After last year's steamy shocker A Bigger Splash, director Luca Guadagnino returns with another sultry outing  -- curiously titled Call Me By Your Name. It's a lush, well-acted relationship drama that is as intimate as it is vast.

Set in the summer of '83 -- somewhere in Northern Italy -- the film revolves around a young man named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) wasting his days away in the countryside. But his monotony breaks when one of his father's (played by the ever-impressive Michael Stuhlbarg) graduate students, Oliver (Armie Hammer), comes to visit -- and Elio slowly develops a crush on him. And you can pretty much tell where this thing is heading. In other words, things are about to get heated.

First off, this film is beautifully shot with its scenic landscapes, rustic architecture, and sun-soaked colors. It moves at a patient, wistful pace (maybe too patient for some) like a lazy afternoon. Narrative-wise, the film is significantly reminiscent of 2013's Blue is the Warmest Color with its carefully observed dynamics and formative themes of sexual awakening, desire, first love, heartbreak, and memories that never quite distinguish. It's all backed by a gorgeously delicate soundtrack from indie singer-songwriter darling Sufjan Stevens. The songs themselves might make you well up.

Newcomer Timothée Chalamet (who also appeared in Lady Bird this year) and Armie Hammer both give tremendously humane performances. But it's definitely Chalamet that emerges as the shining standout in a role that feels so natural, so assured that it doesn't actually quite affect you until the very end -- during the film's staggeringly emotional closing scene that linger and lingers, and lingers...

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

[Review] Darkest Hour

Believe it or not -- Darkest Hour is approximately the third film this year that involves the events of Dunkirk (the underrated Their Finest and of course Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk are the others). And believe it or not -- that's Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill under all that makeup, padding, and prosthetics, as he gives a truly transformative performance in this well-crafted WWII drama.

It's the year 1940 -- on the cusp of wartime -- and Britain is in need of a new Prime Minister. Stepping in (or should I say waddling in) to take on the enormous task is the self-deprecating, eccentric, and huffy Winston Churchill. The film follows him as he administers orders, despite the little faith his peers have him. "A drunkard at the wheel," they say. And he just might be.

Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), the film is handsomely shot and stocked with rich drama. And while it still has that standard period piece and biopic feel to it, it avoids being too stuffy or run-of-the-mill, for the most part. While Dunkirk hit the frontlines, Darkest Hour dives into the behind-the-scenes action with smokey vigor. The film's pace does slow at times, but there's an ever-present sense of urgent tension beneath it all.

The supporting cast sees the always consistent Ben Mendelsohn clocking in as King George VI, and Kristin Scott Thomas solidly plays Clementine Churchill, but this film is undoubtedly a showcase for Gary Oldman. He's virtually unrecognizable without being distracting, and he practically cannonballs into this chewy role with bumbling, animated, and theatrical enthusiasm, while conveying just enough depth, nuance, and rousing speeches -- you know -- all the stuff that the Academy really likes.

Darkest Hour is far from my favorite film this Oscar season, but I certainly respect it.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, December 18, 2017

[Review] Star Wars: The Last Jedi

"Breathe... Just Breathe..." Luke tells Rey as she sits upon a sacred rock, finding her inner self. The same could be said to us as an audience, considering all the hype, anticipation, excitement, and fan freak-outs that come with a new Star Wars release. The Last Jedi -- if you're counting -- is the 8th entry in the saga, and I'm pleased to say that director Rian Johnson delivers a thrilling adventure, as well as an intriguing extension to one of the world's most beloved and regarded franchises.

The film picks up shortly after the events of 2015's The Force Awakens, checking in with the spirited Resistance fighter Poe (Oscar Isaac), journeyman Finn (John Boyega), and General Leia (Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.) as they continue their battle against the conflicted baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his master, Snoke. Meanwhile, the series' new driving force Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to recruit the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) from his island retreat, and maybe just learn the ways of the Jedi.

This space opera grips hold and entertains from opening crawl to end, striking a solid balance of humor, heart, heaviness, and the beautifully shot action sequences that we come to expect. And while many of the plot missions and infiltrations remain familiar, the story explores new settings and introduces some great characters and spunky creatures along the way. Porgs -- the highly expressive, little puffin-like runts -- seemed to be a fan favorite before this film even hit theaters. And on the human front, there's the unlikely maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, a revelation) who's abruptly thrust into action, playing a significant part in this tale and operating as one of the film's most pleasant surprises. Speaking of surprises, this film is full of them. The narrative boasts twists and turns, pushes and pulls, challenging complexities, and emotionally stirring moments.

In fact, there's a lot going on at once here, and a couple odd choices are made (I can't go into detail), which is why the film serves well in a second viewing, especially after you've digested the initial and overwhelming awe. The Last Jedi is also the longest film in the series, clocking in at two and a half hours -- but if you're like me and immerse yourself into this world, you won't want it to end. It all results in a stellar culmination of climaxes, and it also makes us anxious for the next installment.

With themes of friendship and sacrifice, the film's strength truly lies in its characters, and it keeps a grasp on nostalgia as well as what the future may bring for these souls. Like many Star Wars films before it, we look to The Last Jedi for optimism and hope in all things good, even when everything can go awry. It's compelling to see such a diverse group of individuals unite for a common cause. The story is also about holding onto what's important. To quote a line that's indicative of the sentimentalism of Star Wars itself, as well as those who've passed on: "No one's ever really gone."

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, December 11, 2017

[Review] The Disaster Artist

"Is it just me, or is this kinda bad?"

Ah, Tommy Wiseau's The Room -- it's been hailed as the best worst movie of all time, reaching cult status and provoking conversational setpieces. To this day, it has frequent midnight showings in theaters across the world, cementing its spot in cinematic history -- so much so that the all-over-the-place James Franco has now made a movie about the making of the movie. It's fittingly called The Disaster Artist, and it's genuinely hysterical.

Franco plays Tommy Wiseau -- when we first meet him he's shouting and climbing up walls during an acting class. That's where he sparks up a complicated friendship with an aspiring star named Greg (Dave Franco), and the two head out to Hollywood. From there, the film dives into story behind The Room -- from script, to tumultuous production, to head-scratching red carpet premiere.

The important thing to note about The Disaster Artist is that it isn't a parody or a spoof -- it's a passionately realized portrait, serving as a fascinating look into the weird world of Wiseau, as well as an amusing behind-the-scenes tribute to the infamous disasterpiece. It strikes a balance between surprisingly somber and relentlessly comical. In fact, it's very very funny. I hooted. I hollered. And it's well-crafted enough to the point where people can probably enjoy it without having seen the material that inspired it. But I'll be real with you -- it is indeed best if you have seen The Room, or at least clips of its most iconic scenes.

A big part of why The Disaster Artist works so well is James Franco's pitch-perfect and deeply dedicated performance as Tommy Wiseau. It's more than just a good impression. He portrays him as earnest, ambitious, shameless, bizarre, mysterious (no one actually knows where he's from, how old he is, how he funded the movie, or what the heck is going on with his accent), oblivious, unintentionally hilarious, sympathetic, and villainous all at once. The supporting cast is solid too, including the likes of Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Nathan Fielder, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Jacki Weaver, and more. I'll keep the cameos a secret.

What could've been a one-note romp becomes something much more substantial as it espouses themes about dreams, the unconventional and independent spirit, artistic merit, failure and success, and director's intent vs audience reaction (Are they laughing with you or at you?). It also further examines how The Room is the ultimate recipe for an accidental phenomenon, why people have latched onto something so uniquely bad, and why it's achieved such a lasting legacy. One thing's for sure -- The Disaster Artist wouldn't exist without it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

[Review] Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The great Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq. (there's a lot of punctuation in that title), a steadfast character study and litigation drama that never quite rises above its courtroom constraints.

Roman Israel (Washington) is a devoted defense attorney and activist with a grassroots past. In order to keep his career afloat, he joins a big-time law firm led by one of his former students (played solidly by Colin Farrell). From there, his values are greatly tested when he takes on the messy case of a murdered store clerk.

To no one's surprise, Denzel Washington is excellent here (seriously, would you expect anything less?), playing a character that is as quippy and sharp as he is vulnerable and conflicted. That said, the role is never as hard-hitting as his Oscar-nominated performance in last year's Fences. In fact, I would have liked to known a lot more about this character, but unfortunately the film's oblong pacing, wordy and procedural disposition (there's a lot of typing and talking on the phone), episodic story turns, and lack of narrative momentum hinders us from ever gaining a deeper understanding of Roman Israel beyond the surface.

An intriguing twist pops out of the briefcase in the last act, throwing a major dilemma at our protagonist, but by that time, it just feels too late -- like this is the moment when the film should just be getting started. And the abrupt ending attempts to provoke some emotion, but it comes off more as an unsatisfactory head-scratcher. All of this leads me to believe that this film probably would've worked well as a TV series instead of a two-hour portrait -- just look at "Better Call Saul"!

( 6/10 )

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Monday, December 4, 2017

[Review] Better Watch Out

Ah, nothing like a Christmas horror movie hybrid to ring in the holiday spirit. That's what Better Watch Out does -- it's a gleeful and twisted home alone/home invasion thriller, and I'm not talking about Joe Pesci or Santa.

Set on an unassuming suburban street, strung with Christmas lights and crawling with carolers, one night Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is called upon to babysit a 12-year-old boy named Luke (Levi Miller), who's hopelessly in love with her and planning to impress. Things go awry fast when they start receiving threats from mysterious intruders. And, well -- to avoid spoilers -- I'll leave it at that.

If you can get past some of the awkward humor at the beginning, this turns into a fun, creepy, intense, shocking, and even dark holiday spectacle. Better Watch Out is a film that goes all the way Christmas and all the way horror (that's the way to do it, right?). It also shares some similar traits with the campy teen-horror movie The Babysitter, which debuted on Netflix this year. And speaking of Netflix, Dacre Montgomery (Max's sleazy older brother Billy from "Stranger Things") makes an amusing appearance here.

Anyway, the story delivers its tropes with a winking eye -- from the eerie foreshadowing to the screechy jolts to the jarring jumps -- but it also subverts them with some You're Next-like twists. All the while, it's backed with catchy and well-selected Christmas songs (including "Merry Christmas [I Don't Want to Fight Tonight]" by the Ramones) that contrast the deranged events and the film's deep plunge into an MA-rating (yeah, this isn't very family-friendly). So if you're in the mood for something on the naughtier side this December, make Better Watch Out the one.

( 7/10 )

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

[Review] The Man Who Invented Christmas

We all know the story of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol quite well with its countless renditions and seminal splendor. But what about the conception of the novel itself? That's what this year's The Man Who Invented Christmas gazes into. The film is a cheerful and tidy portrait of the creation of the classic book -- from life, to brain, to pen, to paper, to presses -- and the rest is history.

Dan Stevens (The Guest, Beauty and the Beast) plays Dickens. He's presented as a likable if quirky and sometimes reserved fellow. As he struggles to come up with an idea for his next novel, the plot follows him through the writer's block and sleepless nights, the skepticism and pushback from his peers ("A Christmas ghost story?!"), and of course the glorious bells of inspiration.

This is a film that you watch with a smile on your face, especially if you're a fan of the timeless source material. It's stuffed with pleasantries, it has a delightfully old-fashioned essence to it, and it features a charming performance from Dan Stevens (I wonder if the actual Charles Dickens was this dashing?). It's also quite fascinating to see how the things that unfold in Dickens' real life parallel and influence characters, settings, situations, and themes in the book -- even some of the spookier stuff. And once the ink really starts flowing, the film takes on a bit of a whimsical quality, as the characters begin to appear right alongside Dickens in his writing room, including Scrooge himself (played by Christopher Plummer).

In the end, The Man Who Invented Christmas won't necessarily deliver any new surprises or bring about life-changing epiphanies, but it's still a nice look at a famous story from a different angle, and it'll probably help you get into the Christmas spirit this season.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

[Review] Wonder

With his latest film Wonder, writer-director Stephen Chbosky (best known for The Perks of Being a Wallflower) once again exhibits his compassion for the experience of youth and what it means to find your way in the world, as difficult as it may be. This time he focuses on one of the harshest and most emotionally brutal places on Earth: the hallways of an elementary school.

The story revolves around Auggie (played by Jacob Tremblay, who made waves in the Oscar-nominated Room). He's a Star Wars fan and aspiring astronaut. Oh yeah, and he was born with a facial deformity. 27 surgeries and several years of homeschooling later, he's embarking on the lofty mission of beginning 5th grade at a big school. But it isn't an easy liftoff for him, as he deals with endless stares, name-calling, and bullies (there are some heartbreaking scenes here). We follow him through the ups and downs as makes his mark and opens the eyes and hearts of many.

This is material that could've been majorly sappy, manipulative, and straight-up cheesy -- but it's so watchable, likable, and well-intentioned that it's worth rooting for and embracing. I'm not saying it doesn't get schmaltzy, but it's a good kind of schmaltz -- if you know what I mean. The film also does something interesting with its narrative. Instead of just sticking to Auggie's point-of-view, it switches to the other people in his personal solar system, which adds dimension to these characters and stresses the importance of connections and the ways we impact each other's lives (and vice versa).

The supporting cast is a solid one -- including Julia Roberts as a warm but stern mom, Owen Wilson in cool dad mode (or so he thinks), Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) as a hip and caring teacher, Mandy Patinkin as the school's stoic principle, as well as Auggie's sister (played by Izabela Vidovic) and his on-and-off-again new best friend (Noah Jupe).

When it comes down to it, Wonder understands that everyone is fighting their own battles, whether it's on the inside our outside. And its message is simple, agreeable, and universal: Be kind.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

[Review] Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three cheers for the ornately titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh's film is a darkly comic, potently tragic, and thoroughly entertaining display that features a prominent, tour de force performance from the great Frances McDormand.

The plot revolves around, yes -- three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Igniting the cause is Mildred (McDormand) -- a bold, brash, and relentless mother seeking justice for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela. Mildred slyly uses the billboards to send a message to the local police (greatly played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell), and a hostile, ongoing dispute shakes the town.

It's a film that'll make you angry. It'll make you laugh. And it might make you well up. It's so well-written, and the rough-around-the-edges characters are developed with striking personality and vivid dimension. This is a film of jarring surprises and poetically harsh ironies. Each scene crackles with conflict, tension, and sharp and snappy dialogue that usually consists of Mildred certifiably roasting her counterparts. Frances McDormand is phenomenal here. It's a legendary performance in my eyes --  it's as serious as it is hilarious, and as tough as it is emotionally wrenching. John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, and Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea, Lady Bird) round out the superb supporting cast.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a small-town story, but it burns with resonant and relevant themes, sending smoke signals of scathing commentary on abuse of power, racism, predators, hypocrisy, and misplaced priorities. At a time when it seems like some people are more upset about what NFL players do or don't do during the National Anthem than they are about folks spewing hatred and raising Nazi flags, Three Billboards points to a much bigger picture.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, November 27, 2017

[Review] Coco

Pixar's latest gem Coco is a vividly-tuned celebration of music and passion, as well as a magnificent look into the tradition behind Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) -- an annual Mexican holiday in which people pay elaborate tributes to their loved ones that have passed on.

Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is the story's main character. He's a young dreamer and aspiring musician. The only problem is -- music is banned in his household, due to a sour note in their family tree. Through a curse, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead -- a vast and intricately designed realm where he meets his late family members in all their face-painted, rattling skeletal glory. From there, he embarks on a quest to find his elusive great-great grandfather, whom he believes has the power to send him home with blessings to pursue music.

We get some pretty spectacular views of this world. The film's impressive animation is a feast of sugar skulls for the eyes. The visuals burst with vibrant colors and dazzle with an effervescent glow. The voicework is stellar too, lending an enthusiastic authenticity to the tale with pitch-perfect performances from the likes of Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, and Jaime Camil (the hilarious Rogelio from "Jane the Virgin"). And while the Wizard of Oz-like narrative covers ground similar to 2014's The Book of Life, it still possesses some wonderful storytelling in its own right. The plot is stacked twists and turns and amusing characters. There's a funny bone here, but it becomes quite apparent that everything is connected by the film's dramatic and emotional spine.

There's also a heart-tugging musical sequence that features the film's sweet and catchy headlining song "Remember Me", and it certainly will be remembered. Oh, and that ending. It's a tearjerker -- the kind where it seems like someone is slicing onions right in the movie theater.

Coco is so rich with themes of family, legacy, memories, and yes -- death. But for a film that does approach the subject of death so often, it's incredibly full of life.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

[Review] Mudbound

Netflix's Mudbound is a sweeping and richly-detailed 1940s period piece that trudges into the deeply rooted conflicts and racial tensions under the cloud of a troubling Jim Crow shadow.

Directed by Dee Rees, this particular southern saga digs into a dispute between a black family and a white family who are pitted against each other over neighboring land stretched across the Mississippi delta. The film has quite a literary feel to it, as it pages through chapters and changes perspectives with the guide of multi-character narration.

Of those perspectives are the McAllens (played Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke) and the Jacksons (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan). Each family has a member returning from war -- Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan, and Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson. It's these two that happen to form a forbidden friendship, and their bond is devastatingly tested amid the lingering effects of shameful history, slavery, and the hatred that still runs throughout town. And then there's Jamie's extremely despicable and racist father (played by Jonathan Banks, "Breaking Bad"). Let me just say: No one would blame you for wanting to punch this guy in the face.

It's a painful, maddening, and moving portrait of an ugly time. Like 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation before it, this is often a difficult and harrowing watch. How tragic to see a black soldier return from war only to be persecuted by townsfolk, and to see his closest, most confiding friend suffer similar punishments just for associating with him. A lot of the heft here comes from the powerful performances. The cast is more than solid all-around, but it's Hedlund and Mitchell that emerge as standouts, especially as the story shifts most of its focus toward them. I was also very impressed with Mary J. Blige -- she's almost unrecognizable in this heavily dramatic role.

Even though Mudbound takes place nearly 80 years ago, it holds themes that still echo today, reminding us that we've come far -- but not far enough.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, November 24, 2017

[Review] Lady Bird

The great Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with the comedy-drama Lady Bird. It stars Saoirse Ronan, who's coming off of her Oscar-nominated performance in Brooklyn. And let me just say: everything about this film is brilliant.

Meet Christine (Ronan), or, excuse me -- "Lady Bird" (that's what she demands to be called). She's a Catholic high school student with a streak of defiance (and I'm not just talking about the pinkish hair dye), aspiring to leave her hometown of Sacramento to attend college somewhere on the East Coast, despite her parents' wishes. The story follows Lady Bird though her senior year and all the complications, uncertainties, and revelations that come with it.

This gem is spunked with a consistently delightful energy, and it's immensely well-written -- the characters are wildly memorable and the dialogue is clever and chuckle-worthy. It's the little details too -- like the Christian homecoming dance scene where you can hear "Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in the background. And speaking of crossroads, the narrative tackles plenty of familiar coming-of-age conundrums. It actually reminded me a lot of last year's The Edge of Seventeen and even 2013's Enough Said, and that's definitely a compliment. This is a love letter to home, family, friendship, first loves (or so one thinks), and the things we take for granted. The film is especially affecting when it explores Lady Bird's crackling and complex relationship with her mother, who's terrifically played by Laurie Metcalf. The ever-consistent Tracy Letts plays Lady Bird's father, while Lucas Hedges (Oscar nominee from last year's tearjerker Manchester By the Sea) plays her theater boyfriend.

And then of course there's Saoirse Ronan, who's sensational again here, displaying her magnetic versatility. This character is so vibrant, and so chalked with bold personality and dimension. There's that almost intangible element, where she constantly reveals layers and experiences transformation -- but still retains exactly what makes her who she is. That's Christine, er, I mean Lady Bird. Or is it both?

* 9/10 *

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

[Review] The Florida Project

After making waves with the iPhone-shot indie Tangerine, buzzing director Sean Baker returns with The Florida Project, a spirited and empathetic juxtaposition of childhood wonderment against the backdrop of working-poor struggles within the fractured cracks of America.

The story revolves around the exuberant Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mischievous young friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they spend their summer break (with minimal parental guidance) splitting time between two rundown motels -- ironically named The Magic Kingdom and Futureland. The film follows their adventures in mundanity -- spitting on cars, spying on guests, sharing ice cream cones, exploring 'Do Not Enter' rooms, making fart noises...

It's all winsomely captured with an observant, almost documentary-like eye -- the garish pastel colors pop through the Kissimmee humidity and the characters beam with realism, personality, energy, nuance, and life amid their very much lived-in environment. The kids are absolutely terrific here (especially Prince, who becomes the main focus). In fact, their performances are so natural that it doesn't seem like you're watching actors (maybe they aren't, at times). Willem Dafoe is at his very best as the property's cantankerous manager with a tough-loving, caring heart of gold beneath his raspy exterior. Also impressive is Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee's messy and temperamental mother who just can't quite get it together. Her character isn't meant to be the most likable, and she definitely frustrates at times, but she feels so real -- like someone you might know.

Naturally, this transient film isn't built on structured plot. It constantly meanders, drifts, and shifts attention -- just like the kids at the center, but it remains thoroughly absorbing. It's as enchanting as it is harsh, and it takes a couple of deeply affectionate and heart-wrenching dives in the latter half. The last 10 minutes, in particular, breathtakingly set off fireworks of swirling emotion.

By the end of our stay at The Florida Project, it feels like we know the place pretty well.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, November 20, 2017

[Review] Justice League

You know when a bunch of popular musicians come together to form a band or a project, and the results are almost always disappointing? Uninspired. That's basically what happens in the much-hyped Justice League film. The Justice League unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). But despite the fresh collaboration of versatile all-stars, this supergroup ultimately underwhelms as a whole.

It isn't until over halfway through the film when the heros eventually (and reluctantly) team up to save the world from an invading army of extraterrestrial flutterbugs (they kinda look like vampire mothmen), led by the story's heavy and horned main villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds).

For a while, it feels like you're watching chunks from several different movies spliced together. Director Zack Snyder stages the action sequences with a murky backdrop and a jarring overload of CGI -- so much so that the picture seriously looks like cutscenes from a video game. And if things weren't already overstuffed enough, we still have to deal with a few humdrum scenes of Amy Adams wasting away in the nothing-to-do role as Lois Lane, while we wait for the inevitable resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill), which is handled in a tremendously clumsy manner, by the way.

As for the good, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman carries over the awesomeness and optimistic humanity from this year's earlier, fantastic Wonder Woman movie. Jason Momoa's Aquaman lends a general badassness and cool seafaring aesthetic to the crew. And Ezra Miller (who's been great in everything I've seen him in) as Flash is the film's electric source of comic relief, delivering the script's best lines and zapping a spark of levity and wide-eyed enthusiasm into the brooding tone of the film. Unfortunately, the neglected newcomer Cyborg is as one-dimensional and robotic as his armor.

And given the way these characters are thrusted into battle together, there's never a sense of camaraderie or chemistry between them. It doesn't help that their mission is plagued with clunky pacing. For a film brimming with so many dynamic powers, it's glaringly void of any true momentum. Then there's the bad villain. And I don't mean "bad" in the evil way -- he's just bad. Faceless. Personality-less. Generic. Stock. He might as well have been a walking statue with a temper-tantrum. In turn, when the climactic showdown arrives, it isn't as exhilarating as it should be, and it feels incredibly low on stakes. At least BvS had a maniacal and memorable Jesse Eisenberg calling the shots.

Justice League does possess some redeemable elements and displays glimmers of hope for future DCEU films. But while it might be a step in the right direction, it definitely isn't a leap.

( 5.5/10 )

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

[Review] Murder on the Orient Express

It's no secret that Hollywood is a prime culprit for producing remakes. But even the decision to revisit something like the whodunnit puzzle Murder on the Orient Express is a curious one from the get-go, especially considering that Agatha Christie's famous novel already experienced a pretty great on-screen adaptation with its 1974 version. But here we are...

All aboard the lavish train is the all-star cast of Daisy Ridley (in her first major role outside of The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Olivia Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp (using another unidentifiable accent), and Michelle Pfeiffer. Things get tense when a passenger suddenly turns up stabbed to death, and all the characters in the coach are enlisted as suspects. On the case is Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh), who proclaims himself as "Probably the greatest detective in the world." I like how he says "probably." It keeps him honest. Anyway, what unravels is a shifty-eyed murder mystery.

Branagh serves as director too, and to the film's credit, it's winsomely shot and it confidently achieves the old-fashioned mood and aesthetic its heading for. But narrative-wise, it has a difficult time building up much suspense or arriving at a compelling payoff, especially for those that have seen the original. It's an inherent problem, really. And the revamped cast is definitely a proven one, but with so many players involved, they all just kind of get shuffled into the mix, like cards in a deck vying for their moments at the top. Aside from Branagh (and his glorious mustache) standing out by default, Michelle Pfeiffer (who was also fantastic in mother! this year) impresses in the only other memorable role.

2017's Murder on the Orient Express is a faithful and fateful film... maybe a little too much. It's a competent remake, and exactly that. Nothing more. Personally, I wouldn't have minded if this thing had decided to deviate off the tracks.

( 6.5/10 )

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

[Review] A Bad Moms Christmas

The Bad Moms are ringing again, and this time it's Christmas! Thankfully, this film's fun cast presents just enough spirit to decorate this middling comedy sequel with some joy.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn return as the threesome of bad moms, and they're ready to
take on the stress of the season and pull off the perfect Christmas for their kids, and maybe even enjoy a little bit of it themselves. "Take Christmas back!" they say. "Put the 'ass' back in Christm-ass..." But things get even crazier when their own bad moms roll into town for the holidays, including the uptight and hard-to-please prude (played by Christine Baranski), the oversharing and overbearing care bear (Cherly Hines), and the freewheeling gambler (Susan Sarandon).

The cast is fully game, and they all bring a lot of life to to the festivities, even if their characters are a bit one-note. The film is stuffed with raunchy, brash, awkward, and self-deprecating humor. Not all of it will kiss your mistletoe, but it definitely has its moments, like the tension-filled dodgeball match at Skyzone, or the amusing scene at Hahn's character's spa when Justin Hartley (also known as Kevin from NBC's hit "This Is Us") comes in for a wax, and things get...close. Very close.

Not to anyone's surprise, but there isn't a whole lot of weight or focus to this thing. Most of the time, A Bad Moms Christmas feels like you're watching a montage-driven sitcom. And it's so overtly formulaic and the territory is so well-worn -- that if you've ever seen a Christmas movie or one about parental drama -- you can practically pin down every single story beat before it even arrives -- like, swifter than Santa.

( 5.5/10 )

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Monday, November 13, 2017

[Review] The Killing of a Sacred Deer

After 2016's bizarro The Lobster, provocative director Yorgos Lanthimos recruits Colin Farrell once again, along with Nicole Kidman (these two also starred together in this year's The Beguiled) for another beastily-titled film called The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It's a darkly comedic and disturbingly dour psychological drama that leaves a punishing, infectious mark.

Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, an esteemed cardiovascular surgeon and family man who lives with his wife (Kidman), daughter (Raffey Cassidy), and son (Sunny Suljic). Everything is fairly normal until the boy of a former patient (played by Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) begins to infiltrate Murphy's life in obsessively strange ways. And to go any further than that would be spoiler territory.

From the film's opening close-up of open-heart surgery, you know you're in for a doozy. A not for everyone type of flick. But even though it's challenging, it isn't the kind of thing to cause walk-outs. Personally, I was fully intrigued. The narrative perplexes and stuns, practically catching the audience like an actual deer in headlights. The unhinged tone is enough to make your own heart race, especially as the story steadily gets weirder and weirder, and weirder. The picture is shot with a sterile elegance -- the camerawork slowly glides and zooms with Kubrickian-like style, while the unnervingly high-pitched musical score cuts deep like a scalpel. The cast is solid all-around. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman skillfully lock into a coldly deadpan mode, but it's Barry Keoghan who stands out in one of the most clinically creepy on-screen performances in recent memory.

But as The Killing of a Sacred Deer approached its end, I got the impression that there wasn't much meaning to any of it. While The Lobster was a symbolic and substantial examination of dystopian romance, this film is more of a hollow head-scratcher. But whether it's pointless or not -- it still gets under your skin.

( 7.5/10 )

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

[Review] Wheelman

First there was Baby Driver, and now there's Wheelman -- a car chase crime-thriller on Netflix that's well worth the ride.

Frank Grillo plays the getaway driver. After a botched robbery, he receives a phone call from an Unknown number and an ominous voice begins giving him commands. From there, his situation spins out of control as he gets mixed up in a dangerous web of money, mobs, and shootouts.

In an interesting twist, the whole movie essentially takes place within the vehicle. It's like the Tom Hardy-starring Locke, but much more intense -- without being too overwhelming. The route is steadily paced with impeccable speed and timing, and director Jeremy Rush--with a name that's almost too rich to be true--incrementally ups the stakes and infuses a constant sense of unpredictability as the story takes some surprising turns. The car itself practically becomes a narrative catalyst with close-ups of screeching wheels, stops and shifts, flashing lights, and a (keen) use of mirrors. At times the camera even takes a backseat -- quite literally -- as its placed in the backseat of the car. This POV strategy makes it seem as if we're sitting in on the immediate madness.

Frank Grillo is perfectly cast and does an awesome job carrying the story mostly on his own. And the film clocks in at a fittingly swift 80 minutes. It's an exhilarating get in and get out.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, November 10, 2017

[Review] Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime is an intimate and low-key sci-fi drama that takes a thought-provoking look at one form of artificial intelligence and its effect on emotions.

Set in the advanced future where 3D computer technology has risen to stunningly sophisticated levels, this story focuses on a woman with dementia named Marjorie (Lois Smith) as she recounts her past with the help of her "Prime", which happens to be a life-like holographic recreation of the younger version of her deceased husband Walter (played by Jon Hamm).

Thematically, it's like Away From Her meets Blade Runner. The film moves at a slower place, and it's definitely on the quiet, non-flashy side, but it pulls you in with its pure elegance, intriguing vision, and deep examination of the memories, love, and loss. The film is actually less concerned with the technology itself or the potential benefits as well the problems and moral conundrums that can arise from such a thing -- and is instead more concerned about what it means to be human.

Unfortunately, some elements get lost in translation along the way, and the narrative focus shifts in frustrating ways. And my guess is that most audiences will find the film to be too confined and talky (it is based on a stageplay) for its own good. Still, Marjorie Prime has strong performances and is a fairly interesting portrayal of the world's ever-changing futurescape.

( 6.5/10 )

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