Fish-men, dressmaking and peaches: The top 10 movies of 2017

With a few weeks left before what has quite loudly morphed into the most unpredictable Oscars in years, it’s finally time to take stock of what we had in 2017 at the cinema.

In brevi: It was an astounding dichotomy of auteurs operating – or continuing to operate – at the height of their powers (Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve) and first-time directors yielding surprise gems and excitement for the future of film (Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele).

In a year that ended with Hollywood beginning to form a new identity – the result of which may not be evident on the big screen until at least 2019 – it also gave us much to cry, scream and ponder about in the theater.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the months following an incredibly epic and incredibly awkward Best Picture win by “Moonlight” – itself a eulogy to identity and the winding road it can personify itself as – some of 2017’s best movies featured heroes, villains and everyday characters grappling with theirs.

Sometimes it involved busting out a move at an impromptu dance party in Italy, other times it was shedding your identity for the entertainment of others.

And, at other times still, it involved fish sex. 2017 truly had it all.

Adding to the sea of similar pieces that represent closing a chapter and opening a new one more than anything of actual substance, here is this film critic’s top 10 films of the year.


1. “Phantom Thread”

Simultaneously engrossing, mystifying and deliciously realized, watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigma of a period romance has more in common with, well, anything else PTA has done than, say, “Atonement.”

It may represent the end of an iconic career for Daniel Day-Lewis, but “Phantom” is also just as much a coming-out celebration for Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps – who matches Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville (both up for Oscars in March) every step of the way.

Witnessing Reynolds’s and Alma’s strange, budding romance against the backdrop of an immaculate Johnny Greenwood score and the claustrophobic House of Woodcock is tenser than you’d expect, but just as tantalizing when you remember the perennially standard-raising director at the helm.

2. “Call Me By Your Name”

This year’s best love letter to “Moonlight” for no bigger reason other than, much like Barry Jenkins’s masterpiece, Luca Guadagnino’s portrait of a gay relationship in northern Italy unfolds like poetry. And if there are any seams in its erotically woven canvas, they are nearly impossible to be found.

Whether the success of “Call Me” results in an Armie Hammeraissance remains to be seen, but it also gave audiences – as part of an impeccably timed three-headed beast along with “Lady Bird” and “Hostiles” – the ultracool Timothee Chalamet in a role that is singularly pervading and heartbreaking.

You won’t be able to eat meals inside anymore after this film, and you won’t be able to soon forget Chalamet’s multilingual, infinitely multidimensional turn. If you manage to, you still have Michael Stuhlbarg’s creeping tearjerker of a final monologue to endure.

3. “Lady Bird”

Uniquely transcendent and all-encompassing, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut harkens back to 2002-era Sacramento in a way that makes it seem like we all lived there.

Saoirse Ronan is a powerhouse as the northern Californian high school senior looking to escape to the East Coast, but the trials and tribulations of senior year is almost an entire character on its own (as you most likely will remember, dear reader).

It’s a powerful teacher of a film, a midnight dip into the snack cabinet and absolutely everything in between.

From my review: “The irony that all of Lady Bird’s hijinks – imagine her as Juno with a touch of Joan Jett – unfolds against the backdrop of a Catholic school in a world that has just experienced the horrors of 9/11 never plays itself dry. Communion wafers are eaten like Pringles (‘It’s OK, they’re not consecrated yet.’), and only Gerwig could make an opening sequence sprinkled with Bible readings and ‘amens’ so endearing.”

4. “Get Out”

A social-thriller darling purely of the moment, “Get Out” placed Jordan Peele solidly on the Hollywood map seemingly before we realized he was even going there. It’s a cinematic collage of already iconic scenes and sequences, and a dark comedy well worth its weight in creepy tea-stirring and allegory.

“Get Out” has all the ingredients not only for one of the best movie-going experiences of the year, but to also make a heavyweight claim as what will go down as 2017’s most relevant film decades down the road.

Whatever film history’s version of The Sunken Place is, Peele’s first film is not destined to be imprisoned in it.

From my review: “‘Get Out’ is suspenseful in ways we’ve seen countless times before, but Peele has such a talent for interweaving searing, smart satire wherever he can that there are several moments that invite both feelings of tension and laughter.”

5. “Raw”

Illuminated by a deeply embedded coda of violent and undeniable eroticism, this French gem about cannibalistic vices is as rebellious as much as it feels like essential coming-of-age viewing.

It’s horrifying, on the obvious levels, to watch veterinary school freshman Justine (an astounding Garance Marillier) tear into a severed human finger for the first time. But director-writer Julia Ducournau ensures there’s a tinge of uneasy familiarity to the whole affair as well – we’ve most likely tried new things that are just as batshit crazy in college, didn’t we?

6. “Blade Runner 2049”

It’s been decades since a major studio produced a piece of sci-fi so non-mainstream (in all the best ways) and it may be decades before it happens again, if the final box office numbers of “2049” tragically have anything to say about it.

Director Denis Villeneuve effortlessly kept his hot streak going with an engrossing, almost overwhelmingly realized noir-dystopia world that has as much to say about what it means to be human as it does about pushing the limits of film’s ability to hijack our senses and run wild with them.

From my review: “It’s an atmosphere that is downright intoxicating in its futuristic dreariness, and a world that – from a technical level – provided me with a more memorable sense of awe than James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’; an environment that, like K, is grasping onto a sense of what it means to be human, and grappling with how being human has changed over the previous 30 years.”

7. “Baby Driver”

Edgar Wright’s latest effort was destined to be a hit from the start.

An action musical with all the intensity and charm that one would expect that pairing of words to deliver, “Baby Driver” is both incredibly cathartic in its use of mostly-slightly-obscure rock jams and in its underlying love letter to that great pastime of simply turning on your car and hitting the road.

8. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”

Who says the Hollywood life is the easy life?

In Netflix’s unexpectedly revelatory documentary, Jim Carrey is starkly honest and uncomfortably intimate about his tendency to get lost in some of the cinema’s most iconic characters of the ’90s.

The ironic parallels between Carrey’s and Andy Kaufman’s so-freaking-out-there-we-just-laughed-it-off performative jaunts aren’t lost by one iota, and even less so is the disturbing truth about how far entertainers will go just to get a few laughs and smiles from you, me and the rest of an otherwise unassuming audience.

9. “Dunkirk”

Frenetic and rarely ever pausing to take a breath (we can thank another iconic Hans Zimmer score for that), Christopher Nolan’s near-wordless WWII epic is a masterclass in assailing our senses senseless.

It’s more than just a technical work of artistry. “Dunkirk” has the balls – for better or for worse – to hone in on an aspect of war that often goes too understated in film. As one of the most powerful forces in existence, war doesn’t discriminate about who is in its way when ships drown and bombs scream through the sky, marking it as even more of a triumph when even a single teen soldier endures through the chaos.

From my review: “Dunkirk is perhaps a more realistic vision of the how the boys sent off to fight in WWII – many of them teenagers – were never truly equipped for what they’d experience. The concept of home itself means as much to them as air; survival itself is a victory. By telling the story in a way that is so matter-of-fact, Nolan has found a way to perhaps pays as much homage to the soldiers as a studio film made 80 years later possibly can.”

10. “The Shape of Water”

Guillermo del Toro’s most cinematic tale is also his most timely. Sally Hawkins gives one of the standout, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performances of the year as she signs, dances and (spoiler) sings through corners of del Toro’s mind that are more supremely human than anything he’s ever done before.

The more he twists the archetypes of the classical love story, the more he fine-tunes a contemporary definition of love for an increasingly tolerant world, and it’s a beautiful and completely satisfying romance to watch unfold.

From my review: “Like many of his films, it’s impossible to imagine “Shape of Water” being pulled off as well by any other director. It dips its webbed feet into about 10 different genres – most notably noir, suspense, romance and horror, to name a few – and manages to effortlessly glide through each of their waters.

Best of the rest: “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “Coco,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Darkest Hour,” “mother!,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “I, Tonya,” “Okja.”

Thanks for reading, and here’s to 2018 *champagne glasses clink emoji*

 

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UNM plan seeking to revolutionize general education program receives big endorsement

By David Lynch

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A UNM report which recommends enhancing the university’s core curriculum and general education initiative as a whole cleared a major hurdle Tuesday afternoon in the form of a near-unanimous endorsement from Faculty Senate members.

The report was created by the General Education Task Force – commissioned by the Faculty Senate in late 2016 – as a response to 2017 legislation that seeks to streamline the credit-transfer process for higher-ed students in New Mexico.

“We saw this as an opportunity to revitalize the general education program; the core curriculum that we already offer,” said Pamela Cheek, interim associate provost for curriculum at UNM, and the original chair of the task force.

The report states that its dual-phase proposal is necessary to help the university maintain a competitive edge as that credit-transfer system is in the process of being implemented. Once it is, it would allow students to move those core credit hours between New Mexico institutions in bulk – easing the frustration that can sometimes come for people transferring from Central New Mexico Community College to UNM, as an example.

But Cheek said the legislation was merely a “catalyst” for discussions surrounding further evolution of UNM general education – one that better communicates to students the value of core curriculum courses when taken in concert with each other.

The report also foreshadows a difficult situation for UNM should it not fully commit to the proposed two phases, saying, “it is likely that general education at UNM will fail to provide an integrated foundation for student achievement, despite being compliant with state requirements.”

The task force spent about a year working on the report. In that time, its members conducted focus groups with various faculty and nearly 50 students to compile feedback about core curriculum courses and general education as a whole.

According to Cheek, those meetings with students showed that they typically don’t view general education as a program, but rather a set of courses that they simply “have to get out of the way.”

The responses provided in the report backs that perspective of some students, some of which called core classes “useless” and “a waste of time.”

But while Phase One of the General Education Task Force’s proposed plan slightly restructures core curriculum requirements so as to be in compliance with state legislation, Phase Two involves detailed steps to ensure the value of general education as an entire program – versus just individual courses – is accurately conveyed to students.

“It’s a harder lift, but it’s an essential lift for UNM to recognize the excellence of its general education to adopt Phase Two as well,” Cheek told Faculty Senate representatives Tuesday.

“We don’t want to be left behind by smaller schools that can adapt quickly,” Cheek said, adding that Phase Two involves a necessary recognition that state officials have essentially put UNM general education on an equal plane with those of other in-state institutions.

That second phase of the plan, which would be implemented over three years, combines UNM and national research on student success when it comes to job preparation and fostering an attitude for life-long learning – things Cheek said are products of an evolved general education system.

After the vote by representatives, Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle called the effort put into the report by the task force “tremendous.”

“The level of detail they had to put into it to retain our uniqueness, but still make it so transferability was possible….I couldn’t be more pleased,” she said. “I think we need to spend a little more time on the details of the Phase Two part, but the Phase One, hands down a slam-dunk.”

The task force’s two-pronged proposal has already picked up endorsements from the Deans’ Council and Acting Provost Rich Wood. It’s expected to be presented to the Board of Regents in an upcoming meeting.

“(We are) creating momentum out of legislative changes that originally felt one-size-fits-all,” Cheek said.

Review: In ‘Darkest Hour,’ a resplendent Gary Oldman is the highlight, but not its sole strength

The year is 1940. Hitler’s Nazi regime is forging a merciless trail across Europe. France is under siege. England is backed into a corner both metaphorically and, in the case of the 300,000 British soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, literally.

If you watched Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” over the summer, you know the story and you know what’s at stake for these soldiers. But what you may not know about is the chaos unfolding at Parliament. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has been pushed out for a replacement much less suitable for the office, not to mention at wartime – the easy-to-scrutinize Winston Churchill.

Churchill may be commonly discussed in high school textbooks, and cited in epigraphs of WWII videogames, but as told in “Darkest Hour,” he was just a benchwarmer until peace negotiations could begin.

The riveting history lesson comes from director Joe Wright, he-of-period-piece-fame with a filmography that includes “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina.” Wright crafts a rousing portrait of the mid-20th century wartime leader that isn’t overly pious, but righteously revering.

It’s Gary Oldman who brings the cigar-chomping, bourbon-drinking figure to life, and he is as extraordinary as he is unidentifiable; a man with the weight of a nation on his shoulders who is more concerned at the outset with the typography of his memos.

Oldman has built a reputation embodying iconic characters from fictional worlds (see: Sirius Black, Jim Gordon, Zorg), but his turn as an iconic historical figure may be his most captivating yet. His Churchill is snarky, vulnerable and oftentimes thunderously surprising, the display of an actor still able slip into a completely new persona even as he nears 60.

Sparks are created from speed at which he’s able to turn from gentle giant to unrelenting politician.

It helps that Oldman has a fantastic script to work with, courtesy of writer Anthony McCarten. “Darkest Hour” depicts an underscored trajectory for Churchill, whose odds of becoming a leader capable of changing the tide of World War II mirrored his own triumph over immense self-doubt. He’s certainly not the Churchill we know of when he makes his entrance. But the holy trinity of Oldman, Wright and McCarten makes it an entertaining and wholly believable journey.

“Darkest Hour” is a tale of political clashing that occurs not on the battlefield, but in the meeting rooms where the Big Decisions™ are made. Not that you wouldn’t know it’s a time of conflict; chandelier-adorned dining rooms are lit as if they’re underground bunkers, and they’re filled with angry Anglo men using the war as a way to upstage those across the aisle.

And just in case the audience isn’t getting the idea that typewriters and words are wartime weapons just as important as rifles and Spitfires, Wright occasionally cuts in with evergreen images of landscapes riddled with Blitzkrieg’d fields to hammer the point home.

A repeated visual cue marks the passage of time over which Churchill gradually finds his place as the fiery leader that would ignite England’s fighting spirit, a period which some might find unexpectedly short in the grand context of things. For the American audience, at least, we’re not quite sure where the midnight hour on his Doomsday Clock is, but it’s an idea by Wright that keeps the film light on its feet.

Another trick that works incredibly well: The way the film plays with light. At times the only channel through which it shines is a tiny peephole, or a single window pane; the slightest reminder that England – and Churchill – still has a chance of overcoming.

Lily James, fresh off this year’s “Baby Driver,” plays the prime minster’s secretary/typist/assistant du jour, and ably fills the role of being the channel through which we’re initially introduced to Churchill. Although, I can’t even remember her name, and that’s not good for a character whom we are pressed to believe plays a pivotal role in cracking Churchill from a cocoon of uncertainty.

The film’s standout takes the form of an especially intimate encounter between Churchill and London’s everyday men and women – not just his constituents, but as we come to learn, a source of Churchill’s resilience. Odds are this dramatic event never happened in real life, though it still works as an effective reminder that politicians aren’t the only ones with everything to lose in wartime.

 

“Darkest Hour” is rated PG-13 for some thematic material

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn

Directed by Joe Wright

2017

 

Review: In ‘Shape of Water,’ beauty saves the beast. No verbiage necessary.

For 20 years, Guillermo Del Toro has found success in the bizarre and carved himself a niche in the eclectic. He’s done more than anyone (not named Peter Jackson) to create a spot for fantasy in contemporary cinema, with 2006’s piercingly original “Pan’s Labyrinth” serving as the crown jewel of his catalog.

The imaginative Mexican director’s latest effort, though, makes a strong claim for the crown. A more character-driven story than anything he’s undertaken before, “The Shape of Water” is simultaneously a departure from Del Toro’s unfettered imagination and a showcase of the filmmaker at the height of his technical powers.

The fantastical has always been Del Toro’s forte, but “Shape of Water” operates as proof that he can tell a spellbinding story while leaving nightmarish creatures on the bench, while also trading mysticism for a previously untapped amount of realism.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Doug Jones – Del Toro’s living, breathing common denominator – “Shape of Water” could pass for an only slightly hyperbolized noir tale. Not that Jones subtracts from the story; his turn as the wordless, costumed, undoubtedly partially CGI’d merman is one of cinema’s most wondrous creations of 2017.

Even more wondrous: Jones’ strange, captivating chemistry with a terrific Sally Hawkins as the mute and strong-as-hell Elisa, a janitor at the top-secret military lab where he is being held. Their bond is a sublime ode to embracing differences, a pull that only becomes more captivating as the movie rolls along, even as the film’s B-plots try to keep up.

Among those sidebars: Cold War-era paranoia, Russian spies and an increasingly great performance by Michael Shannon, who is only a shade or two removed from the masochistic Capitan Vidal of “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

These narrative detours aren’t completely comprised of recycled components. The trope of Russian collusion here collides with the spirit of scientific discovery in a way that keeps it from being completely predictable. At the very least, it leads to some suspenseful dilemmas and the presentation of an enticing question: At what point does the possibility of discovery outweigh national security?

While Del Toro does enough to keep those side plots afloat in the waters of our interest, it’s still the core relationship between Elisa and the creature that we allow ourselves to be swept up in. Del Toro’s vision feels like a quasi-contemporary Brothers’ Grimm tale flipped on its head – one in which Prince Charming has gills and who is rescued by a damsel who has no issues causing distress for what she loves, and what she simply believes to be right.

Like many of his films, it’s impossible to imagine “Shape of Water” being pulled off as well by any other director. It dips its webbed feet into about 10 different genres – most notably noir, suspense, romance and horror, to name a few – and manages to effortlessly glide through each of their waters.

If there’s anything jarring here, it’s the occasional, unexpected and sometimes gory reminder that, despite the beauty of what we’re seeing, this is still very much a dark story. That’s one Del Toroism that is still in full force.

The world Del Toro envisions is a cold one at first – steely, overwhelming laboratory halls and streets caught in green downpours dominate the setting – until we are taught to see the beauty in its ostensible imperfections. It’s the visual manifestation of an exquisitely cosmic story, but also a comic one – and one that’s very much worth its weight in timely allegory.

In today’s world, Elisa’s altruistic personality stands out, and Del Toro’s dedication to his vision of the two lovers is uncompromising, even when it means moments of subtle discomfort for the audience. Jones’s creature comes across mostly as you would expect a lost, helpless soul to, but Hawkins steals the show sans the CGI/makeup artistry that makes him so visually alluring.

In one scene, the veteran actress puts on a display so memorable in its raw, word-less emotion that it catapults an already memorable turn into one of the best of the year – a performance that is very much worth Oscar gold. She’s wonderful throughout, but in this 90-second-or-so highlight, you have as hard a time taking your eyes off her as you do Jones’s magically realized merman.

Those performances lend themselves to what makes this Del Toro’s greatest accomplishment, even if a case for his very best film requires repeated viewings. “Shape of Water” is his most character-driven effort. He takes a road less traveled – one not inhabited by ghosts, fairies and fauns – but the destination is just as enchanting, and one that undoubtedly still resides in the eccentric imagination.

 

 

“The Shape of Water” is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro 

2017

Review: ‘Last Jedi’ is an epic in the best and worst of ways

The “Star Wars” franchise, by its very nature, demands that high expectations be asked of it.

While writer-director Rian Johnson’s first offering to the world’s biggest entertainment vehicle is undoubtedly the popcorn flick of the year many have been looking forward to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the episodic Skywalker saga is in danger of going into cruise control.

In terms of blockbuster action, it’s an oversaturated blast to witness. Narratively, though, it struggles to make the jump into lightspeed.

Johnson takes the reins from J.J. Abrams, cutting down on the nostalgia factor in the process. While Abrams’s story created new conflicts and heroes to root for, Johnson focuses on the introspective journeys of three in particular – Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren.

It makes for some potentially mythology-shattering revelations to be had with “Last Jedi,” so after 152 minutes in the theater it’s a bit frustrating to notice that the plot – particularly revolving around this new trilogy’s young heroes – has barely advanced from the events of “The Force Awakens.”

Johnson is more than capable of conjuring up the requisite amount of grandeur without breaking a sweat. Lightsaber battles, dogfights in space and monumental confrontations are still a hell of a lot of fun to witness, but at this point narrative developments should be just as world-shaking.

They’re not. Johnson doesn’t continue the stories we expected to witness so much as spotlight his own ambitions for the franchise – leading to something that feels only vaguely connected to what’s come before.

Rey, Luke and Kylo do a lot of second-guessing during the 140 minute runtime. While “The Force Awakens” was content with providing little moral gray in its story, there’s an abundance of it here. Themes of choice and ambiguity are as easy to spot as the countless stars in space, and “The Last Jedi” baits its audience with unique physical manifestations of those themes before hooking us with the typical blockbuster bombast.

It’s a bit of an unfortunate pivot for the film, which does extremely little to concern itself with the narrative setups constructed by “The Force Awakens” and even its own marketing. At its best, “The Last Jedi” is a visually splendid popcorn flick that teases – though disappointedly doesn’t truly explore – new branches of the mythos of the Force.

At worst, it’s sci-fi parody.

The soul of this trilogy continues to be Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, whose now-trademark unpredictability and infantile nature results in a villain type we don’t see much of anymore. It’s impossible to predict where his moral ambiguity will take him, and “Last Jedi” is best experienced through the lens of Kylo.

Not to mention, Driver continues to show no restraint in his performance.

Meanwhile, Daisy Ridley is powerfully engaging as the heroine-in-waiting, while Mark Hamill effectively portrays a much more vulnerable Jedi master than we’re used to seeing.

The primary trifecta aside, it’s clear Johnson believes the cast of this new trilogy is too large, creating side plots that do little other than give them something to do.

Finn’s storyline in “Last Jedi” is particularly frustrating, given how big a role he had in “The Force Awakens.” Partnered with franchise newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rebellion foot soldier Rose, the story takes him to Canto Bight – essentially a cosmic Las Vegas.

It ends up being a laughably pointless road trip with the sole purpose of providing an allegory about slavery and the business side of war that is much too on-the-nose to be a memorable storyline.

Carrie Fisher shines in her final role as the iconic Leia, as does Oscar Isaac as her best pilot, Poe Dameron.

There is one scene with Fisher, however, that doesn’t play as it should in front of a full theater. It’s cringe-inducing when it should represent a powerful, perhaps even seismic shift for the character.

In fact, “Last Jedi” too often is unintentionally funny. Those are the last words that should belong in a “Star Wars” review, but when Disney has desensitized moviegoers to any real stakes, it’s almost impossible to find where the line is drawn.

The starkest sign that Johnson isn’t preoccupying himself with continuing Abrams’s story full-speed ahead lies in what its marketing insists are mythos-shattering developments. In a world where “Game of Thrones” spoilers are treated like the plague, it’s an accessible way to create buzz.

But it also leaves us yearning for narrative payoffs that never arrive, leaving us feel cheated. While Rey, Luke and Kylo debatably grow as characters, the most shock-inducing developments are reduced to questions of what could have been, and how Abrams would have handled the continuation of his story instead.

I’m not saying “The Force Awakens” was a groundbreaking story – but “Last Jedi” has a responsibility to provide payoff to its predecessor’s setups.

The film’s most memorable moments come by way of truly transcendent visuals – including one particular jaw-dropping sequence that is on par with the original Death Star’s demise. It’s the film’s one true moment of wonder.

“Last Jedi” fulfills its quota as the continuation of a franchise that can resonate with every generation. It doesn’t take the story to new corners of the galaxy so much as get in the cockpit and prepare to do so, but it’s hard to predict where the story will finish with Episode IV, and perhaps that is the best we can ask for.

 

 

This review was edited by Jyllian Roach. 

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher

Directed by Rian Johnson

2017

Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head.

“The Disaster Artist” follows the companionship of Franco’s Wiseau and amateur acting class peer Greg Sestero – played by a fully capable Dave Franco – in their metamorphosis from San Francisco dreamers to Hollywood go-getters in the early 2000s.

While that journey never slows up too much, it’s by the strength of individual key scenes that make it memorable. That repertoire includes an early, no-holds-barred unleashing of acting fury in the middle of a packed diner; Wiseau’s constant head-scratching decisions on set; and the inevitable confrontation between Sestero and Wiseau that could have easily devolved into something out of “Jerry Springer,” but instead stays within the realm of believability.

At its core, “The Disaster Artist” is a story of determined naiveté disguised as destiny, as the two friends are lured by something that is lightyears beyond their comprehension. Sestero doesn’t have the talent to make it big, nor Wiseau the ability to be taken seriously by anyone, no matter how many times he unleashes his inner Shakespeare in public places.

Their solution: Make their own film, and contribute to cinematic history on their own terms. They do just that, only in the opposite way they intended, and the journey is hilarious and even touching to witness.

“The Disaster Artist” has no right to work as well as it does. The fact that it does is a testament to Franco, Seth Rogen and Co.’s ultimate message – that you can make Real Hollywood Movie that’s a hell of a lot of fun, while having a hell of a time doing it.

Like Wiseau in “The Room,” James Franco doesn’t only star in “The Disaster Artist” in an instantly iconic turn that should land him an Oscar nomination, but he takes the directing reins as well. The elder Franco brother always was a bit of an enigma, someone whose career choices never made complete sense but whose prowess as an actor can be turned to 11 when he wants.

In that way, it’s hard to imagine a better choice to bring the legacy of “The Room” to the big screen. It’s clear from both ends of the camera he understands Wiseau better than most, and shows why he might just be a figure to hold in high esteem. Franco is drawing endless laughter from us, yes, but his ultimate goal is sincerity – not parody.

By writing, producing, directing and starring in his own movie, Wiseau doesn’t see a way to get rich fast; he’s already a spring of money (though, true to real life, the film never makes a serious hypothesis as to where it all comes from). Instead, “The Disaster Artist” relishes the opportunity to criticize the superficiality of the industry, and it’s hard not to cheer Tommy on even when Greg, his only friend and practically his partner in life, has abandoned him.

“The Disaster Artist” drills into our head that Wiseau is an agent of chaos to the status quo, and someone who won’t be denied his chance. Even if that means kamikazeing his way through every day on set.

Comparisons to last year’s “La La Land” could be made. Both films are tributes to the illustrious pull of Los Angeles and the millions obsessed with putting their stamp on the city. But while the dreamers of Damien Chazelle’s dramusical are acutely aware of the mountain they have to climb to be successful, Franco’s Wiseau doesn’t blink at the odds before him until he’s well into his Olympian endeavor.

For the man bringing “The Room” to life, it’s about creating art, and flinching would be a distraction. For us witnesses his building of the very spotlight he’ll live the rest of his life in, it’s a reminder that bulletproof optimism might just be one of the best weapons artists can have.

It’s easy to sympathize with the Wiseau movie when the biggest obstacle he faces in making “The Room” is the utter confusion and shock of his cast and crew at his decisions. But you also don’t have to have worked in the industry to see things through their eyes – that this no-name, self-styled filmmaker shouldn’t have even a fraction of the confidence he has.

It’s that dichotomy that keeps the film engaging and not just comedic, all the way through to the eventual premiere of “The Room,” a sequence that is as raw and excellently crafted as any other this year.

Aside from Franco, the supporting cast helps to keep the movie light on its toes. Seth Rogen is superb as the representative of how things have been done in Hollywood for years, and Dave Franco is finally demanding to be taken seriously as the actor yearning to be a star and realizing “The Room” won’t get him there.

The rest of the on-screen ensemble is a virtual who’s-who of modern pop culture, and though the Francos chew up most of the scenery, there isn’t someone who adds a little something to the product as a whole. You’re better of going in not knowing who the side players are; the surprises will only add to what is sure to be one of the most fun theater-going experiences you’ve had in a while.

 

This review was edited by Jyllian Roach

“The Disaster Artist” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, Seth Rogen

Directed by James Franco

2017

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Pixar’s ‘Coco’ is visually gorgeous, surprisingly grounded and vaguely formulaic

After over two decades and nearly 20 films, it’s refreshing for Pixar to provide its most grounded premise yet.

Following sustained success by way of talking bugs, talking toys, talking cars, talking fish, talking emotions, talking rats and “talking” robots, something about a Dia de Los Muertos-centric story featuring human characters (and, yes, talking humanoid skeletons) feels much more relatable, like Pixar declaring a coup upon itself.

But then again, that was the point of “Coco” – to showcase a world with more connections to reality than any other Pixar offering before it, and to flesh out that world with the humanity the animation giant has the reputation of conjuring.

What makes “Coco” – directed by Pixar vets Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina – great is its uncharacteristic willingness to be tethered to something familiar rather than a fantastical concept. There are no houses sailing through the sky via balloon, dystopian robots cleaning up an abandoned planet or sentient toys at our feet, but “Coco” doesn’t need any of that to be great.

And even the more supernatural elements of “Coco” boast a sensation of intimacy.

The core story hits all the familiar beats. Miguel is a young boy who – despite his family’s strict keep-music-out-at-all-costs coda – reveres it, worships it and wants to make a career out of it. That deep-rooted selfishness turns into angst which morphs into rebellions before becoming…a trip to the Land of the Dead.

Here, as expected, Miguel learns some things about himself, his family ties and loyalty. But as Pixar has been so keen to show us in recent years, the emotional victory isn’t won until near-traumatic things unfold.

“Coco” isn’t powered by the same caliber of imaginative wit and creative gags as Inside Out and Wall-E, the best of Pixar’s recent crop. Its intellect is much more accessible for the younger moviegoer who will never get tired of the slapstick, overzealous antics of Dante the dog, but for adults, it’s a little less accessible.

Disney’s inspirations are also abundantly clear. It’s impossible not to compare Dante to Ed, “The Lion King’s” bumbling hyena; Miguel to “Moana’s” heroine; and even some elements of Pixar’s iteration of the afterlife to “The Road to El Dorado.”

That said, “Coco” is still an incredibly tender meditation on forgiveness, family and the sometimes difficult-to-navigate intersection of the two.

More admirable, though, is Pixar’s faithful snapshot of a culture that has become too synonymous with negativity in a trepid 2017. The studio did its homework here, and the result doesn’t stray too far from docu-drama status, especially in the first half-hour.

The details are ever-present, but Pixar doesn’t humble-brag about presenting the Mexican culture accurately, making the consistent inclusion of those details all the more important – perhaps even more so now than when production on “Coco” first began. Mexican cuisine is eaten – with chorizo the key to a standout bit of humor – and Miguel’s family encompasses four generations living under one roof, which this critic found immensely familiar. Not to mention Unkrich and Molina exhibit respect and reverence toward the oft-misunderstood Dia de Los Muertos holiday.

 

If 2016’s “Moana” offered a glance at Polynesian lore, “Coco” passionately plunges into the heart of Mexico, and the holiday that encompasses its values more than anything else.

It’s balanced by a brilliantly realized environment that’s on par with James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Miguel’s journey is one fueled by the sometimes insatiable lure of following your dreams, and Pixar’s artists painstakingly manifest that vision. The stunning animation doesn’t end there, though; at points I had to convince myself that a face-painted Miguel wasn’t the introduction of a live-action character.

The film still has peek-at-your-watch moments. Pixar’s frustrating desire to tie up every loose end with as much muscle as it can pack doesn’t waver, leading to a crescendo of a climax that feels more off-beat than Unkrich and Molina intended. By the time “Coco” arrives at the real payoff, it feels like we’ve spent 140 minutes in the theater.

As for Miguel himself – the first minority primary narrative stakeholder in Pixar’s catalogue – he’s one we’ve seen often enough. Hell, we’ve almost certainly seen bits of him in ourselves. His arc isn’t revolutionary, though 12-year-old Anthony Gonzalez’s vocal performance is the stuff Pixar execs goes to sleep dreaming of – vulnerable, a bit cocky and almost absurdly sympathetic.

But in “Coco,” as the title very subtly implies, Miguel isn’t meant to provide the movie’s inevitable catharsis. He’s simply the vehicle for us to (very ably) get there, putting the gears in motion for all the necessary emotional beats– the buildups and payoffs we’ve come to expect from Pixar, with a few visuals-inspired “ooohs” and “ahhhs” sprinkled in for good measure.

 

“Coco” is rated PG for thematic elements

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Uback

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

2017

Review: Saoirse Ronan powers the ‘Juno’ for a new generation as ‘Lady Bird’

At some point while watching Greta Gerwig’s fantastic “Lady Bird,” I managed to pull myself out of its welcoming hypnotism to question myself: “How is Gerwig pulling this off?”

In a tight, taut and splendidly radiant 94 minutes, the film not just touches on a remarkable amount of subjects, but deftly explores seemingly every thread that makes up the sometimes horrid and sometimes wonderful collage of everyone’s senior year in high school.

I talked the experience over with my two friends afterward, and it was almost immediately and abundantly clear how a different one of those threads resonated with us the most – based on our own background.

Such is the magic of “Lady Bird,” an achingly real hour-and-a-half of cinematic vigor with a dedication to authenticity that makes it impossible not to connect with. Its countless threads compose the bittersweet feeling that comes with realizing you’ve got a lot of growing to do quickly as college looms, and the concept of maturity is vastly underutilized.

Gerwig makes avoiding the feeling of nostalgia a fruitless affair – yearning for a halcyon time when we were simultaneously lost and so sure of where we were in life.

In “Lady Bird,” that nostalgia is an even stronger force if you grew up in a town you were hell-bent on leaving. In this case, it’s 2002 Sacramento.

For Lady Bird, or Christine McPherson – portrayed in instantly iconic fashion by Irish actress and breakout-in-waiting Saoirse Ronan – the other end of the country is the place to be. There, she plans to find culture and sense of an ambition that’s more or less lying dormant as she finishes up her time at a Catholic high school. It’s a time that sees her date guys, play pranks on teachers and get high at parties, then raid the freezer for all the 5-Minute Dinners that are hidden there.

This iteration of high school life is simply spilling over the top with wit, humanity and appropriate teenage trepidation. Much like last year’s “Manchester by the Sea,” it finds humor in even the darkest times, and balances the two tones gracefully.

The irony that all of Lady Bird’s hijinks – imagine her as Juno with a touch of Joan Jett – unfolds against the backdrop of a Catholic school in a world that has just experienced the horrors of 9/11 never plays itself dry. Communion wafers are eaten like Pringles (“It’s OK, they’re not consecrated yet.”), and only Gerwig could make an opening sequence sprinkled with Bible readings and dripping with charisma so exhilarating.

At the core of “Lady Bird” is Christine’s infinitely complex relationship with Mother Lady Bird, and how those interactions ripple through the rest of the lower-middle-class-inhabiting McPherson family. If you can name it, Christine and her mom have contrasting views of it.

Sound familiar?

It’s the type of relationship that every moviegoer can empathize with – on both the parts of Lady Bird and her mom, played by Laurie Metcalf in resonant, Academy Award-worthy fashion. She’s a dominating force; she knows she has the best idea of what’s good for her daughter, yet her voice quivers ever so slightly in shouting matches when she remembers how contained Lady Bird’s world is at this point in her life.

In addition to Ronan and Metcalf, the film is a reassurance that Hollywood’s up-and-comers make up an extremely talented pool. Lucas Hedges builds off the success of last year’s “Manchester” in a very different yet equally engrossing turn, and Timothée Chalamet plays the role of broody, paranoid, cigarette-smoking heartthrob to a T in the midst of a breakout year for the 21-year-old New Yorker.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to make an argument against Beanie Feldstein being the standout among all of them.

Buoyed by an unforgiving adoration for Dave Matthews’s melancholy anthem “Crash Into Me,” “Lady Bird” has an unmistakably turn-of-the-century visual aesthetic. While its personality is bright and splashy, the colors on screen are intentionally toned down, to the point where Lady Bird’s red hair – which you just know was the result of some rebellious turn – is sometimes the most colorful thing on its canvas.

Meanwhile, iPhones aren’t yet around and the Internet is only a few years old. You feel that impending controlled chaos that is the Digital Age coming for our characters, even though you yearn for it not to; they already have too much to deal with right now.

And just like you can’t stop the inevitable tide of post-high school life, there’s little to prevent yourself from grasping onto the holy word of “Lady Bird” by at least one of its many threads. It preaches relatability while also feeling refreshing, and it’ll make you yearn for the ostensibly controlled world that Lady Bird and Co. find themselves in – even when, like the title character, you didn’t realize what was so special about it until you’re miles away.

 

 

Lady Bird is rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Odeya Rush, Timothee Chalamet, Laurie Metcalf

Directed by Greta Gerwig

2017

Review: ‘Justice League’ gets a gold star for trying

Hello, darkness, my old friend…”

Well. Here we are.

After three-and-a-halfish years of this iteration of the DC Extended Universe, a span of time which has seen film quality – and level of consumer confidence – fluctuate from acceptable (“Man of Steel”) to bad (“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”) to worse (“Suicide Squad”) to rebirth (“Wonder Woman”), we have finally arrived at what, we assume, should be a benchmark for this iteration of DC superherodom.

Instead, “Justice League” feels more like a litmus test, a way to test the loyalty of its fanboys while providing a predictable story whose flashiest moments still lack any really intrigue to stand out in a saturated genre. While easier to swallow than “Dawn of Justice,” you know you have a problem when there’s more charm in your 60-second mid-credits scene than everything that has preceded it.

There’s no question the DCEU needed some major lightening-up after the downright morbid tone of “Dawn of Justice,” and though the bar had been set (very) low, “Justice League” does its due diligence in being a more fun and enjoyable movie. Keeping the affair at two hours instead of 160 minutes forces “League” to cut the fat off its bones (See ya, Lex Luthor, wouldn’t wanna be ya).

Still, there’s more cause for frustration than elation over those two hours. Most of the film’s humor comes by way of cheap one-liners. The special effects are unjustifiably bad, given the movie’s price tag. And there are simply too many times where you will find yourself asking, “Wait, what’s happening?” to pretend like the film stands on firm infrastructure.

The individual team members of the Justice League vary in their appeal. Give me a full movie of Ezra Miller’s witty and charismatic turn as Barry Allen/The Flash any day. On the other hand, I was begging for the film to inject any kind of life into Ray Fisher and Victor Stone/Cyborg.

He’s a tortured soul, sure, but that doesn’t mean the audience should be, too.

As for Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, there simply isn’t any trace of depth to be found. Some will be reeled in by his alcoholic/frat bro/just-give-me-something-to-throw-my-trident-at caricature. This critic just marveled at general lack of any impact he had on-screen.

A lot of this doesn’t matter, of course. Many fanboys will buy a ticket to “Justice League” not looking for any rich characterizations at all; they’ll just be seeking turn-off-your-brain action. The film provides that, sure.

In fact, that seems to be its only real priority – finally uniting the league to watch them kick ass – because the connective tissue between those sequences, if existent at all, is cancerous.

All the boxes are checked here: 1B villain Steppenwolf has come to Earth with his zombie-meets-“Splinter Cell” Parademon troops to wreak premature hell so his master and 1A, Darkseid, can wreak unrestrained hell. In order for that to happen, Steppenwolf needs to find the three “motherboxes” – Pandora’s Boxes, if you will, whose close proximity to each other unleashes sound and a whole lot of fury.

As is par for the course, Steppenwolf – who continues DC’s consistent streak of extremely cringe-inducing baddies – effortlessly retrieves two of them following visits to Themyscira and Atlantis.

The way the third motherbox is collected is a result of nothing short of a series of mind-numbingly dumb decisions by our heroes. It’s the kind of blatantly mediocre writing that would make any civilian bearing witness say, “These people are supposed to save us?”

“League” is plagued by that kind of nonsensical writing. The film doesn’t know how to handle the stakes of such a globe-threatening situation that it does away with them entirely.

We get an idea of what’s in for Earth via a flashback to 5,000 years ago when Steppenwolf was last defeated by the united armies of Amazonians, Atlantians and humans in a sequence that simply screams “Lord of the Rings.” But for some reason, the script’s way of defeating the GWAR-inspired Steppenwolf is laughably much less burdensome, and almost completely eradicates any need for there to be a Justice League at all.

It’s akin to witnessing a match between elite boxers, only for the fight to be over after one punch.

And it certainly doesn’t help that the film doesn’t care to build any investment in any of its characters. If Aquaman, Cyborg or Batman bit it, I think I would have cheered wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Just leave my precious Barry Allen alone. He still needs his own solo turn.

Of course, this all comes after Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) took over the reins following Zack Snyder’s leaving the project for personal reasons earlier this year. DC’s intended release date wasn’t pushed back, presumably out of a desire to capitalize off the most momentum this DC Cinematic Universe has ever had following the success of “Wonder Woman.”

But perhaps it should have.

While we will never know how a “Justice League” solely headed up by Snyder would have looked and felt, this version – with spliced parts from two contrasting styles – feels like a puzzle with various pieces missing, to the point of near negligence.

This is supposed to feel like a greatest hits of the DCEU so far; instead it’s a dull, lazy display whose only real success lies in effectively showing why DC is currently lagging behind seemingly everyone else in the genre.

 

 

“Justice League” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller

Directed (officially) by Zack Snyder

2017

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