Film Review: “Coco”

Starring the Voice of: Anthony Gonzalez, Gail Garcia Bernal and Benjamin Bratt
Directed By: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Rated: PG
Running Time: 115 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Death and life after death are incredibly tricky subjects to maneuver for filmmakers in the animated-children’s movie genre. When making a family friendly film about the passing of a loved one and what waits beyond in the afterlife, you run the risk of not only upsetting children, but also their parents for how you’ve delivered your content. To say Pixar has done it again is an understatement because they’ve seemingly handled the subject matter with ease.

Miguel Rivera (Gonazalez) is an aspiring musician, trapped in a family that has barred music from the household. The Riveras are a shoemaking family because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother started the practice as a way to prove her own independence after her husband abandoned the family to pursue his musical dreams. Hence this is why artistic pursuits in music are frowned down upon, even to the point where Miguel’s grandmother smashes Miguel’s makeshift acoustic guitar after finding it in his secret room/shrine dedicated to popular singer-songwriter, Ernesto De La Cruz (Bratt)

Despite those attempts to dismay Miguel, he develops suspicions that he’s related to his idol Ernesto and enters the Mexican singer’s enshrined tomb on Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Believing that he’s simply borrowing a long lost relative’s heirloom, Miguel steals Ernesto’s guitar. But instead he’s committing an unspoken cardinal sin that isn’t grave robbing. He’s transported to the afterlife where he meets his long deceased relatives and discovers unspoken family secrets long forgotten.

There’s a lot of moments where “Coco” could have easily coasted on spectacular visuals and charming characters, but instead Pixar does what it does best, surpass expectations and craft a unique and heartwarming vision. The animation studio also manages to package its themes of perseverance, family togetherness, forgiveness and following your dreams, all in a cohesive message that’s easily consumed for parents and kids alike. “Coco” immerses audiences in a culture and tradition that speaks universal truths.

The music, which will surely win an Oscar, by Robert Lopez keeps tempo with the animation pushing audiences into fresh colorful territory, but also bringing audiences back down to Earth during the film’s most subtle moments. The man whose done music for everything from “Frozen” to “The Book of Mormon” makes another catalogue of music that’s seemingly timeless, fitting Pixar’s effort’s to make “Coco” an instant classic, worthy of standing atop their growing catalogue of masterpieces.

“Coco” takes a while to get going, but once it does, it manages to hit every high note along the way. It may not be as clever as “Inside Out” or groundbreaking as “Wall-E,” but it finds a way to wedge itself into contention with many of Pixar’s great because of its expert use and understanding of the Mexican heritage that it uses as a plot device and backdrop. It’s a movie that not only enlightens some about a specific culture, but makes audiences feel like one of the family. And for those who’ve ever dealt with the loss of a relative, you’ll find the ending equally heartbreaking and endearing.

Film Review: “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell
Directed By: Martin McDonagh
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The billboards put up by Mildred Hayes (McDormand) hope to shed more light on the rape and violent murder of her daughter Angela. But the billboards aren’t the powder keg, they’re the fuse. The bright red billboards with black lettering quickly become the talk of the town, despite being placed on a rural stretch of untraveled road outside the sleepy Missouri town of Ebbing. Frustration turns to anger. Anger turns to rage. Rage turns to violence.

As “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” slowly unravels and reveals it’s hodgepodge of townsfolk and officers in the local police department, we learn that justice isn’t black and white, literally and figuratively. We learn that Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) isn’t incompetent or ignoring Angela’s murder, but the case has simply gone cold. We do however learn he acts as warden of his own prison that houses racist, bigoted officers, some of whom are drunk and known throughout town for savagely beating minorities.

What director and writer Martin McDonagh does so wonderfully is avoid propping the two opposing sides, Mildred and the Ebbing Police Department, as the heroes and villains. All the characters in his film are flawed creatures, and McDonagh twists the audience’s expectation on their heads and plays with our distaste and sympathy simultaneously. Despite the obvious commentary on contemporary on social and political topics, McDonagh constantly reminds us that morality is a fluid beast.

For a film with such dark thematic content, like rape, murder, racism and hatred, there’s a lot of witty dialogue and wicked humor. It’s a perfect counter-balance to some of the film’s more gripping moments, serving as an exhale during those tense scenes. There’s even a twinge of sardonic humor for those guilty enough to laugh at it. The laughs are mainly led by Mildred in her most ferocious moments or when one of Ebbing’s most incompetent boys in blue, Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), wants to retort.

McDonagh is a master at introducing characters and automatically telling the audience who they are, but at the same time manipulating their actions in realistic manner that subverts our expectations. Caught in the war between Mildred and the police is the townsfolk, sometimes offering their condolences in private, but publicly taking the side they disagree with. It’s an honest portrayal of small town politics, how rumors become truth, and how sometimes no one’s really right or wrong in an argument.

Led by an outstanding cast, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a smartly written film capturing the raw emotion of tragedy, it’s tangled aftermath and how attempts at a resolution sometimes leads to more pain. It conveys a lot of unspoken truths without providing a lot of answers. If “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has a message, it’s not one of optimism or pessimism, but it’s complicated, just like the characters populating this rustic Show-Me state town.

Film Review: Justice League

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Ezra Miller
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hr 1 min
Warner Brothers

Until this season, when the NFL allowed players to celebrate after touchdowns, many referred to the game as the No Fun League. That is also how many fans referred to the DC Comic film universe. Christopher Nolan’s ultra-dark Batman trilogy, not to mention Zack Snyder’s brooding “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs Superman” gave fans their favorite characters, usually having a bad day. While they were entertaining, they missed the one thing that has made the Marvel films so appreciated: humor. Earlier this year we got a brief breath of fresh air when Wonder Woman arrived in her own film. Things continue to look upward with the arrival of “Justice League.”

The film opens with a phone image of Superman (Henry Cavil), happily agreeing to answer some children’s questions. They bombard him with queries, which he smiles at. He is then asked, “What do you like best about Earth?”

Full of action and some much needed humor, “Justice League” is an entertaining two-hour roller coaster ride. With — SPOILER ALERT— Superman having died at the end of “Batman vs Superman,” the world in general, and Metropolis in particular, have became a haven for evil doers. Even Gotham City isn’t spared. One night, while on patrol, Batman (Affleck) comes across a mechanical monster that, when destroyed, leaves a pattern of marks, similar to marks found in Lex Luthor’s papers. As things go from worse to…whatever is worse than worse…Batman decides he needs to recruit other people to help save the world. Besides Wonder Woman (Gadot), he travels north to meet the strange Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and then hits the city to find the young and friendless Barry Allen (Miller). Finally he tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) a former athlete. Each of these people have a secret but also learn they have a common goal – to save the world.

It can’t be easy to run around on screen in your underwear, and part of the success of “Justice League” must be attributed to the actors who embody their roles completely. Affleck and Gadot have already built some chemistry with “Batman vs Superman,” and Momoa, Miller and Fisher blend easily with them as, respectively, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg. Miller steals every scene he’s in as the teenage Scarlett Speedster, making him as appealing here as Tom Holland was this past summer in “Spider-man: Homecoming.” As the junk food loving Barry (due to his very high metabolism, he must constantly eat), Miller gives the character a heart, a soul and a proclivity for one liners.

Director Snyder took some time off from the production of the film after his daughter passed away in March. He was replaced by Joss Whedon, the director who gave us “The Avengers” among other films. Whedon shares a screenwriting credit here, and it looks like he may have been the perfect piece to solve Snyder’s dark puzzles. If you’re looking for excitement and a few laughs this weekend, look into joining the FUN “League!”

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
20th Century Fox

One of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year seems lost in sweeping CGI landscapes and overstuffed set pieces. “Murder on the Orient Express” is geared more towards technical film geeks who enjoy richness in their production design, more than they do in the script or the acting. I only say that because “Murder on the Orient Express” is awfully pretty to look at, but there isn’t much behind the lens.

Through happenstance, world-renowned detective Hercule Poirpot (Branagh) has found himself on the Orient Express. The luxury train connects Istanbul to the rest of Europe, which means the train is filled with socialites heading back to the Western World. The hodgepodge of characters seems at odds during casual dinner and indifferent during coffee, but there’s a singular thing that connects them all. It’s something Detective Poirpot will have to uncover after a passenger is found murdered in his cabin.

Murder mysteries are usually good, if not Oscar bait this time of year. However, “Murder on the Orient Express” is neither. While I haven’t read Agathe Christie’s work or seen the previous adaptations of her work, I can still confidently say that this isn’t on par with its predecessors or source material. I can surmise this because of how ambitious it looks, but the story never matches that visual gusto.

Johnny Depp plays the murder victim, but he’s not painted as a victim. We’re told he’s a scumbag, but we never feel like he’s one, despite the overwhelming evidence. The others on the train are played by the likes of A-listers, like Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and Michelle Pfeiffer, while up and comers, like Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. round out the cluster. The ensemble is too overwhelming, visually and narratively, with the film struggling to divvy up enough even time for the audience, and Poirpot, to question the lengthy list of suspects.

For those unsure of how this film will play out, like me, it’s slightly interesting in some spots to watch Poirpot work out the tangled web surrounding the murder. For those who love a good whodunit, you may not be disappointed, except for how the end and reveal is executed. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a classic in the literary sense, but this 21st century retelling offers nothing new.

Film Review: A Bad Moms Christmas

Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn
Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
STX Entertainment

Soon it will be the season for presents and mistletoe, Santa and his reindeer. And family. I always welcome the chance to see my mom over the holidays. Of course, my mother is nothing like Ruth (Christine Baranski), Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and Isis (Susan Sarandon). Thank God!

Just as funny and, even though I never thought it possible, raunchier then “Bad Moms,” “A Bad Moms Christmas” finds our heroines from the last film getting things in order in the last week before Christmas. Amy (Kunis) is now happily dating Jessie (Jay Hernandez) and is unprepared when her very wealthy and judgmental mother Ruth shows up a few days before she was expected. Same with Kiki (Bell) and her mom Sandy, a woman who has become more and more clingy since her husband died. And Carla (Hahn) never knows when to expect Isis (her mom, not the terrorist group). She only knows it’s when she needs to borrow money. ‘Tis the season!

Blame it on “Bridesmaids.” Ever since that movie came out and made almost $300 million world-wide, Hollywood has inundated moviegoers with all kinds of “women talking dirty” films. For every funny and successful film, like “Trainwreck” or “Girl’s Trip,” you also have to put up with “dirty talk for talk’s sake” in a movie like “Rough Night.” (I did give “Rough Night” a positive review but did note that a lot of it’s raunch was for shock value, not laughs).

“A Bad Moms Christmas” works mostly because of two things: the cast and the script. The film was written, and co-directed, by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who in the past have written, among other films, the first “Hangover.” They obviously know what works where funny is concerned. All six female leads, mothers and daughters, work great together and, on a personal note, a movie that features two of my three biggest Hollywood crushes, Baranski and Sarandon, has got to be enjoyable. If Judith Ivey had played Sandy I’d have given this movie five stars!

If you like to laugh, and if you like your humor extremely “R” rated, then there’s an early Christmas present waiting for you at the multiplex!

Film Review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was only about two and a half years ago, it feels like an eternity since we last saw Thor (Hemsworth). It can easily be said that Thor’s cameos in other Marvel films are a lot more enjoyable than his own feature length vehicles. That’s mainly because his two previous movies are devoid of mentally stimulating storytelling, hollow villains and an inescapable sense of forced plotting. Luckily, third time’s the charm for the God of Thunder.

In an attempt to get to the meat of the story, “Ragnarok” spends the first handful of minutes rushing through plot points about Thor, Loki, Odin and Jane Foster, and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them. It’s taxing, especially since no one really cares about Odin and I think Loki is a reminder of Marvel’s previous attempts to make him more of an imposing bad guy than he actually is. But it’s during these clichéd moments that “Ragnarok” still manages to find fun and establish tone.

For instance, the cold open finds Thor having the most fun we’ve ever seen him have on screen. With a flick of his wrist and a twirl of his hammer, he obliterates dozens of faceless foes, and it’s all set to Led Zepplin. We also get a much needed detour from the story line catch-up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). His cameo is unexplained and seemingly unnecessary, but it’s certainly one of the most delightful highlights of the film. Once the film catches up on two years, we meet the Goddess of Death, Hela (Blanchett)

Hela may be the blueprints needed for a Marvel universe in sore need of a compelling, yet dangerous villain. Hela is a genuine threat, demonstrating her overt God-like powers throughout. Her first scene shows her destroying Thor’s hammer with a singular flex of her arm and disregarding Thor’s threat much like a pesky fly. There’s a charming menace behind her smile as she slaughters countless soldiers on her way to Asgard’s throne. Blanchett’s performance is simply magnetic.

Most Marvel films know how to have fun, but “Ragnarok” is an entirely new beast. It draws upon child-like humor, usually seen in more mature Saturday morning cartoons. The film expertly utilizes humor to introduce new characters flawlessly and in minimal time. Jokes convey their attitudes and mentality easier than any drawn out exposition could. It also helps when you have the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) aggressively stomping around like an upset Kindergartener. Director Taika Waititi deserves a lot of credit for taking the title character and its world in such a retro direction so that’s equally lighthearted and visually joyful.

“Ragnarok” isn’t breaking the established Marvel mold, as much as it wants to. Film executives might have pulled their hair out if the film didn’t still lean on protagonist redemption subplots, cheeky squabbles amongst allies and fanboy pandering. That shouldn’t take away from Waititi’s vision. He’s brought his own brand of goofiness, managing to make the film and its characters crass, yet warm, and brutish, yet charming. “Ragnarok” is a dazzling space opera that finally gives Thor meaningful purpose in the vast Marvel cinematic universe.

Film Review: “78/52”

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by: Alexandre O. Phillipe
Not Rated
Running time: 1 hr 31 mins
IFC Midnight

It is one of the greatest scenes in movie history. Like the crane shot showing the carnage of the Civil War in “Gone with the Wind” or the Odessa Steps sequence in “The Battleship Potemkin” (later copied by Brian De Palma in “The Untouchables”), whenever you think about Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “Psycho” the first thing you think of is the shower scene. The new film “78/52,” which references the number of pieces of film (78) and edits (52) that comprise the scene, takes a look at the creation of the scene as well as its impact on Hollywood and world cinema.

Despite the use of plenty of footage from “Psycho,” the film begins with a recreation of a scene featuring Marion Crane’s car driving thought the rain. What is disconcerting about this footage is that the woman featured bears a very close resemblance to Adrien Brody in a blonde wig. Thankfully we soon return to the film being discussed and take a painstaking journey of 90 minutes to dissect a scene that only lasts three.

General fans of the film will be impressed with all of the “behind the scenes” interviews with everyone from Mali Renfro, who played Janet Leigh’s double during the shoot to Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh’s daughter. Also included are fans like Elijah Wood, Danny Elfman and Bret Easton Ellis. Film buffs will also enjoy the comments of filmmakers great (Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorcese) and, well, not so great (Eli Roth) as they explain how the film helped shape some of their own work.

A seemingly unending number of industry insiders (editors, writers, etc) offer their own takes on the meaning of the scene, going so far as to dissect it nearly frame by frame. In between the comments are some great moments, including the actual storyboards Hitchcock had Saul Bass design for the scene as well as the still-to-this-day argument about whether or not we actually ever see the knife penetrate the body.

If you’re a fan of “Psycho” and want a good “behind the scenes” look at the film, I’d recommend the brilliant documentary put together by the great Laurent Bouzereau that can be found on the DVD release of “Psycho.” But if you’re REALLY keen to learn the in-depth story, you should give “78/52” a look.

Film Review: “Suburbicon”

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac
Directed by: George Clooney
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
Paramount

1959. In the quick-growing town of Suburbicon things are about to get a little dicey. It seems a black family has moved into the snow-white city and the townspeople aren’t happy, even when the town leaders offer to pay for fencing to separate their houses from the new arrivals. But this isn’t the only thing going on in town. A house has been invaded and a woman killed. What the hell is going on here?

Cleverly written by the Coen Brothers (in “Blood Simple” mode), George Clooney and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov and directed with a keen eye by Clooney, “Suburbicon” is a black comedy with a message attached. It’s also a story about infidelity, greed and murder, not necessarily in that order.

The film opens like one of the old educational films they used to show in high school. It chronicles the very beginning of Suburbicon, boasting how in a dozen years the town has grown a population of 50,000 people. Among the residents is Gardner Lodge (Damon), who lives there with his invalid wife, Rose (Moore) and young son Nicolas (an outstanding Noah Jupe). When the new neighbors move in to the house behind them, Rose urges Nicolas to go over and play catch with the young boy (Tony Espinosa) in the family. However, it seems only the Lodge’s are accepting of the newbies, as night after night, mobs begin to gather outside their house, loudly urging them to move.

On one such night Nicolas is woken up by his father who tells him “there are men in the house.” Downstairs, he finds his mother and his aunt Margaret (also Moore) in the kitchen along with two bad guys. The robbers assure them they won’t be hurt but soon tie them up and chloroform them. When Nicolas awakes he learns his mother is dead. He now spends his days playing with his new friend and his nights worrying that the bad men will be back. Even if he could sleep it would be hard with the mobs screaming on the next block.

I’ll say up front that I pretty much figured out the plot twist about 10 minutes into the film, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying “Suburbicon.” The performances are solid, with Damon also shining next to your Mr. Jupe. Another standout is Gary Basaraba who plays Nicolas’ fun-loving uncle Mitch. Also funny is Oscar Isaac, an insurance claims adjuster investigating Rose’s death.

There are plenty of laughs and some great sight gags but I did find it a little hard to chuckle during the mob scenes, which get progressively larger, louder and more violent. I understand the message, but I didn’t need to get hit over the head with it. I will say it was nice to see the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) portrayed as a strong black family unit. They refuse to let the hate envelop them and it is their bravery in the face of adversity that is an important part of the story.

Film Review: “Goodbye Christopher Robin”

Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Margot Robbie and Kelly MacDonald
Directed By: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Origin stories are all the craze in Hollywood right now, so why not one for Winnie the Pooh? I know that’s a tough sell. But luckily “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a decent enough biopic drama that sometimes handles the weight of its thematic messages. The film is about author A.A. Milne (Gleeson) and how through his own struggles and an attempt to bond with his son, he created one of the world’s most iconic children’s characters.

The mood of England is to forget rather than confront the demons of WWI that linger throughout its picturesque countryside. Milne’s writer’s block is compounded by his that he suffered on the front lines. When Milne’s wife Daphne (Robbie) gives birth to their son, Christopher Robin (or Billy), Milne sees it as an opportunity to hit the restart button on life. The young family moves to rural Essex where Milne’s bouts with PTSD flare up, Daphne becomes disenfranchised with her husband and a young Christopher Robin has a more meaningful connection to the family’s live-in nanny.

It’s not until Milne’s life begins crumbling around him, that he attempts to find some sanity and joy to grasp on to by playing with his son in the surrounding woods. Milne views these moments initially as an opportune moment to bond, but as time passes, he finds that his creative juices start to flow again. He brings his son’s stuffed animals to life and makes the sleepy humdrum woods around them more vibrant and adventurous. But not everything works out in the end as Christopher Robin’s persona becomes larger than his own life.

Most of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is mired in turmoil, with happy moments and achievements sprouting up few and far between. But even those tiny victories for our characters are quickly overshadowed by more troubling developments. It’s interesting watching a family suffocate from early-to-mid-20th century tabloids and a boy’s childhood innocence and wonder get smothered in a flood of worldwide fame. Instead of playing with his toys or meandering outside, he’s making global calls to radio stations and having tea with dignitaries.

Gleeson plays an emotionally fragile, yet stonewalled man who’s finding it hard to tap into his own youth that was nearly killed in No Man’s Land. Much of his role is spent expressing the difficulty of restraining tears and fear while raising a child, teenager, and then a man. He’s definitely the highlight of the film considering Robbie is wasted as her character is relegated to bored housewife/angry spouse purgatory for unknown and unexplained reason. Gleeson also has to work with a child actor that’s equal parts adorable and annoying.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” spends a little bit too much time playing in the woods instead of expanding on its emotional stakes for a finale that should have been way more impactful. It attempts to tie a lot of its theme together in the final few minutes, with some hitting harder than others. It manages to squander its theme of unnecessary war and the heartache it causes, but manages to find beauty in forgiveness and child rearing. We also learn that Christopher Robin’s miserable childhood led to happiness for millions of children and adults. Almost makes you hate yourself for ever taking pleasure in ever loving Winnie the Pooh.

Film Review: “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane and Tom Sizemore
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 43 mins
Sony Pictures Classic

Many years ago, when he was first working on bringing the story of Abraham Lincoln to the screen, the word was that director Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play our 16th President was Liam Neeson. When I heard that I was curious if Neeson, a very fine actor, had the necessary gravitas to play the Great Emancipator. Based on his performance in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” I think he would have been well cast.

April 1972. With the upcoming U.S. Presidential election coming up in November, the FBI’s Deputy Director, Mark Felt (Neeson) is summoned to the White House. There he meets with John Dean (Michael C. Hall), President Nixon’s White House Counsel, and Attorney General John Mitchell (Stephen Michael Ayers). The conversation turns to the possibility of the President “encouraging” the current FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to resign. What are Felt’s thoughts? Felt keeps his thoughts to himself, though he is quick to remind the men that the director has amassed his own set of secret files. A month later, Hoover dies. Felt does what he thinks is best so that, when the White House sends a courier to pick up Hoover’s files his answer is “What files?”

So begins the story that ushered in one of the most embarrassing political episodes in America’s history. One hand not only knows what the other hand is doing, it’s not even sure of its own fingers! As the election gets closer, things get crazier in the bureau. In what is obviously a vote of non-support, instead of promoting Felt to the top job, Nixon appoints L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas, who could pass quite easily for Russell Crowe’s younger brother) as “acting” director until a permanent successor for Hoover is found. This makes Felt take a long look at his life, and the bureau, and his displeasure with both. But things begin to go downhill for everyone concerned when a break-in is reported at a Washington D.C. area hotel known as the Watergate.

A nice look at the inner workings of government, the film is based on Felt’s book of the same name. Instead of F.B.I. the name of the game is C.Y.A. with an unlimited number of people on the sidelines ready to pounce on the slightest mistake. Unhappy with Nixon’s interference in the bureau’s investigation of Watergate, Felt begins speaking to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Julian Morris). Unwilling to go on the record Felt gives himself the name “Deep Throat,” hiding in the shadows as the government he loves unravels. Led by Neeson’s performance, the film features great work from everyone involved, including Lane, Sizemore, Noah Wylie and Bruce Greenwood. The film is well paced and, even if you’re familiar with the story, holds enough surprises to keep your attention and helps begin the upcoming film awards season.

Film Review: “A Silent Voice: The Movie”

Starring the Voice Of: Miyu Orino, Saori Hayami and Aoi Yuki
Directed By: Naoko Yamada
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 130 minutes
Eleven Arts Anime Studio

Wracked with guilt over early childhood wrongs, Shoya Ishida (Orino) is a teenager in search of atonement. The wrong he is looking to right is the bullying of a deaf girl, Shoko Nishimiya (Hayami), that he spearheaded back in elementary school. During those turbulent times, Shoko can only smile and fight back tears as Shoya’s harassment moves from verbal to physical. It piles on as Shoya not only becomes the instigator, but the ringleader for others looking for an excuse to pick on Shoko as well.

Shoko reaches her breaking point, during a particularly unflinchingly cruel moment in the film, and transfers schools. But left in her wake is chaos as the bully becomes the outcast and Shoya’s shunned by friends and classmates. Current day Shoya believes his life, which is devoid of any friends and little meaning, is punishment for his prior torment and vicious taunting. It’s only by happenstance that he realizes his salvation may be in befriending a reluctant Shoya.

Despite clocking in over two hours, “A Silent Voice” is a brisk journey through high school drama and emotional maturity. Within its first few minutes, the film grips viewers with Shoya ominously on the edge of a bridge, narrating his meaninglessness. While the movie may feel like a bullying redemption story, there’s an unmistakable tone of depression. Part of the film’s purpose is to relay how depression, with its tentacle-like grasp on the heart and mind, can impact every facet of one’s life. Most characters, even unnecessary secondary ones, suffer some emotional or mental issue.

The most subtle touches of the film are when we get Shoya’s point of view. He can’t make eye contact, he places an x over people’s faces as if mentally marking them off as potential friends and his depression is clearly compounded by crippling social anxiety. He eavesdrops into nearby conversations, hearing only negative things about himself, but even those poisonous remarks by classmates may be his imagination. There’s even a scene, which on the surface is about miscommunication, which has a deeper meaning implying that Shoya believes unworthy of anyone’s friendship or love.

Shoya’s attitude and demeanor amplifies Shoko’s purity. But we have to wonder how much the stress is getting to Shoko and what kind of impact it’ll have as the film lingers into its third act. It’s not that her personality is simplified, but a lot of it comes from everyone inability to properly communicate with her. The ones who are able to speak with her do open a door into Shoko’s thought process, but just like Shoya, the viewer would only truly know what’s going on if Shoko was able to narrate. This is an intentional frustration on the audience’s’ end that matches the characters on screen.

“A Silent Voice” risks’ being melodramatic on several occasions, but it’s moments between Shoko and Shoya, or when they’re on their own, are when the film works best. During those moments, the duo is treated with teenage realism that isn’t bogged down by oversexualization, drug use, or other clichéd youth problems. Its two teens being treated like adults by the filmmakers. It makes for a better relation to the audience that can reflect on their own troubled youth or their own struggle with depression.

Film Review: “The Foreigner”

Starring: Jackie Chan, Rufus Jones and Pierce Brosnan
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 54 mins
STX Entertainment

A man picks his young teenage daughter up from school. He notices her sharing a glance with a boy and asks when he will get to meet him. She blushes. He drives her to a popular London dress shop to pick out a prom gown and urges her to be careful as she crosses the street. Sadly, all of his love can’t prevent the bomb that is about to kill her from going off.

An edge-of-the-seat thriller full of twist and turns, “The Foreigner” is a welcome return to the screen for the great Jackie Chan, whose grieving father Quan will not stop until he discovers who planted the deadly explosive. The bombing is claimed by a group associating itself with the IRA, which causes much tension between the British and Irish governments. It is left to Liam Hennessy (Brosnan, given that rare occasion to use his real-life brogue), an influential Irish politician, to get to the bottom of what is going on before things get bloodier. Unfortunately for him, and the police, Quan is a man with a past full of surprises.

Not counting voice work in animated features, it’s been almost a decade since I’ve seen Jackie Chan on the big screen and I’m happy to report that, even at age 63, the man can still kick some serious ass! He also shows a much larger range as an actor here, portraying a father who has basically lost his entire family violently. This is not the clowning man from the “Rush Hour” films. This is a man whose grief and need for revenge seem, at times, to be all that is keeping him alive.

The action here, both with and without Chan, is outstandingly staged, with much credit needing to go to director Campbell, who also helmed Brosnan’s debut as James Bond in “Goldeneye” as well as Daniel Craig’s amazing Bond reboot “Casino Royale.” The film is also driven along by an amazing musical score by Cliff Martinez. The music not only helps deliver the story on-screen but is very reminiscent of the great film scores (“Sorcerer,” “Thief”) by the German band Tangerine Dream.

Film Review: “American Made”

Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson and Sarah Wright
Directed By: Doug Liman
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Universal Pictures

How does a TWA pilot go from tedious commercial flights and a blue collar existence to the Walter White of international arms and drug sales? The tale of Barry Seal (Cruise) almost seems to outlandish to be true as he finds himself working for the CIA and one of the most notorious drug cartels, at the same time. The tag, “Based on a True Story,” is stretched to the max in “American Made,” but at least they had a hell of a time embellishing the facts and telling a few fibs along the way.

We meet Seal midway through life and quickly learn that he hasn’t always been straight and narrow. Even while charting passengers across the country on the daily basis as one of the youngest pilots to be hired by the once major airliner, Seal was a low-time smuggler. Apparently smuggling Cuban cigars here and there for some extra side cash was enough to attract the attention of Schafer (Gleeson), a mysterious CIA agent who wants Seal to take his aeronautical expertise to help spy for the U.S. government.

Spying then turns into drug and weapons smuggling for both sides. At $2,000 a pound, Seal gladly begins smuggling cocaine for the Medellin Cartel. And when spy photos aren’t enough for the CIA, under the direction of the Reagan administration, Seal is asked to help run guns to the Contras. Seal is even given a slice of land by the U.S. in rural Alabama so that he can keep up the charade that he’s a small-time business owner who happens to own his own tiny airport and fleet. Of course all of this is only the tip of the iceberg as Seal goes full-Heisenberg and carves off his own slice of the criminal underworld to create a smuggling juggernaut.

For historians, “American Made” is pulpy trash, glorifying a drug smuggler turned informant, but for everyone else it’s a funny and entertaining take on a biographical crime tale. Cruise, who’s best when he’s unbalanced, is the every man of Louisiana looking for a thrilling escape from monotony, and finds it by playing both sides of a dangerous game. Cruise is doing some of his best humor since “Tropic Thunder” and finding fresh acting life outside his stereotypical smug good guy role.

But “American Made” suffers from pop-culture being saturated with multiple anti-heroes over the past couple of decades. Everyone from Omar Little of “The Wire” to Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” have familiarized audiences with the genre’s tropes so much so that much of the film’s runtime comes with few surprises, making for an elongated ending to Seal’s entrepreneurial smuggling empire. That’s not to say that “American Made” spends most of its runtime having fun. The film proves that maybe in 30 years, we’ll be able to have a good laugh about the current impending doom we’re experiencing with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Maybe.

“American Made” works best as a comedy. There are hints of global political satire, where at the end of the day, no one is really the good guy and that it all comes down to who’s responsible for the lowest body count. That kind of bleak humor is kept on the back burner as Seal smooth talks his way out of precarious situations. There are also plenty of visual gags to feast on, outside of Cruise’s physical and verbal humor.

In amateur hands, “American Made” would be a mixed bag, but Cruise and Director Doug Liman, who previously worked on “Edge of Tomorrow,” combine for infectious manic energy. Cruise makes” American Made” charming in a way that Jon Hamm made Don Draper a likeable womanizer and scumbag. Cruise isn’t only slick with criminals and government officials, but he’s also drawing in the audience to cheer on his illegal shenanigans. History be damned, “American Made” is an engaging circus act with a realistic final bite to keep its audiences grounded in reality.

Film Review: “Battle of the Sexes”

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Bill Pullman
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 1 mins
Fox Searchlight

Do you remember where you were 44 years ago?  I do.

On Thursday night, September 20th, 1973 I was at my friend Mike Schwartz’s house (my parents had gone out that night) and, along with his family, sat down in front of the television to watch what was being billed as “The Battle of the Sexes,” a tennis match between reigning superstar Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs. Having just turned 13-years-old the week before, I had no idea who Riggs was and the only thing I knew about King was that her brother, Randy, was a pitcher for the Giants and I owned his baseball card. Thankfully there was much more to the story.

Depending on your age you probably can’t believe that there was a time where it not only seemed like a joke to suggest a woman could run for President, it was news any time a woman was elected to office. In 1973, there were 16 women in Congress (out of 433 members) and a grand total of ZERO in the Senate. Any woman who showed any gumption was looked down upon by a very chauvinistic male society. One of these women was Billie Jean King (Stone). The #1 ranked women’s tennis player in the world, King was very vocal in getting the prize money paid to women at tournaments raised to the same amount as the men. Learning that, for winning the US Open, the winning man would receive $12,000 while the woman champ took home $1,500, King not only boycotts the tournament but convinces the other top female pros on the circuity to join with her and form the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Carell) is now married to a socialite (Elizabeth Shue) and pushing papers in an office. Always a hustler, Riggs hates being behind a desk and often leaves the house to run errands, which mostly consist of him playing tennis against his friends for money. He also attends Gambler’s Anonymous, though he’s not a good disciple. He reminds his fellow attendees that the reason they are there isn’t because the ARE gamblers, but because they are BAD gamblers. One night, while watching King on television, Riggs comes up with the ultimate hustle – a tennis match between he and King. “The Battle of the Sexes.”

An entertaining and charming film, “The Battle of the Sexes” is just the backdrop in a look at the life of one of sport’s greatest figures. The film looks at King’s home life; her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) (not THAT one) seems happy but when she meets a young female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) she realizes that maybe she’s not. There is also the constant bickering between the WTA members and tennis honcho Jack Kramer (Pullman at his pompous best).

Not only is the film fun to watch, it handles it’s subject matter (both the tennis and the unexpected love story) with reverence. Both Stone and Carell give standout performances, and they are aided by quality performances from Pullman, Riseborough and an incredibly funny, but serious, Sarah Silverman. Look for the film to garner an Oscar nod of two come January 2018.

Film Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

As if emboldened by an impressive box office receipt and growing fanfare, studio executives clearly handed over a blank check and unrestrained creative control to Matthew Vaughn. For better or for worse, his second time around with the “Kingsman” franchise has him embellishing every little detail to the point of nausea. Like some of James Bond’s sillier outings (“A View to a Kill” and “Die Another Day”), “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is pure insanity as we’re rushed through another absurd outing with Britain’s super-secret intelligence organization.

Within the first five minutes, the movie drips in excess action and CGI, immediately taking viewers out of anything resembling sanity. Eggsy (Egerton), the hoodlum turned hero from the first film, fights a former Kingsman recruit, also from the first film, who has a robotic arm with a mind of its own. That’s not even the craziest thing in this film. After disposing of him, we then go through the set-up motions as we meet Eggsy’s girlfriend, the sexually exploited Princess from the end of the first film, and catch-up with the other holdovers from the first flick. Anyone who hasn’t seen the first will unquestionably be confused and lost from the get-go.

The film squanders very little time getting to the villain of the film, Poppy (Moore). Poppy is the leader of a high-powered drug cartel. She wears a psychotic smirk on her face, forcing her underlings to undergo grotesque tests of allegiance. Her hideaway, Poppy Land, is a nostalgic step back into 1950’s Hill Valley with robotic murder dogs patrolling the compound. Her beef with the Kingsman is unknown other than she needs to eliminate any potential threats to her devious global plan. After missiles strike several targets in England (which is seemingly shrugged off by everyone else outside the plot), the remnants of the Kingsman activate their doomsday protocol and are forced to rely on their United States counterparts, the Statesman.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest name in a film containing Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges and Elton John (yes, that Elton John). Very few are used to affect except for Elton John. He arrives as an unnecessarily needed and gratuitous cameo, but evolves into a delightfully needed and gratuitous cameo. However, my disappointment stems from a lack of Bridges, Tatum and Berry, who play different components of the Statesman organization. You could also make the argument for Moore’s character. “The Golden Circle” could have benefitted from as much Moore as possible, just like the previous film benefitted from a lisping Samuel L. Jackson.

The action isn’t entertaining in the traditional sense, but in a fun, manic Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. The laws of gravity, rudimentary physics, the limitations of the human body, and common sense are an afterthought for most the film’s runtime. Just like the first film, there are the over-the-top gadgets that serve one inane purpose. There’s even one gadget that’s too sexually explicit to even attempt to convey in a PG way.

“The Golden Circle” is delightfully bonkers, locking reality out of the writing room and barring believability from the set. The “Kingsman” universe has American citizens being locked up by their own government in cages, bad guys driving down the streets of London with .50 cal machine guns blasting away in full sight of civilians, and oddly placing a retirement home below an avalanche danger zone. To expect anything remotely logical would be a dishonor to the film’s status quo, but adding a little of intelligence certainly wouldn’t hurt it in the long run.