Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Year In TV: The 20 Best TV Programs

This year, I am doing something a little different, and I think it may be a feature I have for the future.

I have talked before about living in the Golden Age of television, how TV has had a decade high where everything seems to be great. Where networks don't have one or two great shows, but a handful. Where access to all sorts of great TV is just a click away. I have never been this excited about the small screen as I have these past few years. I have dabbled in discussing TV on this blog before. I have mostly covered TV shows connected to an ongoing movie franchise, or TV sequels/prequels to movies. I have a TV arm called "Couch Potato" that I am rigorously trying to figure out and make my own. But since I have discussed TV before, and because this Golden Age we are living in doesn't seem to be slowing down, I wanted to throw out a end-of-the-year list for the medium. Since TV seems to conclude for the year a lot faster that movies do, I can say with confidence that this list represents the best of what could be seen on the small screen this year.

I will be presenting two lists today. The ten best new shows, which obviously means any TV show that began this year. I may have also thrown in a mini-series or two on the list as well, so look out for those. Then I will present the ten best returning shows, anything that had a season two or above this year that really rocked my world will be listed there. I will also deliver a small group of honorable mentions for each respected list. Sometime later this week, I will also present the ten worst things on TV in 2017. Because even though we live in a TV Golden Age, some crap still gets made.

Let's dive right in, shall we?

The Ten Best New Shows of 2017

1. Legion (FX)
It's shows like "Legion" that make me a little sad that Disney recently bought nearly all of Fox's movie and television outlets. Because I can't imagine the Land of the Mouse would want to continue to push the boundries of superpowered storytelling the way Fox has been doing with the X-Men. Fox has lots of cool things in their workshop right now, and if Disney is smart, they will let "Legion" continue to be its own thing. Completely unlike anything resembling a comic book show (Hell, I'd barely call it that). This is a beyond strange, and yet beyond brilliant psychological drama. Which ironically, had some of the best mutant action scenes of anything X-Men related. (Yes that includes the movies). This is a breath-taking, contact-high series where the weirder it got, the better it was overall.

2. Ozark (Netflix)
I'm always in the mood for a gritty crime drama, and it seems Netflix struck gold this year with the Jason Bateman-centric show about a man who gets way over his head, only to be recruited by the group that killed his business partners. He moves his family out of the city and into the Ozarks to launder money. Only to get in over his head there as well. Despite racking up the angst and circumstance against this poor man and his family, there is never once a single false note. This is a ghoulish look inside the underworld of a small town that depends on tourism to thrive. Well acted and well shot, Ozark is an area I can't wait to visit again this summer.

3. Taboo (FX)
If you put Tom Hardy in something, then my interest in what you're doing is already incredibly high. Add in the complex world of the 1800's where a man returns to the United Kingdom intent on gaining his family's naval empire, only to get wrapped into a world of revenge, then my interest already over 100. Add in Jonathon Price and Stephan Graham, some old-school musket action and some shady scheming and you've got some damn fine television. Equal parts funny, exciting, and even a bit disturbing, "Taboo" made a statement last winter, and I hope Hardy can fulfill that promise of a second season.

4. Room 104 (HBO)
I love Mark Duplass, I love that he's got a silly and a scary side, and that he loves to flex both of those muscles in equal measure. "Room 104" had a little of everything, as each episode represented a new group of people (or person) inhabiting the room at one time. If you take any room in any hotel, I am sure there are several different stories to tell involving the hundreds of people that have stayed there. It was clever that this was an anthology show, which rarely work to begin with, and Duplass brought something fresh, something adventurous, something outlandish to each new episode.

5. The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
Shifting gears quite a bit here, "The Handmaid's Tale" had such a powerful pull on me that I'll be honest, it took me awhile to get through all of it. It's easy to binge shows thanks to a handful of different streaming services, but I had to take frequent breaks from "The Handmaid's Tale." Simply put, it disturbed the shit out of me. This is a brutally beautiful and brilliant look at a dystopian future where ultra-religious, very Old Testament occultists take over our nation, and the only world fertile women can look forward to is a life of constantly making babies for the new regime. The scene in episode three of a protest going horrifically wrong while Blonde's "Heart of Glass" is sung to the tune of a melancholy orchestra is one of the most viscerally harrowing moments of anything I watched, whether movies or TV, and a powerful reminder that this one will stick with us in the future of television.

6. Comrade Detective (Amazon)
Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt took a huge gamble making a comedy dubbed from an old communist detective show from before the Berlin Wall came down (which apparently was a conceit too). But their gamble worked in spades as the show is a whirlwind of funny and action-packed moments. The shameless dubbing with familiar actors isn't what gives the show its charm, but how well there is a good story being told throughout all the weird laughs. I can't wait to see what Tatum and Levitt do next!

7. Godless (Netflix)
We don't have too many Western movies or TV shows were women are bad-asses instead of merely being the damsels in distress, but this mini-series flips the norms of the genre on their heads and the result is something miraculous. Full of a manically great cast, and some gorgeous cinematography. I knew quite early one that "Godless" was going to be a mini-series worth seeing, something essential to the year of television. 

8. The Deuce (HBO)
James Franco has been in the business for awhile now. He's had some good work, bad work and even great work. But I think when we look back at 2017, this was a year where he made a massive creative breakthrough. I will have plenty to say about "The Disaster Artist" when I prepare to write my year end list for movies. But he equally transcendent on the small screen in "The Deuce." Only HBO could make a show about the sleazy beginning of the American porn industry and somehow make it interesting to watch. Franco deserves credit for playing twins at the center of the story. The show also features some great performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Method Man and a host of other wonderful performers.

9. Mindhunter (Netflix)
"Mindhunter" doesn't necessarily present a new idea. We have ventured into the minds of catching serial killers. Especially with David Fincher, whose "Zodiac" from 2007 was one of the best films of that particular decade and one of the finest of the 21st Century so far. Fincher isn't afraid to dissect anyone, and that constant need to find out how clashing individuals work is part of the greatness of his work. "Mindhunter" isn't new, but the way Fincher seamlessly tells this story, makes it almost feel fresh.

10. The Mayor (ABC)
The most unexpected hit of the year. It seems almost shameless in the way it mirrors current events. A story about a rapper untested in the world of politics becomes a frontrunner for mayor of his hometown, and somehow gets the honor of the office, winning against someone who knows politics much better than him. It's a sweet little show, as most things on ABC are. Most things go the mayor's way, even if they don't totally make sense. Even though it would probably never go that way in the real world. But that's okay, because the show makes leaps and bounds just to entertain its audience and send a positive message that I couldn't help but love it.

Honorable Mentions: Netflix's "Big Mouth," HBO's "Crashing," Netflix's "The Keepers," Fox's "The Gifted," Comedy Central's "Detroiters," HBO's "The Defiant Ones," Amazon's "The Tick"

Okay, now onto the best returning shows of the year...

The Ten Best Returning Shows of 2017

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
There was no better head game to play this year, but that's just David Lynch being himself. His triumphant return to Twin Peaks is so gleefully wacky, so surreal and strange yet so provocative and imaginative that you couldn't stop watching. There are moments where it feels like Lynch is trolling the audience. Like when he introduces us to conversations that never get returned to again, or introducing characters who talk about nothing at all before never being seen again. But what Lynch pulls off is another extraordinary fever dream that becomes more engrossing even though some of it makes no sense. I am sure diehard fans will discuss the ending of this third season until either the end of time or when Lynch returns to Twin Peaks, whichever comes first.

2. Fargo (FX)
Its amazing to me how well Noah Hawley has soaked up The Coen Bros. "Fargo." Because with each of the three seasons of the show, he has been able to perfectly imitate what made their movie so special, but also making something of his own. All three seasons have never been shameless rip-off for the sake of it. This third season has been the best yet!

3. Vice Principals (HBO)
I have to admit, I think a little piece of me died on November 12th. Just knowing that I will never get more time to spend with Neal Gamby, Lee Russell, Amanda Snodgrass and all the other colorful characters that were introduced to us through this show. It's been a wild ride getting to know them, and the work done by Danny McBride and Walton Groggins has been some of their best work so far. We may never know what's in store for Gamby at his new school, but it was great to get to know them at all.

4. Master of None (Netflix)
This was worth the one year wait. Aziz Ansari may be channeling some of his actual life in this, and I think there is a level of realism among all the hilarious moments. There are moments of joy, moments of sorrow,  and moments of absolute laughter. There are moments here I think anybody can relate to and its part of what makes this show so special.

5. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Here's a show that doesn't really have something joyous or sorrowful to say. It's not something that is trying to relay an important message. It's just a show that wants to see how fast and how often it can get you to wet your pants, from laughter of course. With its fifth season halfway over, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is a show that continually brings the ferocious laughs. And continues to be something I look forward to week to week.

6. BoJack Horsemen (Netflix)
Here's a show that is a delicate examination of someone reaching the end of their dream, of figuring out that they have depression, and trying to piece a network of people that once held them in high esteem, but quickly fell apart. Not too shabby for a show that revolves around a humanoid horse that is a has-been actor living in Hollywood. (Or is it Hollywoo?) At the same time, the show is still extremely funny. I also like that the show takes its experimental turns (Although I don't think a single episode this new season topped the silent underwater episode from last season.) On Netflix, the animated existential shows rule all, but only BoJack is king.

7. This Is Us (NBC)
Here's a show that piles on the tears, but still manages to tell a good story of family dynamics, adoption, and what it means to let go of a long, looming hurt, and how that isn't always easy to do. There are still some big questions that the show still has to answer, and I am hoping that the show makes the right decisions regarding those questions. They set up some big, juicy story threads for when season two picks up in a few months. While there is great pain on the show, it also shows how to work through the pain. Powerful, indeed.

8. Planet Earth II (BBC America)
Hey, its like those documentaries your science teacher used to make you watch, except it's really cool! I don't know what it is about these documentaries, but this coupled with the first round in 2006 had me watching vigorously. Maybe it takes intrigue and explanation in an entirely new direction. Whatever it is, it's working for me, and I hope I get one of these each new decade.

9. The Last Man on Earth (Fox)
Tandy is still funny and he isn't going anywhere. Oh farts!

10. Stranger Things 2 (Netflix)
I never had a chance to watch "Stranger Things" before the second season came out, so I powered through both seasons in October. Some people may argue that this show is nothing but a 1980's nostalgic wet-dream. To a degree they're a degree...but what else the show pulls off is some of the coolest storytelling in a long time. Maybe I am just the perfect audience, because I love 1980's pop culture, and I love the vibe of that decade. (I'd personally love a season where these four friends wound up in Derry, Maine. If Stephen King would be into that.) But I can tell you why the show is becoming so popular. It's a fun time machine in a world that never existed, and its brilliantly told with the right mood and atmosphere to make it count.

Honorable Mentions: NBC's "The Blacklist," NBC's "Blindspot," CW's "The Flash," HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," HBO's "Game of Thrones," ABC's "Black-ish," Netflix's "F is For Family," FX's "Baskets," FX's "Man Seeking Woman," FX's "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," CBS's "The Amazing Race," Showtime's "Billions" Comedy Central's "South Park," Cartoon Network's "Rick and Morty"

As with my year in movies, I didn't get a chance nor have I begun paying attention to every show out there. I have heard great things about "The Leftovers" and "The Americans" and "Orange Is The New Black." But in a good year, I don't get to start everything I want nor do I watch everything I want. I plan to catch up on all of those shows in the near future, and I hope to get in on the discussion soon. Coming up, is my top ten worst TV shows of 2017. Then, it will be off to discuss the movie side of things. Happy New Year all!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: Sean Baker strikes gold with "The Florida Project"

The Florida Project Review

In room 323 of a rundown purple palace shithole lives six-year-old Moonee. In the sun-drenched poor side of Orlando, Florida, Moonee and her friends Scooty and Jancey go on adventures every day. Sometimes they hustle for change, just so all three of them can share an ice cream cone. Sometimes its running around outside the palm trees and the green. Sometimes, it's breaking things in an abandoned building. When Moonee isn't hanging with her friends, she's with her mom, Hailee. They hustle the streets of Orlando, just so Hailee can pay off their rent for the month. Moonee is full of joy and innocence of being a kid. She has no idea just how poor she is. She has no idea what her mom does just to keep her fed and provide a roof over her daughter's head. Worst of all, she has no idea how close she is to losing everything she holds dear to her young life.

These are nearly all the details of "The Florida Project," the new riveting film by Sean Baker. Baker may not be a household name, nor has he totally earned that status quite yet. But with the buzz generating around this film, he may be on his way. We don't get too many movies about the impoverished dregs that fill up any city. When we do, we usually get a cautionary fable of how one goes from rags to riches. Obviously, it takes lots of hard to work to get out of a predicament like this, and the realistic edge of Baker's film that won me over. We don't get any straight up stories about poor people, but this is what Baker is really good at doing: making films about people Hollywood doesn't dare to showcase. The first Sean Baker film I ever saw was "Tangerine," a movie that focused on a group of transsexual prostitutes. This is subject matter that almost feels forbidden, even in Hollywood. But Sean Baker was able to make something funny, dazzling and emotional from the material, and he does so once again with "The Florida Project."

Moonee is played by Brooklynn Prince, a young actress so far off the map, you can't even find a Wikipedia page on her. She brings Moonee to such ferocious life, that I can't even imagine what it was like for Sean Baker to ask Prince what to do. Moonee is a free spirit with the volume cranked up and pumped full of steroids. She talks back to anybody who challenges her, she constantly gets in trouble without a care in the world, she roams the city virtually unsupervised for nearly all of the film, and she curses like a sailor. This is beyond character development and nearly falls into method acting, and I can't believe what Brooklynn Prince pulls off here. How did she bring this character to life? What did her parents think when they read the script and found out what their daughter was going to be asked to do? How do you explain to a six-year-old how they are going to behave for a movie like this? It's absolutely astonishing work, and as a far as child performances go, a tour-de-force.

I suppose the same can be said about the other two kids. Christopher Rivera plays Scooty and Sandy Kane plays Jauncey. Again, these are unprofessional little kids, and what they pull off is beyond talent, and feels like something completely different. Each of these kids is a wild child and they treat the entire sun-dried landscape as their playground. Everything feels so organic between the children, so real and authentic that I can't believe I am talking about little kids. If acting is truly the calling cards for these kids, they are off to a healthy, long-lasting career. Each and every one of them.

Then there's Bria Vinaite, who plays Hailee, Moonee's mother. A 24-year-old woman whose only claim to fame is weed-themed clothing. She never acted before this, and it's wild that this unprofessional entrepreneur can hold her own with Willem Dafoe. Hailee is a wild child herself, she is a mother to a six-year-old but she's barely an adult herself. She certainly doesn't act like one, and this wild world of scheming and hustling to pay rent comes off as casual and normal to Moonee. But what other choice does Hailee really have? We don't get sucked into loads of backstory, we are just dropped into this world of poverty-stricken individuals. But you never feel any false notes in the film's running time.

Yes, Willem Dafoe is in this, and yes he's very good. It's a different kind of Dafoe we see here. So often, Dafoe plays villains or serious characters. Sometimes, he's even a goof. But we rarely see this sincere, sentimental side of him. In "The Florida Project," Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the "motel" that Hailee and Moonee live in. He parents Moonee more responsibly then Hailee ever does. Dafoe isn't in the movie a whole lot, but he makes every bit of his run time memorable. Lots of familiar faces pass by in this movie. But overall, the film belongs to the young, unprofessional cast that Baker has assembled, all acting as if they veterans of the business.

Its amazing how naive and hilarious much of the film is, feeling more like a day-in-the-life of these people most would refuse to point a camera at. But the funny moments are so organic, never feeling forced. So when the inevitable eventually happens, its a sucker punch to the heart. This film destroyed me as the credits began to roll. It's a brutal beauty, and something that I feel is going to be hard to shake in the upcoming days, perhaps even weeks. This is, easily one of the year's best movies.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: An all-star cast impeccably performs "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Review

If you had a child who was brutally murdered and brutally raped, what would you do in order to seek justice? Would you go to the authorities like a regular citizen? Not a bad plan of action, but what would you do next if the authorities didn't get anywhere? What if the justice system that we rely on to keep law and order failed you? Would you go the Paul Kersey route from "Death Wish" and roam the streets of your fair city looking for muggers to murder? Would you sit around your depressing, empty home moping about it? Would you join the justice system yourself to see what you could accomplish?

These are questions movies have been answering for many years. These questions have been the basis for several revenge films, court dramas and the like. But even though this isn't a new idea, the way these questions are answered in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" takes this formula in an entirely different direction. Brought to life by a powerful script penned by Martin McDonagh, who also directed the film, and also brought to life with an all-star cast, this is something brilliant.

Francis McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a stern, mild-mannered divorced mother still grieving over the violent rape and death of her daughter. Seven months after the horrible crime, no progress has really been made in putting the people responsible for this in prison. Mildred Hayes takes it upon herself to rent three abandoned billboards outside her hometown and use them to send a message to the authorities of town. The billboards were simple. One said "Raped while dying," the next read "And still no arrests?" and the last said "How come, Chief Willoughby?" The billboards had a simple red background with simple black lettering. 

Chief Willoughby is played by Woody Harrelson, who is in charge of the case, and realizes that the trail has gone cold. While he understands Mildred's frustrations, he feels that the billboards themselves are an unfair attack on his character. Not that he's alone, the town itself is firmly displeased by the actions of Mildred. The irrational, violent Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) grows unstable due to the billboards, while Mildred's ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) blames Mildred herself for the death of their daughter.

Still, Mildred remains unfazed and firm in her decisions to make the billboards, which is why she is such an amazing character. Mildred is often intimidated by townspeople, and while she feels inner fear, she never once shows it. She's the kind of lady who isn't afraid to say or do anything, consider a scene where she cusses out a news reporter in front of her billboards. A character like this is catnip for Frances McDormand. This leads to one of the best performances of her entire career. Yes, I do include her brilliant work in "Fargo" in this. Her work here is beyond masterful and possibly the best female performance this year. Possibly. There are still some big movies I got to see and review, but she's certainly on the cusp.

Woody Harrelson is equally harrowing in the film, and also delivering a career-high performance. Willoughby holds a secret, which steers into his favor as far as public opinion to the billboards, and how he reacts to this secret gives the film so much raw emotional power. It's not a moment we really expect in movies like this, and Harrelson deserves credit for giving this familiar character a depth-filled, human face. Sam Rockwell does what he does best, playing damaged and demented and giving that an equally human face. There are moments in the film where you think you've got Sam Rockwell figured out in this movie, but you don't necessarily and how these characters react to this story is part of the movie's charm.

Peter Dinklage, Caleb Laundry Jones, and Lucas Hedges all provide great support and the result of is a film full of wonderful performances. This is definitely one of those movies that sometimes feels like an actor's rally, because its so rich in performance by an all-star cast. But all of this star power never takes away from the experience. This is a real story with something significant to say, and I loved every moment of it.


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: "Pitch Perfect 3" is a rousing third entry in the franchise.

Pitch Perfect 3 Review
When reflecting upon the "Pitch Perfect" movies, I am sometimes perplexed that they even worked at all. "Glee" was a show on TV that I initially liked, but it was a show that gradually wore out it's welcome. "Pitch Perfect" just looked like a new incarnation of "Glee." A bunch of pretty people singing songs that were already famous while spouting cheesy one-liners? How was that any different from what I had already seen? I skipped the film in theaters entirely that year. I made leaps and bounds to not see the movie at all. Then by what seemed like fate, I ended up seeing the first movie. I couldn't believe how well drawn the characters were, I can't believe the emotions emitted in the film. I couldn't believe how all of it mattered so much.

 I did like "Pitch Perfect 2," but that movie had some of the same problems that plague most sequels: its a sequel. "Pitch Perfect 2" is essentially the same movie as the first film, but just bigger. Plus, the sequel wanted so bad to have a happy ending that it never reaches a realistic or logical conclusion. I have problems with the second film, even though I do enjoy it.

I had slightly altered expectations going into "Pitch Perfect 3." I figured by this third film, this story would have worn out its welcome, just like all those needless seasons of "Glee." As I sat down in the auditorium for this third entry, I figured I would just get a third session of the same thing. I was ready to feel bored that all of these talented actresses would get together to do something they've already covered better in previous movies. 

Yes, there is a singing competition in the film. Yes, the Bellas sing songs that were already made famous by previous artists. But honestly, that is pretty much where the similarities end. All the Bellas are very different people at the beginning of this movie, and as the film ends, they are different people once again. All our favorite Bellas are out of college now, trying desperately to adjust to the real world, wanting badly to cut out a piece of this real world that they can call their own. But they're having trouble and they are suffering from missing the world they use to occupy, the world of the Bellas. What seems like chance, the Bellas get together for a girls night and Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests that the ex-Bellas go on a USO tour. What the girls don't know is that DJ Khaled is hosting the event, and there is a competition brewing between four bands, whomever DJ Khaled likes the most will open his shows during his tours.

Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), Cynthia (Ester Dean), Lily (Hana Mae Lee), Stacie (Alexis Knapp) and the other Bellas get together for the singing USO tour. Yes, there are traditional moments which have occurred in the previous movies, but they feel so ingrained in this franchise that it doesn't necessarily feel like treading water. Plus, its all fun. The "riff-off" in this film is quite frankly the best riff-off in any of the films so far. But as far as the film as a whole goes, it never quite replicates the other films bit by bit. There are some genuine surprises in this film. Suddenly, the movie shifts from being about another singing competition for these girls and becomes more about how these girls have changed, how they miss each other, and how they will always be friends even if they never sing as Bellas again. Sure, these are themes we have seen in other films, but this is a genuine progression in character development and its hard not to realize it matters.

I will even go as far to say that I can relate to the situation presented in the film. There was a time in my life, not all that long ago, where I felt like I was going through a quarter-life crisis. The life I lead after college was not the life I expected to lead out of it. It depressed me that I was nowhere near where I expected to be in the years after college, while it felt like all my peers had massive success around me. I missed college, moreso than I probably should have. I struggled adjusting to the life outside of college. I can honestly say that I am past that part of my life, because what I have now may not be what I expected, but its certainly what I needed now. Things can never go back to the way they were, and life isn't a race. Watching these girls come to terms with those facts made this entire experience highly emotional.

Yes, there are surprises in the movie, but I can't honestly say that they all land. There is a semi-ridiculous subplot about Fat Amy's father (John Lithgow) being a shady criminal all of Amy's life. When Amy's father comes for the inheritance that her mother left her, he ends up kidnapping the other Bellas for the money. The movie shifts into James Bond territory, and for a little while, it feels like a totally different movie. It doesn't derail the picture, its just an outlandish subplot to include.

Overall, the completely different plot is what won me over. This isn't the typical sequel. With what the film says and how its says it, I couldn't believe how much of this story mattered. It helps that the characters are all wonderful creations. It helps that there is further development with all of them. It also helps that the film is just damn entertaining. 


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: Saoirse Ronan dominates in the delightful "Lady Bird"

Lady Bird Review

There are comes a time in every man and every woman’s life. That time when they are on the brink of becoming adults, yet they are still so young at the same time. There comes a time when every man and every woman come of age. The time when you argue with your parents about everything, you tell yourself you don’t need them, even though you blatantly do. There comes a time when you shy around the opposite sex, except for the person you like, in which you can’t stop talking and talking. Maybe you discover that you’re gay, and it’s exciting as you explore your curiosity and attractions, yet scary because how are you going to explain that to your parents, or the girlfriend/boyfriend you happen to have? There is a time when you are determined to leave the one-horse town you grew up in and find your dream college, only to find out that the city you grew up in, no matter how much you may hate it, is apart of you, etching a piece of itself in your heart.

Movies about young people coming of age are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere. We’ve seen so many variations of this formula that most movies in this sub-genre become just that: formulaic. So why am I so delighted by “Lady Bird?” It’s just like all the other coming of age movies, right? Wrong. At least, I feel it’s different from other films. You may not, and that may gauge how you end up feeling about “Lady Bird.” But I think writer and director Greta Gerwig did was take a fairly recognizable story and revamp it completely, until it looked like something miraculously different.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan) goes by Lady Bird. She has got all of her friends, all of her family and even her teachers at a staunch religious high school to call her Lady Bird. She’s the typical teenager we find in these movies. She’s discovering that she likes boys, she is constantly at odds with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), she wants to desperately to get out of Sacramento, her hometown, even though her grades aren’t good enough and her parents can’t afford to take her anywhere else for college. She finds that she has to be the center of attention, even though she is nowhere near the cool crowd at her high school. She’s a girl that so desperately wants to be independent that she now goes by the name Lady Bird. The movie is her senior year, from the beginning to the first day she lands in college. She is tormented by this year, she is strengthened by this year and the person she is at the beginning of the movie is not the same person we see calling her parents at a crucial moment right before the credits roll.

Sound familiar? It might to some depending on what you have and haven’t seen. But what makes “Lady Bird” such a joy to watch is how Greta Gerwig deconstructs the expectations of this genre. The film is really funny, but not in a teen comedy way. There is budding romance in the film, but not in a sappy way. The kids that populate this movie aren’t spitting silly jokes or one-liners. They are regular kids, with their own ticks and mannerisms. With their own growing insecurities. Desperate to feel something. There is not one time when Greta forgets about the human factor each of these characters must possess. The film is organically funny, and organically emotional. Nothing ever feels manufactured.

What Gerwig also does well is cast the right people for the right roles. There would be nothing about “Lady Bird” worth recommending if Lady Bird herself wasn’t likable. So, it’s a good thing Ronan does such a fine job portraying, easily besting any of her already powerful past work. Laurie Metcalf seems hellbent on besting her in every scene they share, and together they create two lionesses, interlocked in this game of arguments. The film is full of recognizable faces, all of whom do incredible work at every turn.

Alas, the secret weapon to the film is relatability. The film is so relatable. I can’t say that every teen comedy or coming-of-age movie is relatable. We are so used to people not behaving like actual human beings in these movies that they’ve never been relatable. But Gerwig forces us to find a connection to someone in the film, asking us to put a piece of ourselves in each of these characters in order for them to be complete. It’s an amazing miracle watching “Lady Bird,” which is why I enjoyed it so much. 


Friday, December 22, 2017

Bright Review: Netflix's ambitious urban fantasy is more misses than hits

Bright Review

At the beginning of the year, I found a cool script for my first script review for my site. The script was for a film called "Bright." It was co-written by David Ayer, who was set to direct the film or Netflix. The film took place in a world where humans have been sharing Earth with fantasy creatures for thousands of years. Two cops, one human and one Orc, answer a call that leads them to a crime scene. At this crime scene, they find a rare item, a magic wand. The item is so rare and so powerful, everybody wants it for themselves. The cops must fight through human street gangs, orcish street gangs, corrupt officials, and of course, the witch that lost the wand in the first place. The film's script featured a simple story, but it was a cool blend of gritty crime lore (something Ayer has always excelled at) and high-concept fantasy.

The draft I read must have been an incredibly early draft. The story plays out mostly the same in the finished film, and there were moments that I liked in the script that played out perfectly on screen. However, as the credits began to roll, I was kind of shocked out painfully mediocre the finished product was. The film went from being this wild hybrid of fantasy and gritty crime noir to being just another Hollywood film on Netflix. This really surprised me since Ayer said in an interview how much he liked working at Netflix, and how they let him make the movie he wanted to make. The script I read really made something out a fairly ordinary storyline, why fix something that isn't broken?

Unfortunately, Will Smith is kind of a problem here. I can't believe I just typed that, since Ayer got such a great performance out of him in last year's "Suicide Squad." It seems like in most occasions, Smith can't help but let out his Big Willie persona. It's almost as if he can't help himself. Pretty much all throughout the film, he plays a character either similar or exactly like the characters we have seen him play all his career. I would have never guessed Smith would be so one-note. Ward, the human cop Smith plays, did not have a single hit of "Big Willie" persona in the script, and its too bad that things had to get reworked for the actor. I shouldn't say Smith is bad per se, just distracting.

What was amazing on the page was how this was a world that felt lived in. The script didn't constantly remind its audience that it was in a fantasy movie. You got the gist of this weird world our characters inhabited, and the detail was in the page. It was a great example of having the audience see and feel the details, instead of characters telling details. That has been completely reversed in the final film. It feels like every other word out these characters is "Orc" or "magic" or "elf" or "wand" and as this kept happening and kept happening and kept happening, the movie did little to make me feel that I was just watching another fantasy movie. I mean, hell, Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" couldn't be more fantasy based if it tried, and Jackson was still able to pull off a fantasy world that was pulled from reality. "Bright" is a movie that expects its audience to buy into a world where fantasy creatures grew up with humans, and we bludgeoned by this story thread all throughout the movie.

I will say that Joel Edgerton does some good work as Jakobi, the Orc police officer. But when he's asked to adjust to the Big Willie persona, he downgrades, which I don't think is particularly his fault. The make-up design for actors playing Orcs and Elves is top-knotch. Ike Barinholtz, who also worked with Smith and Ayer in "Suicide Squad" is fine, but not in the movie nearly enough. Jay Hernandez is an actor I've admired since 2004's "Friday Night Lights," but again, we barely see him. Noomi Rapace is hit-or-miss with her performances and sadly she's more miss than hit here, she's fine, she just barely has anything to play. She wants her wand back, she hunts for it, end of character. She's your typical stock bad guy in movies like this. There are some wondrous action scenes in the movie, but there are two times when the film dips into slow-motion, a style that has always bugged me in action movies.

What drove me nuts the most though, and the thing that truly kept this out of "silly yet fun" territory in my head came at the end. When dealing in high concepts, it is the movie's job to inform the audience the rules of the movie, how the story will play out, how it's concepts work, how they don't work. Anytime a movie just makes up things as it goes along just to reach a satisfying conclusion or to wring emotion from its audience,that always loses me. You can't say that something will harm a human several times in a movie, then miraculously it doesn't and then not explain what we just saw. That isn't an emotional sucker punch, it's not progressive story-telling, it's a cop out. There is nothing more disappointing than a cop out.

I don't know if David Ayer had second thoughts about the script he wrote, or if there is more to the making of this movie than we know right now. But I can't believe that this movie features a script that was cool, hip and strong just to vanish into the ordinary. But that is exactly what happened. The atmosphere, the make-up, a few good performances and few good action scenes can't completely save the glaring story problems that plague this film. I can't think of another film that was in such good shape pre-production, just for the final product to be radically different in the worst way. But such is the case with David Ayer's "Bright." Funny, the original script had a juicy set-up for a sequel, on the other end of the finished film, they fumbled it completely. 

It's okay though, I think I'm good not visiting this world and these characters a second time anyway.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Ocean's 8 teaser

You got to love a trailer for a trailer.

I know I always do.

I was not among the people who blindly hated the 2016 "Ghostbusters" movie, simply because of what it represented. I found the film more underwhelming, and it's just not a movie I ever feel the need to watch again. The original "Ghostbusters" has some sentimental value to me, so if you they were going to go for it in a remake form, they better not have missed. Unfortunately, they missed overall. It's put a bad taste in my mouth pertaining to taking a classic film and saying "Let's remake it, but with all girls!"

Look, I have never argued against girl power in movies. I understand how important it is. I think we all need more women in lead roles, we need more women's faces in movies they usually don't have much command of. But these all-girl remakes...they feel like SJW lessons for the sake of it. Believe it or not, I imagined that this trailer would have that "Boots are gonna walk all over you" song in the trailer. Sure enough...

I know this is a teaser of a teaser. I will have more to judge once the bigger trailer hits tomorrow. But I am already trying hard to figure out why these "all-female" remakes are really needed.

Review: "Coco" is more good yet familiar Pixar

Coco Review

Well, I figured there may come a time when Pixar stopped being reinvigorating and began it's decent into familiarity.

There was a time, over ten years ago now, when everything Pixar did turned to gold. At least in my mind it did, it felt like the studio was Midas himself. The studio was not only selling heartwarming, hilarious, hopeful films to our children but they also gave something to the adults as well. Pixar kept making films that really were family films. These movies captivated and corresponded to people of all ages, of all walks of life and I think that's why they were so popular at the box office. It seemed like this animation studio was unstoppable. It seemed like they would only make hit after hit. There are even some writers who believe they have created their own genre.

But then they started playing the sequel game. And while it was kind of fun to see characters we grew to love, it felt like more of the same. Then with their original ideas, it felt like they were just covering the same ground that they've covered in many other films. I never expected that Pixar would ever repeat themselves. While we still do get an "Inside Out" every once in awhile, it seems like repeating itself is the only game Pixar wants to play these days. 

Even if the studio primarily deals in the familiar these days, that doesn't necessarily mean that their movies are bad. "Coco" is lush and luminous to look at. The power and beauty of Pixar's animation is, quite frankly, stunning. There are is not another animation studio releasing pictures this pretty right now and I can't pretend like it doesn't matter. These are animated films after all, so how well the animation itself looks is definitely something I look for. Pixar still has a way of being funny without being overly-cute. It still has a way of being important without being overbearing. It still has a way of being graciously sad without being tearjerky. Pixar continues to pull off its entire bag of tricks. My only reservation is that it's been the same bag of tricks for over a decade. 

The film focuses on Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a twelve-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a singer. The only problem is that his family has a long history of hating music. Long ago, Miguel's great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was once married to a musician, but he abandoned her to go chase his dreams. Ever since that sad day, Imelda has immersed her family in the shoemaking occupation. Every member of the family has taken up the tradition, and they have also adopted the tradition of having absolutely no music in the home. These traditions have lasted for generations and generations. Even Miguel's ancient great grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia) keeps the strict traditions.

So of course, following the standard Pixar studio norm, which also follows a strict basis of traditions, Miguel wants to be a musician. It's like "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles" and "Brave" and "Monsters Inc" and most other Pixar movies. This is about the lead character's adventure in realizing his dream. Miguel wants to be a musician so badly that he feels he could break the anti-music tradition of his home if only his family gave him the time to perform. But when he accidentally messes up a rather modern Mexican tradition, he finds himself in the land of the dead, and he must get the help of his dead ancestors to help his family see his musical skills. 

What's amazing about "Coco" is how it takes the traditions and culture of Mexico and makes it accessible to everyone. The movie takes its characters adventure and their background and makes sure every audience member gets something out of it. It's not like watching a movie in a different language that only you can't understand, this is something everyone can feel. The film gives a magnificent insight into the world of Mexico, particularly on the Day of the Dead, and how that celebration plays out. But also a tableau of other cultural traditions. But don't fret, this isn't some kind of multicultural lesson, the film merely mixes these things into the fabric of the storyline, and does so with an invisible hand.

The music in the film is, to be expected, iconic. I found myself really digging the music. It allowed itself to set up my emotions and get under my skin with a fair amount of ease. I am sure if you have little ones who really like musical animated movies, then this will be for you. I am sure "Remember Me" will be added to the pantheon of other great Disney songs, along side "Let It Go" and "How Far I'll Go." It is that instantly iconic, and I am curious to see if it will win the Golden Globe for best songs in just a few short weeks.

The only thing is that the film bundles itself in big bow of the obvious, and if you've grown up watching the Pixar movies, and if you've seen enough from the Disney fault, you will feel as if you've seen this movie before. Everything around the film is so unbelievably top-notch that will easily make you swoon. I will even admit that I was a puddle of tears by film's end. But the road to get their is a bit bumpy, story-wise. Pixar used to be so good at telling a different story each time out, illuminating a different part of the human journey, our the human soul or human emotion. Now, it feels like the studio is stuck in auto-pilot. 


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: "The Last Jedi" generates a disturbance in The Force

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

I saw “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on Friday. I was expecting to see the movie, love every moment of it, then run back home to write about it. It’s Sunday night now, so obviously that didn’t happen. Honest truth, I had no idea how to properly convey my thoughts on this difficult and divisive film. Oh yes, “backlash” is abundant already on this film. It’s sad that people are just jumping to conclusions, making excuses to why the “haters” didn’t like the movie. I am hoping if you are here now, you want to have an honest idea of where I stand on the movie.

Make no mistake, I have felt a great disturbance in The Force the last few days.

If there is one word that describes my feelings perfectly, its underwhelmed. I am deeply, deeply underwhelmed by this movie. I can’t honestly say I hated the film, because simply put, I didn’t. There is so much here that Star Wars fanatics are going to love. There are moments that are going to be etched into my mind every time I think of Star Wars. There are times when I laughed, and there were times when I felt like I was going to tear up and there were times when I wanted to jump and cheer. That’s what makes “The Last Jedi” ultimately frustrating. On one hand, there is something here that will make the “Star Wars” lover in you squeal. Then on another hand, the film made me sad. It was the revelation that this new trilogy of films will just boil down to a foiled member of the Skywalker family deciding whether or not he’s going to allow the light or dark side of The Force develop him. Did we not already see this in the old trilogy.

I will say this, and I am going to tread lightly, because I don’t plan on diving into spoilers just yet. Once we are in the New Year and you’ve all had a chance to see the movie, I will come back for a Further Inspection piece, and then I will discuss all the spoilers under the sun. But there are two stories going on in “The Last Jedi.” There is a story involving Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Leia (Carrie Fisher). This story introduces DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). It also features an epic space battle that opens the film, a space battle that blissfully mixes the adventure and the emotion in one fell swoop. This was the story I liked. The second story, involves what happens once Rey (Daisy Ridley) delivers the lightsaber to Luke (Mark Hamill) and tries to get him to join The Resistance. This second story, and I can’t believe I am saying this, is the most disappointing material in the whole movie.

The second story is disappointing because it all kind of feels like “Empire Strikes Back” just with different characters. Now, I will argue that “The Last Jedi” isn’t as overtly like a remake compared to “The Force Awakens.” “The Force Awakens,” no matter what, was pretty much a damn near frame-by-frame remake of “A New Hope.” There are merely moments of “The Last Jedi,” that feel like “Empire Strikes Back.” The way Luke trains Rey in the ways of The Force. The way the final battle mimics The Battle of Hoth, (hey it’s a SALT planet this time, instead of a SNOW planet, if that’s any consolation) it all feels like more of the same. And based on how the story goes, like I stated above, it feels like they are telling the same story they already told in the old trilogy.

Here’s the kicker though. Despite “The Force Awakens” feeling like a remake, I was never bored while watching it. I wrote a manically positive review for the movie, and I still stand by that review today. I think “The Force Awakens” is still wildly entertaining, and you can tell it’s a movie that aims to please. I was bored watching chunks of “The Last Jedi.” I couldn’t believe that there are certain characters that die in such premature ways. There is also one moment involving The Force in the middle of space that is so unbearably ridiculous that it took me out of the movie for a good fifteen minutes. Come on people, I know that this is a space opera. I know that this is fantasy. But come on, how could you NOT snicker at that moment. No matter how many times I watch “The Last Jedi” I will never be able to see that moment in a serious light.

What’s funny is that not only does “The Last Jedi” remake moments of “Empire Strikes Back,” but also throws in a couple of moments from “The Return of the Jedi.” So, I am hoping that by episode nine, we see something completely original. The new characters in this trilogy, Finn and Rey and Poe and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) all have an increasingly developing story arc. Some have argued that there is no character development in this movie, and that is something I definitely disagree with. Where we found Finn, Rey, Poe and Kylo at the end of “The Force Awakens” and where we find them at the end of “The Last Jedi” are totally different places. The status quo has completely changed by the end of “The Last Jedi” and that could pay off mightly by the end of episode nine. Believe me, my fingers are crossed for that.

Overall, “The Last Jedi” is a mixed bag. It’s not terrible, its not bad. It’s just underwhelming ultimately. There is plenty I feel could have been done better and all the big moments that make me happy to be a Star Wars fan can’t get me to ignore those problems. The trilogy as a whole can still be redeemed, and if that happens in 2019, then “The Last Jedi” will end up being the Star Wars movie I watch the least for pleasure. Maybe. It’s been awhile since I took a peak at the prequels.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: "The Disaster Artist" is a hit! It is true! It's NOT bullshit! It is a hit! It is!

The Disaster Artist Review

Oh, hai James Franco. You make good Hollywood movie.

Deep down in my Man Cave at home, I have hundreds and hundreds of movies in my home theater. One of the films amongst my collection is “The Room.” It’s been dubbed the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies, but its also developed a cult status, and has had sold out screenings take place all around the world. Now, why would I buy the “Citizen Kane of Bad Movies” and add it to my collection? Possibly for the same reason why its developed a cult status. Don’t get me wrong, “The Room” is a incoherently bad movie, on a narrative and logical level. But there is something about the strange performance of Tommy Wiseau, the director, writer, producer and lead star of the film, which is, dare I say, endearing. The film is so willfully bad that its funny. And its crazy to me that Wiseau set out to make a drama, and ended up making a comedy.

“The Disaster Artist” is based upon a book by Greg Sestero, who was the second lead in the film “The Room.” Apparently, Greg Sestero was an aspiring actor living in San Francisco in the late 1990’s when a met Tommy Wiseau. Tommy was an odd fellow, who loved deep American values and he loved movies. He sounded as if he had an Eastern European accent, but when asked, he would say he’s from New Orleans, Louisiana. Greg was struggling in his acting classes, but Wiseau saw something special in him, and he invited Greg to Los Angeles with him (because he apparently had an apartment in BOTH San Francisco and Los Angeles) so that they could pursue acting together. Just as long as Greg didn’t ask about Tommy’s shrouded past nor talk about Tommy to their peers. After many years of failed attempts to break into the acting scene, they decided to make a movie themselves. Wiseau buys top-of-the-line camera equipment, hired personnel and they got right to work. Tommy never disclosed where he was getting his money from, but apparently costs for the film ballooned to five million. The shooting of the film itself was a nightmare for many involved, simply because Wiseau had no directorial experience.

Greg’s book is intended to be autobiographical and Wiseau claims none of it, if any at all, really happened. But James Franco shoots the book in an honest yet heartfelt way. There are moments of “The Disaster Artist” that are laugh out loud funny, and moments of deep, personal anguish. I always get a tad nervous when movies try to walk the tightrope between drama and comedy, but James Franco pulls it off flawlessly. Not to mention that James Franco disappears into the skin of Tommy Wiseau, becoming the man completely. I don’t know how many of you have actually seen “The Room” or heard Tommy Wiseau talk before, but he does sound like he’s from Eastern Europe and while he seems incredibly nice, he does come off a little odd. James Franco captures that with a powerful accord. I don’t know how Academy voters are going to react to this, but I absolutely believe that James Franco deserves the nomination for Lead Actor this year, as well as a Best Director nod.

The rest of the cast is equally solid. I will let you all in a little secret here, I have never been a huge fan of either of the Franco brothers. I’ve always thought Dave has ranged from good to mediocre, and James absolutely makes me cringe when I watch him in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies. But I have to say that Dave also delivers an incredible performance. Full of innocence and excitement and you feel this, you feel his emotions. In fact, “The Disaster Artist” is filled with lots of actors I do not normally like who deliver some good performances. Zack Efron does some brief yet strong work, and in his couple of scenes, he had me in stitches. Seth Rogen does great work here, as does Alison Brie. Josh Hutcherson. Jackie Weaver. Hannibal Buress. Paul Scheer. Everyone down to the smallest cameo, like Bryan Cranston. Everyone delivers. Everyone makes their moments in front of the camera count, no matter how small their role may be.

“The Disaster Artist” could have been a shameless vanity project. It’s a gamble that it got made in the first place. But what James Franco does is focus on an endearing friendship that buds between two unlikely people. The movie has some insightful things to say about friendship, and how it’s a joy some days and how other days it can be a chore. But it also says that we need to keep our eyes open and try to get to know all the people we meet in our lives, because we never really know if those people will change our lives for the better. Not only that, but the film also has some smart comments on the creation of art in Hollywood. It’s a tough business to break into, and that can sometimes destroy people. But when thinking of art, no matter if its movies or music or whatever, once you’ve created it and delivered it to people, it belongs to the audience. Tommy Wiseau set out to make a drama out of the room, but something else was released in theaters in July 2004. You may have set out to say something with your art, but what translates out to the audience is what it ultimately will be about. I honestly don’t know if I can name another movie that really dissects that creative process in such a funny and smart way.

“The Room” may ended up being a disaster. But James Franco captures that sometimes wild, sometimes enraging, sometimes sincere and all-around crazy time perfectly in his movie. 


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Annihilation trailer 2

From the guy who made "Ex Machina" in 2015.

Making some really exciting Science Fiction.

This film just shot up to the top of my most anticipated films of next year list!

Final "Bright" Trailer

If there is one movie I've been immersed in this year, surprisingly enough to you, it's been David Ayer's "Bright."

I read a few scoop pieces in 2016 about how Ayers was going to regroup with Will Smith from "Suicide Squad" and they were going to make some kind of "fantasy cop movie." Sounded a little weird, a little cheesy and even a little bit fascinating at the same time. During the Super Bowl this year, we saw that small spot, not giving much away. I have to admit, I was intrigued. I started paying closer attention to "Bright," this fantasy cop movie that Ayers was making. I even got my hands on a script for the movie, it was the first script review I ever wrote for my site here. I have to admit, I enjoyed what I read. I plan to give it one more look before next weekend, but I did enjoy what I read.

What "Bright" could be is the first streaming franchise. There is a juicy hook for a sequel at the end the script, and I am hoping the script hasn't changed much. Ayers did say in a recent interview that he really liked working for Netflix, and that they allowed him to make the movie he wanted to make. Sure, he took a little jab at Warner Brothers, but that interview gives me hope that there is no middle party muddying up a good script. Now I can't wait for the finished result. Heck, I even like Will Smith's Big Willie Style persona here. Also since I think Ayers got Smith to give one his best performances in awhile, I have faith.

This hits Netflix next weekend, I am dying to take a look at it.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: Gary Oldman delivers all sorts of goods in Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour"

Darkest Hour Review

Did any of you catch the 2018 Golden Globe nominations? If so, then you probably saw that Gary Oldman has been nominated for his work in “Darkest Hour.” After finally seeing the movie myself, it is no surprise whatsoever that has been nominated.

For me, that’s never a surprise when Gary Oldman delivers an unbelievable performance. Because, remarkably enough, this feels like something Oldman is always doing, and I can’t believe he never gets the attention and discussion I feel like he deserves. He should be the male Meryl Streep, though lots more likable. I think this because he seems to vanish in his roles all the time. How can someone watch something like “The Fifth Element” and NOT be totally taken aback when the realize the villain of that movie is Gary Oldman. Or how about his work as Dracula? How is the guy who was in “The Contender” also be the guy in “The Professional” and how is that guy the same guy from “Air Force One” or “Lawless?” My favorite example is Oldman’s work as Drexel in “True Romance.” A role wear Oldman plays a wigger pimp who is viciously ruthless. There is a verbal showdown that escalates to violence between Oldman’s Drexel and Christian Slater. I have seen the movie about a dozen times now, and that one moment still makes me tense up. When I show that movie to friends, they are stunned silent throughout the scene, then finish it with a deep sigh of relief. All in part from Oldman’s talent.

Some actors only disappear into a role once, Oldman made a career out of it. That’s why I totally buy his transformation into Winston Churchill, during the early days World War II, when he was appointed as Prime Minister. Oldman once again completely becomes Churchill, almost as if he evaporated into the skin of the man himself. It looks like Oldman put on a tremendous amount of weight, and I really can’t tell if he actually did or if that is mere movie magic. He completely transformed the way he talks, the way he moves, and he completely reinvented his mannerisms. This is what method acting looks like, and when it’s at its absolute best.

Funny, because the movie is actually full of stellar performances. Lilly James has had an absolutely great year of movies. “Baby Driver” STILL makes me swoon. And now, she caps off the year with another memorable performance. Here, she plays Elizabeth Nel, who was the personal secretary to Churchill throughout the war. It plays out mostly like typical Hollywood, but it never becomes weird or awkward or romantic. And James does great enough work that their subplot counts. Ben Mendelson plays King George VI who eventually appoints Churchill to his position, and he does a fine job here. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill’s wife and she’s as stalwart and stern as he is, Thomas once again displays some raw talent here. Even old Stannis Baratheon himself, Stephen Dillane appears as Lord Halifrax.

Joe Wright has a keen eye for detail here. As it feels like every costume and piece of scenery is absolutely lived-in. Any time I am watching a biography film and it feels like I just stepped off a time machine, that’s a good sign in my book. I don’t like cheap looking sets and costumes, it really is distracting to me. Either it all counts, or none of it does, so I like the extra detail in these biographical films. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is that typical rough-edged, rugged look that appear in most World War II movies, but its totally fitting here. The music by Dario Marianelli is powerfully suiting.

The story of “Darkest Hour” is kind of familiar at first glance. It feels like a movie we have seen before. It feels like an alternate version of “The King’s Speech.” We’ve seen plenty of films where a person of power has to prove themselves during a moment of extreme crisis, and that’s essentially all “Darkest Hour” boils down to. The thing is that Oldman is so unfathomably good here that he makes the good stuff stand out and the mediocre stuff disappear. There have been plenty of movies that were good but were elevated to great thanks to a particular performance, I think a modern example of that is here, Gary Oldman with “Darkest Hour.”

Oh, and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a perfect companion film to this. I can’t wait to have both in my possession and have a nice double feature.


Review: "Wonder" is Wonderful.

Wonder Review

There is a type of movie that I really can’t stand. And it’s the tearjerker. Now, I don’t necessarily mean romantic movies, or sad biographies. I would call something like “The Notebook” a romantic movie, not a tearjerker. Sure, “The Notebook” is sad, but it doesn’t shamelessly rip tears out of your eyes. That’s the type of movie I can’t stand, when its specifically designed to jerk tears out of you. Those emotions are artificial to me, not organic and if I can’t reach an emotional crescendo by myself, then it doesn’t work.

One of the best recent examples of this I can think of is “A Dog’s Purpose.” It’s a movie that came out earlier this year, that I missed in theaters and then finally caught up with when it was hit home viewing. The movie is only designed for people to go clamoring for their tissue boxes, without a story or emotional arc to support it. It simply makes up rules as it goes. The movie basically revolves around a dog who lives the life of a different dog after it dies, then miraculously finds its first owner. It’s a terrifically stupid idea on paper, and I wish I could been present for the pitch meeting for this. Is there any scientific evidence or religious dogma that says dogs just go into the body of another dog after they die? Do they recognize smells from old lives? If so, how? The movie doesn’t even try, it’s too busy trying to jerk those tears out of you.

I didn’t have high hopes for “Wonder,” because I couldn’t get a good read on it. I couldn’t tell if it had a genuine story to tell or if it was going to just set up sad scene after sad scene and win the audience’s affection through waterworks. Thankfully, it’s the former, because “Wonder” is actually a brilliantly told film. Sure, it has its sad moments, but it doesn’t lean on those moments like a crutch. Instead, “Wonder” relies on good acting, good storytelling and genuine emotion in order to reach its audience and it’s impeccably successful in its actions.

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is a fifth-grader who has been homeschooled most of his formative career. He has been homeschooled because he’s afraid to go to a real school with peers, he was having a rare medical condition called “mandibulofacial dysostosis” which required much surgery as an infant, and now his face is suffers heavy scarring. Auggie wears an astronaut helmet to cover his face. As Auggie gets older, his parents Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) worry about his future, and they enroll him at a private school for his fifth-grade year.

Sometimes, the movie feels like its going to be Auggie’s story, and at its center it truly is Auggie’s story. But its also sort of amazing how the movie also focuses on how Auggie affects many people’s lives. The film shows how Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) struggles with her parents constant monitoring of Auggie and how she sometimes feels left out. The film deals with the many classmates of Auggie, some of them friends, some of them friends by the end and some of them not friends at all. The film has some things to say about bullying in our school systems that I found significant. The film deals with Auggie’s principal (Mandy Patinkin) and how a certain teacher (Daveed Diggs) touches Auggie’s life. It’s all handled with a genuine amount of ease. Everything is handled with delicate care and never once feels too bloated with story.

So much of the film hinges on Jacob Tremblay. Who was so powerfully good in 2015’s “Room,” that I can’t say I’m surprised he can carry a movie here. Tremblay is a bright, bold, young performer and he’s got quite the career ahead of him if he wants to manage it. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are always reliable, dealing some good performances here. I have always loved Pantinkin ever since I saw him on Showtime’s “Homeland” and he does some great work in his small, brief moments here. But it’s really Tremblay who really steers this thing. He is funny at moments, tender at others and he is constantly etching in the details.

There are some classic tearjerker moments in this movie. There are many times when Auggie comes home crying, not wanting to go to school the next day. There are some serious family arguments we feel like we’ve heard millions of times before. There are the bullies that grow consciences. There is even a moment when I thought that “Wonder” was just going to become the same kiddie tearjerker like we’ve seen to hell and back, but it didn’t. Not quite. It stayed the course of the new and the fresh and I salute the film for that. There are moments when you think “Wonder” will tip into that territory, but there is so much uplifting entertainment here that feels real that I still really liked it.