The opening minutes of The Leisure Seeker promise a more substantive experience than the comedy/drama ultimately delivers. As the camera winds its way around a peaceful New England town, the idyll is broken when a campaign pickup truck enters the scene. Garish, oversized flags mounted in the bed – one on each side – billow in the wind. They are advertising their candidate: TRUMP FOR AMERICA! Director Paolo Virzì then puts a title card up on the screen, setting his story on a specific day in September of 2016, just a few months before the election. Will The Leisure Seeker be some sort of political statement about how presidential politics affect everyday Americans, I wondered? Will the Trump/Clinton campaign merely exist at the edges of the story, never quite taking center stage, but adding poignant commentary to the main action? That second one is closer to the mark, sans the poignancy. Our characters only interact once with the election (I’ll get to that later), and the movie wastes every other reference to it.
The highest praise you can bestow on a kids’ movie is that adults can enjoy it, too. Is that just us grown-ups being selfish? Not really, because if a movie is aimed at children, but is sophisticated enough for adults, that usually means it’s not talking down to its target audience. It gives kids credit for their own level of sophistication. See just about every Pixar movie for the best examples of this sort of filmmaking.
A Wrinkle in Time truly is a kids’ movie. It’s not meant for me, so it feels mean-spirited to beat up on it too much. There are perhaps millions of kids out there who might have a cultural earthquake happen inside them when they see this picture. But, the movie does a disservice to the kids it wants to entertain. Aside from the gigantic budget and the production value that goes along with it, A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer its audiences (either the kids or the adults) much sophistication at all.
With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.
If you're planning on watching the Oscars tomorrow night, but you didn't have a chance to play catch-up with most of the nominees, I'm here to help. It's no fun when you watch an awards show but you know next to nothing about the movies that are up for the big awards. So, I've collected my reviews for all nine Best Picture nominees, and I've also ranked them in order of what I'd like to see win. Number one is what I most want to win, number nine is what I least want to win. I haven't provided any commentary besides the ranking, because if you want to know what I think of each one, you can just click the link and read my original review. I've also included links to my reviews for movies nominated in other categories. Happy reading, and happy viewing tomorrow night!
Director Sebastián Lelio pays special attention to his titular character’s breathing during several sequences in his exquisite film A Fantastic Woman. Each time his protagonist, Marina, is under stress, either psychological or physical, Lelio drains everything out of the soundtrack and focuses on her slow, deliberate breaths. In the film, Marina does this to steady herself; it’s a way to regain her composure and sense of safety in traumatic situations. If you’re watching the film, it’s a way for Lelio to remind you that Marina is a human being. We all breathe, after all, and the film reminds us that we are all deserving of a basic level of respect and dignity. As obvious as that sentiment seems, Marina is confronted many times throughout A Fantastic Woman with people who aren’t willing to extend her that respect and dignity.
If you suffer from the condition known as Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, as I often do, you might be hesitant to see the latest Marvel movie, Black Panther. There’s no reason to be hesitant. In fact, Black Panther works as an antidote to the feeling that you’ve grown tired of just about anything based on a comic book or that is incorporated into Marvel’s sprawling, at times unwieldy, Cinematic Universe. Black Panther might just be the best Marvel movie yet.
At about 30 minutes into The Cloverfield Paradox, I had one of those moments that often comes along when I’m watching an entertaining bit of genre filmmaking. I took a moment to appreciate how much I was enjoying the experience by mentally telling myself, “I am really into this.” Then, as is often the case with most storytelling, the plot of the movie had to kick in, and things started to go a little haywire. By the end, it was clear just how much of a disaster this movie was. Its plot is nonsensical to the point of being moronic. At least some of Paradox’s coherence problem was made worse because the producers – most notably J.J. Abrams – decided to tie this stand-alone sci-fi movie into the Cloverfield series during filming. This led to the film’s writer, Oren Uziel, penning new scenes and rewriting others, and the director, Julius Onah, shooting those changes in order to make Paradox – originally titled God Particle – fit into the Cloverfield universe. The result is an utter mess of a movie.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the kind of movie that gets an Oscar Best Picture nomination because the people in charge think it’s gritty, meaningful filmmaking full of important social commentary. In actuality, it’s a movie that uses relevant social topics – namely police brutality and inaction – in a cynical ploy for cheap exploitation and shock value. This is a nihilistic movie that delights in trying to offend. There is a painful tone-deafness in how Three Billboards attempts to mix comedy and pathos. The plot machinations, especially late in the film, become so creaky that several key points are unbelievable, even laughable.
Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie. It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.
Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s early work was defined by a search for surrogate family, specifically relationships having to do with father figures. In Hard Eight, gambling expert Sydney takes the down-on-his-luck John under his wing, teaching him how to win at the casinos. John becomes his protégé and symbolic son. In Boogie Nights, porn star Dirk Diggler finds a father in his director, Jack Horner. That movie is more broadly about a collection of misfits in the 1970s porn scene coming together as a kind of dysfunctional family. The movie Magnolia is rife with broken family dynamics.
In the background of these movies about substitute family is the theme of power dynamics. As Anderson’s career has progressed, the two themes have slowly traded places in importance. This transition culminated in Anderson’s exquisite The Master. The lost Freddie Quell finds a kind of father figure in the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, but that’s secondary to the power and control the cult leader exerts over his new disciple. The entire movie is a battle of wills between the two men.
In Phantom Thread, the writer-director’s new film, the battle of wills this time is between a man and a woman. They are lovers as well as muse and artist.
Is there anything better than being in love when you’re seventeen? Is there anything worse than being in love when you’re seventeen? The dizzying emotional highs and lows entwined with the answers to those questions are only part of the boundless beauty contained in Call Me by Your Name. As it unspooled before me, one word in particular kept returning to me again and again. I only want to share the word with you if I can first strip out any negative connotation it has. Everything about Call Me by Your Name – its lush cinematography, its meticulous pacing, its devastating performances – is languid. Not in the sense that it’s weak or frail or feeble, which are the negative synonyms associated with the word. No, this film is relaxed, unhurried, and leisurely in building the love story that by the end is emotionally pulverizing. But this isn’t just a love story. It’s also a coming-of-age story as well as a sexual awaking story.
Every frame of The Shape of Water seems to live and breathe with a magic that’s only possible on screen. Whether it’s the heavily saturated and precisely chosen color scheme, or the gritty, grimy feel of every location, the movie is full to bursting with visual inventiveness. It’s also very full of ideas. This is a fable about our not so distant past, and it also has something to tell us about our present.
Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Water takes place almost exclusively in two locations. One is a top-secret government laboratory, the other is the apartment of our hero, the mute Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a janitor working the night shift at the lab. The Cold Warrior scientists and military personnel working there have a new project. It’s a creature the U.S. military discovered in a river in South America. They refer to this creature, which looks like a hybrid of amphibian and human, as “the asset.”
Movies like Lady Bird and The Florida Project introduced us to people either living close to poverty or people who can’t escape it. Both pictures did it without being exploitative. They brought their subjects to life in a thoughtful, humanist way.
The economic underclass is a major preoccupation of I, Tonya, as well. Like The Florida Project, I, Tonya’s subject, who just happens to be a real-life person, is proud and unapologetic. I, Tonya is a punk rock look at poverty, among other things. It’s also, improbably, one of the most hilarious movies of 2017. Its humor is biting and sarcastic. It isn’t afraid to call its audience out as hypocrites for watching the story of Tonya Harding with a sick voyeuristic glee.
If the marketing material for Pitch Perfect 3 – the tag line is “Last Call, Pitches” – is to be believed, this is the swan song for a series that’s generated a sizable cult following. In this latest outing, the saga of the Barden Bellas ends not with a bang, but not exactly with a whimper. I have to damn Pitch Perfect 3 with a heaping helping of faint praise. It’s just okay. The movie is, thankfully, nothing like the complete disaster that Pitch Perfect 2 was, yet it never captures the elements that made the original so charming and so memorable.
This time around, the members of our favorite competitive collegiate a-cappella singing group are finding that post-college life, a.k.a. the real world, isn’t everything they had hoped it would be.
Rarely have the first 15 minutes of a movie given me more conflicting emotions than those at the start of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. My reservation during the opening crawl gave way to the thrill of a taut, explosive opening action sequence. The source of my initial unease stemmed from a sense of déjà vu.
The exposition contained in the iconic floating paragraphs for writer/director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars adventure is a little too similar to that of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fascistic First Order, under the control of evil Supreme Leader Snoke, is ruthless in its pursuit of the Resistance, lead by General Leia Organa. The First Order is attempting to crush this rebellion so it can solidify its power and rule the galaxy unchallenged.
The year 2017 has been full of ups and downs. Mostly downs. If you read my reviews with any regularity, you might see my political views peeking through in my analysis of movies from time to time. I don't apologize for it, but I also never sit down to write a review with the express purpose of unleashing a political screed. My political leanings and beliefs inform so much of the rest of my existence that they are bound to bleed over into my film criticism. The three most blatant examples of this in the last year are in my reviews for Battle of the Sexes, The Post, and The Florida Project. The plot of Sexes lent itself to being interpreted as a thinly veiled metaphor for the 2016 presidential election. The Post (which I think has a better-than-average shot at winning the Best Picture Oscar this year) just is about our current political situation, in a certain way. Steven Spielberg has said as much when talking about why he made it. I'll get to The Florida Project in my top ten list (spoiler!).
The North Texas Film Critics Association (NTFCA), of which I am a member, voted this month to honor the best films of 2017. As an organization, the NTFCA is proud to call attention to outstanding achievements in the craft of filmmaking. I consider movies to be not only entertainment, but in the best examples, they are also art. They teach us about the human condition. Here are the winners for each category in which we voted:
The second scene of Lady Bird makes it apparent how special this movie is. Marion McPherson and her daughter Catherine, or “Lady Bird,” the name she has chosen for herself, are driving home to Sacramento after a trip visiting prospective colleges in California. Their conversation turns from melancholic reflection over the audiobook they just finished – The Grapes of Wrath – to fighting about Lady Bird’s desire to go far away for college, New York maybe. The scene only lasts about three minutes. It ends when Lady Bird can’t take for one more second her mother’s hurtful words about how her grades aren’t good enough to get her into a local state school, let alone an expensive one on the East coast. In a fit of rage, Lady Bird removes her seat belt, throws open the door, and flings herself out of the car as it barrels down the highway. It’s a brilliant, if hyperbolic, microcosm of the coming-of-age story.
The rest of the picture explores Lady Bird’s coming-of-age with an infinite amount of warmth, grace, bittersweet humor, and charm.
I've always thought of myself as being well-rounded when it comes to what movies I've seen. I want to be known as someone who can speak intelligently about all types of movies, be they blockbusters or art-house, films from any and every country, or movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood and earlier.
There's nothing like cold, hard data to shatter the lies we tell ourselves.
When future filmmakers craft the pop culture version of history about our current political age – and what a sad, sickening history it will be – they’ll no doubt have an almost bottomless pit of stories to tell. Stories about people who worked tirelessly to uncover corruption, collusion, and incompetence at the highest levels of government. Let Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay for The Post be a guide to telling those stories. It stands in the company of movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight.
This is Hannah’s first attempt at feature screenwriting, and she wrote it solo in early 2016. Singer, who won a best original screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy for 2015’s Spotlight, was brought on board to do a rewrite just before filming began. Their movie is about the vital role a free and open press has in a democracy.