I, Tonya (2017, Directed by Craig Gillespie) English 7

Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Caitlin Carver

In 1994, Olympic figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked, hit in the right leg by ex-con Shane Stant. It was later determined that Jeff Gillooly, husband of her rival, Tonya Harding, planned the attack, and that Harding herself knew at least something about it. It’s not easy to admit, but considering that this act of violence took place in the posh world of women’s figure skating puts a humorous spin on the tragic event. This film understands that, and turns the material into a superior tragicomedy.

Employing a unique framing device in which multiple narrators tell their side of the story, often contradicting each other, we start with Tonya as a child, the daughter of a rabbit hunter and a waitress, in Portland, Oregon. She quickly demonstrates a prodigious talent in skating, and, after her father leaves the house, her profane, chain-smoking mother (Janney) constantly pushes her into becoming a champion skater. Later, as a teenager, Tonya (now played by Robbie) is one of the most talented skaters in the country, but can’t get a fair chance with the judges due to her being labeled “white trash.” She meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Stan), who soon reveals himself to be an abusive boyfriend and then boyfriend. All in all, it’s a tough life for Tonya, and her background goes a long way into making her a sympathetic figure.

The second half of the film, as Robbie addresses, breaking the fourth wall, is what we’re all interested in. The “incident.” I, Tonya leaning on its unreliable narrator technique portrays Jeff as simply attempting to send empty death threats to Nancy Kerrigan, as a means of psychological warfare. Here, the film, evoking the spirit of Fargo (or any other great crime-dark comedy you can think of), shows Jeff’s simple plan devolve into  his friend, Shawn’s delusions of grandeur, and get out of hand quickly.

It’s compelling material, and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, Million Dollar Arm) does a nice job with it. I, Tonya is consistently funny, well-acted, and fierce. However, I would argue it misses out on being truly poignant, and the fast-paced comedic tone drowns out much of, if not all, of the sadness. Not that there aren’t sad moments, but I just found them overshadowed by the funnier moments.

Margot Robbie gets her first great star vehicle and she’s been reeling in the awards. Her comic timing is excellent, but she’s also able to change tones with the film seamlessly, making Tonya into a well-rounded, fascinating character. Janney steals all of her scenes as the monstrous mother (somehow she still invokes our empathy). I liked I, Tonya, but I didn’t love it.

-Walter Howard-

Molly’s Game (2017, Directed by Aaron Sorkin) English 7

Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian D’Arcy James

Aaron Sorkin is one of the preeminent screenwriters of the past 25 years with works that include: A Few Good Men (1992), The West Wing (1999-2006), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), and The Newsroom (2012-2014). Here he is, with Molly’s Game starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, for the first time directing his own script, and, I will say, pulling it off skillfully.

Exploring extraordinary figures is something of a hallmark of his. In the past, that’s meant real life enigmas-Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bean- and created characters like President Bartlett as portrayed by Martin Sheen in the West Wing. Molly Blum, his newest protagonist, represents his first real foray into focusing on a strong female character. In the early 2000s, fresh out of undergrad and trying to make ends meet in L.A, Molly was recruited by a high-end club owner to help with a weekly night of underground poker.  Big name stars (allegedly DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, A-Rod, etc.) showed up every week to bet six figure dollars on games of poker, and all she was meant to do was look nice, serve drinks, and contact the people invited. Molly Blum was smart though, smart and bold, and soon she became the ringleader for the most high-profile poker games in the country, boasting A-list actors, sports heroes, and Wall Street whiz kids. Her rise to the top of the underground poker world is portrayed in rich, captivating detail, but, fitting in with another hallmark of Sorkin’s writing, so is her less action-packed upbringing. Sorkin strives to draw out the relatable and the everyday motivations behind his amazing characters. He’s helped tremendously by a soon-to-be awards laden performance by his star, Jessica Chastain. Her evolution from ambitious, just trying-to-make-it college girl to Queen of high-stakes poker squaring off with mobsters is convincing, and she keeps a strong hold on our attention even as the mounds of money threaten to steal the spotlight. Idris Elba is also compelling as her defense lawyer after her way of living implodes, and the government takes all her earnings. Costner does a fine job as her overbearing, distant father, but, inevitably, the poker scenes (between watching all the money and trying to guess which celebrities they’re talking about in real life) are far more interesting.

Overall, it’s a solid picture, but for a film about such an amazing, larger than life story, it’s not very surprising.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Directed by Rian Johnson) English 9

Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Benicio Del Toro, Domnhall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the Billion-dollar film equivalent of a bail-bond; no risk. It stepped only where the original Star Wars films left footprints for it to safely navigate, and showed little to no creativity. As a result, the masses were reasonably satisfied. After the fan-infuriating prequel trilogy, Abrams had one mission, and it was to give the fans what they want. The problem though is that the truly great and iconic films  tend to catch their audiences off-guard; surprise them. Audiences go, “I loved that. I want another film just like it.” Then when another film copies it, or they make a sequel, it’s not as interesting. What audiences actually want is too be blown away again, and so, for me, if this new Star Wars trilogy was going to be worth it, the sequel, this second installment needed to veer off dramatically from the retread that was laid out in The Force Awakens. I was skeptical. I said Disney is only concerned with milking the original trilogy for all the money it can. Fortunately,  The Last Jedi comes like a kick in the head. It’s the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy.

In this Star Wars, the resistance is quickly losing what little ground they had, as the First Order sees their opportunity to go in for the kill. The rebels, basically reduced to refugees at this point, need to find a new home base, but can’t outrun the First Order. Finn and Poe Dameron, along with Rose Tico (a new character played by Kellie Marie Tran), hatch a scheme of their own to save the day, against the wishes of acting Officer in Charge, Vice Admiral Holdo (another new character played by Laura Dern). Meanwhile, Rey, who finds Luke Skywalker at the end of the previous installment, seeks to learn the ways of the Jedi, and bring Luke out of hiding to turn the tide of the war. Luke, older, weary, and haunted by an event that happened years earlier with his former pupil, Kylo Ren, resists. Not unlike previous installments, but, in my opinion, to a greater degree, The Last Jedi balances a  large number of characters and their individual quests. You have your classic characters. General Leia (Carrie Fisher in her final film), Luke Skywalker- more of an invisible presence throughout the first movie, but a major player in this one; in fact, Mark Hamill receives first billing-and then Chewie, C3P0, and R2D2. I felt the first film coasted too often on the appeal of old Star Wars movies. Specifically, I felt it faltered on the new generation of characters: Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren. Rey (Ridley) was cool, but Finn was used too much for comic relief, Poe was underwritten, and Kylo Ren was like a teenage girl. The Last Jedi atones. Each actor is given their chance to shine, and they’re uniformly strong. Mark Hamill, apparently unhappy with the direction his character takes, nevertheless delivers an engrossing and moving return for the iconic Luke Skywalker. Finn is still a goofy hero, but it’s mostly endearing. Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren, played by Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver respectively, take the biggest leaps in The Last Jedi. Poe finally feels like a real, fleshed out character and Kylo Ren’s still present moodiness served a more interesting role in the story, even pushing it to some surprising places. Newcomers Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern are award winning actors, and they go a long way to making this darker, weightier film successful.

Does The Last Jedi veer off expectations? I say so. It mainly took events that I expected and moved them ahead of schedule, making them surprising. The big reveals that The Force Awakens seemed to be setting up, fizzled in its sequel, but I was fine with that too. Fundamentalists, nitpickers, internet trolls, and people who love clichés will likely have bones to pick with this film. It took chances. It defied expectations. As a result, it’s a grand, bold, and exciting epic. You can complain about Luke’s evolution, scratch your head at his milking of a weird alien creature, but you can’t deny the awesomeness of Rey and Kylo’s duel in main antagonist Snoke’s sex-cult room (that’s what I’ve nicknamed it). I can’t wait for the finale.

-Walter Howard-

 

Coco (2017, Directed by Lee Unkrich) English 8

Voices of Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Anthony Gonzalez, Cheech Marin

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is an incredibly lively and colorful event. It’s fascinating, and I was amazed that it wasn’t featured in more films. Sure, I saw it somewhere in the background of John Huston’s Under the Volcano, but it wasn’t until 2014’s Book of Life that the annual  holiday was given a full film. Now the Day of the Dead is given the Pixar treatment which means tons of heart, humor, and glorious animation. While Book of Life was good, Coco will be the film best remembered and linked to Dia de los Muertos. It’s another feather in Pixar’s cap. A wonderful movie.

Miguel Rivera (12 years old) was born into a family that loves each other but hates music. Long before he was born, his great-great grandfather left home, a wife and child, to pursue a career as a musician. His great-great grandmother, left alone to raise a child, worked hard to overcome, but banned music from her life and the lives of her descendants. Miguel knows all of this, but also knows that his destiny is to be a musician. He can sing and play the guitar just like his idol, Ernesto De La Cruz, but how can he follow his dreams without alienating his family? With that he embarks on a journey through the Land of the Dead, where he meets his ancestors and an untrustworthy rogue named Hector on his way to finding his hero Ernesto.

There’s an entire history of American cinema borrowing elements from foreign cultures through half-baked representations. Coco gets it all right. The voice cast (all stellar) is hispanic. The animators clearly and typically went to painful stakes to nail the small details. The writing conjures up a foreign culture lovingly and believably. The amazing thing is the film’s ability to show a separate culture but make it relatable to all. I loved the characters in this film, loved the family. I was impressed by the teamwork between animators and actors in creating them. The Day of the Dead offers a wealth of imagery for Pixar to play with, and they do their best work since Brave (which was technically brilliant, but weak story-wise).

When it comes to original, high quality animation, Pixar is in a class of their own. There was a period when Pixar was doling out an original, creative, masterful animated film every year, culminating in Oscars and huge box office returns. Lately, like the film industry as a whole, they’ve turned to a number of sequels: Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 3. These efforts though entertaining, beautifully animated, and well-crafted, they’ve failed to generate the same acclaim and excitement that Pixar was accustomed to. Coco is a return to form, in league with Inside Out, and Pixar’s early efforts.

-Walter Howard-

Eight Things I Liked About Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Directed by Taika Waititi) English 7

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor returns for his third solo outing and fifth Marvel film altogether. I could not have cared less. That is, until I saw the trailer, and thought, this looks different. The first Thor movie (2011) was bad. One of my least favorite Marvel films, and Thor himself, was boring. He’s indestructible, devoid of a real personality, and trapped in an unappealing romance with Jane Porter, played by Natalie Portman (I don’t care how attractive the actors are, their relationship was dumb). Then the second film came along, The Dark World (2013), and managed to be even worse. Somehow, fans hung in, and thanks to them, we get this third adventure, directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Unfamiliar with his work before seeing the Thor trailer, I have since seen a number of his comedies, and been impressed. They’re funny, and beyond all of the special effects, CGI, and technical brilliance Thor: Ragnarok boasts, it, too, is very funny. Here are the ten things I liked about Marvel’s latest that make it worth seeing:

  1. Thor: Ragnarok is an oddball comedy-There is a lot going for this picture, which I will proceed to list out, but it all comes back to the director’s comedic sensibility. Every scene features some humorous detail or punchline. From the start, to the end, making this a fun picture.
  2. Death of Stoicism-Stoic heroes can be good when a film warrants being taken seriously, or if you have a solid comic foil. Neither of those reasons pertained to the Thor franchise. This time around, they got it right. Gone is the humorless protagonist from previous movies. Hemsworth has even commented, saying he was, “a bit bored” with his character. He, after being the only source of light in the Ghostbusters reboot, proves once again to have comedic chops, and despite the colorful supporting cast, he owns this movie.
  3. Stakes is High-The plot mainly concerns a long lost sister named Hela (played by Blanchett) who returns to Asgard seeking destruction and revenge. When attempting to stand up to her, Thor is defeated easily and his hammer destroyed. This happens at the film’s outset and allows for actual stakes, as we wonder how Thor will be able to stop her. Thor’s still a god, but not as invulnerable.
  4. Thor and Hulk bromance- Thor gets reunited with his old Avengers teammate on the planet Sakaar where the two are forced to fight it out Gladiator style. This sets the tone for their relationship in this movie, a very antagonistic rivalry. Much humor is derived from their arguments over who is stronger, but Thor knows he needs the Hulk if he’s going to stand a chance at Hela.
  5. Jeff Goldblum- He plays Grandmaster, a hedonistic leader of Sakaar, where most of the film takes place, and he almost steals the show. Goldblum was allowed to ad-lib and his humor fits right in with the director’s. I hope they work together more.
  6. Taking Cues from Guardians of the Galaxy-Guardians of the Galaxy hit big by mixing the superhero genre with comedy, huge amounts of color, and an eclectic soundtrack. Thor does that formula better than either Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Standouts from the soundtrack are, of course, Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
  7. Korg-Voiced and played through Motion Capture by the director, this new character Thor encounters while enslaved as a gladiator is a new favorite. Huge and fearsome looking, his soft-spoken demeanor comes as a wonderful surprise. Marvel even considered some sort of spinoff featuring the character, but have opted for a reappearance in some other Marvel property.
  8. Fresh Love Interest-As mentioned the Jane Porter romance was going nowhere. This entry features a jaded Valkyrie warrior played by Tessa Thompson. More Thor’s equal in fighting, and given a real personality right off the back as she stumbles drunkenly from her ship (she’s the one who captures him, leading to his stint as a gladiator). Interested to see where the Thor-Valkyrie relationship goes.

To wrap it up, Thor was a good deal of fun and a step in the right direction for the franchise. Marvel has given us two strong offerings this year with this and Spiderman: Homecoming which I give the slight edge. My main drawback was the villain, which is a common complaint I feel for the Marvel movies. They do not give as much thought to making their villains compelling as they do everything else. I like that Hela is stronger than Thor as I’ve stated but besides that, she’s not unique. I guess they thought by getting a great actress to play the role, the work was finished. Also, I wish there was more done with the gladiator fighting. I love the idea of fight to the death tournaments (Gladiator, Bloodsport, Enter the Dragon, The Quick and the Dead). It’s a very entertaining premise. All in all, an excellent action-comedy adventure.

-Walter Howard-

Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Directed by Denis Villeneuve) English 5

Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Carla Juri, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright

I was afraid this belated sequel would be made too accessible. The original masterpiece, directed by Ridley Scott, was met with faint praise and middling box-office returns, and so, I presumed, 35 years later, this new film team would simplify. Lighten. Keep the mood, the atmosphere, and premise, but then deliver a more structured story, a less elusive story. I’d like to say kudos to director, Villeneuve, writer, Hampton Fancher, and anyone else involved in this film’s final confounding effect. I’d like to focus on its many virtues and hail this film as the next sci-fi great, but that would be ignoring the tremendous amount of frustration I felt during and after its run. That, in itself, could be seen as a commendation for Blade Runner 2049, if it weren’t saddled with the more severe feeling, the worst of all film watching emotions, which is boredom. Blade Runner 2049 is 163 minutes long, and it felt like 163 minutes. Its runtime and massive pretensions wore on me. Therefore I will not be extolling this epic sequel, but instead will admit to feeling disappointed.

A quick catch-up is necessary, and fair warning, spoilers from 1982’s Blade Runner forthcoming (I will do my best not spoil 2049). The futuristic setting and context are recounted to us at the outset of 2049, so Ill only remind you of the key plot points in Blade Runner. Rick Deckard is an L.A cop whose sole purpose is to find and stomp out a rogue breed of androids (replicants) that have surpassed humans in nearly every aspect of living. Originally intended to be slaves of labor, these super-humans, led by Roy (Rutger Hauer) revolt, making them threats to society. Deckard, and anyone in the pursuit of killing androids are referred to as Blade Runners. In the course of his duty, Deckard meets Rachael and identifies her as a replicant. Instead of “retiring” her, he falls in love, and the two escape Los Angeles 2019 in hopes of starting a life together.

2049 stars Ryan Gosling as a Blade Runner known as K. We are told early on, explicitly, that he is himself an android, which is something that was left ambiguous about Deckard in the original. K, whose mission is to stop a growing resistance movement from a factious line of androids, stumbles on a secret that could change everything. A miracle of sorts. Twenty eight years earlier, an android gave birth to a child. Androids giving birth was previously thought impossible. Everybody wants this miracle android, now an adult. The resistance want the child as a symbol of their “humanity,” to validate them in essence. The L.A.P.D wants all evidence of a miracle android to disappear.  And a sinister third party led by replicant manufacturer and perverse God-figure Nander Wallace (Leto) want this mysterious android to help him solve reproduction in his models in order to bolster sales. K’s discovery ultimately leads him to an old, worn-out Deckard holed up in Las Vegas, and the two spend the rest of the film fighting Wallace’s henchmen and sorting through revelations.

Blade Runner, and this is certainly true of its source, the Phillip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, built its reputation on being a challenging science fiction marvel that blended pulp noir with enormous religious and philosophical themes. Is this true of its sequel? As comparison is inescapable. I don’t think it is. I found 2049 to be brooding rather than deep or thoughtful, and solemn rather than atmospheric. I found myself imagining the director holding a stop watch, making sure that there was at least a five second silence between every passage of dialogue. I especially found Jared Leto’s character, in theory, the most interesting, to be pretentious and awkward. His dialogue nonsensical and his weirdness forced. Should we talk about 2049’s themes? Does subtext matter when you find the text muddled? The most readily apparent theme concerns the character of Nander Wallace. Wallace has a God-Complex-he even calls his creations angels- but it’s important to note that none of his replicants can procreate. It was Tyrell, the original creator from Blade Runner who made the replicant that had the child. Think of Tyrell as a God-figure and Wallace as an imposter, someone who wants to be in Tyrell’s place. A sinister, lesser creator. A devil. Much of his dialogue highlights the dichotomy between him and Tyrell, as he laments that there are good angels and bad angels. Beyond that, I was at a loss to forage themes of interest. True, there are quotes intended to be provocative. “The most human thing you can do is die for something you believe in,” for example. But, in all, I found the pickings slim, in terms of subjects for thought.

The visuals, this artificial future created by film artists and technicians, which have been lauded by critics en masse, were a source of discontent for me. Shot to shot, is 2049 nice to look at? Mostly. Roger Deakins is a thirteen time Oscar nominee. The lighting and hues are spectacular, sure, but Blade Runner was more than that. The design of Los Angeles to this day, thirty plus years later, is awe-inspiring. 2049 reminded me of too many sci-fi pics that preceded it. Clinical atmosphere to indicate a washed up future. Rich hues to be aesthetically pleasing. Blade Runner created a world that I wanted to spend time with (if not actually inhabit). 2049’s vision of the future passed the time. There is almost no trace of noir in the proceeding, and that to me is major loss between Villeneuve’s film and the original. Just look at the original poster:

Image result for blade runner

This poster captures the noir spirit of the first film, one that’s lacking from its sequel, and it’s that spirit that mesmerized me.

I had mentioned virtues in my opening,and on a more positive note, 2049 unquestionably has some. The dual leads were impressive. Gosling as the weary, embattled cop is strong, and Ford gives his one of his best performances in this, a supporting role. The sound design, unlike the visuals, is inspired, and the final sequence, a fist fight in a flooding hovercraft, is a tour de force. Worth seeing. Worth being disappointed by. Worth holding the minority opinion on and having to argue with people you respect about.

-Walter Howard-

 

It (2017, Directed by Andy Muschietti) English 8

Starring Jaeden Leiberher, Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs

Big budgets don’t usually equal big scares for me. The most horrifying films, I mean the ones that truly frightened me, have largely been the low-budget, gritty, raw, thrillers set in the mold of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unnerving, punishing, with gory payoffs around the corner of every suspense scene, these kind of thrills aren’t for everybody. But It follows a different model. More Poltergeist than slasher pick, and it’s really more Goonies than anything else. It’s scary, but it’s more than that. It’s funny, nostalgic, and imaginative. It’s also a creditable big-budget spectacle.

Set in a town where children disappear at a rate well beyond the national average, we know, thanks to a vicious opening scene, that some sort of monster clown calling himself Pennywise (Skarsgård) is to blame. The film follows seven members of the “loser club,” a group of bullied junior high kids, at a time when kids are going missing left and right. Their leader, Bill, has a younger brother missing, but hasn’t given up finding him. Beverley, the only girl in the group, is abused at home and deemed a slut at school. Mike is an orphaned black kid forced to work in a slaughter house. Ben is an overweight, sensitive new kid. Eddie’s a hypochondriac. Stan’s a nervous Jewish boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. And Richie’s a big-mouth incapable of taking anything very seriously. Together they try to solve the mystery of the missing children, with the majority of the film’s thrills coming from visions Pennywise visits upon the protagonists.

It, with its elusive title, and alternately nightmarish and illusory qualities, speaks on the nature of children’s imaginations. Pennywise is malleable and enigmatic, which is what the title suggests. “It” is whatever scares you. “It” is what haunts you in your sleep carrying over to your waking life. Like countless children’s adventures and Disney classics, the adults in this film are either M.I.A, completely useless, or worse, something sinister. It takes that dynamic to the extreme. The children are left completely on their own to triumph against evil. Adults can’t see Pennywise or his dark illusions. At no point do any adults do anything to aid the young heroes. This is a standard nightmare scenario.

But the film isn’t simply a dark drag as its predecessor (in the form of a miniseries) was. Set in the ’80s, the film mines a number of pop-culture references and clever banter between the leads to great effect. We grow to care about the characters, which makes the impending horror scenes that much more scary. The soundtrack is fantastic (adding more to the coming of age feel). The young cast is impressive, with the characters Richie and Eddie providing much of the laughs. It easily could have been the equivalent of a one-joke comedy. You have a nightmarish clown which is scary, but not in itself interesting.  When weaved into a story about friendship and fighting back against bullies, you have the excellent movie that is It.

-Walter Howard-