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

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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

Review: In transition from lobsters to ‘Sacred Deer,’ Lanthimos embraces cruelty

The latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos is one that somewhat proudly stands on an infrastructure of masochism, both implicit and explicit.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is uncomfortable virtually all the way through – for both its characters and for us in the seats watching through peered fingers. The Greek director/writer who broke out as a sort of demented Wes Anderson with last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Lobster” has now added a dash of Darren Aronofsky, and the result is one of the more original and – no matter how hard some will try to repel its sadistic vibes – unforgettable motion pictures of 2017.

Lanthimos once again employs the talents of Colin Farrell, who in many ways resembles his character from “Lobster” – dryly humorous with hints of subtle morbidity. In “Sacred Deer,” though, he isn’t searching for love or anything else. He’s completely content with what life has given him: A job as a top-notch surgeon, a wife, a family, the luxuries of watches with metal straps.

Instead, he’s keenly trying to keep something locked away.

Without going into spoilers, that something has led him to have a relationship with a teenage boy to whom he has a decidedly life-altering connection. It’s more personal than mentor-mentee, but something about Farrell’s hesitance keeps it from resembling a father-son bond.

“Sacred Deer,” in the early going, seems like a simple enough tale in depicting this admittedly admirable relationship, as well as the fairly unastounding family life of Farrell’s Steven Murphy, though he is matched step-by-step by a powerful and alluring Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Murphy.

But those who watched last year’s “Lobster” know simplicity isn’t what Lanthimos shoots for. The camera also knows it; most of the time it’s either keeping a safe distance, creeping behind our characters or lingering just overhead, as if catching the eye of Steven or Martin would send it scurrying away.

Soon enough, though, the audience starts to catch the hints too, and at one point, like a bursting dam, “Sacred Deer” goes from dark dramedy to even darker psychological horror. It seethes with an almost folkloric tone as it unfolds a tale of unbridled guilt, karma and revenge, and it also sneakily features one of the most magnetic performances of the year in Barry Keoghan’s Martin.

It’d be easy to say Martin is some hyperbolic representation of the struggles facing the denizens of Teenagedom, but his motivations are much more personal than, say, Christian Slater in “Heathers.” He’s a goosebump-inducing caricature of contemporary witchcraft who is simply — again, “simply” — seeking justice for Steven’s questionable past deeds, in ways that are simultaneously earnest and horrific.

At the same time, Keoghan breaks out from his Just Another Young Male European Actor™ shell to a force we now have to pay attention to.

Even when Keoghan isn’t on screen, there’s an undercurrent of malice that is impossible to ignore. Lanthimos infuses “Sacred Deer” with a seductive type of horror which, true to form, manifests itself in the bizarre and unnatural.

Much like Aronofsky’s polarizing “mother!” from earlier this year, it’s meant to be uncomfortable to witness, helped along by cacophonous sound design, an increasingly unsettling score consistently teasing an imminent doom, and some of the year’s most striking imagery for the genre. Throughout the cavernous rooms of the wealthy Murphy family’s house, ceiling fans are sometimes spinning at seemingly possessed rates. By a certain point in “Sacred Deer,” it wouldn’t be out of place for someone to be thrown up into them.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” can come across as emotionless. By comparison, even Lanthimos’s own “The Lobster” feels like “Singing in the Rain.” But what it might lack in emotional profundity it makes up for – whether we want it to or not – in monumental depths of madness as it puts the Murphys through increasingly heinous situations.

The scariest thing is that they are almost accepting of what is happening. Karma makes no friends, Lanthimos is saying.

In this world of sacred deer and unforgivable acts, cruelty isn’t simply suggested. It’s expected, and begrudgingly cherished.

Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ gives train movies a bad name

You’re watching closely, listening intently. You’re trying to follow Detective Poirot’s keen instinct, while trying to resist the fact that you’ve lost him many scenes ago. You’re accepting the clichés, for whatever they’re worth, because you’re hoping it will all pay off in the end.

And then, all of a sudden, the end is here – seemingly out of nowhere, with little fanfare and even fewer clues that the mystery was ever close to being solved. The payoff? Miniscule.

That’s what it’s like watching “Murder on the Orient Express,” a modern retelling of the 1934 Agatha Christie novel that will undoubtedly be overlooked by the more notable movies of Oscar Season, and one which wouldn’t be very memorable even if it was released in March.

“Murder” follows the presumably world-famous Hercule Poirot, and what he lacks in implied physical strength he makes up for in keen-eyed intellect as he goes around cracking the uncrackable crimes. No small detail slips by him unnoticed, as shown by his introductory sequence that might contain 90 percent of the film’s energy.

He’s proud of his reputation, but not boastful, which is why a few days on the Orient Express as he travels to London provides a seemingly welcome respite.

Only it doesn’t (shocker). When a suspicious art dealer is murdered on the train while it is simultaneously, conveniently, temporarily thrown off the tracks by a mini-avalanche, how else should Poirot decide to pass the time but by solving the mystery?

“Murder” is a film which – unlike its protagonist – doesn’t know where its priorities lie. The snazzy, self-aware attitude teased by its Imagine Dragons-infused marketing is nowhere to be seen, and by the end it’s clear the film is more concerned with making grand statements about justice and vigilantism. But in the context of its convoluted and rushed plot that feels like they forgot to film a few scenes, we don’t ever figure out why we should care.

Perhaps a bigger mystery at the core of the Kenneth Branagh-directed film is the way it utilizes its ensemble cast. It’s speckled with Academy Award-caliber talent portraying diverse personalities a la “The Hateful Eight.” But “Murder” is inexplicably more interested in Branagh’s Poirot, who treads the line between tolerable a slightly absurd for most of the time we’re with him. Seriously, put the FBI on this. WANTED: Consistently tolerable performances.

Poirot’s dedication is authentic, but sometimes it’s a struggle to be fully on-board with Branagh’s depiction when it’s a cross between the Monopoly Man and a bumbling Inspector Clouseau. You’ll either not care about the individual “suspects” being considered or you simply forget about them, which is a shame considering how personal the plot turns as the dots begin to connect.

Up until the final moments, they’ve served as barely more than props.

Haris Zambarloukos is the eye behind the camera for “Murder,” and a lot of credit is owed to him for keeping the story as engaging as it is, even if its most engaging moments resemble a thriller with about a minute and 45 seconds of actual thrill. He does some interesting things with the lens, but in the end his talents can’t overcome a weak script and subpar direction.

The mysterious disappearance around the three-quarter mark of whatever humor and charm the film had for its first hour looms large, as does the sinking feeling that sets in when the audience realizes “Murder” isn’t nearly as thematically gripping as it needs to be to stand out in 2017.

It’s like your old uncle who likes to think he knows what’s hip, but really just ends up embarrassing you. Honestly, did the movie’s title have to steal the already-iconic look of one of last year’s best movies?

But perhaps that’s what Branagh intends – an ostensibly slow-burn of a film that, if nothing else, emits some semblance of a more classic form of moviemaking. You can pay close attention as our detective does, and perhaps even find out the killer before he does, but there’s still no emotional heft for it to mean anything once it’s all said and done.

That can make it a wonder of a film for some depending on your taste, but when Detective Poirot is still announcing an hour and a half into the proceedings that “There is a murderer within us!” it’s hard to believe Branagh was ever completely confident with what he had.

This isn’t the most absorbing mystery to grace the big screen in recent months, or even the best train movie in recent years. It might not be trying to be either. But most strikingly, the thing Branagh fails to recognize is that the question at the center of “Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t the whodunit as much as the whowantedthis.

 

 

“Murder on the Orient Express” is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

2017

Review: Marvel pokes fun at itself with ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and has a blast doing it

It’s about time we got something like “Thor: Ragnarok.”

After nearly a dozen years of spinning an increasingly complex web of Marvel stories and characters, the studio realized a need for giving audiences something new and invigorating; something to keep the spark alive, if you will. And they picked the perfect franchise to do it.

With “Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s least consequential (and – let’s face it – one of its least interesting) franchises doesn’t just get a facelift; it’s infused with a new energy. With the third solo entry for Thor – “solo” becoming more and more ambiguous the further along the MCU machine churns –  he’s officially the ugly girl you initially passed up on who went on to become a runway model.

Indie director Taika Waititi proves to be a great hire for the studio, and it was an even better decision not to put a leash on him. Over on the other end of the Disney mansion, Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy continues to muzzle the creativity of filmmakers hoping to making a “Star Wars” movie all their own, resulting in mutual separations over the evergreen excuse of “creative differences.”

So it’s a joy to see Waititi go all in with his brand of humor and exuberance here for “Ragnarok,” which might be the most turn-off-your-brain fun MCU movie not titled “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The cast certainly acts like it. Chris Hemsworth is easily having more fun than he’s ever been afforded previously, Jeff Goldblum is delightfully Jeff Goldbluming all over the place, and Tessa Thompson is a hell of a lot of fun as Valkyrie.

Besides being visually exhilarating – some shots are so gorgeous and colorful they reminded me of a Pixar movie – “Ragnarok” also blends an unexpected number of genres. Parts of the story of Thor, Hulk and Co. working to take down the evil Hela depict a medieval tale of sorts set in the cosmos, one whose greatest statement perhaps is that everything happening on Earth really is incidentally insignificant compared to what’s in store for our heroes in the great beyond.

It also sprinkles in – no, dumps – loads and loads of humor. “Ragnarok” isn’t just off-beat funny like “Guardians” is; it treads into downright parody territory. Among the superhero tropes being mocked: Logic-proof wormholes, dramatic heroic entrances and villainous destruction, all to purely satisfying effect. The film’s essence thrives on a mantra of constant self-deprecation, even if it sometimes might serve as an excuse not to provide any ingenuity when it comes to plot.

With Waititi it’s all about style – taking a paint-by-the-number story of saving the world and injecting it with 1980’s arcade game-inspired pizazz. Hell, just compare the poster for “Ragnarok” to those of the previous two Thor entries; it’s like David Fincher has gone Dreamworks.

That being said, the first half is the much more fresh hour of the film before it delves into more typical superhero fare. It’s still humorous, but even Waititi had to know sustaining the weightless and breezy techno-cheese candor of the first hour would be difficult; there are still epic stakes here, and epic implications for the MCU at-large.

The aforementioned Goldblum is a welcome addition to the universe, as is Karl Urban as the conflicted gatekeeper between realms, and Cate Blanchett is sublimely devilish given what she has to work with. It’s not a lot.

As a matter of fact, just a few months after it seemed Marvel Studios had turned a corner when it comes one-dimensional villains via Michael Keaton’s revelatory turn in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it’s back to square one with Hela. Dubbed the Goddess of Death, she’s little more than an infinitely powerful figure with the appearance of an arachnid and a generally baseless ambition to conquer the universe.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is, very much so. And even if “Ragnarok” is fine going with the cliches from a storytelling standpoint, it makes Asgard’s plight pale in comparison to Thor and Hulk’s buddy-cop mission to escape the technicolored Sakkar when it comes to entertainment value. You’re almost willing the franchise to stay there and let Asgard be reduced to ashes. The personality of “Ragnarok” isn’t totally diminished in the final act, but you’ll catch yourself checking your watch for the first time once Sakkar is left for good.

As different as “Ragnarok” feels aesthetically to the first “Thor” and its completely forgettable sequel, it is undoubtedly a trilogy-capper narratively. Closure is given to more than one aspect of the God of Thunder’s story, while teasing new developments for the next slate of MCU offerings.

Whether Waititi remains on board for any of those future movies remains to be seen. But if Kevin Feige can thank the director for one thing (aside from what is sure to be a rather profitable opening weekend at the box office), it’s the reminder that the occasional sacrifice of pathos for good old-fashioned fun can be appreciated by moviegoers.

 

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo

Directed by Taika Waititi

2017

Gallery: 2017 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The annual International Balloon Fiesta is the premier event in the state nicknamed the Land of Enchantment, and it more than justifies that title.



For nine mornings in October, as long as the weather’s just right, the skies above Albuquerque — already awash in sunshine — explode with color as hundreds of balloons of all shapes and sizes take off from Balloon Fiesta Park, creating a perfect backdrop for photographers, spectators, nearby residents and even those commuting to work. 2017 was the 46th for the fiesta, which draws hundreds of thousands every year from across the state, country and world.






Vendors sell delicious food, local artisans show off their crafts, and New Mexico’s diverse and unique culture is placed front-and-center.









 

 

 

 


At night, balloons inflate and stay on the ground for the Glowdeo, providing a magical sight as the balloons’ flames light up the night and pilots talk to visitors.


 

 

 

 

 

 

All photos taken by David Alex Lynch with a Nikon D7200. Follow him on Instagram @alealejandro695, and on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. 

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