Movie Reviews
Saturday , November 18 2017

2017 Films … So Far

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

1922.  In the grand scheme of things, I would characterize 1922 as middle-tier Stephen King adaptation. This patiently paced ghost story is only one-half-step removed of A Tell-Tale Heart.  But the performances by Thomas Jane and Molly Parker are solid. And the filmmakers exhibit a little more confidence in their intended audience than in the more popular King adaption released by Netflix this season, Gerald’s Game.  (Grade: C+)

Alien: Covenant.  Michael Fassbender meets himself! Michael Fassbender kisses himself! Michael Fassbender kills himself!  And yet, Michael Fassbender can’t save this movie.  I confess that I thought Prometheus (2012) was pretty good genre fare (notwithstanding the bumpy third act).  But most fans of the franchise in which it shared a universe did not, so instead of making an earnest sequel to that 2012 prequel, director Ridley Scott offers this cinematic apology: a greatest hits of Alien motifs.  And little else.  (As a side note, I think I have stumbled upon a simple barometer for assessing the quality of the screenwriting of each entry in this franchise: the shorter/more inexplicable the amount of time it takes for one of those adorable little chest-bursters to grow to the size of a human off-screen, the worse the film.  And by that measure, this one ranks right down there with the AVP abominations.)  (Grade: C-)

Atomic Blonde.  We need more genre films like this – the visceral action, the roving camera, a woman taking out a man with a refrigerator door – but I’m taking a half grade off for not ending the movie in the interrogation room.  (Grade: B)

Baby Driver.  For what it is, Baby Driver is a pretty competent genre entry from director Edgar Wright – particularly in the use of music and sound.  But I really, really, really cannot get on board with Ansel Elgort here.  The guy’s just got no game.  (Grade: B-)

The Babysitter.  With a surprisingly entertaining first act and a well cast eponymous character (Samara Weaving), I can safely say that McG’s straight-to-Netflix horror/comedy exceeded expectations.  (Grade: C)

Band Aid.  Writer/director/actor Zoe Lister-Jones’ attempt at shamelessly indulging in – and half-assedly subverting – John Carney’s subgenre of diegetic musical romances is a failure on three counts … Count #1: Even if you can make it through the first act believing that the main characters (Lister-Jones and the somewhat creepy, entirely charmless Adam Pally) could have voluntarily chosen to marry each other at some point in time (much less form a band to channel their mutual animosity), they are simply not interesting or sympathetic enough to carry the narrative. At some stage in the production, I imagine that Lister-Jones – or most likely, someone else – must have realized this and decided to remedy the situation by injecting tonally jarring sequences with Fred Armisen in full-tilt Portlandia mode … Count #2: The dialogue starts off as typical Sundance quirk and gradually devolves into pop psychology/gender politics clichés (think Men Are from Mars …). By the third act, we witness Lister-Jones’ character actually reading a self-help book and glancing up in recognition of the wisdom, which is followed by a sequence where the hubby’s inevitably fateful talk with his mom “about women” is interspersed with wifey flailing around on her bed as if we’ve suddenly been dropped into a music video by [insert any Lilith Fair performer circa 1997-1999 here]. And in the midst of all of this, said mom drops a line to let you know how self-conscious Lister-Jones is of the ham-fisted, on-the-nose writing, as if to say to the audience “seriously though, I’m not normally this vapid.”  (No, sorry, not forgiven.) … Count #3: In contrast to Carney’s Once (2007) and Sing Street (2016), the songs in this film are weak – particularly the self-indulgent finale performed by Lister-Jones herself a la [insert any Lilith Fair performer circa 1997-1999 here].  And to address a couple of terms that I’ve seen pop up in the reviews I’ve read by a few apologists: no matter what the intended musical aesthetic or “energy” was here, I would submit that there are good “punk”/“garage” songs and bad ones, and when all is said and done, the music here ranges from mildly cute to painfully witless.  (Grade: C-)

The Battle of the Sexes.  The groan-inducing dialogue is enough to steer clear of this one (I felt genuine sympathy for Alan Cumming, the actor, at the end), notwithstanding some entertaining and rousing moments and Emma Stone’s competent representation of BJK’s distinctly graceful indignation.  But a viewing of a documentary the night before didn’t help my experience of this film.  I’m all for going off the reservation when it comes to biopic narratives, but in this case, the failure to even mention that BJK’s first lesbian love interest – romanticized here to the nth degree through the 20/20 lens of 2017 mores – actually sued BJK for palimony two years after a bitter breakup, publicly outing BJK to her parents and most of the rest of the world.  The case was ultimately dismissed by the judge as “extortion,” but not by the corporate sponsors and most of the public, as she suffered a huge economic blow.  That seems like a pretty damn important piece of the BJK history/legacy, to the point where this whole exercise in hagiography feels like a lie.  (Grade: C-)

Beatriz at Dinner.  While I was certainly never bored, in the end, I was not completely sold on this film’s transition from a comedy of modern manners to a song of political despair.  But even if I couldn’t fully wrap my head or heart around the title character, I always felt like Salma Hayek could.  (With the caveat that I have not seen Frida (2002), I would say this is the best performance of her career.)  And although I am not an advocate of directly or indirectly dictating gender or racial quotas upon filmmakers, it was refreshing to see this character (a single, New Agey, middle-aged Mexican-American “healer”) exhibit this much complexity in an English language film.  (Compare, e.g., Aquarius (2016).)  (Grade: B-)

The Beguiled.  The real assets in this fuse-burning, inter-/intra-gender-clashing melodrama are the performances of the ensemble, which, in a way, makes director Sofia Coppola the real star.  (Grade: B-)

The Belko Experiment.  The idea certainly had potential: a contemporary office is forcibly repurposed into a mashup of a Roman gladiator arena circa 100 B.C. and the Stanford Psychology Department circa 1971 A.D., where tape dispensers become the weapons of necessity.   But setting aside a few brief comedic/satirical moments/images, director Greg McLean and writer James Gunn seem to feel that we, as an audience, simply could not digest the mix of tones that the setup begs for, and instead, chose to take the low road to the dead-end where torture porn like Saw (2004) resides.  (Grade: C)

The Big Sick.  [Sigh]  I miss Holly Hunter … The poster is an accurate depiction of what to expect – i.e., this is a mainstream romantic dramedy that happens to have a protagonist who is Pakistani-American (or American-Pakistani).  Why this is relegated to the art house (at least in my market) is beyond me.  Perhaps it’s because the writing is not as vapid – or the performances not as stale – as we’ve come to expect from the genre.  Should I feel guilt for taking as much pleasure in this movie as I did?  No, I don’t think I will. … and Zoe Kazan is pretty great too.  (Grade: A-)

Blade Runner 2049.  Overall, Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy sequel.  Director Denis Villeneuve – with a big assist from writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green – finds the right balance for this type of film by hitting enough familiar beats to ground it in the revered mythology of the original without unduly indulging the audience’s sense of nostalgia.  While Villeneuve isn’t afraid to subtlely tip his hat to other dystopian classics (e.g., dusty Korova Milk Bar statues overshadowing the threshold in the ghost town Las Vegas), he also brings his own voice to bear, drawing upon the hazy sepias of Enemy (2014) to break up  the characteristic noir-y milieu and the honking elephantine score of Arrival (2016) to offset the ‘80s synths.  And more generally speaking, the attention to detail and the performances (which include Harrison Ford actually doing something dramatically compelling) are impeccable.  Still, this film really doesn’t need to be two hours and 44 minutes (e.g., those city vista shots go on too long).  And the clumsiness of the final action set piece – drowning in its own insistent metaphor – mars the third act.  (Grade: B+)

Brad’s Status.  Notwithstanding some attempts at nuance by screenwriter/director Mike White (the writer who also brought us of Enlightened (2011-2013) and Beatriz at Dinner (2017), as well as Nacho Libre (2006) and The Emoji Movie (2017)), Brad’s status is actually quite simple: he has his head too far up his own ass.  And as a 47 year-old, middle class, white American male, even I am tiring of these narratives.  (Grade: C+)

Brigsby Bear.  Curiosity in an unnatural emotion.  (Grade: B)

Carrie Pilby.  Adapting Caren Lissner’s best-selling novel, Susan Johnson is coming to this directorial debut as an experienced producer.  And it shows.  Beginning with the first encounter between our sassy title character (Powley, with British accent on) and her therapist (Lane, uncomfortably conservative in his additional role as expository device), it seems that Johnson ironed out just about all the wrinkles that might have made the source material interesting (I was hoping for Lena Dunham, but with some more intelligence and backbone) to serve up a Nancy Meyers recipe for what women want. Those who follow me on letterboxd know that I often follow a sentence like that with phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but … with pedestrian dialogue and a swooning genera-score, Carrie Pilby proves to be a stark counterpoint to the very film that reportedly drew Johnson to Powley – Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015).  (Grade: D+)

Casting JonBenet.  You’d think that a documentary that deals with one of the most notorious crimes of the 90s by defying the expectations of a contemporary Serial-fed audience and turning the movie camera back on the community where the crime occurred would be illuminating.  Or at least interesting.  But no, not so much.  (Grade: C-)

Catfight.  Truth be told, I am a newbie to Onur Tukel. As he helped introduce his latest feature film at its world premiere, the writer/director exuded this articulate and mischievous gregariousness, like a curious mashup of Quentin Tarantino and Santa Claus.  But when the lights came up, and Oh and Heche skipped their way to the stage arm in arm, it all made sense – these people made this film. Oh yeah, there is an order to the universe.  To put it simply, Catfight is a satire of art, commerce, and politics wrapped around a fable about hate, violence, and humility. It’s blunt. It’s visceral. It’s not one bit apologetic about being on-the-nose. And it highlights one of the reasons that I miss attending film festivals, as I left the theatre wondering what sort of distribution deal this unruly beast could possibly get. Don’t get me wrong – I admired the boldness, and I found myself enthralled as Tukel and company punctuated each act with an impossibly lengthy fight sequence (think Roddy Piper and Keith David in the alley in They Live! (1988)). I strongly suspect that Catfight will divide audiences, and I can’t say that I would recommend it to everybody; but I will say that we need more of these kinds of films with these kinds of actors doing these kinds of things.  (Grade: B)

Colossal.  ”No, no. It has a vibe. But definitely not a theme.” … The conceit is given away right there in the trailer, and having seen the trailer or having seen the film, either way I could see this becoming a “cult hit”. And this is the second film I’ve seen of late that vaguely calls to mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), as well as Being John Malkovich (1999). But when it comes to absurdity, Nacho Vigalondo lacks the narrative and visual elegance of a Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, or Charlie Kauffman. Vigalondo has a capable and willing cast (Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudekis); but when it comes to building the (anti-)romantic relationship between the two main characters that drives the (anti-)allegory, not only can he not stick the landing, but he can’t even seem to find a runway.  (Grade: C)

Columbus.  Sublime.  Like the ghost of Ozu riffing on Garden State (2004).

The Commune.  … or Thomas Vinterberg’s The Ice Storm.  (Grade: B-)

A Dark Song. This atmospheric, two-handed occult procedural rarely shows its low-budget seams as it slow burns its way into semi-familiar genre territory (e.g., Jacob’s Ladder (1990), 1408 (2007)).  Whether the ending works may just depend on what kind of person you are.  That said, these days I’m grateful for any horror film that’s not from James Wan (or the James Wan School).  (Grade: B)

The Dark Tower.  The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed … into an insipid exercise in salvaging Sony’s license to Stephen King’s magnum opus.  (Grade: C-)

Detroit.  With a distinct lack of narrative focus throughout the first act, muddy character development, and distractedly inappropriate casting choices (e.g., Will Poulter, John Krasinski), director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal somehow manage to underwhelm with this timely docudrama set during the Detroit riots of 1967.  (Grade: C+)

The Discovery.  “From the director of The One I Love” drew me in to this one, and normally, this is the kind of “small” sci-fi that’s right up my alley.  In the midst of a curious mix of tone, I remained interested throughout the slowly-paced narrative that vaguely evoked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Until the End of the World (1991).  Of course, Rooney Mara is a big part of that maintenance of interest.  (This performance, in the wake of Side Effects and Carol, pretty much secures her place as my favorite A-list actress working today.)  That said, this is one of those films where it all comes down to the ending – specifically,  the writing and the execution.  Unfortunately, I will have to join the camp of detractors: without giving too much away, it really didn’t work for me.  (Grade: C+)

Dunkirk.  I thought Hardy’s Spitfire was never going to land.  (Grade: B)

The Florida Project.  In contrast with Tangerine (2015), director Sean Baker does little more here than dress up poverty porn with indie affectations, relying primarily on six year-old children hamming/quirking it up for the camera for much of the emotional manipulation.  Brooklynn Prince in particular turns in one of the least convincing child performance I’ve seen in recent years – rivaling that of Lilly Aspell in Wonder Woman (2017) –  but predictably enough, in my experience, one that many in the audience seem most willing to forgive (because, you know, they’re just so cute!)  Notwithstanding all of the talk about the virtues of Baker’s use of non-professional actors and “letting kids be kids,” I rarely felt like these children were unaware of the presence of Baker’s camera, and any sympathy I could muster was reserved for actor Willem Dafoe.  With all that said, this cinematic slog – which tirelessly harps on the tired theme of childhood resilience – deserves a whole additional letter grade off for that Hail Mary of a final shot.  (Grade: D)

Free Fire. … About 18 minutes into the 74-minute shootout sequence in this 91-minute film, I came to the realization that the primary issue that I was having was the filmmaker’s failure to sufficiently establish the geography of the action and the relative placement of the characters.  I was fairly certain of how much time had passed, and 2 minutes earlier, I was on the IMDb app checking out the runtime, wondering if the 91 minutes also included the end credits, as well as glancing at the new trailers that were available and making a mental note of what to watch later … And then about 1 minute later, I was looking at my spousal unit and wondering what she thought of the one female character (Brie Larson).  I mean, she likes the post-Tarantino fare as much as the next person, I suppose.  But she tends to assume this stoic poker face during screenings, so who knows … And then, about 1 minute later, I came to the realization that Indian buffet sounded like the best gastronomical option for after the movie (I mean, why do I need to choose between tikka masala and tandoori chicken when it’s Sunday and I could have both).  Well, it was, at very least, a top 3 contender.  But we still had – let’s see – another 53 minutes, so … (Grade: C+)

Gerald’s Game.  If Stephen King scripted a Lifetime Movie of the Week … Seriously though, the epilogue tacked on here is a perfect illustration of the notion that what might work on the page might not work so well on the screen, at least not at this point in the history of popular cinema.  (Grade: C)

Get Out.  I rarely change my initial grade of a film in any significant way, but it took a second viewing to get my arms around the endgame and come to … A (Self-Conscious, Self-Righteous) Appreciation of Get Out (2016).  (Grade: A)

A Ghost Story.  Lately, I’ve been pretty down on the Sundance fare, as well as “slow cinema.”  With writer/director David Lowery’s second collaboration with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, it’s nice to see that course turn around (or alternatively, the emergence of an exception that proves the rule?).  Since his last attempt at arthouse fare (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)), Lowery has emerged from beneath the shadow of Terrence Malick with just the right pages from the playbook in hand – namely, a certain visual sensibility sans the cliched aesthetics, and a certain earnestness toward exploring the existential sans the self-seriousness.  That is, for the vast majority of this ghostly contemplation on time and memory, Affleck’s Oscar-winning chops are expressed through a white sheet bearing two black eyeholes.  And all of the paranormal activity is rendered within the confines of a hazy 1:37 palette (for the less technical cinephiles of a certain age, think slides of family pictures being projected onto the basement wall), which – in the midst of the current trends in aspect ratio gimmickry – Lowery positively masters.  All that said, there’s plenty here to buck the Malick acolyte: one McGuffin; two jump scares; playfully curious subtitles; and a single silence-breaking monologue that takes a rather blasé attitude toward the notion of the divine. But the emotional efficacy of this particular mix in tones coalesces under the sublimity of Daniel Hart’s score.  Truth be told, it’s been quite a while since I’ve sat in a theater and chuckled – while simultaneously feeling such a profound sense of sadness – as when the words “I don’t think they’re coming” are uttered here.  (Grade: A)

The Glass Castle.  Brie Larson and her agent are clearly gunning for another Oscar, and with an assist from Larson’s breakout collaborator (director Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 (2013)), The Glass Castle is the ideal vehicle for achieving that goal: a classed-up Lifetime Movie of the Week where the strong brave woman with dashes of vulnerability (Larson as the daughter) tussles with the domineering abusive man with dashes of humanity (Woody Harrelson as the father) on the road to independence and forgiveness.  In exploiting the unique tolerances of its target audience when it comes to anything Based on a True Story, this two-plus-hour film is indulgently repetitive with its genre-specific beats – an aspect that tips the balance against Harrelson’s character too far for the film to earn its denouement (as predictable as it is).  And ironically enough, the real standout performances here come from the actresses playing Larson’s childhood counterparts (Ella Anderson and Chandler Head).  (Grade: C-)

Good Time.  To my sensibilities, the neo-neorealism doesn’t add much to what is essentially a one-bad-night genre film in terms of making the characters, or their interactions, any more interesting or compelling. Nor do the Safdie brothers’ indulges in copious close-ups, primary/neon colors, and ’80s electro-scoring (especially since the film visually/narratively evokes a distinctly ’70s vibe).  That said, the performance by co-director Benny Safdie – who was reportedly cast late in the game after he and his brother became uncomfortable with the idea of “manipulating” and “exploiting” an actor who was actually mentally challenged from behind the camera – is extraordinarily authentic and potent. Miscast that role, or overplay it, and the audience will be distracted; but Safdie brings nothing but pathos and volatility to every scene he occupies.  (Grade: B-)

Graduation.  With his first film in over four years, writer/director Cristian Mingu provides an over-the-shoulder view of a middle-aged man striving to spring his only teenage daughter out of the corrupt mire of contemporary Romania and into the enlightened mecca of the West.  When she is assaulted on her way to the final exams that will seal her emancipation, desperation sets in as good intentions pave a path to hell.  Fortunately, Mingu plays his cards fairly close to the chest as his difficult character grapples with the most fundamental of familial questions (e.g., can one be a successful parent without even trying to be a decent spouse? how much “good parenting” is actually motivated by regret and baggage?), as well as some more subtle political ones.  Still, coming from the filmmaker who brought us 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007), the somewhat numbingly-paced narrative of Graduation feels like a bit of a disappointment. (Grade: B-)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.  Fun. Funny. Lovingly rendered.  And I just cringe when I think about the inevitable team-up of Star-Lord and Captain America.  (Grade: B-)

Happy Death Day.  This slasher/murder mystery riff on Groundhog Day (1991) is fun enough, suppose. But the narrative falters when it sacrifices a strict adherence to the familiar premise for the sake of creating stakes. And the script’s self-awareness may be worth a laugh or two, but ultimately, doesn’t quite save the movie – even in terms of its modest aims.  (Grade: C+)

Hounds of Love.  A heart-warming Mother’s Day tale!  (Grade: B)

I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore.  Writer/director Macon Blair (star of Blue Ruin (2014)) has got his head, heart, blood and guts in the right place.  But this tale of revenge, as not quite wreaked by a depressive nursing assistant (the always welcome Melanie Lynskey), feels like a debut in all the wrong ways.  Too many lines fall flat.  Too many shots are poorly chosen.  Too much of the editing is choppy.  The entire rhythm of the film is just off.  (Grade: C)

Ingrid Goes West.  When it comes to satire, the realm of social media is a veritable orchard of low-hanging fruit.  And with this contemporary riff on The King of Comedy (1982), co-writer/director Matt Spicer unapologetically swings away.  That said, the popular trailer to Ingrid Goes West oversells the quantity of comedic content, and as a consequence, undersells the breadth of the performance by Aubrey Plaza (in the opinion of this casual fan, the best of her career) and her chemistry with newcomer O’Shea Jackson Jr.  Even so, Spicer is no Scorsese, and Plaza is no De Niro.  (Grade: B-)

It.  Nostalgia is a tricky thing that becomes even trickier when best-selling novels are translated to the big screen. And in the interests of full disclosure – coming from a harsh advocate of judging films entirely on their own merit – I am hardly an objective viewer.  It was the fall of 1986 – following the summer that I made my way through the entire Stephen King canon – when I read King’s (then) magnum opus. At over 1,100 pages, IT – with its seven protagonists arc-ing their way through two parallel childhood/adult narratives – came across like King’s coming-of-age novella, The Body, mashed up into a compendium of all of the classic monsters that populated King’s own formative years. Like King’s The Dark Tower series, IT would seem like ideal fodder for both the current golden age of cable TV and the current tastes in collective nostalgia (see, e.g., Stranger Things) – especially since it’s been 27 years since the release of ABC’s justifiably forgettable miniseries (which I would submit as Exhibit A to demonstrate just how ground-breaking Twin Peaks really was for its time). However, even at the ideal age for that genre of fiction (15), I didn’t necessarily consider IT to be King’s best work; and 31 years on, word of director Andres Muschietti (Mama (2013)) adapting/remaking IT as a feature film just didn’t seem that enticing (as, say, Guillermo del Toro adapting/remaking Pet Sematary (1989)) – especially in the wake of Sony’s license-salvaging The Dark Tower (2017). But then all the positive reviews started coming in, and I had to bite … Although my memories of the plot are muddy at best (oh hey there, turtle), I knew going in that Muschietti would either capture or lose his audience with the story’s enigmatic opening – a creepy/tragic introduction to the eponymous antagonist in its primary manifestation (Pennywise the Dancing Clown). With eerily luminous eyes (which, at one point, betray an inexplicable unsettling moment of distraction), it is clear from the outset that Bill Skarsgard’s performance represents a marked improvement over Tim Curry’s overrated riff on Jack Nicholson’s Joker (which was fashionably familiar to TV consumers circa 1990). The same goes for this film’s post-pubescent ensemble: Jaeden Lieberher and Finn Wlfhard call back to Wil Weaton and Corey Feldman (Stand By Me (1986)), which is certainly fitting for the material, while Sophia Lillis and Jeremy Ray Taylor stand out in their own right.  To account for the contemporary target audience’s sense of nostalgia, Muschietti and company shrewdly adjust the setting from 1957 to 1988, and about 30 minutes in, the gentle reader will begin to realize what’s formally revealed in the closing credits: the grown-up beats have been saved for the sequel. Even at two hours and fifteen minutes, this halved adaptation loses the emotional weight of the novel’s democratic approach to the numerous characters, as well as a certain edge (e.g., the, um, bonding experience to close out the loss of childhood innocence).  So all that I can offer is that standard refrain that (inevitably?) comes with having read the book before seeing the movie: IT could have been so much more.  (Grade: B-)

It Comes at Night.  As our households become more and more isolated by our fear of others (politically, religiously, etc.), writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ presents a world where our sociological imperatives have been reduced to “defending family at all costs.” And it’s not pretty.  Truth be told, I was not as impressed as others with Shults’ narratively self-indulgent Krisha (2016); but his feature debut did show that he has a great eye. In terms of cinematography and set design, this curiously marketed follow up does not disappoint. Nor does his cast, which includes A-lister Joel Edgerton, who, over the last few years, has demonstrated an impressive diversity of performance within his medium range. And Shults’ ultimate choice of perspective in this post-apocalyptic, semi-chamber thriller is inspired, as Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Roots, The Birth of a Nation (2016)) delivers a 17-year-old mixed-race child/man who is so repressed by circumstance that even his wet dreams are choked in paranoia.  I’m still mulling this one over.  (Grade: B)

Kedi.  Apparently, you can get too much cat video.  (Grade: C)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer. With his second English-language film following the sociological satire of The Lobster (2016), it’s clear that writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ sits squarely in my wheelhouse. And surprisingly enough perhaps, it is Colin Farrell who has emerged to exemplify the Lanthimos’ distinct approach to dialogue: almost theatrically banal, punctuated by abrupt little tears at the seams of social convention.  To be sure, it’s not for everyone.  But to one drawn in by his mischievous modus operandi, toward the end of the film, I found myself oddly unmoved by what would otherwise be a rather shocking proposal made by Nicole Kidman’s character – a sign that Lanthimos had relieved me of the distraction of an instant emotional response and moved me into a more philosophical headspace. And that shift proves to be apropos, because although The Killing of a Sacred Deer often looks and sounds like a horror film, it ultimately proves to be a rather provocative exploration of our conflicting notions of justice.  (Grade: A-)

Kong: Skull Island.  For what these films aspire to be, I can safely say that I enjoyed Godzilla (2014) a good deal more than this rather soulless setup for the remake of one of the more campy cinematic memories of my childhood (although it seems pretty apparent that this particular “growing boy” is gonna have to grow a whole lot to match up with the big guy). While certainly not a rousing success, at least Peter Jackson went for it with King Kong (2005).  (Does anyone remember that ridiculously long T-rex battle?)  Yet in spite its attempt to sacrifice all of that boring character development for sufficiently frequent action beats, Kong: Skull Island ends up being a bit of a bore with CGI that seems even less convincing than it was over a decade ago.  (Grade: C-)

Landline.  Although it’s no Squid or Whale and it’s not as incendiary as Obvious Child (2014) (writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s debut collaboration with Jenny Slate), Landline is a pleasant enough way to spend a Saturday afternoon at the cinema.  Still, I’d rather have see the version of this movie focusing on Ally Quinn’s Ali.  (We all had mobile phones by Labor Day 1995, right?)  (Grade: B-)

The Lego Batman Movie.  For ages 4 and up … And that’s not necessarily a good thing.  (Grade: C+)

Life.  An expensive – but ultimately disposable – piece of post-Gravity pop cinema, with the biggest positive being the wonderfully immersive opening shot and the biggest negative being the unintentionally anti-climactic ending.  (Grade: C)

The Little Hours.  Aubrey Plaza’s fucking Decameron! … should have been funnier than it was.  (Grade: C+)

Logan.  While this X-Men swan song* suffers from some of the same issues as other comic-book superhero films (too many inelegant plot machinations accompanied by too much exposition), writer/director James Mangold takes one of the most prevalent endemic defects of the genre (the stakes-less invulnerability of the characters) and turns it on its head: more than a Children of Men-inspired immigrant song, this is a film about mortality.  From the very first shots of Logan f/k/a Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Charles f/k/a Professor X (Patrick Stewart), we feel like it’s the end of the line for these sequestered, forgotten gods.  In a future that’s not so distant from our own, Logan is relegated to driving a limo for cash and scoring drugs from hospital orderlies to mitigate Charles’ seizures.  As the last survivors of the X-Men, the former’s contaminated body is degenerating as surely as the latter’s dangerous mind.  And when a young new mutant (Dafne Keen) inexplicably** arrives on the scene with the henchmen for a multi-national corp in relentless pursuit, the violence that ensues is distinctly palpable – and the collateral damage, genuinely tragic.  So for all that it aspires to be, Logan the movie is an admirably unexpected end to the series.*  (* yeah, I know, “The New Mutants,” coming in 2018!)  (** yeah, I know, it’s not so inexplicable)  (Grade: B)

Logan Lucky.  Ocean’s 7-Eleven.  (Grade: B-)

The Lost City of Z.  I’ve seen James Gray’s last four films, and I gave all of them a solid B+ to B-.  Yet somehow I feel like I should be enjoying his work more.  Or less.  (Grade: B-)

Lucky.  There’s nothing revelatory here in this little ‘90s-ish indie character study, but I cannot think of a better swan song for Harry Dean Stanton. (Grade: B-)

Marjorie Prime.

They’ll say: Nothing gone stays
gone here; you are never
alone in death. Listen
, they’ll say,
that’s the worst part of all

– T.J. Jarrett, “How to Speak to the Dead”

(Grade: B)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Yeah, Adam Sandler is great and all. But the really good news here is that Noah Baumbach, the writer, is back with that acerbic – but honest – sense of humanity, unadulterated by the witless whimsy of Greta Gerwig.  (Grade: B)

mother!  “THAT’s your takeaway? Seriously?” – Rachel Wiesz … “ANOTHER preachy Noah thing? Seriously?” – Me  (Grade: C)

My Cousin Rachel.  Rachel Weisz is a national treasure.  (Grade: B)

Okja.  “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”  (Grade: B-)

Personal Shopper.  With Olivier Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria (2015), the big question on a lot of viewers’ minds is whether the award-winning Kristin Stewart can carry a whole arthouse film. Not exactly. … Without giving away too many of the essential mysteries, what we have here is a contemporary ghost/identity-crisis story (with echoes of those ’70s/80s European horror films). Stewart portrays a personal shopper for a Paris socialite/amateur spiritual medium waiting for a “sign”, and part of the problem I had with this film is that she can’t effectively emote beyond her one Millenial-who-couldn’t-give-much-of-a-shit note.  (No, it’s not “reticence,” it’s not “subtlety” – it’s a lack of range.)  But that’s not the only problem I had with this piece (which is filled to the brim with devils in the details that beg for repeated viewings) – e.g., I find Assayas’ editing – particularly, his sequence transitions – to be infuriating at times; that is, while I can appreciate narrative abbreviation, this is something else.  (Grade: C+)

Planetarium.  Let’s just say that one viewer’s “eerie wonder” is another’s “shapeless contemplation.”  Following a team of sister mediums through pre-WWII Paris, Zlotowski’s exercise in decadent meta-cinema shows promise in the first act, but never really delivers on that promise.  Even so, Planetarium is more interesting than anything else Portman has done since Black Swan (2010).  (Grade: C)

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women.  I suppose it’s an interesting enough story to pique the interests of audiences in 2017 (the women who inspired the man who invented both the lie detector and the Wonder Woman character).  But I especially liked what writer/director Angela Robinson is doing here – appropriating such a traditional tone and feel attributable to contemporary biopics, while drawing upon a certain aesthetic associated with superhero origin stories – to mythologize such an unorthodox love triangle.  (Grade: B-)

Raw.  While heavy on the gore and the subtext (e.g., Freshman students being led on their hands and knees like a heard of sheep to … a rave!), this gender-inverted werewolf narrative left me oddly unaffected. It seemed to me and my companion like there was a lot to talk about, but we just weren’t that interested in doing so.  (Perhaps we shouldn’t have seen it at 10AM on a Sunday morning.)  (Grade: C+)

Rough Night.  Excruciatingly unfunny.  Honestly, if I never see Jillian Bell (“we need a younger Melissa McCarthy!” exclaimed the studio suit) in another movie, I will consider myself lucky.  (Grade: D-)

Snatched.  Wow, the public sure has turned on Amy Schumer. Sure, this kidnap caper is relatively forgettable, and the coupling of Schumer and long-lost legend Goldie Hawn is no dream team. But the first 10 minutes recalls some of the best of Schumer’s television work (is it feminist or post-feminist? I can’t get it straight), and it certainly passed the six-laugh test.  (Grade: C)

Spider-Man: Homecoming.  An above average MCU installment, enhanced by a distinct sense of charm, a wise choice to forego the standard origin stuff for a coming of age angle, clever casting (including, but not limited to, the Batman/Birdman himself, Michael Keaton), and for my money, the best mid-credits and end-credits sequences of the series … Seriously, you gotta stick around until all the credits have rolled.  (Grade: B-)

Split.  Without discounting the impressive performances all the way around, I am giving this one additional full letter grade just for the last 60 seconds.  (Grade: B+)

Super Dark Times.  Regarding the initial reviews/buzz, the DNA of director Kevin Phillips’ auspicious debut is more River’s Edge (1986) than Donnie Darko (2001).  I was certainly drawn in by the first act.  But in composing a narrative about the inexplicable, one needs to take care that the narrative itself doesn’t become inexplicable.  (Grade: B)

T2 Trainspotting.  To be sure, there is a certain benefit to watching Trainspotting (1996) and this sequel back to back (e.g., the parallels between the opening scenes).  That said, in pop art terms, any successful revisit of this rogues gallery of Scottish junkies would seem to necessitate striking a certain balance between (1) giving the fans what they want and (2) adding enough of its own meat to justify its existence.  What writer/director Danny Boyle gives the fans are plenty of callbacks, including an updated “Choose Life” speech; what he adds is a delicious source of drama/karma in the form of the would-be madame of Sick Boy’s dream bordello (Anjela Nedyalkova).  But in a sense, Boyle’s fundamental thematic question behind this anti-parable of betrayal and regret flies in the face of such a balancing act: how much can we really change who we are, even after 20 years?  And although Boyle should be credited for exploring that question (mostly) outside the well-trodden contexts of marriage and children, ultimately that exploration doesn’t cut very deep.  (Grade: B)

Train to Busan.  World War Z (2013) with a soul … not much more than that, though.  (Grade: B-)

Una.  While the performances are among the best of the year, and Benedict Andrews does an admirable job at cinematically adapting the play Blackbird in this feature debut, I suspect that this modern inversion of the Lolita narrative will find relatively fewer supporters in cinemas/on streaming than it did on the stage. That is, with most viewers coming to this with the constitutional disposition that someone like Mendelsohn’s Ray is no longer worthy of any consideration as a human being, it would be inherently difficult to appreciate the interactions in this two-hander. Moral and ethical considerations aside, my own reservations lie with the characters’ mixed, but limited, emotions consistently sparring to a draw – an aspect that ultimately turns this potentially provocative piece into a somewhat forgettable experience.  (Grade: B-)

War for the Planet of the Apes.  The title is a bit deceptive.  To its credit, setting aside its narrative bookends, the last installment of the Apes trilogy falls more squarely into road movie/prison break genres.  And as someone who is normally sniffy about CGI, I must confess that the architects of this franchise have taken the baton from the Lord of the Rings and really ran with it, elevating the technology to a new heights.  And to be sure, there are some really great “human” moments here showcasing that technology.  Yet as with each of the other installments, I was left a little cold – and a bit underwhelmed – by the piece as a whole.  (Grade: B-)

War Machine.  Beyond the fact that I personally find these late-career caricatures by Brad Pitt to be virtually unwatchable, this middling affair is a real disappointment coming from writer/director David Michôd (The Rover (2014), Animal Kingdom (2010)).   I would submit that any filmmaker who proposes to write/adapt yet another script along these thematically specific lines – whether based on a nonfiction bestseller or not – should be compelled to sit down and watch Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) and then write a 1,000-word essay on what they’re really adding to the conversation.  (Grade: C-)

War on Everyone. As much as I’m tempted to dismiss this as John Michael McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, I wouldn’t want to insult his brother.  (Grade: D+)

Wind River.  With this more sober and subtle follow-up to Hell or High Water (2016), screenwriter (and now director) Taylor Sheridan attempts to traverse the treacherous trajectory between creating an effective genre film (murder mystery/revenge) and raising social awareness (of the unaccounted for disappearances of Native American women on reservations). I want to like this film: the milieu is both familiar and unique; the performances (from A-listers Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen to relative unknowns Kelsey Chow and Apesanahkwat) are all above average; and the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is right on point. But although I am no fan of film criticism that does little more than tally up the characters’ race/ethnicity/gender for political correctness, in this instance, I struggle with finding a legitimate narrative basis for casting a white man as the film’s chief protagonist – and Zen tracker/hunter – on the icy and isolated Wind River Indian Reservation. That is, as written, Renner’s Fish & Wildlife Service agent comes across less as a bridge between two cultures (vis-a-vis Olsen’s FBI investigator) – as was probably intended – and more as an honorary native.  (Grade: C+)

The Wizard of Lies.  Director Barry Levinson’s Wizard of Lies is rather underwhelming, much like the scope of the post-arrest revelations by its subject matter, fraudster Bernie Madoff (Robert DeNiro).  One of the principle hurdles I have with biopics in general arises when I know a bit too much about the subject matter – that is, I often have a hard time accepting the premises of a dramatic retelling.  In the case of Wizard of Lies, the difficult premise Levinson wants us to accept (as opposed to simply raising the issue) is that neither Madoff’s wife of five decades, nor his educated sons who worked in management capacities at his insular investment firm, were aware that Madoff was perpetrating the largest and longest Ponzi schemes in history until the eve of the day they turned him in to authorities.  At the time it was first unfolding, I was keeping up on the story, as I had a few clients affected by the scandal, and to me, the Madoff family’s pre-arrest actions (barely touched upon here) reeked of attempts at plausible deniability.  To paint them as victims is just a bridge too far.  (Grade: B)

Wonder Woman.  When I was 7 years old, I found myself wanting to tune in to each and every episode of Wonder Woman.  And I wasn’t sure why – I mean, it wasn’t that great a TV show.  But looking back, I’m sure my hypothetical psychiatrist would have a simple answer to that question: Lynda Carter, first instance of sexual attraction.  OK, yeah, TMI … To add some further disclosure as to where I’m coming from though, I really wasn’t impressed with DC’s debut of Wonder Woman in last year’s Batman v. Superman.  Frankly, it seemed like character inflation for the sake of glossing over a weak narrative (a common problem with superhero sequels), and frankly, I just didn’t recognize her in any meaningful sense.  And THEN there were the trailers to this standalone movie, which evoked the retro-war milieu of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – a film that I also did not care for … All that said, Patty Jenkin’s cinematic foray into the DC universe – well, at least the first two thirds – was a pleasant surprise that reminded me (in the best of ways) of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978).  Robin Wright is a weighty choice for the mother-figure in the other worldly introduction (like Marlon Brando).  Gal Gadot brings a fantastic sense of strength and innocence to humanity’s would-be savior, Diana Prince (like Christopher Reeve).  And for my money, when it comes to first reveal awesomeness, the trench scene in this film ranks right up there with the skyscraper “You’ve got me, who’s got you?!” sequence (eliciting a couple of “woo!”-s in the screening I attended).  Unfortunately, this one also gets docked a whole grade for the painfully familiar CGI overload of the last 20-25 minutes, where it feels like the reins were abruptly handed back to Zack Snyder … Still, I can’t wait to see how MCU/Bree Larson respond.  (Grade: B)

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