Film Review: Terrifier

Starring: Catherine Corcoran, Jenna Kanell and David Howard Thornton
Directed By: Damien Leone
Rated: R
Running Time: 82 minutes

The past two decades have seen a lot of evil clowns enter the realm of pop-culture. In video games, there was Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal.” In television, there was Twisty from the third season of “American Horror Story.” We’ve also had plenty of evil movie clowns, from the reimagining of Pennywise in “IT” to Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s films. Now enters Art (Thornton), a homicidal clown that may or may not have supernatural powers.

After a night out, Dawn (Corcoran) and Tara (Kanell) are grabbing a slice of pizza when a black and white painted and dressed Art the Clown enters, with a bag of unknowns in tow. Even with his grotesque smile and creepy hand emotes, he’s made even sinister by the fact he doesn’t utter a single word and seemingly doesn’t make a single sound. His pantomiming is sometimes meant for humor, but mainly meant to menace the two young girls on Halloween. The situation sours when the girls are stranded alone at night after their bizarre encounter with Art.

There’s not much to the story and there’s certainly not much to the plot. “Terrifier” is a vehicle for Damien Leone’s crew to exhaust their violence and gore budget. “Terrifier” is shot much like the violent grindhouse films it’s paying homage to. In moments of pitch black you notice a lot of grit in the picture quality. But in brightly lit scenes and in quick shots, you really appreciate the even grittier practical effects as Art lays waste to a naked woman or an unsuspecting bug exterminator.

The director manages to milk a lot out of his script, which is set in one night at one building. It’s helped by Art’s unquenchable bloodthirst. While he’s sometimes satisfied with the simple pull of a trigger, other times a bonesaw or knife are a lot more intimate and satisfying for the clown. We see the pleasure that Art derives from the senseless, brutal murders, thanks to Thornton’s creepy smile and gleeful silence while dancing in place.

It’s almost as if Art’s muteness is a reflection of everything about this movie, all substance with very little, if anything, to say. It’s entertaining in the midst of chaos as Art navigates through an old building worth of potential victims, but its rewatchability isn’t on par with other horror films because the characters aren’t sympathetic, relatable or distinctive outside of one note jokes. That’s not any of the actor’s fault, but that blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the director. Art the Clown had the potential to be a lot more terrifying.

Film Review: “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time

Starring: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon
Directed By: Ava DuVernay
Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Disney has had no problems taking a few risks here and there, especially since their Marvel and Star Wars properties guaranteeing the studio an easy half billion dollars (at the very least) every time one is dropped. So it’s understandable that they can make a calculated gamble or two on tricky creative properties. With “A Wrinkle in Time,” the movie studio certainly rolled the dice with a very well-known, but difficult to transcribe, story. Unfortunately, Disney has rolled snake eyes.

By no means would it be easy for anyone to take the most frequently challenged pieces of literature of the 20th century and turn it into a big budget visual delight for mainstream audiences. The book’s blending of Christian spirituality and grounded science are a complicated combination that creates a fear for movies producers when it comes to potentially upsetting several groups. Writers had to not only conjure something enlightening and mentally stimulating, but have it be void of controversial thesis statements about life. Of course if you don’t know anything about the book, you’ll be confused on how the film handled that narrative regardless.

Meg Murry’s (Reid) father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), has been missing for several years. Many believe he simply abandoned Meg, her brother Charles (Deric McCabe), and their mom. But others believe something planetary happened because of Dr. Murry’s pursuit and interest in interdimensional travel. He had a theory about the brain being able to traverse universes and being able to move from locale to locale with the use of the mind’s focus. It’s a lot of exposition and scientific theory to take in already; it doesn’t help that “A Wrinkle in Time” quickly ushers in three astral travelers, each with a specific quirk and power.

At about the halfway mark, I began to wonder if “A Wrinkle in Time” was more concerned with telling rather than showing. I also questioned the film’s direction because at this point, I felt nothing for any of the characters on their journey. Sure Meg and Charles feel slighted by their father, who they’re ultimately searching for, but outside of those abandonment issues, there’s not much there for viewers to latch on to. It doesn’t help that much of the emotional core of the movie is derailed by having to shoehorn in a new character every five minutes.

The movie really doesn’t work until the final act, after we’ve had to suffer through a lot of confusing tone changes, half-hearted story beats and dead end CGI spectacles. I believe the final act only works because the movie finally embraces the concept of alternate realities and begins treating Meg like the adult she’s maturing into. Although it could have paid off more if we got more time with the characters being themselves instead of reciting exposition and acting wooden in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

I remember reading “A Wrinkle in Time” back in sixth grade as an assignment. It came after a class reading of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” My recollection of the book itself is fuzzy, but I remember having to reread an entire chapter because I felt like I had just tried to digest algebra for the first time. Disney tried to adapt “A Wrinkle in Time” back in 2003 and it was met negatively. It looks like they’ll have to try for a third time in about 15 years.

Film Review: “Annihilation”

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar Isaac
Directed By: Alex Garland
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Paramount Pictures

I really wanted to like this movie. Despite a poor advertising campaign and some unimaginative trailers, I was optimistic that Alex Garland could make some magic out of nothing with “Annihilation.” The man been attached to some great films over the past couple of decades like “28 Days Later,” “Dredd,” and most importantly, “Ex Machina.” Whereas “Ex Machina” was sleek and smart, “Annihilation” is clunky and confusing.

It’s not that “Annihilation” is lacking in interesting concepts, it’s that they’re wrapped around predictable subplots and a ragbag of conflicting tones. The movie begins with an interesting sci-fi premise, an extraterrestrial phenomenon, called the Shimmer by the scientists investigating it, has been slowly enveloping the land around a coastal lighthouse for three years. The government has sent in several teams of soldiers into the Shimmer, only for them to never return. Except for one.

A confused Kane (Isaac) stumbles back into his home, into the loving embrace of his wife, Lena (Portman) who had assumed the worst after he went MIA. She knew nothing of his mission into the Shimmer and his mysterious return only brings her into the fray. In the hopes of learning more about the Shimmer, Lena joins an all-female team, which is heading into the Shimmer. What they encounter, is a bunch of red herrings, glazed over plot points and horror movie tropes.

Throughout “Annihilation,” I kept putting off these nagging issues with the script and structure of the story in the hopes that the ending would provide a worthy payoff to some of my frustration. Without giving away the ending, “Annihilation” seems content on ambiguity, but without any legitimate bread crumbs to lead viewers down one path or another. I have my own theories, but none of them feel as profound as the ones birthed from other sci-fi greats in the past few years like “Blade Runner 2049” or “Under the Skin.”

There’s also the trouble as to what kind of movie “Annihilation” wants to be. It begins as a sci-fi, but has elements of body terror, jump scares and clichés from average horror flicks that are slowly mixed in. A fear of the unknown comes with movies about aliens, but “Annihilation” is bad at developing tension because it forces its characters to have the minds of teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake. We watch this group in the Shimmer split up into groups, avoid taking the high ground in dangerous situations, and camp out for the night near corpses and other macabre scenes.

Even if “Annihilation” is bad, there’s something slightly noble about a bad movie that at least makes you think, and not just about the glaring plot holes. There are a couple of moments that are trying to speak volumes about our relation to nature and humanity’s destructiveness. However there’s no real follow-up to some of these burning ideas and questions that are raised. There’s really nothing left to ponder or chew on when you leave the theater. This might be one of the most disappointing aspects of “Annihilation.” It’s a beautifully shot film that hobbles from the start and then whimpers in its final moments.

Film Review: Victor Crowley

Starring: Parry Shen, Kane Hodder and Laura Ortiz
Directed By: Adam Green
Rated: R
Running Time: 93 minutes

As director and writer Adam Green said himself, the “Hatchet” trilogy was a segmented, yet complete story. So there was never a need for a fourth “Hatchet,” yet here we are with “Victor Crowley.” Green can be forgiven for going back to the monster that made his career, especially since it’s taken on a life of its own and worked its way into the hearts of horror aficionados. Luckily, unlike others who’ve returned to their roots, Green has found a worthy amount of gory content and vicious fun to justify this fourth time around.

Picking up 10 years after the event of “Hatchet III,” the sole survivor of Crowley’s massacre, Andrew (Shen), is promoting a new book detailing how he survived. While many line-up to get an autograph or buy the book from him, an equal amount take the time to ridicule him for cashing in on death or accusing him of committing mass murder under the guise of the supernatural. What mainstream public could actually believe 40 people were killed by a disfigured Hulk-like entity in a swamp?

Of course it wouldn’t be a “Hatchet” movie without returning to that very swamp. Andrew is suckered back in, with the promise of more money on his book tour campaign. Getting mixed up eventually is an aspiring crew of filmmakers and the people transporting Andrew back to the site of the decade old massacre. Of course, the key component, Victor Crowley (Hodder), needs to be summoned to go on another killing spree.

The actually summoning is one of the few hiccups in an otherwise funhouse blood fest. Once Crowley shows up, “Victor Crowley” rarely lets up, spending the second half of the movie being relentlessly savage and overwhelmingly sadistic. But it’s equally funny, at least for those with an ounce of black humor in their funny bone. There’s a lot of fan service, within the own franchise as well as several nods to the horror community, that sometimes distracts from the core content.

I can’t give too much away because “Victor Crowley” is meant to be experienced instead of hearing my pitch as to why you should see it. Those who have already gone along for the trip will certainly check out “Victor Crowley,” and without a doubt I can say they’ll fall immediately in love with it. Very rarely does a sequel, much less the fourth of a franchise, live-up-to and exceed the expectations set by previous films, but “Victor Crowley” does. If this is the beginning of a new storytelling trilogy, it’s set the expectations for future films ridiculously high.

Film Review: “Ruin Me”

Starring: Marcienne Dwyer, Matt Dellapina and Chris Hill
Directed By: Preston DeFrancis
Rated: R
Running Time: 87 minutes

Any horror film buff would certainly take part in a Slasher Sleepout, a 36-hour experience that’s a mishmash of elements from escape rooms, haunted houses and a weekend camping trip. Is this actually a thing? I’m genuinely curious and would probably splurge on it if it existed. At least the six characters in “Ruin Me” did. When we meet the, they have this giddy excitement, that I’m sure I would have before a weekend of cheap scares alone in the woods, solving puzzles. Well, five out of six of those characters at least seem cozy to the idea.

Alex (Dwyer) is lukewarm to the concept. She’s begrudgingly going with her boyfriend, Nathan (Dellapina), who received the experience as a birthday gift from a pal, but his buddy couldn’t go so Alex is his fill-in. You’d think he’d have gone with another friend, or at least someone who’s favorite movie isn’t “Dirty Dancing.” The four other people joining them are all about horror though. There’s the awkward loner who rattles off horror movie references, the stoic weird guy, and an obnoxious Goth couple that has done these kinds of hodgepodge horror getaways before.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true horror movie if something didn’t go wrong, and things go south quickly. At the beginning everyone plays along with the fake blood, fake mutilated body parts and hooded men in the forest stalking them, but it’s not until people start disappearing and the fake blood becomes real blood. “Ruin Me” has a bit of fun playing with the audience expectations about when things will take a nosedive and how far our characters are still willing to believe that they’re just being toyed with by 21st century carnival ride operators.

“Ruin Me” has a lot of twists and turns after the midway point. Some of the surprises are earned and are actually rewarding while others feel like concepts shoehorned into the script without actually fitting into the overall narrative. Alex, being the focal point of misery as the film progresses, has a lot of the believable twists to her character arc. Some of Alex’s reveals appear sloppy at face value, but they are a lot more believable in hindsight when everything is finally tied together.

“Ruin Me” is a midnight movie romp, which pays off for viewers who love watching characters trapped in sadistic head games. The argument could be made that Alex’s misery and the film’s head games don’t go far enough. It’s a fair point because “Ruin Me” seemingly makes a 180 degree turn in terms of tone at one point, without justifying the pivot. The “fun weekend gone wrong” trope could have easily sustained the movie, but it seems like the intentional swivel was an attempt to subvert. “Ruin Me” isn’t about to spawn a new genre or rewrite the horror movie rules, but it maintains a sense of mystery and excitement for those willing to go on the overnight with the characters. If nothing else, the writers might be on to something with this Slasher Sleepout.

Film Review: “12 Strong”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and William Fichtner
Directed By: Nicolai Fuglsig
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Analyzing and critiquing films centered on America’s soldiers can be a difficult task. Too much criticism can draw ire from those who bleed red, white and blue. You can even take heat and be called unpatriotic for not heaping tons of praise on it. “12 Strong” is so-so. It’s beautifully shot, narratively confusing, decently-acted, but predictable. Sure it’s a story that isn’t well-known, but casting Chris Hemsworth as the lead ensures there won’t be anyone who will need to bring tissues into the theater with them.

The film begins quite literally on the morning of 9/11, sure to conjure up emotion from any viewer who lived through that day. Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) springs into action, demanding to see combat so that he can bravely lead his men into battle. It’s noble, but unnecessary when anyone who’s seen “Thor” or knows of Hemsworth’s star power, knows the actor wasn’t cast to file paperwork and sit behind a desk throughout the movie.

Nelson gets his wish and is shipped off to the Middle East. There he leads a group of Green Berets in mid-October into Afghanistan to assist the Northern Alliance, a collection of Afghan warlords and soldiers who are mainly playing defense against the oppressive Taliban. The Berets’ goal is to loosen the Taliban’s grip and to destabilize the terrorist organization. Assisting, as well as being assisted by, the Green Berets is General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), one of the leaders making up the broken and embattled Northern Alliance.

The politics of the Northern Alliance as well as the covert operations are a lot more fascinating than what is actually on-screen. After watching the film I went home to do some research and became engrossed in the history of the battle before U.S. televisions began broadcasting bombs being dropped. It was also fascinating to read about Afghanistan’s shattered (and still is) political structure that barely holds the country together. None of that really comes across in “12 Strong” that tried to simplify the history books.

Exposition usually comes across in wooden dialogue, as well as speeches that feel unnatural. The movie also loses track a few times of where our Green Berets are supposed to be or what town they’re currently entrenched in or liberating. The final battle sequence comes off as a rush with a visually silly sequence of men on horseback shooting wildly at Taliban in tanks like some kind of over-the-top boss battle in a video game.

For all its flaws, “12 Strong” does commendable jobs in some of its smaller moments. General Dostum, who’s drastically underplayed throughout the film, provides necessary insight into how the Afghans view the U.S. intervention, saying at one point that the Americans will be called cowards if they leave, but invaders if they stay. He says it in all seriousness, realizing that the U.S. is in a no win situation with the hearts and minds of Afghanistan, but with his eyes expressing sympathy for that unfortunate scenario.

We also get a sense of camaraderie amongst the troops of the Northern Alliance and the Green Berets more than amongst the Green Berets themselves. It says a lot about the heart of America’s troops when the first person a Green Beret searches for in the aftermath of a bomb explosion is his young Afghani counterpart. “12 Strong” shows the horrors of battle without glorifying them or giving excuse for their brutal necessity.

It’s hard not to think about the political ramifications of what we’re watching on-screen, especially since we’re still in the war-torn country. The movie never takes a stance, as it shouldn’t. 17 years later, it’s still hard to find that political middle ground that would appease both sides of a frustrating war. “12 Strong” does a passable job telling a story about unsung heroes in the early days of that war, but there’s the lingering feeling that the soldiers portrayed in the film deserved a much better retelling of their struggles.

Film Review: “Phantom Thread”

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Focus Features

It’s difficult to say negative things about a Paul Thomas Anderson film. They’re so meticulously groomed by the writer and director that you could say even a bad movie on his end is still gorgeously filmed, well-acted, and rich in metaphor. His films generally aren’t for casual audiences and are geared more towards cinephiles. He’s had a previous fascination with broken individuals looking to redeem themselves or allowing audiences to watch them further wallow in self-pity and self-harm. “Phantom Thread” finds itself once again in that territory, but instead of praising it alongside other cinephiles, I find myself siding with casual audiences.

The flawed individual in “Phantom Thread” is Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a 1950’s fashion designer for rich Londoners. Like any self-proclaimed master artist, he obsesses over his work, to the point where he becomes infuriated if the dress buyer doesn’t wear the outfit right. His army of elderly female assistants packs into his townhouse silently helping craft his latest masterpiece, but they know him better than anyone, remaining silent and doing as they’re told. Despite ruling with an unspoken iron fist, Woodcock is a bit of romantic. Just a bit.

He enchants a waitress, Alma (Krieps), but what makes him attracted to her isn’t necessarily her looks or her obedience, it’s her rebellious nature. He seems to enjoy her possessiveness, when she’s sometimes intentionally obnoxious and the fact that she’ not about to run out the door when he drops a mean retort or insults her. It’s a relationship that borders on abusive, for both sides, and sometimes makes the argument these two are so crazy, they’re simply meant to be together. It’s an unhealthy bond that should be a thrill to watch, but it doesn’t fester fast enough.

As the film progresses, it’s almost as if Anderson isn’t concerned about whether or not we’re still paying attention. He lingers on long uncomfortable silences, focuses on facial distaste by the characters, and sometimes lets inconsequential dialogue envelop the scene. Some of these moments are played for guilty laughs or showcasing Woodcock’s self-absorbed nature, but the relentless nature of it between genuinely interesting scenes are sure to push anyone’s patience. It’s almost as if “Phantom Thread,” unlike its main character, isn’t self-confident enough in its own craft.

Instead of establishing mood or creating drama between conflicts, “Phantom Thread” likes to show instead of tell. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that because that’s what a good filmmaker does, but sometimes what it shows us, tells us nothing. The final moments of this film seem to justify a lot of the build-up, but never the snail’s crawl pace of storytelling. Despite only being a hair longer than two hours, its flow felt like it was heading for a three-hour marathon. By the time it seems to have its stride, the credits begin to roll.

It’s unfortunate that one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen will end his career on a less than memorable film. Day-Lewis’ performance, as is any other film he’s ever been in, is the true highlight of the film. Much like his other performances, he stretches the skin of his character over his body, immersing himself in this narcissistic fashion designer. Outside of Day-Lewis’ performance, Anderson’s keen directorial vision, and a deliciously twisted ending, “Phantom Thread” is sometimes tedious and a bit too full of itself.

Film Review: “The Commuter”

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson
Directed By: Jaume Collett-Serra
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes

Sometimes the best compliment you can give to absolute schlock is that it’s alright. “The Commuter” doesn’t try to be more than it is. It manages to be mildly thrilling, sometimes genuinely intriguing, but mainly remains over-the-top. Sometimes bad movies sacrifice entertainment for the sake of attempting to become logical, or God forbid, taking itself too seriously. But luckily “The Commuter” is as fun as it is forgettable.

The fun begins after Michael McCauley (Neeson) is fired as an insurance salesman. Not looking forward to delivering the news to his wife, he sits quietly on the train ride home, attempting to push his troubles out of his mind. In comes a mysterious woman, calling herself Joanna (Farmiga), offering the recently fired and down on his luck Irish immigrant a chance at $100,000. $25,000 is offered up front if he accepts her strange quest and the rest comes if he completes it. His mission is to find a passenger named Prynne and plant a tracking device in their luggage.

“The Commuter” does a decent job establishing that Michael is desperate for money, and not just with his firing. He has a son at home who’s about to head to college and back in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, he and his wife nearly lost all their assets; so $100,000 dollars seems very tempting. Of course as Michael unravels the mystery around him, he finds that his task isn’t easy as it originally appears and there’s more at stake.

Consistently hinting at powerful men, evil that’s pulling the rods behind the curtains and other allegorical bad men, “The Commuter” never really fulfills on what should be a promising solution to the puzzle. Maybe the socio-political commentary was there, but scratched out in a noble attempt to make “The Commuter” sillier than it was originally attended. There are plenty of solid laughs intentionally written in, but an equal amount of unintentional chuckles at the absurdity of it all.

However, when “The Commuter” buckles down for drama, it wrings out a lot of tension from Michael going back and forth through train cars, as well as some surprising twists and turns. Neeson commands a lot of these scenes, conveying checked anger and frustration, as well as general bewilderment at the unfolding scenario. The movie does shoot itself in the foot when several other actors, like Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill, distract from the plot more than provide to it.

Without Neeson or director Jaume Collett-Serra, “The Commuter” would have certainly been a stumbling mess. The moments of mystery, amplified by Neeson’s willingness to go along with it, are what keep this train moving. There are moments that feel cliché and contrived, but they never actually feel like they’re beneath the 65-year-old actor. It’s a testament to Neeson’s body of work that he can still make the silliest of premises believable and fun without going full on Nicolas Cage with his performance.

Film Review: “Downsizing”

Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Paramount Pictures

The most positive thing I can say about “Downsizing” is that you’ll never be able to guess where it’s headed. Even as the film hit the homestretch, I kept waiting for that “a-ha” moment or the singular statement that the movie looked to deliver. I never got that moment and in a way I left the theater in disappoint. But what lingered was uncertainty. Even after weeks of thinking on it, I’m still unsure about the message in “Downsizing” and whether or not it’s a peculiar sci-fi reflection on humanity or a tonal misfire.

Environmentalism is at the forefront in the opening minutes as we watch the Norwegians at work in a lab. They’re looking for a solution to the world’s overpopulation crisis. A solution comes in the unlikely form of shrinking. They’ve developed a way to shrink fully-grown humans down to five inches tall. This mean that the tiny humans will produce less waste, take up less space, and use less energy. Thinking long-range, they say in a few centuries they hope that all of humanity is down to a miniature size to help save Planet Earth.

Fast forwarding a few years after this scientific breakthrough, we meet Paul (Damon), who’s manages to persuade his wife, Audrey (Kirsten Wiig), to sell their assets and move to one of the biggest downsized communities in America. The pint-sized world, smack dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, presents an opportunity for the lower middle-class couple from Omaha to be millionaires in the miniature world, since you can stretch a dollar farther when your house is the size of Barbie’s Malibu dream home. Of course, not everything goes to plan.

Like I stated at the beginning, “Downsizing” is unpredictable because it manages to take every possible detour away from its original comedic premise of Paul attempting to adapt to his new life in a tiny world. It soon becomes a film about societal constructs, then organized crime amongst elites, then refugees, then class warfare, and then back to environmentalism. There’s the possibility I’m forgetting a few themes that Director and Writer Alexander Payne manages to wring out of his script. It’s a bold, bizarre endeavor that pays off sometimes.

But because of the constant gear shifting, there were moments I found myself bored and wondering if I really should get invested in any of the characters introduced, especially with how disposable most are outside of Paul. The sprinkling of humor sometimes keeps the movie grounded in its roots, but when it branches out it pokes you in the eye rather than enlightens. “Downsizing” may be a fun movie to discuss after watching, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an entertaining film.

Film Review: “Darkest Hour”

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James
Directed By: Joe Wright
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Focus Features

Earlier in 2017, Christopher Nolan gripped audiences with a land, sea and air telling of the evacuation of “Dunkirk.” While I personally wasn’t wowed with Nolan’s WWII film, I appreciate his craft at conveying fear and desperation in the eyes of thousands of Allied soldiers looking to escape the stranglehold of the German army. For those, like me, who were looking for a little bit more in narrative substance, “Darkest Hour,” might scratch that itch.

“Darkest Hour” begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister after multiple failures by Neville Chamberlain. Despite commanding respect from the House of Commons, his blunt speak and unorthodox approach quickly draws enemies behind the scenes. Lending their ears to the embattled Prime Minister is King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (James). While showing passion for defense his homeland, Churchill becomes increasingly difficult to work with as Hitler’s grasp on Western Europe grows bigger and tighter.

“Darkest Hour” tries it’s best to summarize a turbulent short span of time between Churchill’s ascent into one of the most difficult positions at the beginning to WWII to the formulation of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk. While narratively confusing sometimes, white lettering telling us the specific date keeps things in line as Churchill digs in heels and sticks to his guns against confrontations with his enemies and his allies.

Thanks to history books, and “Dunkirk,” we do know how the story will play out, but the drama and emotional turmoil behind the decision making makes for a fascinating retelling. The war room, that Churchill manages to glide through at his brittle age, is always buzzing and the potential for a “negotiated peace” with Germany sheds light on the diplomatic crisis at hand as the body count for the good guys mounts.

Underneath heavy makeup, Oldman is able to capture Churchill’s warmth, impatience, generosity and unpredictability. At times his tongue slips and we hear a little bit of the actor’s voice come through, but overall his mannerisms, matching Churchill’s voice, keep him in a grounded and highly believable role. Oldman’s performance is just as commanding as Churchill’s presence in the face of insurmountable odds.

History junkies may like this straight-forward and poignant approach to political discourse during war. But that’s not to say that movie goers will find themselves entranced by Oldman’s performance and this unique history lesson. Not only is the Oscar hype real about Oldman’s performance, but it’s a refreshing reminder about the power of genuine men and the power of their words during a world at crisis.

Film Review: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black
Directed By: Jake Kasdan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Sony Pictures Entertainment

In 2015 there was a collective gasp by 90’s kids after Sony confirmed long held rumors that the studio would be making a sequel to the much-beloved “Jumanji.” The 1995 film is just one of the many reasons Millennials fondly remember Robin Williams, so creating a sequel for it over two decades later for a new generation is no easy task, even if their the goal is to cash in on nostalgia.s

The new film picks up in 1996, where an unnamed boy is given the classic Jumanji board game by his father. He tosses it aside and proceeds to play a video game instead. Sensing its expiration date, the board game creates a video game cartridge for the unnamed boy to pop in. Tripping ahead 20 years later, we meet four teenagers, stuck in detention with a mundane task, and looking for an escape. That’s when the Jumanji video game rears its ugly head, with those iconic jungle drums, entrancing the high schoolers to plug it in.

Whereas the original brought the jungle to our realm, the new Jumanji transplants it’s victims into its realm. The teenagers take the form of video game avatars, played by the surprisingly charismatic and charming hodgepodge of Johnson, Gillan, Hart and Black. Their comedic strengths (except Gillan) are somewhat subdued so that there’s a lot more group improvisation and camaraderie so that no one overwhelms or steals a scene.

With five screenwriters, there are moments where “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” seems to understand video game clichés and utilizes them while at other times it seems to be written by a middle-aged man who believes video games are the death of creativity. In some ways you could say this movie suffers from the pitfalls of other video game movies where there’s not enough time to flesh out exposition and the action sequences suffer from rushed conflict resolution. But when the movie embraces video game tropes, it genuinely excels as popcorn entertainment and parody.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” benefits from a fun cast, willing to embody their absurd characters and the even more ridiculous plot. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t without its flaws. The third act is weak, sometimes neglecting established plot points and making little use of the actual jungle. I’m also curious as to how well it’ll be received and understood by those who grew up without the film or are unaware of the previous flick. For those looking for a healthy dose of nostalgia, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a passable film, but it doesn’t make the case for a potential franchise or another sequel.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water”

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro
Rated: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Guillermo Del Toro is known for his love of monsters, creatures, ghosts, ghouls and the macabre beauty of it all. That love takes on a new meaning in “The Shape of Water,” where Del Toro conjures up classic cinema vibes with the setting, cast, and trademark visuals throughout his latest film. After years of scaring and provoking thought, it appears that Del Toro is instead reflecting, not only on himself, but his influences.

On paper, “The Shape of Water” is a curious, if not off-putting, love story between Elisa (Hawkins), a woman made mute by an injury, and an amphibious creature, played by Doug Jones under heavy makeup. Elisa first spots the creature at her janitorial job at a secretive research center. She comes across the creature as it arrives at the base, after recently being captured in a South American river where it was worshipped as a God by local tribesmen. Curiosity gets the best of Elisa as she sneaks in to see the creature first-hand. She quickly becomes enchanted, spending her lunch breaks in the enclosure, to feed it hard boiled eggs and share her love of music with it.

The love story, as usual, has a deeper meaning that speaks volumes, but is unappealing to those who will simply see something else that’s a little too much for average audiences. It’s not necessarily a complaint of mine, but it is a scenario that’s a little rough to warm up to. It also lacks the benefit of necessary build-up and wordless romance that might not be Del Toro’s strong suit. If you can get past the strange romantic entanglement, there is a lot of beauty in Del Toro’s script.

Beyond that, there’s the evil in the world that inadvertently tries to tear the two apart. The creature’s captor, Richard (Shannon), is a dangerous control freak. He takes out his own insecurities on employees and looks to kill what he does not understand. His inflated sense of self-importance is compensation, but he’s looking to attain more power and work his way into the hierarchy of the military and other powers to be.

Because this takes place in the 60’s, there a sense that Elisa and the creature represent the counterculture to Shannon’s violent character. Very few people aid Shannon in his pursuit, while those around Elisa go against their common sense and assist in her attempts to break the creature out of confinement. It’s once the creature is out and Elisa gets to spend some alone time that I begin to feel conflicted about the attitude and direction of the film.

Del Toro’s “Beauty and the Beast” take for adults hits and misses in its third act when everything comes crashing together. There are signs of a cinematic masterpiece in “Shape of Water,” but too often Del Toro seems to cheapen the message about love for those without a voice and those who are alien in a “normal” society. It’s a tricky juggling act that would have been tough for any director, but Del Toro does make it work with his gothic imagery and performances from his cast. “The Shape of Water” should be a stronger film under Del Toro’s direction, but it’s still an emotionally resonant film.

Film Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco and Ari Graynor
Directed By: James Franco
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes

“The Disaster Artist” is a film where you have to continuously remind yourself that the characters portrayed on-screen are real people and that the events that transpired actually happened. The absurdity of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) is like something out of a fantasy novel. His confidence is matched by his obliviousness. He steps onto the stage during an acting class giving a performance that borders reveals his narcissism. On the surface, his awful interpretation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” could be viewed as intentional deadpan genius.

But in the class, looking on after failing to work up the nerve to put together any acting chops, is Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). Unlike the rest of the class, which looks on in gross astonishment, Sestero sees a man who’s unafraid of the lights, the crowd, and of his own lackluster talents. Sestero approaches the Eastern European sounding man, already aged with wrinkles, to figure out how to obtain that fearlessness. Although what Sestero doesn’t realize, is that that fearlessness was birthed in a pool of egotism. But what arises is one of the most bizarre creations of the 21st century.

“The Disaster Artist” somewhat chronicles the beginning of the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero, which led to the disasterpiece known as “The Room,” a film that’s now shown at midnight screenings around the country and mocked much like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The film is almost a love letter to the boldness of Wiseau as well as the fragile bromance that develops between the two. It’s in the Franco wheelhouse, which brings in other actors and directors from that genre, like Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Judd Apatow.

Because the film plays out as an ode and embrace of Wiseau’s misguided efforts, it does tend to gloss over some of the troubled rumblings of the production of “The Room.” Tales of gross negligence and fights are shown, and sometimes played for laughs, but we don’t get a good enough grasp on the story behind the movie. A lot of that may be because Wiseau and Sostero, in real-life, remain good friends and even still work together. It’s understandably tough to trash talk a friend, but “The Disaster Artist” could have benefitted from getting out of bed with Wiseau’s quasi-charming ambiguity.

Mirroring the film’s creation, Franco is the director, lead, and one of the producers of this film, highlighting his eerily physically similarities to Wiseau as well as perfecting the mannerisms of the mysterious man who explains away his Eastern European accent as being from New Orleans and profusely lying about his age. Franco plays Wiseau as an unlikable dolt who shouldn’t be liked or applauded for his efforts. But by the film’s end you find yourself warming up to Wiseau with likability that’s almost beyond explanation to a layman.

Generally when discussing the latest Marvel film, I don’t tend to think about how the average moviegoer, who has no prior knowledge of the other films. Marvel’s cinematic universe sometimes requires a little bit of visual homework, but superheroes are so pervasive in culture, you’d be hard pressed not to find someone who doesn’t at least know of Captain America and others. However, you’ll find plenty of people scratching their head over Wiseau’s name and who might mistakenly think of Brie Larson’s award winning role in the film “Room.”

“The Disaster Artist” is more or less bonus content for fans of Wiseau’s passion project and cinematic abortion. I’m in that camp and enjoyed Franco’s recreation of particular scenes, along with the behind-the-camera retelling of insufferable moments with Wiseau, as well as the monumentous occasion where Wiseau premiered the six million dollar film that’s considered one of the worst in modern history, if not all time. For those outside that bubble of knowledge, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about. For those in that bubble, you’ll relish and eat up this biographical travesty.

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.