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 – “Call Me by Your Name”

 

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME\
Starring:  Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet
Directed by:  Luca Guadagnino
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 12 mins
Sony Pictures Classic

 


What is it about Italy that makes people fall in love?  Is it the weather?  The countryside?  The language?  I really don’t know.  I was only in Italy for a weekend and all I did was play softball.  But it was a beautiful country!

Elio (Chalamet) is a 17 year old musical wiz.  He lives with his parents in a small Italian town where the only signs of life are usually in the local tavern.  As summer begins, a car brings the tall, handsome Oliver (Hammer) to the house, where he will serve as Elio’s father’s research assistant.  Of course this means Elio having to move out of his room to another, which he eventually shrugs off.  Like Oliver, Elio and his family are Jewish, though they don’t go out of their way to announce it (according to Elio, his mother likes to say that they are “discretely” Jewish).  As the summer, and their friendship, progresses, they will discover they have much more in common.

A beautifully told story about discovering love, “Call Me by Your Name” is buoyed by the performance of its two lead actors.  Hammer, who you may remember as BOTH of the Winklevoss twins from “The Social Network,” shows a side I’ve never seen.  He makes Oliver both confident and unsure, worried that what is growing between he and Elio may harm the young man.  As Elio, Chalamet gives a true star-making performance, a boy, not yet a man, learning to deal with feelings he doesn’t understand.

The script, adapted from the Andre’ Acimen novel, is written by three-time Academy Award nominated director James Ivory, who was so instrumental in the success of films like “The Remains of the Day” and “Howards End.”  “Call Me by Your Name” actually plays like a Merchant/Ivory film – brilliantly performed and produced.  This is a story of love, though even those involved are unsure of its consequences.  As a character says in the film, “cinema is a mirror of reality and it is a filter.”  Just like life.

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.

Pick the Winners of the 2017 Media Mikes Awards and Win Some Swag!

Hello 2018.  Which means it’s time to say goodbye to the films and performances we loved in 2017.  And once again, the readers of MediaMikes.com will have the opportunity to choose the winners of the 2017 Media Mikes Awards.

All you have to do is let us know your pick as the Best in each of the following categories:  Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and Animated Feature.  You can leave your nominees in the comments below or send them HERE

All nominations will be totaled up and the winners announced on Monday, February 12th.  (5) random entries, either on this post or via email, will be selected and will receive a selection of 2017 movie swag.  Balloting runs through 6:00 pm CST on Sunday, February 11, 2017.  Thanks for voting!

Film Review: “The Commuter”

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

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 – “The Post”

 

 

 

THE POST
Starring:  Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk
Directed by:  Steven Spielberg
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  1 hr 56 mins
20th Century Fox

 

They were called The Pentagon Papers, an analysis of the almost 30-year history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam which did not paint a rosy picture for a war that would eventually take the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans.  Their impact, not only on how the war was perceived but in how the press was regarded, is the story of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “The Post.”

Passengers on a government jet observe a young man chatting with current Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). “Who’s that,” someone asks, unaware that the subject of his question will one day set in motion a series of events that, in today’s cycle of “fake news,” will open eyes to the power of the press.  The young man in question is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys).  Unhappy with what he has observed and been told, the military analyst leaks a series of reports commissioned by the Rand Corporation to the New York Times, which in 1971 begins to publish excerpts.  Outraged by this, President Nixon orders government attorneys to file a suit forcing the paper to stop publishing the papers in the interest of national security.

In Washington D.C., Ben Bradlee (Hanks), editor of The Washington Post, is upset.  Once again, the Times has scooped him.  This is such a common occurrence that Bradlee brandishes a copy of the Times and asks his reporters “anyone else tired of reading the news?”  The Post is owned by Katherine Graham (Streep), a D.C. socialite whose grandfather had owned the Post and who inherited the publisher’s mantle when her husband, Phillip, committed suicide.  She is wary of Bradlee’s plans.  Not only is there a chance that publishing the information will put her in jail – “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war,” Bradlee asks – but she also risks alienating some of her closest friends, including Bob McNamara.  Decisions, decisions.

A film that packs a powerful punch, “The Post” joins “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” as films that show the true power of the press in the face of adversity.  Hanks has fun as the tough but compassionate Bradlee and Streep adds another outstanding performance to her already amazing resume’.  The supporting cast is just as strong, with fine turns by Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons and Tracy Letts.  Even Richard Milhouse Nixon gets raves as the evil Wizard who thinks he can rule the Emerald City, and this country, anyway he deems fit.  Rather than employ an actor to portray our 37th President, Spielberg uses Nixon’s actual words and voice, through taped telephone conversations, to show what a devious and paranoid man the President was.

Spielberg keeps the story moving and, as with all of his films, the technical aspects are first rate.  And add another magnificent John Williams score to perfectly accompany the story.

Film Review – “Molly’s Game”

 

 

MOLLY’S GAME

Starring:  Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner

Directed by:  Aaron Sorkin

Rated:  R

Running time:  2 hrs 20 mins

STX Entertainment

 

 

Did you ever have friends over to your house for a night of poker?  This was a regular thing in my life from the mid-1980s through 1995.  Those of us who worked until midnight would get together after work a spend hours eating pizza, drinking Coke out of the little bottles (none of that NEW Coke for us) and playing games like Follow the Queen or Sh*t or Get Off the Pot.  Our highest bet allowed was $5.00.  I mention this only because Molly Bloom did the same thing we did, only her stakes were much higher.

 

Molly (Chastain) was a one time Olympic hopeful whose injuries took her from the ski slopes to a would-be journey to law school.  However, before she can crack the books she takes a job with real estate agent Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a bossy type who runs her ragged as his assistant.  One day she is given the phone numbers of (9) people and told to invite them to a high stakes poker game he is hosting.  Molly is put in charge of the buy in money and at the end of the night ends up with $3,000 in tips.  A fast learner, she soon begins to run her own game, rubbing shoulders with some of the most renowned actors, athletes and politicians in California.  When she moves to New York she again hosts games.  Things go well until she is arrested by the FBI for her actions.  What are the odds Molly beats the rap?

 

The first film to be directed by Academy Award winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (he also adapted the script from the real Molly Bloom’s book), “Molly’s Game” is a smart tale about how even the slightest mistake can come back to haunt you.  The cast is first-rate, with both Chastain and Elba, who plays Bloom’s attorney, Charles Jaffe, giving award-worthy performances.  The supporting cast is equally strong, including Michael Cera, identified simply as Player X, and Costner, who plays Molly’s hard-pushing father.  The film even serves as a “Dances With Wolves” reunion, with Graham Greene playing the judge who hears Molly’s case.

 

The script is pure Sorkin, which is always a good thing.  His work behind the camera is equally well done.  All in all, “Molly’s Game” is a fine inaugural effort from a budding new filmmaker.

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: “All the Money in the World”

 

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Starring:  Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg and Christopher Plummer

Directed by:  Ridley Scott

Rated:  PG 13

Running time:  2 hrs 12 mins

Sony Pictures

 

 

J. Paul Getty was a son of a bitch.

 

The first person in the WORLD to accumulate a fortune worth one BILLION dollars, he was a hard-driven man who had no time for family.  So when his assistant announces that the police are on the phone because his grandson has been kidnapped, it’s no surprise when he instructs her to tell them that he is “not available.”  Thanks grandpa!

 

Based on a true story (one I clearly remember from my youth), “All the Money in the World” is a tale that lives up to the old saying that “money can’t buy everything.”  We meet 16 year-old Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relationship to Christopher) as he prowls around the red light area of Rome.  Clearly under-age he is scolded by the women he approaches and walks along the road.  Suddenly a van pulls up and Paul is swept inside and quickly blindfolded.  He is secluded out in the country and his mother Gail (an always great Michelle Williams) is contacted.  The kidnappers want $17 million for Paul’s return.  They are unaware that, like the majority of the Getty heirs, she has no money.  She turns to the boy’s grandfather (Christopher Plummer) for help.  He gives her his answer when he is asked by a reporter how much he would pay to rescue his grandson – “Nothing.”

 

This film has gained some extra notoriety due to the fact that Kevin Spacey had originally been hired to play J. Paul Getty and that, in fact, the film was finished when news of Spacey’s alleged misdeeds was made public.  In an unprecedented move, director Ridley Scott chose to replace Spacey with Christopher Plummer and reshoot every scene that had once featured Spacey.  In six weeks’ time he managed to gather the entire cast and crew and pulled off a cinematic miracle by meeting the film’s original release date.  And what an amazing cast.

 

Williams, who was heartbreaking in last year’s “Manchester by the Sea,” is the tough, no nonsense mother who puts her son first in every decision.  She is cool and collected even when we, the audience, would be inconsolable.  Wahlberg is a former CIA operative who now runs Getty’s personal security.  He does his best, at Getty’s request, to negotiate with the kidnappers but finds little luck.  But the film rightly belongs to Christopher Plummer.  You can still watch the original trailer for “All the Money in the World” on YouTube, and you’ll come away with the feeling that Spacey would have given a strong performance.  But here Plummer is more than strong.  He’s brilliant.  He’s taken a character that the audience should hate and somehow makes his actions seem sensible, no matter how little.  Also, J. Paul Getty was 80 years old when Paul was kidnapped.  Spacey is 58 and required a lot of make-up.  Christopher Plummer is 88 and every year is ingrained on his still handsome face.  He recently received a Golden Globe Award nomination for his performance here and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is soon followed by his third Academy Award nod (he won an Oscar in 2012).

 

Director Scott keeps the story moving and the technical aspects, from art direction to photography, are well deserving of praise.  This is an amazing piece of filmmaking, made more so by the quirky back story, and is easily one of the best films of the year!

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.

GET OUT and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME Dominate the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards

 

GET OUT, writer/director Jordan Peele’s darkly funny horror film and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, the story of a young boy who meets a visiting American while on vacation with his family, took home the lion’s share of prizes as the Kansas City Film Critics Circle handed out their 52nd Annual James Loutzenhizer Awards for the best in film for 2017.  Media Mikes writers Mike Smith and Jeremy Werner are members of the group.
GET OUT took home the prize as the Best Film of 2017.  In addition, Jordan Peele won for his Original Screenplay and the film was also named the winner of the Vince Koehler Award as the year’s best Science Fiction/Horror/Fantasy film.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME earned recognition for Timothée Chalamet, who was named Best Actor as well as for it’s Adapted Screenplay, written by James Ivory (based on the novel by Andre Aciman).  The film also received the groups Dr. Tom Poe Award as the year’s best LBGT film.  The film shared the Adapted Screenplay award with LOGAN, written by Scott Frank, Michael Green and James Mangold, based on the popular Marvel Comics character.
Guillermo del Toro was named winner of the Robert Altman Award as the year’s Best Director for THE SHAPE OF WATER,  which also won the Best Actress award for Sally Hawkins.
The Kansas City Film Critics Circle is the second oldest film critics group in the country, founded in 1967 by Dr. James Loutzenhizer.  The group’s annual awards were named for Dr. Loutzenhizer after his passing in November 2001.
Here is a complete list of winners:
BEST FILM –  GET OUT
ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD FOR BEST DIRECTOR – Guillermo det Toro, THE SHAPE OF WATER
BEST ACTOR –    Timothée Chalamet – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR –  Willem Dafoe – THE FLORIDA PROJECT
BEST ACTRESS –  Sally Hawkins – THE SHAPE OF WATER
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Laurie Metcalf – LADY BIRD
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY –  Jordan Peele – GET OUT
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY –  James Ivory – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME/Scott Frank, Michael Green and James Mangold – LOGAN
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE –  COCO
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM –  IN THE FADE (Germany)
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE –  JANE
VINCE KOEHLER AWARD –  GET OUT
DR. TOM POE AWARD –  CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

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 – “Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi”

 

STAR WARS – EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI

Starring:  Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher

Directed by:  Rian Johnson

Rated:  PG 13

Running time:  2 hrs  32 mins

Walt Disney Pictures

Has it really been 40 years since the world was first introduced to the young dreamer Luke Skywalker?  It has.  Heck, if you don’t count the brief appearances in Episodes III (as a newborn baby) and VII (the last moment of the film), it’s been 34 years since Luke has been on the big screen.  But those numbers are in the past as the Jedi master finally returns in the eighth chapter of the original saga, “The Last Jedi.”

The film begins where “The Force Awakens” left off.  We are there as the galaxy’s newest hero, Rey (Ridley) finally tracks down Skywalker (Hamill) and hands him his old lightsaber.  His reaction is not what she expects.  Meanwhile, the first order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), both of who are under the power of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) have closed in on the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Fisher, in her final screen role).  As things begin to go from bad to worse, Leia reluctantly begins to trust in the leadership and ideals of ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who in turn butts heads with Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).  Can everyone agree on the right path to take or will evil finally win?

With a script by director Johnson, “The Last Jedi” is a mash-up of many different stories, but all with the same main plot line; good versus evil.  As Rey tries her best to convince Luke to return with her to help the Resistance, he gives her many reasons why he should not.  Among them is the guilt he feels over how his one time student, Ben Solo – his nephew – has transformed himself into the evil Kylo Ren.  In another part of the galaxy, we discover Finn (John Boyega) on an adventure of his own, one in which he meets the funny and resourceful Rose (a much welcome Kelly Marie Tran).  Rose is one of the many new faces that dot the screen, along with Dern and a wiley Benicio Del Toro.  But don’t despair, there are a few old faces that pop us as well.

The cast here is strong, with Hamill’s performance quite powerful.  He’s lived with this character for four decades and it’s obvious he’s invested heavily into it emotionally.  Driver, who came off as a little whiny in “The Force Awakens,” is much stronger here, a sign he has gotten comfortable with the character and its place in the story.  Sadly, this is Carrie Fisher’s last performance as Leia Organa, and the film is dedicated to her.  It’s apparent to me that Princess Leia would have been an integral part of Episode IX and I’m curious as to how they will handle her absence.  And if you’re looking for “cute,” not only is fan favorite droid BB-8 back but we also meet a creature known as a Porg, a puffin-like creature that makes the Ewoks from “Return of the Jedi” look like slugs!

To share anymore would necessitate the use of the words SPOILER ALERT and I would rather share less than more.  And with a 2 ½ hour run time, there is plenty I could spill.  But I would rather be dropped into a Sarlac pit then ruin your journey back to the galaxy far, far away.  May the Force be with you!

Film Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco and Ari Graynor
Directed By: James Franco
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
A24

“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.

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