Tag Archives: Film

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15 Dec

 

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” picks up right where “The Force Awakens” left off, and smartly so with Rey (Daisy Ridley, amping up the grit factor favorably) on a remote, bucolic planet trying to press Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into a few rounds of Jedi training while Luke’s sister, Princess/Gen. Leia (a fitting final performance from Carrie Fisher, who passed away after principal photography completed) tries to steer the remaining Resistance forces to a new base with the evil Empire’s First Order in hot pursuit. How it all sorts out isn’t a straightforward affair, and that plays to its advantage with plenty of twists, turns and pleasant surprises to hold an audience rapt over the two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Given all that, it’s still an unenviable task to have to take over the reins from J.J. Abrams, the creative wunderkind who helmed “The Force Awakens” and has a reputation for making what’s old trendy and hip again – i.e., the “Star Trek” reboot – but Rian Johnson, who also scripted, proves more than game to go where Abrams has taken the next franchise trilogy, and beyond. To be sure, there’s a lot going on in “Last Jedi”; the gaping absence of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the elevation of Skywalker back to the fore (Hamill well up to the task), the deeper darkening of Darth Vader successor Kylo Ren (a palpably conflicted Adam Driver) and the Trump-like megalomania of the craggy supreme leader with the silly moniker of Snoke (Andy Serkis doing what he does best: seamless live-action capture) and even Yoda – yes, Yoda. But Johnson, who had so effectively juggled time travel threads folding back in on themselves in the satisfying sci-fi thriller “Looper” (2012), orchestrates it all masterfully, jumping from one far-flung point in the galaxy to the next without disconnect, and with plenty of humor and wit to fill any dead space. Continue reading

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The Shape of Water

9 Dec

‘The Shape of Water’: Underwater love tale is a finely acted and truly immersive fantasy

 

Guillermo del Toro returns to fine form with this fairy tale-cum-horror story that effectively echoes the texture, mood and style of his 2006 gem, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Appetizing as that sounds, “The Shape of Water” doesn’t quite have the fullness or magical immersion of the Mexican auteur’s crowning achievement (to date) – but that’s a mighty yardstick for any film to be measured by.

Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, the narrative flows through the mundane life of a demure, mute cleaning woman named Elsa (Sally Hawkins, who lays it all on the line and should be recognized for such a fine effort), who we learn grew up an orphan and was abused as a child. Given all that, Elsa’s got pretty neat digs above a classic nickelodeon (and del Toro has fun with the marquee and features it plays) and works the nightshift at a secretive military installation where all kinds of strange experiments growl and bark from behind steel doors – often requiring a SWAT team of cleaners to mop up the bloody aftermath.

Locked behind one such portal is an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset,” something of a sleeker version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon if crossed with Abe Sapien from del Toro’s raucously fun “Hellboy” films. Chained and shackled in a pool, the creature is routinely beaten and electrocuted by a square-jawed operative named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who fished it out of the murky waters of South America. Strickland goes after his charge with all the oppressive superiority of a plantation owner, and Shannon’s natural southern drawl helps sell the notion. If there’s any question as to what del Toro is aiming for, there’s a scene at a diner where a black couple are not allowed to sit at the counter and Elsa’s next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), exists deep in the closet and is shunned regularly for his quirky “difference.” Then there’s Elsa’s understanding work partner, Zelda (the ever-affable Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman. In short, everyone around Elsa who gets her is disenfranchised or oppressed. They’re a merry band of outliers, a not so subtle sociopolitical subtext – that feels a bit too strapped on – and the most robust and likable of all that come across the screen.  Continue reading

Wodner Wheel

9 Dec

 

You know how it goes with Woody Allen films (at least since the mid-1990s, around the time of his tabloid break from Mia Farrow): one a year, with every third effort being a worthy nugget, preceded by and antecedent by two duds. Just take the electric “Blue Jasmine” (2013), which rightly garnered the royal Cate Blanchett an Oscar, followed up by the sluggish “Magic in the Moonlight,” which squandered the talents of two Oscar winners, and “Irrational Man,” the unholy marriage of Phillip Roth and Alfred Hitchcock. “Cafe Society” (2016) marked an up, which leads us to Allen’s latest, “Wonder Wheel.” Does it follow the model? Yes, but not entirely.

A key narrative device in “Wonder Wheel” are asides to the audience by a hunky Coney Island lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who patrols the shores sometime after the end of the Second World War, as America sits perched on the cusp of prosperity. Hope and prospect seem to be everywhere for everybody, except a merry-go-round operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi, interestingly cast and auspiciously named) and his wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress turned grousing waitress. They’re both on second marriages; he has problems with the sauce, and her preteen son from a previous marriage has an affinity for lighting impromptu fires. There’s also the matter of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (an ebullient Juno Temple), whom Humpty disowned after she ran off and married a Miami gangster. Shortly into the film Carolina returns, seeking refuge with the desire to go to night school to become a teacher. It makes for a happy reunion until mob heavies from Miami show up looking for their boss’ dame.

Despite the myriad moving parts and personalities, “Wonder Wheel” is unquestionably Winslet’s “Blue Jasmine” opportunity; the entirety of the drama flows through Ginny, the cumulative angst, anxiety and ephemeral moments of joy, erupting through her in deeply emotive bursts. Like “Jasmine” too, “Wheel” bears the indelible imprint of a Tennessee Williams drama, replete with claustrophobic quarters, grand dreams, dank, rife sexual desire and assured tragedy. Allen’s orchestration may feel a bit stagey, but it works effectively to emboss the moments of intimacy and confrontation that come mostly in tightly tied tandems, one melting into the other or the other laying the tinder for the other to ignite.

It takes a while, but we find out Ginny and Mickey are having a thing under the boardwalk. He’s an attentive lover and earnestly entertains the notion of dropping out of grad school (he served in the South Pacific and now wants to be a playwright) and running off with Ginny, saving her from a loveless marriage. Then enters Carolina. The attraction between the ingénue and lifeguard is fast and instantaneous and happens right before Ginny’s eyes when she introduces the two during a chance encounter on the boardwalk. If ever there was an emotional house of cards, this is it, and not all the players in the incestuous love triangle are fully aware of others’ involvement – Greek playwrights would approve. Continue reading

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

18 Nov

 

Director Martin McDonagh, a playwright best known for such dark comedies as “The Pillowman” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” put film audiences on pleasurable, if uneasy, heel with his cinematic crossovers “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012). Humor amid violent doings – the graphicness of which you couldn’t make happen in the center of a stage – was the takeaway from those first two films; Tarantino meets the Coen brothers is in the ballpark, and what a glorious one it is. But McDonagh’s vision and style is something of its own, and it operates on its own bloody terms. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is more of the same, and a bit of a feminist anthem that arrives coincidentally, and poetically, as entertainment heavies including Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are eviscerated for lewd and criminal sexual behavior.

As if a Coen influence was not enough, the film stars Frances McDormand, who ruled the roost in the brothers’ masterworks “Blood Simple” (1984) and “Fargo” (1996), for which she won an Oscar. (She’s also married to Joel Coen). Here McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a steely eyed woman who’s responsible for the three billboards of the film’s overly long title – and something of a bother to the town. Against blood-red backdrops the billboards say “Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”; and “Raped While Dying.” They concern the death of Mildred’s daughter, which has gone unsolved for months. Mildred blames the town’s beloved sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, able to keep pace admirably with McDormand). Continue reading

Justice League

18 Nov

 

The new super adventure inspirationally labeled “Justice League” is an extremely crowded affair littered with jumps in plot, and things end up exactly as one might expect: in a giant CGI beatdown with an arch-villain. Still, after the turgid “Batman v Superman” it’s good to see Zach Snyder fit a lot into a neat two hours, and finally do justice to the floundering DC Comics franchise. (An encouraging trend, considering the sharp and fun “Wonder Woman” directed by Patty Jenkins.)

Things pick up in the immediate aftermath of “BvS,” with Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead or comatose and his mortal darling Lois Lane (Amy Adams) burdened by grief and suffering reporter’s block. That leaves fellow “Leaguers” Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fend for the world as alien ghouls with dragonfly wings descend upon the planet in slow strokes, kidnapping folks. Batman (what is it with these movies where Christian Bale and Affleck talk in constipated growls from behind the mask, but are smoothly eloquent in Bruce Wayne mode?) deduces astutely that the nasty bug-beings are part of a bigger plot – to unite the three Mother Boxes (like the Infinity Gems over in the Marvel Universe) and give an entity known as Steppenwolf – not to be confused with the band founded by John Kay (“Born to be Wild”) or the novel by the tortured German novelist, Hermann Hesse – the ultimate power to terraform the earth and wipe out humankind. Continue reading

Lady Bird

13 Nov

 

Greta Gerwig, the mumblecore queen who scored a breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s Woody Allen-esque “Frances Ha” (2102) gets behind the lens for this semi-autobiographical reflection about a girl coming of age in Sacramento in the early 2000s. If there’s any question about how true to the bird it is, Gerwig is in her early thirties – would have been a senior in high school then, grew up in in Sacramento and attended a Catholic school, just like protagonist Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), aka the “Lady Bird” of the title, struggling to find the right boy to surrender her virginity to and the funds to go to college.

The intimate nature of the film (Gerwig also writes, but does not appear) builds in subtle yet palpable strokes with a devilishly barbed edge as it tackles the mandatory rites of senior year: prom, sex and college acceptance. One of the many angles that makes Christine such an intriguing character study isn’t so much her sass with a dash of surly, or red-shocked (dyed) locks that give her a tint of goth-punk, but the fact she’s a perpetual outsider, not religious and not well off, going to a parochial school and running in circles of affluence while dad (an endearing Tracy Letts), an outdated computer programmer, can’t land a job and mom (Laurie Metcalf, giving the best mom performance of the year behind Allison Janney in “I,Tonya”) hold the house together with stoic tough love.

In short, Christine is in a continually uphill battle – part of it her own obstinance – and along the way makes some provocative (and questionable) choices, be it the dumping of her weight-challenged best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for the popular rich girl (Odeya Rush) or her choices in men, the nice guy who’s too nice (Lucas Hedges, so good in “Manchester by the Sea”) and the cool hipster (Timothée Chalamet) about as deep as his veneer.

Many are hailing this as Gerwig’s directorial debut, though she has a co-directorial credit with mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg on “Nights and Weekends” (2008). She’s also worked on several projects with Baumbach and has clearly been a keen observer of technique and orchestration. The result is quite mature and astute for such a nascent filmmaker, but is it groundbreaking? No – let us not forget Orson Welles pumping out “Citizen Kane” at 24 – but it is fresh and has a bite that feels different even while treading in the same pool as other fine female coming-of-age efforts in the recent past – ”Palo Alto” (2013) and the more accomplished “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Gerwig seems focused and intent behind the camera, which plays against her usual screen presence as pleasantly generic quirky waif.

The real score for Gerwig and the film, however, is the casting of Ronan, a highly accomplished and capable actress who, in her early twenties, has been up for an Academy Award twice already (“Atonement” and “Brooklyn”). There’s never a moment on the screen that you don’t feel and believe every tic and motivation running through Christine’s veins. It’s seems so natural and fluent, you don’t think of it as acting. But don’t be fooled; it’s one of the year’s best performances.

“Lady Bird” is the kind of indie film like such recent hits “Moonlight” or “Boyhood” that possess mainstream crossover and critical appeal. It should also position Gerwig and Ronan as A-listers, able to call their own shots.

Critical Ban

9 Nov

Boston Film Critic Head Explains Solidarity With LA Peers After Disney’s Strike Against Press

Visitors walk through Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in January 2015.
(Jae C. Hong/AP)closemore

Tom Meek, a film critic for The ARTery, is the president of the Boston Society of Film Critics.


Update:

On Tuesday afternoon, Disney told the New York Timesthat the company “agreed to restore access to advance screenings” for Los Angeles Times critics.


Our original post: 

A recent retaliatory measure enacted by the Walt Disney Company triggered a rapid solidarity response by film critics groups, including ours in Boston, over the weekend.

On Tuesday morning, four critics groups announced they would drop Disney-produced films from award consideration until the company rescinds its blackout of the Los Angeles Times.

The Boston Society of Film Critics joined the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics in speaking out against Disney’s systematic blackballing of the Times from its press screenings, interview opportunities and other media access.

The situation erupted last week when the LA Times film critics were barred from attending the press screening of the Disney-produced Marvel adventure “Thor: Ragnarok.” The studio was upset by the paper’s Sept. 24 report about the company and its financial arrangements with — and political influence in — the city of Anaheim (where Disneyland is nestled). Disney cited the paper’s “disregard for basic journalistic standards” as the basis for the move. (The company did not respond to my requests for information.)

Given the course of events, there’s a grave irony that arises in that a company, so effusive in its pursuit to maintain a wholesome, “family-friendly” image, is the hand behind such Machiavellian manipulation tactics. Continue reading