Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Reviews: Black Panther, Annihilation


Now that the Oscars are complete (with virtually NO real surprises), I can get back to posting a couple reviews on films I've seen in the past couple weeks.  Ryan Coogler's monumental Marvel achievement of Black Panther is continuing to churn up both critical and box office acclaim.  Set in the corner of the Marvel universe in the fictional world of Wakanda, Black Panther weaves the story of a young man named T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is thrusted into the role of king of his country after the events set forth in Captain America Civil War that left his father dead.  T'Challa, his sister Shuri (Black Mirror's Letitia Wright) and his loyal servants (including Lupita Nyong'o and Walking Dead's Danai Gurira) look to stop the nefarious actions of South African black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue *claw* (a buff non-motion-cap Andy Serkis) who is linked to a troubled vigilante named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

The film opens in Oakland, California (Coogler's hometown) in 1992 with flashback sequences that shape the narrative of the film.  Kudos to including Sterling K. Brown who plays T'Challa's uncle N'Jobu in these scenes.  This setup helps ground this movie in reality somewhat and helps link some of the messages in the film with the present day.  I don't want to spoil the key plot points of the movie as there are a few twists and turns that are better experienced first hand.  Thankfully the story of Black Panther is a well crafted one and particularly the second half of the film works well almost chiefly because of the villain portrayed on screen by Michael B. Jordan.  Erik Killmonger is such a layered character and his motivations are so understandable that you almost feel yourself rooting for him at times.  Jordan plays him with such a passionate bravado giving yet another killer acting turn in an already accomplished career for the young star.  I feel Black Panther has a real chance to be a 2018 Best Picture nominee and Jordan has an outside shot of earning a supporting actor nomination following in the footsteps of Heath Ledger as one of the more memorable comic book movie villains of all-time.  Jordan and Coogler might have the best working relationship in Hollywood right now (however we'll soon be seeing Jordan without his main man in the upcoming Creed 2).

This is easily the best ACTED Marvel film ever made.  All of the actors give their best effort, especially Wright and Jordan.  Wright gives an effortless fresh performance that makes you think that she's just having an absolute blast making this movie.  Boseman is solid as usual in the title role and newcomer Winston Duke is a scene stealer as M'Baku, a powerful (and sometimes humorous) leader of the Jabari tribe.  The only sub-par performance I saw in the whole film was Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya who almost seems to be mailing in his scenes.  I guess he was just so good in Get Out that I expect a little bit more from him.

Black Panther represents a groundbreaking cinematic moment that also happens to be a damn good movie.  Despite a few story and character issues (Martin Freeman's character was both annoying and not 100% necessary in this film), Coogler and his whole crew came with their "A" game and delivered what surely will be one of the more entertaining films of 2018.  The supporting musical score from Ludwig Goransson adds just the right amount of African percussion to the themes of the film and serves as a unique and complimentary addition to the action on-screen.  I can't wait to see what Ryan and Michael B. Jordan in particular do next and I'm EXTREMELY interested in the path that the brilliant Letitia Wright takes in her career.  A very solid 4.5 out of 5 JRs for Black Panther.  Wakanda Forever!






Alex Garland has been a screenwriter in Hollywood for a long time (he wrote 28 Days Later for Danny Boyle) but only recently has moved behind the camera in a directorial role.  His big-screen directing debut came in 2014's thought-provoking cyber-thriller Ex Machina.  His follow-up is Annihilation, a loose adaptation of the well-received Jeff VanderMeer science fiction novel of the same name.  Garland definitely takes a lot of liberties in putting on-screen his vision of the novel (I have not read the book but I hear it is very different from the film) and takes multiple risks that leave the audience trying to fill in the plot gaps and make sense of an "out-there" ending.

The movie centers on Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology and former Army soldier who loses her military soldier husband Kane (Oscar Issac - once again teamed with Garland) for 12 months under mysterious circumstances.  Lena ends up being deployed outside a quarantined swath of land in the Northeastern US (Area X) that has experienced and unexplained biological phenomenon (called The Shimmer) that ends up consuming everything that enters it.  Teams have tried to explore the area before but have not come back alive.  Lena joins a team of female scientists including characters portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriquez and Tessa Thompson (fresh off her Thor Ragnarok turn) who enter Area X, passing through the Shimmer in an effort to understand the phenomenon and make sense out of the growing foreign substance.

What happens in Area X is both astonishing and unsettling at the same time.  The film earns its R rating with some gore and downright horrific events that unfold.  There is a specific scene in which a bear-like undead creature haunts the team of scientists in a terrifying encounter.  The creature has screams that mimic a previous victim and the production value and Garland's execution of the direction in that sequence is top notch, delivering a truly scary scene that could highlight a true horror film. One by one, Lena's team faces adversity and unknown biological and physiological reactions that are mostly unexplained.  The final 20 minutes of the movie culminate in an extra-terrestrial encounter that kinda runs off the rails a bit.  I didn't fully understand what I was watching, but at the same time I liked the audacity of the choices made by Garland.  Throughout this movie he stays true to his vision and doesn't really care what the audience thinks about it.  It reminded me of moments in 2001 A Space Odyssey in which Stanley Kubrick brings the weird and wonderful without reservations.

Overall I liked this movie.  It didn't make total sense in the end but it was one of those films I kept thinking about long after I left the theater.  It's always good to see original science fiction delivered to us on the big screen and I hope Garland will continue to innovate and create unique stories in the sci-fi realm.  This is worth a watch for Portman and Rodriguez's performances and for the visual tone that's beautifully conveyed on-screen.  A solid 4 out of 5 JRs for Annihilation, a film that probably isn't for everyone but isn't afraid to be bold and inventive.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: Den of Thieves


It's been a while since I've just escaped into an action movie with all these prestige pictures filling up movie theaters these days.  With Den of Thieves, Gerard Butler's new heist film, I had a chance to take in this mindless shoot-em-up.  Directed by Christian Gudegast (don't worry, I've never heard of him either), Thieves stages a battle between a gang of bank robbers (led by Orange is the New Black's Porn Stache / Pablo Schreiber) and Butler and his band of too-cool-for-school Los Angeles detectives.  The movie plays out as a cat-and-mouse game between the two sides through various Hollywood-area neighborhoods and climaxes in a large scale heist attempt at the LA Federal Reserve.

There is a LOT of shooting in this film and the bullet discharge and casing drops pepper throughout the theater.  Gudegast is obviously in love with guns and it shows throughout several shoot-out sequences, culminating in a gripping clash in the middle of LA rush hour (sort of the opposite version of the opening scene of La La Land).

What's really notable about this film is that its 140 minute run time flies by.  I couldn't believe the movie was wrapping up when it did.  I'm not sure if we can credit Gudegast with this or not, but the pacing is pretty well done.  The acting is serviceable enough and once again O'Shea Jackson proves that he can make a name for himself and will eventually be known as more than just Ice Cube's spawn.  I forgot all about 50 Cent, but Curtis Jackson shows up as part of Schreiber's team and fits right in.  Overall I just wanted more out of the story with this film.  The end heist is solid but not very original and the end twist is just marginally amusing/surprising. A throw-away conflict sub plot between Butler and his troubled marriage is just extra unnecessary bloat.

Den of Thieves is nothing amazing, nothing really memorable, but it is a good time at the movies and I can unequivocally say right now that it is the BEST FILM of 2018 :).  Great sound, solid action and a semi-interesting story adds up to a 3.5 JR movie.  If you've already seen all the Oscar contenders (like I have) then treat yourself to a matinee of this one.  Only a few more weeks until my next hotly anticipated release of Ryan Coogler's Black Panther.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ten Best Movies of 2017 + 3 bonus reviews

Before we get to my annual list of the best from the past year, here are a couple films i saw in the past week.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle - A quasi-sequel from the 1995 Robin Williams vehicle updates the board game concept into an immersive video game experience, sucking a group of high schoolers into a video with avatars played by The Rock, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan.  The concept of having these stars play high school fish-out-of-water roles is very clever and Dwayne Johnson especially gives it his best.  Hart and Black provide the right amount of comedic support while Gillan is spunky and very cute as a nerd-ish girl coming out of her shell, but overall I just wanted more from the story within the game.  We get a cookie-cutter plot to steal a jewel with an underwhelming Bobby Canavale as the big baddie. Still really entertaining and watching Jack Black playing a girl who is trying to use a penis to pee for the first time is highly enjoyable to watch.  3.5 JRs 



Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest offering details the life of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis with the best character name EVER), a fashion designer in 1950's London who stumbles upon a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) who ends up being his muse and wife.  Like a lot of PTA's work, this film deals with internal conflict and a strive for perfection.  Day-Lewis (in his FINAL film, so he says *sniff*) takes PTA's well crafted script and runs with it.  He is refined and proper through so much of the film that when he lets his rage through near the end (not as aggressive as in There Will Be Blood) it comes across so powerfully.  It really is a joy to watch Daniel Day-Lewis spew curse words.  The film itself is very enjoyable to watch as PTA shows so much detail in the stitching and assembling of fabric into designer clothes.  The tension between Reynolds and Alma (a wonderful out-of-nowhere performance by Krieps) ramps up over time and PTA does a remarkable choice in amplifying all of the mundane sounds at a dinner table (buttering toast, sipping tea, etc..) to showcase how meticulous Reynolds is and how these seemingly innocent actions end up ruining his calm and craft. The sound design in this film is excellent as is the classical accompaniment of Jonny Greenwood's (Radiohead) score.  I failed to see Inherent Vice, but I feel like I should go back and watch it now.  PTA rubbed me the wrong way with The Master (after liking all his other films), but Phantom Thread has him back on course.  I feel like I need to see this again to see some of the intricacies I missed.  4.5 JRs

All the Money in the World - A solid effort by Ridley Scott who tells the story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty's grandson on an epic scale and with off-camera extraordinary circumstances.  Kevin Spacey was originally cast in the role of Getty but got removed from the final cut due to his real-life issues with sexual harassment.  In steps Christopher Plummer (who does an amazing job) in a whirlwind re-shoot that took a few weeks.  It's hard to notice any major issues and the film flows well.  Mark Wahlberg is lukewarm as an ex CIA agent whom Getty hires to find his son.  The real star of this film is Michelle Williams who play the kidnapped Getty's mother and gives yet another tense and believable performance.  Give this woman an Oscar already!  4 JRs

By my count I saw 46 films in the theater this year, a count that ramped up significantly after getting back in on Moviepass.  I'm sure i'll blow this number out of the water in 2018.  There are some films I missed and still need to see like The Florida Project, but I think now's as good a time as ever to publish my list.

As always, here we go in reverse order...

#10 - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

In a Jordan Blog first, I TOTALLY FORGOT to write a review of this film after I saw it.  I was looking back to review my ratings and this movie never received a review.  I'm honestly not sure what happened, but ... here we go with a mini review.  Francis McDormand plays Mildred, a no-nonsense mother who recently lost her oldest daughter to a brutal rape and murder.  Furious with local law enforcement in a small Missouri town, she resorts to renting out three billboards to antagonize and call out the town's police chief (played with raw zeal and zest by Woody Harrelson).  McDormand is a foul-mouthed dynamo in her best performance since 1996's Fargo.  Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) crafts a smart, crass, touching and wonderfully entertaining movie that has helped McDormand and Rockwell become Oscar favorites at this point.  Blindingly funny at times, the film does have some serious messages about law enforcement and women's rights.  Rockwell entertains me in just about anything he does (including last weekend's SNL hosting stint) and he and McDormand are the main reasons this movie works so well.  This film sneaks into #10 on my list as a result and simultaneously earns a 4.5 JR rating.

#9 - Molly's Game

A bang-up job by first-time director Aaron Sorkin who slings his patented dialogue at us through the muse of Jessica Chastain.  Chastain's Molly Bloom is fierce, focused and fiery as she runs an underground poker game and unintentionally rubs elbows with the Russian mob.  The drama is tense throughout and peaks with an amazing speech by Idris Elba (Molly's lawyer) near the end of the film.  I was engrossed in every minute of this movie.

#8 Spiderman: Homecoming

In a year of well-made superhero films, this was a breath of fresh air.  Taking the first two incarnations of Spider-Man in Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and putting an eager youthful spin on the webslinger, Tom Holland gives the very best performance of Spidey that the big screen has seen.  Michael Keaton is a solid villain and the pacing and effects are really well done.

#7 - The Post

Steven Spielberg at his finest at the top of his craft.  He weaves a true story that most people know the ending to into a brilliant dramatic endeavor that keeps all of us on the edge of our seat, watching the mastery of Streep and Hanks carry the narrative. This is a celebration of the freedom of the press and while it didn't totally blow me away like Spotlight, it's a great film on its own and shows the range Spielberg has as a living legend.

#6 - Thor Ragnarok

With all due respect to Spiderman, THIS is the FUNNIEST superhero movie of the year.  Director Taika Waititi gives his own unique spin on the (up to now) tired Thor storyline and allows Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and especially Mark Ruffalo to shine through a perfect mix of action and humor.  Cate Blanchett is fierce and delightful as the main nemesis in this movie.  Let's hope Taika gets to make more big budget bonanzas in the near future.

#5 - Logan

Logan takes the SuperHero Crown of 2017 by simply letting Wolverine be WOLVERINE.  At the end of his great career as the metal-clawed indestructible bad-ass, Hugh Jackman delivers a nuanced performance as a legend entering the twilight of his life.  Director James Mangold brings us an X-Men western that makes the most of its R-rating by letting Jackman run wild with both violence and extreme dialogue.  Patrick Stewart gives one more excellent turn as Professor X and Dafne Keen is a revelation as a younger mutant who adds a bit of heart and vigor to the gruff proceedings.  Hugh had quite a year in 2017 balancing brawn and anger here with true movie-star showmanship in The Greatest Showman.

#4 - Coco

Re-mem-ber... this film.... One of the best ever entries from the Pixar machine, Coco is skewed more towards adults as it tries to make sense of the great unknown that is life after death.  Set in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, Director Lee Unkrich and company paint a beautiful vision of this unique holiday with a pastel of gorgeous colors and intricate skeletal animations.  The voice acting across the board is excellent and shines most bright with young Anthony Gonzalez who belts out the infectious score with thrilling bravado.  Miguel and his family brought one of the best stories to the screen in 2017 in what is easily the best animated film of the year.

#3 - Get Out

The brilliant mind of Jordan Peele delivers the biggest surprise film of 2017.  An original idea that explores race relations in a unique way is both hilarious and horrific at the same time.  Daniel Kaluuya becomes the conduit for the audience as we go along a fantastically strange ride with him. This movie is even more rewarding on second viewing as I recently watched it again on HBO.  So well crafted and wonderfully paced, I only wonder what Peele has up his sleeve for his next film.

#2 - Blade Runner 2049

This film NEARLY made it to #1 and completely stands out as a true sci-fi gem, well surpassing the original 1982 Ridley Scott film.  Ryan Gosling excels in the lead role as a gritty cop (Blade Runner) moving from amazing set piece to amazing set piece.  Denis Villeneuve is the new master of setting a tone in his films.  From Prisoners to Sicario to Arrival and now this futuristic smorgasbord of light, color and mood, Denis paints the movie screen like his own personal canvas.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated for an Oscar 13 times and hasn't WON.  Hopefully #14 changes everything in 2018 as this film is shot so beautifully.  Hans Zimmer's cyber-score drones over vast post-apocalyptic land-and-city-scapes and gives this Blade Runner a new voice of its own.  If you missed this in theaters, definitely queue it up on the loudest home theater system you can find.

#1 - Dunkirk

There are so many haters that dismiss this movie as a film without characters you care about or a meaningful story.  While I understand people who absolutely have to have those elements in a film, I simply did not have a more memorable movie-going experience in 2017 than I did in sitting in the Smithsonian IMAX watching Christopher Nolan's experimental masterpiece.  From the moment German gunshots rip through the walls, floors and ceiling of the theater I was instantly transported into World War II along with the young men depicted on screen.  It doesn't matter that we forget their names, don't know their entire back stories or that there are only three established actors in major roles (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh - sorry Harry Styles).  The no-name newness of these men help bring us in closer.  The only thing that matters is survival and getting out of Dunkirk.  Nolan weaves three separate narratives paced by different time-spans in an effective way.  We see certain shots from multiple camera angles at different times in the film.  Everything is done raw and realistically with attention to detail.  As I said in my earlier review, Nolan is able to make a single fighter plane seem so menacing as it screams in to mark its prey.  Buoyed by a punishing, gripping Hanz Zimmer score, Dunkirk is a film that stayed with me for days and one that I wished I went back and saw in the theater.  It doesn't look like Nolan is going to win his long overdue Best Director (thanks Del Toro!!!) award for this one, but I hope the best director working today keeps trucking along, thinking outside the box and making great art like this film.  Remarkably, of Christopher Nolan's last 4 films, THREE have landed at #1 on my year-end list and the other was #4 (Dark Knight Rises).


Honorable Mention goes to Lego Batman Movie, War of the Planet of the Apes, Star Wars The Last Jedi, Phantom Thread and Alien Covenant (yes... I was one of the few that really did like this film) that just missed the list.  Oscar nominations are coming out soon and look out for some episodes I'll be involved with on Omar's Arts Review and Commentary podcast.  Overall I feel that 2017 was a step up from 2016 in terms of delivering quality films.  The top six movies on my list all earned 5 JRs along with Lego Batman (which I retroactively dropped a bit in my mind).

Thursday, January 4, 2018

7 Days of Movies - Reviews


Over the holidays I took some time off from work and went on a full movie binge, seeing 7 movies in 7 straight days.  It was wonderful (made possible by MoviePass of course).  Since I bought my year of MoviePass in advance for $89, I saw 12 movies in December.  At an average ticket price of $12 (let's say), that's $144 in ticket prices.  So it's safe to say based on December alone that MoviePass is well worth it.  I will be seeing movies for free (getting Regal rewards points, charging my car at the mall for free, etc) for the next 11 months.  I doubt MoviePass can sustain long-term, but I'm going to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

As for the movies of movie week, here are some mini reviews on the films I saw (in chronological order):

The Greatest Showman

A new movie musical staring supreme entertainer extraordinaire Hugh Jackman that chronicles the life of P.T. Barnum.  The story is a bit cheesy at times and quite Disney-afied (even though the movie is not Disney), but the acting is pretty strong (kudos to Zendaya who is GOING to be a HUGE star).  Big props to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land lyricists) who put together a fantastic group of original pop songs that accent the key moments of the film. Listening to the soundtrack over the holidays (and while writing this blog post), my rating went up from a 3.5 to 4 out of 5 JRs.

The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro's whimsical unique love story centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins) a mute woman working as a cleaning lady in a top secret government facility in Baltimore who ends up befriending a strange mutant fish-man creature that was captured and tested on by American scientists.  Yes the premise seems insane but the movie is quite good thanks to a slew of stellar acting performances.  Richard Jenkins might just have delivered his very best performance as a funny, sweet old neighbor of Elisa's while Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon (who is GREAT in EVERYTHING) add quality supporting turns.  Overall the movie is great to look at with a lot of retro drab noir colors but it didn't completely blow me away.  It's definitely not Del Toro's best work (the Fish Love didn't really work for me) but it's worth watching for the acting alone.  Hawkins was great but she won't win Best Actress.  4 out of 5 JRs.

Downsizing

This is an example of a movie that has two distinct halves.  Alexander Payne delivers an amazingly original concept with the idea of shrinking humans down to the height of a quarter coin to allow them to consume less resources and extend their bank accounts.  The process (called Downsizing of course) is fascinating to watch as the audience gets to follow Matt Damon go through the motions of becoming small.  Right after the experiment we see him presented with a giant Saltine Crackers packet from his nurse as a joke.  It's these product placements and the realism of the small world that is fun and rewarding to watch.  However, midway through the film Payne decides to shove environmental activism down our throats as Damon and his friends (including the always excellent Christoph Waltz) travel to Norway to visit the creator of the Downsizing process and visit a hippie community that plans to live underground as the rest of the world destroys itself.  The positive side-effect of this plot turn is that we get to watch Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will by her government.  Chau gives an authentic comedic (yet touching) performance as the love interest of Damon's character.  Nominated for a Golden Globe, I'm hoping she gets some Oscar love as well.  This movie could have been a lot better, but the first half alone is enough to garner a 3.5 out of 5 JR rating.

Molly's Game

Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut (sounds strange but it's true) is a rousing, intense tale of real-life ex-skier Molly Bloom who ran a successful underground poker game in Los Angeles and New York City for years before getting busted by the FBI.  Jessica Chastain is excellent in the lead role as Bloom.  Sexy, strong and determined, she portrays a driven woman who plays by the rules as long as she can.  The back-and-forth between her and her lawyer (played brilliantly by the great Idris Elba) is really fun to watch and Elba's speech to the opposing counsel at the end of the film is a truly triumphant moment.  Kevin Costner gives a solid supporting performance as Molly's father and Michael Cera adds to the realism of the poker games by playing "Player X" a combination of a bunch of celebrity poker players identified in Bloom's real-life book of the same name. This movie is extremely tense throughout and features Sorkin's patented firecracker dialogue.  Slightly rough at the edges but entirely interesting and rewarding to watch (especially if you are into poker like I am) Molly's Game is a must-see and earns 4.5 out of 5 JRs.  I feel like I need to go out and read Bloom's book now to get more inside info on these legendary poker games. 

I, Tonya

This is another film that's all about character performances.  The re-enactment of the events of 1992-1994 that follow the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan saga is portrayed on the big screen .  This is a film that doesn't need to be seen in a theater but SHOULD be seen by everyone.  The acting of Margot Robbie as Harding is superb.  She is obviously more attractive than the real life figure skater but really nails her white-trash demeanor. The REAL star of this film, however, is Allison Janney who gives THE BEST performance of her stellar career.  Playing Tonya's mother LaVona Fay Golden, Janney is brash, in your face, smoking 1000% of the time and totally OWNING every scene she's in.  In several scenes she has a bird on her shoulder picking at her gray mop-top of hair.  Halfway through the film, director Craig Gillespie cuts to an interview shot of Golden who exclaims “Well my storyline is disappearing, what the fuck?" and every member of the audience totally agrees with her.  You find yourself missing seeing Janney on-screen.  All along, you wonder if this is just an over-the-top caricature of Harding's mom, but at the end when the clips roll of the real-life individuals of this story, you can clearly see that Golden seems to really be as crazy as Janney makes her out to be.  At the Oscars the supporting actress race will come down to two people:  Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) and Janney.  I am totally Team Janney here as I thought she just gave a more powerful (hilarious) performance.  I didn't love Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly and the CGI work done on the stunt version of Tonya (Robbie's face looks so fake on her body) took me out of the movie a bit, but I, Tonya still earns a 4 out of 5 JR rating.

The Post

Steven Spielberg is all grown up now, making big-boy movies like this one, a re-telling of the publishing of the Pentagon Paper by The Washington Post and the New York Times.  Meryl Streep stars as Washington Post owner Katharine Graham and as an audience we are rewarded to see her paired with Tom Hanks (The Post's editor Ben Bradlee) for the first time.  The back and forth between Streep and Hanks is a true joy to watch and both give their usual all-star turns in the lead roles.  Bob Odenkirk ditches his Saul character to give a strong supporting performance as reporter Ben Bagdikian. While the story was a bit too political for my taste it is still a worthwhile drama that showcases the power of the press and why freedom is so important.  It's really cool to see Spielberg's serious side and the way he uses the camera so effectively to set up his scenes.  The deft direction combined with the excellent acting across the board is enough to push this movie up to a 4.5 out of 5 JR rating.  Not as good as Spotlight, but good enough to be one of Spielberg's better films.

Darkest Hour

As Allison Janney did in I, Tonya, Gary Oldman EASILY gives his BEST PERFORMANCE of his career as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in this slice-of-war film by Joe Wright (Atonement) which covers the late 30's / early 40's and the events surrounding World War II.  The movie is by-the-book and hints at the events of Dunkirk (a Darkest Hour / Dunkirk mashup would be fun to see).  It's entertaining (if a bit too long) but all else is unimportant as we watch the magic of Oldman's performance.  It simply is one of the very best acting performances I've seen in years.  In every scene he's in, you find yourself riveted by his presence.  His speeches throughout the film are powerful and lead to a poignant scene towards the end where Churchill walks onto a subway train for the first time in his life and sits and talks with the general public.  Their reaction to his presence is priceless and seems so genuine as by that time you totally forget that Gary Oldman is acting as Winston Churchill under all that makeup and extra pounds.  Oldman becomes Churchill long before that in the film.  The Academy should just give Oldman the Oscar right now.  Well deserved for a great career and stand-out performance as Britian's bombastic orator.  4 out of 5 JRs for this film.

All in all, I saw a lot of GOOD movies, a couple GREAT ones, no perfect films but thankfully no stinkers.  The quality of acting for that week was off the charts and I'm looking forward to the Golden Globes this Sunday evening.  All the above films are worth watching so go check some of them out at the theater.

Stay tuned, for more reviews and my Top Ten List of 2017 in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Reviews: Star Wars The Last Jedi, The Disaster Artist and MORE

Once again, I have fallen way behind in my reviews.  Thanks to Moviepass which my wife and I both have now, we have been watching films at a breakneck pace.  I'll quickly sum up some the recent movies I've seen and then dive deeper into Episode 8 in the Star Wars saga.

My Friend Dahmer - Exploring the high school life of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, director Marc Meyers paints a detailed picture of a demented, troubled youth.  Ross Lynch (apparently a Disney actor) does a good job of playing creepy as his Dahmer character struggles with his sexuality and has a fascination with dissecting roadkill.  This movie is interesting at times, but never moves into the Dahmer killings themselves, ending just before his first murder.  -  3 JRs

Daddy's Home 2 - Decided to give this one a go after watching the original the night before on video.  Ferrell and Wahlberg are comedy gold when they bounce of one another and the addition of Gibson and Lithgow as the dad's dads works well.  A bit corny and cheesy at times and there are some forced laughs, but overall I had a good time.  3 JRs

The Disaster Artist - Oh, HI James!  Franco did an amazing job portraying the misguided aspiring filmmaker Tommy Wiseau who decided to produce, write, direct and act in the "so bad it's good" 2003 film The Room.  In an adaptation from Greg Sestero's book of the same name, Franco and his brother Dave showcase the dream and vision that went into this awful film.  We understand why the acting is so bad and are still enamored with the cast as they give their "best" effort.  James Franco deserves an Oscar nomination for his nuanced, lovable portrayal of Wiseau.  He has the crazy East-Euoropean accent down-pat and delivers a slew of comedic lines throughout.  While I would have liked to have seen more scenes that focused on making the actual movie, what I got was good enough to make me want to actually watch (and finish) The Room.  I'm also very interested in checking our Sestero and Wiseau's upcoming follow-up film Best F(r)iends.  A solid film that's worth watching even if you don't know what The Room is. 4 JRs

Mudbound (Netflix) - The story of two young men (Tron Legacy's Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell) who go to war (WWII) and return to a small town in Mississippi that is poisoned by racial segregation. The acting is solid throughout and while Mary J. Blige is getting some awards love (including a Golden Globe nomination), I really didn't think her performance was that memorable.  The story is interesting and the visuals are gorgeous at times through the sprawling farm landscape of the South.  Worth a viewing if you have Netflix.  3.5 JRs

Call Me By Your Name - Luca Guadignino's slow-moving yarn about Elio (Timothee Chalamet) a 17-year-old American living abroad in an Italian villa who meets his Father's intern Oliver (Armie Hammer) during the Summer of 1983 and falls in love with him.  This film builds very slowly and once the friendship between the two leads turns into love, it goes over-the-top in some places.  There's not a whole lot going on for most of the film and I just never really was invested in the characters personally.  The film does rebound slightly towards the end thanks to a truly remarkable performance by Chalamet.  In fact, the end-credits sequence is one of the most moving and raw one-take scenes I've seen in a movie in quite some time.  Overall though, it just wasn't my type of movie and I did not like it as a whole.  It might be more suited for others (my wife enjoyed it), but I have to personally give it only 2 JRs

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Rian Johnson has been given the reigns of the new Disney money-making machine.  It was recently reported that the Looper/Breaking Bad auteur is signed on to develop a new Star Wars trilogy that sits outside of the Skywalker story of Episodes 1-9.  In a prequel to this new endeavor, Johnson has delivered an entertaining and original take on the Star Wars franchise with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Without giving anything away plot-wise, the movie focuses on our favorite characters from JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Rey, Finn, BB-8, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron) and spreads them out across the galaxy on various adventures.  Luke, Rey and Kylo in particular have monumental scenes that change the shape of the story arc of this saga.

Johnson is adept at bringing inventive battle scenes, rewarding cinematic sequences and a whole lot of humor to the table.  As a whole, The Last Jedi is more fun than Episode 7 and while I still enjoyed Rogue One better, it is a worthy addition to the franchise that answers some questions and ends up adding more.

Adam Driver and Mark Hamill are the two MVPs of this movie from an acting standpoint.  They give their all to their respective parts and compose the lifeblood of the story.  However, to properly review this film I feel that I need to dive into spoiler territory.  The next few paragraphs contain important reveals from this film and if you don't want to know anything, stop reading here...

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SPOILER ALERT

There are several decisions that writer/director Rian Johnson has made with this film that worked really well for me, while others I could have done without.  I really liked the decision to kill off Supreme Leader Snoke.  Kylo Ren's desire to become the big baddie of the franchise seemed like the wise move, and his amazing lightsaber battle with Rey in Snoke's chamber was a gorgeously shot piece of film.  Seeing Rey and Kylo communicate through a force connection brought those two characters closer together and after they decided to part ways again after the chamber battle, you can totally tell Adam Driver gives his all to the performance.  Watching him hunt after Luke in the Battle of Crait, you can really feel his anger and desperation.  It's like watching a problem child spin out of control.  Driver has turned Ren into one of the more memorable movie villains in recent memory.

On the flip side, Mark Hamill totally owns his elderly Luke Skywalker performance.  Nuanced, funny and touching at times, he is able to bring elements of the past to life in a new way.  I've always wanted to see Master Luke in a role similar to Obi-Wan in A New Hope and we got just that in this film.  I'm not sure how I feel about how Johnson chose to have Luke die as he was giving a force-projection, but the move paid off as it brought us those epic climactic battle scenes between Luke and Kylo.  It was also a nice touch to see Yoda come back as a force ghost, voiced once again by the legendary Frank Oz.

While a lot of this movie I thoroughly enjoyed, I did not really care for some of the excess cutesy stuff.  I did like the Porgs but the horse-type creatures and the subsequent chase to get off Canto Bight (the casino planet) seemed a bit forced and over the top.  BB8 driving an AT-AT was a bit much too and a re-hash of Chewy in Return of the Jedi.  I wanted to see Finn sacrifice himself to destroy the cannon at the end of the film and didn't like the choice to have Rose save him.  In fact, the whole Rose/Finn/Benicio Del Toro side-plot didn't work for me.  The worst moment of this movie, however, was when Princess Leia got sucked out of a spaceship and all of a sudden starts flying/floating through space because of the force.  That scene seemed so out of place, ridiculous and forced.

Despite these flaws, Johnson really delivered visually with this movie.  The Battle of Crait itself is a sheer marvel of set design and cinematography.  Watching the white surface explode in red lines and dust clouds was a wonder to behold as an audience member.  The epic, silent flash-explosion of Laura Dern's character's spaceship smashing into a Star Destroyer was stunning.  ILM did a great job of ramping up the CGI in this movie and helping deliver Johnson's grand vision.

Last Jedi has brought a lot of negative disturbances in the force lately.  Several Reddit users have been up in arms about the choices Johnson has made (some of which I outline above).  I am not one of those people.  I feel Johnson had free reign to make his decisions and they were made to move beyond the Skywalker soaked plot line.  I'm excited to see how JJ Abrams finishes this trilogy (think General Poe Dameron) and look forward to enjoying Johnson's own trilogy down the line.  This movie was very entertaining to me and I'm glad I got to see it on opening night with all my kids.  The Last Jedi falls short of a perfect rating but is slightly better than Episode 7 and gets 4.5 out of 5 JRs from me.  Kudos to Rian Johnson, one of the better directors working today who has earned the keys to the George Lucas' franchise.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Reviews: Coco, Justice League


Pixar has an impeccable track record of success with its films.  Yes, there have been some speed-bumps with Cars 2, Brave and Good Dinosaur (so I've heard) but overall you can usually expect quality film-making from The Lamp.  Coco is the 19th Pixar film and is directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina.  The first Pixar film to focus on Latino culture (the story takes place in Mexico during the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Coco is an example of a well crafted story, combined with an authentic vision that stays true to the Mexican spirit.  The story focuses on a young boy named Miguel who struggles with a shoe-making lineage of family despite his deep desire to be a mariachi-style musician.  He ends up accidentally visiting the land of the dead, exploring his own family tree first-hand in an attempt to both further his desire to play music and connect with his heritage.  Connections between the present and past are explored within this movie in a unique way through layered story-telling. There are elements of Beetlejuice here in terms of the living and dead co-existing, but most everything here is extremely original.

The Latin-fueled music throughout is excellent and the lead child actor Anthony Gonzalez sings his songs with such passion and vigor it helps you believe that Miguel has that undeniable musical passion within him.  I can't really give away a lot of the plot because there are some twists that are best left unspoiled to fully enjoy the narrative.  Benjamin Bratt, Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal and others including Edward James Olmos lend their voices to the amazing vibrant visuals of Mexican celebration and culture that are painted beautifully on the screen.  Pixar's animating gurus did an amazing job of animating the skeletons from the land of the dead with realistic and creative bone movements throughout.

I had so much fun watching this movie and the story really spoke to me personally.  I often think about death and family and the unknown surrounding our mortal demise.  This film explores all of that in way that kids can enjoy but parents can probably appreciate more.  Coco is simply a celebration of music, culture and family that cannot be missed.  You need to go see this movie right away.  5 JRs for Pixar's best accomplishment since Wall-E.



And.... on to another disappointment with a DC comic book film.  Justice League is a film that plods along trying to energize the franchise with some banter between DC's all-star cast of superheroes. Honestly I don't care about this reincarnation of Superman.   Man of Steel was not good and I haven't really bought into Henry Cavil since.  Aquaman is a waste of time and while Jason Momoa is game, his character is basically a "bro" with super powers who says "My Man" one too many times.  Unlike what Marvel has so deftly done with their cinematic universe, we get introduced to Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg all at the same time, so this is merely an exercise in taking the three main characters we saw from Batman v Superman (including Wonder Woman) and throwing a whole new set of characters into the mix.

Marvel sets up most of it's characters in standalone films and brings them together with more backstory already laid down.  I don't want to get in an argument about DC vs Marvel, because I'm definitely not a comic book nerd (never bought or read one).  I was entertained at times with Justice League (with Ezra Miller's Flash in particular) but it's simply a universe I care far less about than Marvel.  I was all-in on Batman when Nolan had control but once Zach Snyder and company took over (Nolan does have a producing credit here) I feel some of the creative quality has suffered.  A frustratingly bland 2 out of 5 JRs for this film. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thor Ragnarok + 5 Other Small Reviews

As MoviePass season has heated up, I've been slacking on my reviews.  I'll start this post with five very quick takes on movies I've seen within the last month.

American Made: Tom Cruise as a drug smuggler during the days of Pablo Escobar.  Doug Liman's film means well but I just was not that interested in getting an Iran Contra history lesson along the way (3 JRs)

The Mountain Between Us:  The movie Alive, without all the cannibalism. Idris Elba and Kate Winslet get stranded in the mountains of Colorado after a plane crash.  Decent chemistry between the two but the ending seemed a little forced and the plot drags along at times.  Bonus points to the director for filming the opening crash sequence which was shot from a perspective of the passengers in the plane and was thrilling to watch.  (3.5 JRs)

Only The Brave:  Josh Brolin stars in the real-life story of a team of Arizona firefighters that experience a tragic accident.  Great acting and an amazing re-telling of true events, however, I was a bit bored by the firefighting tactics and I don't think they translate very well to the big screen.  (4 JRs)

Happy Death Day:  Jessica Rothe plays the lead role as a college student that experiences a horrific death day-after-day Groundhog Day style.  Rothe is great, but the story is repetitive (shocker) despite a decent twist at the end.  Worth a rental for sure though. (3 JRs)

Bad Mom's Christmas:  The gang is back together again barely a year after the first Bad Moms film.  More of the same here with Kathryn Hahn stealing the show again.  A good turn by the mom's moms (Baranski, Sarandon and Hines) help buoy a sub-par script.  Glad to see This Is Us's Justin Hartley (The Manny) getting some film work. (3.5 JRs)


Now on to the main event....


Thor Ragnarok is the third stand-alone Marvel film, matching Iron Man and Captain America as the only three-time solo acts in the Marvel Universe.  As much as I like Chris Evans as Cap America, I really enjoy Chris Hemsworth's take on Thor the most out of all Avengers outside of Tony Stark.  This time around, Taika Waititi is at the helm of this action-comedy extravaganza and he brings a quirky sense of New Zealand humor to this film.

Set as a follow-up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ragnarok begins with Thor battling a fiery monster.  Asgard is trouble once again and a few of the Avengers show up in support including Dr. Strange, Hulk and that meddling brother Loki (played with glee by Tom Hiddleston).  A funny and surprising cameo turns up in a play about Loki and Thor and the stage is set for a lot more fun along the way.

After a devastating visit from Thor's evil sister Hela (played with extra campy venom by Cate Blanchett), Thor and Loki end up on a scrap-filled planet where Jeff Goldblum plays the Grand Master who runs a sort of large-scale Fight Club.  Goldblum's signature delivery fits in perfectly with the Waititi tone of the film and it's on this planet where we see Hulk and Thor hook up.  The humor surrounding Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, who gets a lot more to chew on here than he does in other films) and his long-term turn as the Hulk become a topic of hilarious back and forths between Thor, Banner and Valkyrie (a new supporting character).  While Ragnarok is definitely a Thor vehicle, we get a whole lot of the big green guy and there is a lot of quality character building that should set things up nicely for the next Avengers film.

The story flows well and the movie never shows it's 2-hour plus run time.  Great visual effects, a solid rocking soundtrack and quality acting all around.  Nearly everyone is extremely likable in this movie.  Waititi himself lends his signature Kiwi voice to Korg, a CGI stone man who looks a lot like a smaller version of the Rock Biter from Neverending Story.  Korg calmly delivers his lines and brings an extra layer of off-beat wit to the movie.

From early on in the film it's clear that Waititi has planned to load the dialogue with a bunch of deadpan delivery and self deprecating humor.  There is a sequence near the end of the film where Ruffalo as Banner jumps out of a spaceship.  The resulting scene brought my half-full theater to a full roar of laughter.  Once Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song blare during the final battle, the whole audience is on-board and loving every minute of it.

This is easily my favorite Thor film and one of the best Marvel superhero movies ever made.  5 out of 5 JRs for the 6th time this year.  I really hope that Waititi gets a chance to do more in the Marvel universe as his style certainly fits well in the comic book genre.  Black Panther is next (MICHAEL B. JORDAN + RYAN COOGLER!!!) and then we get our first taste of part 1 of Avengers Infinity War next May.  Marvel is doing such a great job of building all these characters in the stand-alone films that it's quite obvious we need a super-sized two-part Avengers feast the next time around.


I recently heard some experts tout that this is a down year for movie quality overall.  I respectfully disagree.  The year started with SEVERAL totally awesome films and we've gotten some gems over the Summer and Fall as well.  It'll be interesting to see if any quality Oscar contenders emerge over the next few weeks.