Friday, December 29, 2017

McDonagh's genius as writer shines in "Ebbing, Missouri"

Frances McDormand is an actress more fitting to play a a worried mother than any other one I can think of.  After all, she stole every scene in 2000's Almost Famous, as the matriarch of a teenager-wannabee-journalist touring with a complex rock band in the early 1970s, and in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, she once again displays complex emotion, and often in a simple glance.  Quick witted and sassy, she insults most people who disagree with her, including the local authorities.  This is not a woman you wanna piss off.

After the murder of her daughter goes unsolved, McDormand's Mildred Hayes publicly humiliates local police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - a man suffering from a terminal illness, and the only decent officer in Ebbing - by displaying the department's incompetence on the titular billboards in her little rural town.  Naturally, her actions draw criticism from the locals, and soon she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are subjects of much scrutiny.  A flashback scene involving the last day Mildred saw her daughter, including a fight between the two in which nasty words were exchanged, is powerfully ironic and heartbreaking.

Martin McDonagh here proves that - as he did in 2008's In Bruges - he's one of the finest writers in world cinema today, and in Three Billboards, he creates a post-tragedy setting that is equally comical and somber (a virtuoso one-shot sequence follows an angry officer Dixon, played by a superb Sam Rockwell, as he throws a rather innocent businessman from a 2nd floor window onto the street below; its execution will literally take your breath away).  The characters speak real, honest words, not written ones, and there's no villains or heroes - only ... people.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a quiet masterpiece, and one of the very best movies of 2017.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Pixar's "Coco" beautifully juggles life & death themes

The themes of life and death are central in Disney/Pixar's new animated feature Coco, and never has the world of the dead looked so magically ... appealing.  Focusing on a boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) who wants to be a musician - in a family of shoemakers where music is forbidden and frowned upon - the movie fuses Mexican culture and its traditional festival Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) with a child's journey into the afterlife, where he learns that to be remembered is to be truly loved (among other things).

Following in similar footsteps as Pixar's Inside Out (2014), Coco takes Miguel into a world of the dead - where he encounters relatives who've long since passed - in his journey to find the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer he believes is his deceased great-grandfather.  But there is more to this Cruz than meets the eye, and a twist that follows Miguel's discovery just might move the adults in the audience to tears - a familiar ploy by Pixar for more than two decades now.  There is also some good music - especially a number called Un poco loco, sung by Miguel on a grand stage along with a dead has-been musician, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Coco's conclusion may not resonate the way Up, Wall-E or Toy Story 3 have, but it's still undeniable proof that Pixar has no equal when it comes to animated filmmaking of the highest order, where the visuals and the emotional impact are equivalent to the finest of adult dramas.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Margot sheds all glamour in gritty "Tonya"

As Tonya Harding, the (in) famous American ice skater whose career faced several obstacles and media scrutinies back in the mid 1990s, Margot Robbie sheds all the glitz and glamour that otherwise make her one of sexiest actresses in Hollywood today.  Married to a man (played by Sebastian Stan with an extra touch of ferocious dorkiness) who beats her like a punching bag on a near daily basis, Tonya's also subjected to endless verbal abuse by her chain-smoking mother (a superb Allison Janney) who treats her like a piece of dirt, even when the poor girl's actually doing her absolute best.

Robbie's performance is a true landmark, and she's captures the vulnerable white-trashiness of Harding in ways where many others surely would've failed: her Tonya's not a hero, but an aspiration of a dream shared by many who both loved and hated her for the "alleged" wrongdoings she was (apparently) not guilty of.

Director Craig Gillespie's film is a rough, honest and gritty biopic (made with the same tough-love as 1993's What's Love got to do with it), where the heroine's both successes and failures are measured not necessarily by her own downfalls, but by those close to her.  In a holiday season full of countless crowd-pleasers and wholesome family films, I, Tonya bravely ventures into unglamorous biopic waters, and successfully rises above the competition.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Abstract "Deer" too artsy for its own good

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who gained fame with 2009's disturbingly original Doogtooth (and last year's The Lobster), makes movies that an average person will either love or hate - I seriously doubt there's middle ground in his approach.  In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Colin Farrell's Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy resembles a pre-one armed man tussle Richard Kimble, his long, gray-ish beard giving him a medical version of a Grizzly Adams look.  Living in perfectly clean and safe suburbia with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and his two children, Dr. Murphy's existence is thrown into a loop when his friendship with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) takes an unexpected turn after his children get seriously sick.  Is the boy responsible for their affliction as a revenge for something Murphy had inadvertently done in the past?

Lanthimos here creates a world  that is interesting to look at (the production design is striking), but simultaneously fills every scene with elongated moments that drag a storyline that should've maxed out at ninety minutes past the two-hour mark because, well... he can (do we really need to hear several different conversations about why adults have more underarm hair than teenagers?).  We're also never quite clear how a despicable boy such as Martin could ever posses powers that enable him to curse anyone, a rare mystery where the absence of a solution actually doesn't elevate the material at all, but instead drags it down the head-scratching hole of pretentiousness.

The final slow-motion scene set in a diner is particularly pointless: it drags unnecessarily on and on, and resolves nothing.  Just like the majority of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Last Jedi" explores the psychological dilemma

Rian Johnson is the first filmmaker to simultaneously direct and single-handedly write a Star Wars movie since George Lucas himself, and in The Last Jedi, the second installment of the newly resurrected space-saga, he succeeds more often than not.  Since I am not a fan of his previous works (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper), I did not have high hopes for this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised by his take on the Force in a galaxy far, far away, and the heavy psychological element he chose to focus on.  It is the darkest movie of the franchise since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, surpassing even The Revenge of the Sith in the department of somberness and bleakness.

Focusing primarily on the mentorship by veteran Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) toward the new protege Rey (Daisy Ridley), Star Wars: The Last Jedi further explores the internal conflict of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), as he struggles to maintain his badness as the second in command of the First Order, serving the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  The scenes where Rey and Kylo are mentally connected while being physically separated by thousands of miles are impressively written and staged, and they'll likely challenge the average Star Wars' fans in ways not seen before.  Another memorable sequence depicts Rey in a hall of mirrors where her reflections infinitely stretch on forever, a moment reminiscent of a famous shot in Citizen Kane.  And of course, the final showdown featuring Skywalker is both exhilarating and melancholy, as his Obi Wan Kenobi-esque journey concludes appropriately.

The Last Jedi proves that there's few modern sci-fi adventure movies that can replicate the excitement and awe of Lucas' universe, and featuring Carrie Fisher in her final role as Princess Leia, it is the last Star Wars movie with a leading (human) character from the original series.  Just how the upcoming Episode IX will conclude this rebooted franchise no one can yet say, but if it's as psychologically complex as Rian Johnson's vision, then we're in for quite a ride.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Winslet & Elba too talented for bland "Mountain"

Romantic dramas are supposed to entangle us in the emotional web of their central lovers, and by the time they're over, our hearts should be as broken and as wounded as the characters'.  This, sadly, is not the case with A Mountain Between Us, a rather bland, unemotional movie based on Charles Martin's novel of the same name.  The great Kate Winslet looks pretty bored in the role (she's way too talented for this mediocre material) as Alex Martin, a photo journalist who misses her own wedding when a charter plane she takes with Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) crashes in the Rocky Mountains. After days go by and no rescue appears to be in sight, the two strangers are forced to claw their way to civilization, despite the extremely cold and mountainous wilderness they find themselves in.

There is very little chemistry between these two British actors, and they appear much more hopeful, both physically and emotionally, for people lacking proper nutrition for days and even weeks.  The writing is also pretty lame and forgettable, and by the time the movie reaches its final act, the decision  that Alex and Ben are faced with is ultimately irrelevant, for we care so little about their cardboard personas that a mountain may have very well been between them.  And rightfully so.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"The Foreigner" tackles revenge with familiar approach

I can't recall when Jackie Chan starred in a movie more somber than The Foreigner, an action revenge/drama that Liam Neeson's avenging father from Taken might feel right at home in.  Playing a Chinese immigrant who's long ago migrated to London, Chan's Ngoc Minh Quan is devastated after he loses his adult daughter in a terrorist bombing, and quickly turns the tables on the IRA members who are responsible, most notably the Irish government official Liam Henessy (Pierce Brosnan, also playing against his usual English type).

Helmed by bland action movie director Martin Campbell (whose crowning career achievement was 2006's Casino Royale), The Foreigner manages to juggle serious drama (Chan perhaps gives us that sad off-camera look a few too many times) and some well choreographed fight scenes featuring the Hong Kong action movie star (considering that he's over 60 years old, an impressive feat, for sure), but just barely manages to stay relevant at the end.  Brosnan is definitely the more interesting character as the conflicted official whose loyalty and values are challenged, and the final scene between him and Chan doesn't quite work the way it should.  The Foreigner is a somewhat effective action-drama that fuses two famous action stars from opposite sides of the planet into a product that, although entertaining at times, will be forgotten sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 15, 2017

"Kingsman: Golden Circle" radiates with familiar Vaughn-esque thrills

Director Matthew Vaughn may not be the auteur that James Cameron or Christopher Nolan are, but when it comes to pure fun, his movies (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service) continuously prove to be as exciting as anything out of mainstream Hollywood.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up where the 2014 original left off, with protagonist agent "Eggsy" Galahad (Taron Egerton) battling super villains all the world over in high-speed cars, atop of snow covered European mountains, and even in the jungles of Cambodia.  The baddie this time around is Poppy Adams (a more charming than usual Julianne Moore), a drug cartel mastermind so twisted, she runs employees who've disappointed her through a mincing grinder, and does it without ever taking that sunny, happy-go-lucky smile off her face (she also keeps Elton John as her personal prisoner/entertainer, and the legendary musician's scenes are quite funny).

This sequel also introduces a few agents from the American secret service (Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges), appropriately called Statesman, whose cover is the manufacture of high-quality whisky in rural Kentucky.  The movie is perhaps about fifteen or twenty too minutes too long, but at least it's action-packed and humorous in just the right doses (an old retiree in the Alps who comes very close to dying says, "That's the best shit I've taken in 3 weeks"; if that doesn't make you laugh, perhaps you have no sense of humor whatsoever), and moves at a kinetic pace despite its length.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle is proof that Vaughn can turn typical action material (that most Hollywood directors would likely botch) into something unexpectedly amusing and appealing, and that is a true testament to his directing talents.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Macdonald shines as against type wanna-be rapper in "Cake$"

As Patricia "Dumbo" Dumbrowski, Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald is the physical antithesis to the world of hip-hop and rap: she's overweight, white and above all, a woman.  Cruising around desolate and depressing suburban New Jersey with her loyal pharmacist friend - and part-time rapper himself - Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), she writes and raps some truly amazing lyrics, despite the many doubters she faces, including her own boozing mother (Bridget Everett).  But once Patti meet a strange, lonely recluse (Mamoudou Athie) who owns some low-rent recording equipment, they realize their ideas into actual tracks, and begin to capture the imagination of many a naysayer.

Director Geremy Jasper has fused some old ideas from Hustle & Flow and 8 Mile to make a movie that, although familiar at times, still manages to vibrate with true emotion - and some original and catchy music.  The final showdown, in which Patti and her team get to perform in front of a wild audience, is both exciting and moving, and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "It ain't over 'till the fat lady sings."  Patti Cake$ is an effective independent drama about a long-shot's journey to overcome all odds, and it successfully ends not with a whimper, but with one hell of a bang.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Racial tension & police brutality at forefront of "Detroit"

I suppose 2017 is as good time as any for a movie like Detroit, an intensely gripping, true account of the riots that took place in the now distant 1967 Americana Motown city.  Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) directs an excellent script from Mark Boal, which focuses on a specific incident at the Algiers Motel in the summer of the aforementioned year, when three African Americans were brutally murdered by the police in a scandal that didn't shy away from corruption and major violation of human rights.

Will Poulter is particularly effective as the trigger happy crooked police officer Philip Krauss, and John Boyega - so memorable as Fin in the new revamped Star Wars saga - gives his Melvin Dismukes a subtle humanity that is beautifully understated in its simplicity.  The controversial incident at Algiers, which is at the center of Detroit's narrative, is a dark chapter in America's civil rights history, and watched through Bigelow's eyes, it contains an audacity and tension like few American movies this year.  It is a simultaneously gut wrenching and revelatory examination of a crime that never should have been, if not for the incompetence for a few police officers - a societal issue that still resonates in that same society today.

Detroit is epic-like in its scope of characters, setting and topic timeliness, and, possessing a less-than-happy ending (a major trial does not get the verdict that we all want), it's bound to create discussions both far and wide. It's just such a shame that a movie this good did not find a bigger audience; here's hoping it gets a second life on Bluray and digital streaming.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Religiously allegorical "mother!" pushes the boundaries

Darren Aronofsky's mother! is a nightmarish vision of a post-modern "God" and his muse of a spouse.  Played by Jennifer Lawrence, she is a neglected wife of a famous poet/writer (Javier Bardem) whose strange and unwanted visitors seem to gather at their country home door unannounced, much to her dismay.  Lawrence does an amazing job as a psychologically tortured spouse whose husband seems to give in too easily to his faithful fans, even to the point of sacrificing their newborn son to his followers (the scene in question is not for the squeamish, just like most of the final act).

The movie could best be described as Polanski-esque, with Lawrence playing the part that was once reserved for Catherine Deneuve.  mother! is definitely not a mainstream crowd pleaser, but it's dazzling filmmaking nonetheless, and further proof that Aronofsky is still one of the most daringly original directors in America today.