STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of sci-fi action and violence)
Released: December 15, 2017
Runtime: 152 minutes
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels

A long time ago, George Lucas created the mythology of our time. Forty years later, Rian Johnson adds to the canon and even expands it, conjuring displays of the Force never before seen or imagined, yet this eighth episode stops short of truly fulfilling its destiny.

At 2 1/2 hours, The Last Jedi is the longest entry of the Star Wars franchise. It by no means should be. Fortunately, the film’s final act is its strength, an epic stretch that stands well with the best that the saga has to offer, but the first ninety-plus minutes often feel like they’re idling on thrusters.

Episodic in nature, with placeholder drama that lacks propulsive urgency, the plot-heavy threads often forget to explore the people in them, or to deepen their bonds in convincing ways. Too often, the characters are in service of the story rather than the other way around.

The big exception, thankfully, is Rey and Kylo Ren. Their growing connection (made passionate, kinetic, and unpredictable by Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, in the film’s two best performances) is the main through-line, just as it should be.

That duo is who (and what) Johnson is clearly most interested in – narratively, emotionally, and thematically – utilizing whatever’s going on between them to blur the line between the light and the dark, and wondering if that’s where the future is headed.

Johnson’s more misguided with the rest of the ensemble, first in believing they should be given nearly equal screen time. They shouldn’t, especially when the story’s gravitational, er, force so obviously swirls around its young Jedi and Sith. As constituted, this movie begs to keep going back to Rey and Ren.

Luke Skywalker is a central figure between the two, but Johnson belabors the recluse master’s cynical disillusionment. Mark Hamill doesn’t fit as comfortably back into Luke’s skin as, say, Harrison Ford did into Han Solo’s. More strained, he lacks the gravitas to fully embody Luke’s angst-ridden soul, although he does have his moments (particularly when feeling shame and regret).

Carrie Fisher is given a spectacular moment before being sidelined, suggesting intended potential for Leia in Episode IX that will now, tragically, go unfulfilled.

Johnson doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in Poe or Finn either, or the new characters they encounter, beyond the archetypes they can fit, how they can serve the plot’s mechanics, or the comic relief they can provide. Indeed, Rian tries too hard for laughs, taking the air out of moments that should remain sincere, or bated. At times, it borders on self-parody.

And Domhnall Gleeson‘s General Hux? It’s a thin comic caricature that makes one wish Eddie Redmayne could pull a Christopher Plummer reshoot and amp Hux with whatever Redmayne was doing in Jupiter Ascending.

Benicio del Toro has the most fun of the newbies, but Laura Dern’s character is needlessly mysterious and confusing. Our impression of her is largely filtered through the instincts of one of our heroes; when that can’t be trusted, it just feels like we’re being jerked around.

Speaking of plot, the whole story feels narrow, not expansive. In spite of all that’s going on, events largely stay contained in two or three small corners of the galaxy, not zipping and sprawling between various planets or across star systems.

Even so, there’s a lot of war in these star wars, and there are junctures where Johnson seems like he just might burn the whole mythology down. It’s fitting, perhaps, that in the same year of the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary, Johnson’s approach to the Force would be so, well, Protestant.

It all leads to some ballsy choices and satisfying surprises. Yet for as exciting as these risks are on paper, and to watch, they don’t resonate with nearly the power intended.

And here’s why.

Rian Johnson is a smart storyteller, but J.J. Abrams – who reset the Star Wars standard with The Force Awakens – is a gifted myth-maker. Abrams possesses the instinctive intangibles to effectively build mythos, to summon its overwhelming weight and vigor. Abrams wields the power of myth; Johnson merely constructs it.

It goes beyond plotting. There’s magic in Abrams’ execution. His strengths are in knowing when to use sentiment, how to earn it, create mystery, and provoke genuine awe.

For Abrams, myth is more than lore. It’s something spiritual. For Johnson, it never gets past philosophical.

Look, The Last Jedi is fun, it’s clever, it’s entertaining. It’s never prequel-embarrassing. Some turns are intriguing, others surprising, a few shocking. But it’s never inspiring.

It’s not enough for a Star Wars movie to offer thrills; it must induce chills. The Last Jedi offers plenty of the former but rarely the latter, despite many moments designed to.

As a Rian Johnson fan I’m glad we got to see his Star Wars. The strengths of The Last Jedi rise even more on a second viewing, and Rian should do well with the new trilogy that Lucasfilm recently re-hired him to create.

But I’m glad J.J. is coming back to close this one out. Daisy Ridley said she cried tears of joy when she learned that Abrams was returning for Episode IX. Girl, hold my beer and pass the tissues.

THE DISASTER ARTIST (Movie Review)

FrancoDisaster
*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)
Released:  December 1, 2017 limited; expands December 8
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: James Franco
Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas

In the annals of the worst films ever made, The Room may very well be the masterpiece.

Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space certainly gives it a run for its money, but what both have in common are highly eccentric filmmakers. They live in our dimension but perceive it as if from another. Neither seems of this world.

Indeed, it’s fitting that Tommy Wiseau, the star and maker of The Room, would own globe-shaped tchotchkes labeled “Tommy’s Planet”, handing them out as if to stave off the obvious question “What planet are you from?”

The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, shares another distinction with Tim Burton’s loving tribute Ed Wood: the directors who made both biopics have a genuine affection for the peculiar filmmakers they’re exploring and the horrible movies that made them infamous. James Franco doesn’t mock Tommy Wiseau; he loves and respects him.

Franco, who directs this ode to the man behind the 2003 low budget catastrophe, plays Wiseau, an independently – and inexplicably – wealthy man from San Francisco. His drug-hazed persona (despite being narcotic free) and choppy Eastern Eurobloc accent make for a bizarre combination, as if an alien has inhabited someone’s body and is trying to affect human behavior, but with clueless confidence.

His unknown origins and endless bankroll make him even more of a mystery.

Wiseau had a specific fascination for American culture and arts, theatre and film. In the late 1990s, Wiseau and his new acting class friend Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) set out to Hollywood to make their dreams come true. For three years, their meager talents ran into a brick wall of failure.

Then in 2001, sparked by a random exasperation by Sestero, Wiseau was inspired to make a movie himself, and for them. And so he did. The final result was The Room, a corny, awkward, yet weirdly sincere melodrama that can be best described as soft core skinemax meets After School Special, in which Wiseau’s good-guy Johnny is betrayed by those close to him.

Wiseau honestly believed he was making something akin to the best of Tennessee Williams or Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, The Room has endured in a different way: as a cult classic that has played regularly in local L.A. movie houses for over a decade, at special screenings and midnight showings, complete with Rocky Horror levels of audience participation.

If you’ve seen The Room (and I have), it’s easy to see what Franco was drawn to. Once you get past the cheesy aesthetics and juvenile drama, you can’t help but see Wiseau’s passion behind it, and in it.

This wasn’t an ego trip. This was personal, as personal as any auteur’s masterwork. As one character puts it, for as odd as it may seem, this is essentially Tommy’s own story. It’s his view of how he’s tried to embrace the world, but how the world has thrown cynicism and ridicule right back at him.

Franco embodies Wiseau at method levels, not just in voice and physical affectations (although certainly those things) but psychologically and emotionally too. That’s particularly true in the conviction Franco brings to Wiseau’s paranoia; it comes from pain and rejection, not psychosis. A lesser actor, or one not in kindred spirit, would see Wiseau as crazy. Franco rightly sees someone who, while being on his own undetectable wavelength, is heartfelt and misunderstood.

In casting his brother Dave as Sestero, James isn’t falling back on nepotism; it’s a perfect choice for a friendship that becomes a brotherhood, particularly through trials and conflicts. What the Franco brothers obviously share has the right, specific chemistry needed to imbue this unique bond. Franco also peppers the ensemble with stars within his collaborative circle (like Seth Rogan) and others beyond it to make this even more entertaining.

As a director, Franco doesn’t bring near the rigor of craft that he does to his performance, but he doesn’t need to. A raw, loose docu-style fits. As a singular character study, however, and a behind-the-scenes look at how something so stupefying came to be, Franco tells a compelling, endearing story. He does so while also maintaining Wiseau’s enigmatic mystique, astutely avoiding trying to explain or expose it.

The Disaster Artist has the honesty to say that believing in yourself isn’t always enough to make your dreams come true, but it does show us that if you never give up on your dreams, the pursuit could lead to receiving a gift – and making an impact – that you never could’ve imagined. A life story that exemplifies that truth, no matter how abnormal or out of the ordinary, is a portrait worth painting, especially by the right artist. This one is, and was.

The world may have betrayed Tommy Wiseau, but James Franco didn’t.

MUDBOUND (Movie Review)

mudbound
*** out of ****
Rated R
(for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity)
Released:  November 17, 2017
Runtime: 134 minutes
Director: Dee Rees
Starring: Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks

Streaming on Netflix

My review of Mudbound, for The Tulsa Voice. Set in 1940s Mississippi, it’s the story of two families – one white, one black – working one stretch of land, and the racism that still divided the nation in post-WWII America.

Quality filmmaking that takes few risks, Mudbound is “compelling but not daring” yet still “boasts stunning images”, and “its power is undeniable.”

To read my full review, click here.

WONDER WHEEL (Movie Review)

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** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic content including some sexuality, language, and smoking)
Released:  December 1, 2017 limited; December 15 wide
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi, Steve Schrirripa, Tony Sirico, David Krumholtz

A movie that looks this good shouldn’t be such a pain to watch.

One of the most visually stunning films of the year, or past several, Wonder Wheel can’t be marginalized as Woody Allen on autopilot. And yet the story that unfolds within that colorful eye-popping landscape is just a rehash of Allen’s greatest thematic hits, with a cast that (except for one) strains helplessly to make the material compelling.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Production Designer Santo Loquasto do some truly spectacular work, but nobody else does.

Set against the backdrop of a 1950s Coney Island amusement park, Wonder Wheel has all the Woody Allen tropes. Infidelity, regrets, and existential angst. Fate, coincidence, and destiny. Extreme moral compromise and “What’s the point?” philosophizing. There’s even a love triangle involving a man falling for his lover’s step-daughter. Talk about writing what you know.

Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a former actress now unhappily married to carousel grunt Humpty (Jim Belushi). His estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), Ginny’s step-daughter, shows up on the run from mobsters employed by her violent husband.

The real complication, however, occurs when Carolina catches the eye of Ginny’s lover Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard seeking his masters while dreaming of becoming an important playwright.

The vibrant images – with color that saturates the screen, often washed in golden-hour amber hues – mask the script’s problems, but only for awhile. Eventually, the generic machinations wear thin, as do the unconvincing performances. Timberlake’s too self-consciously suave and earnest, and Belushi is asked to yell too much, but it’s Winslet that grates.

A high-strung harpy, Winslet’s Ginny is another Blanche Dubois archetype from Allen, following Cate Blanchett’s deserved Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine. All anxiety and no depth, Ginny isn’t nearly as well-written as Jasmine was, each a streetcar with ill-fated desire. Winslet plays to the rafters rather than the close-up, exaggerating Ginny’s bipolar irrationality beyond proportion.

More problematic is Winslet’s excessive control over every mood swing. Blanchett’s Jasmine was genuinely fragile, always on the verge (or in the middle) of a nervous breakdown. Winslet’s neurosis simply becomes increasingly unbearable. Allen didn’t make Ginny sympathetic, but Winslet could have. Instead, she simply doubles-down on being an unconscionable, amoral shrill.

As the step-daughter foil, Juno Temple’s grounded performance stands out in an otherwise overwrought ensemble. There’s a sincerity to Carolina, and depth, that’s entirely lacking elsewhere, with a range of nuances that elicit empathy. Temple seems to be of this particular world, and in every moment, while everyone else is merely playing a part.

The real kicker: Allen has the gall to make Mickey, his philandering stand-in narrator, serve as the film’s voice of moral clarity. It’s the most blatant shade he’s ever thrown at ex Mia Farrow, and it’s an ugly look, especially for a guy who should just let sleeping peccadilloes lie.

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OFCC Podcast: Episode 17 – COCO, JUSTICE LEAGUE, WONDER & More (PODCAST)

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Episode 17: Justice (be)League(rd), Cozy Coco, & Tear-Jerking Wonder

For this edition of The OFCC Podcast, available on iTunes, our roundtable of critics from the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle return to discuss the latest in movies for the latter half of November 2017.

You can also stream Episode 17 by clicking here.

On this episode, the critics include:

DISCUSSIONS
Justice League (1:24)
Coco (18:05)
Wonder (26:24)
Last Flag Flying (34:00)

Click here to subscribe through iTunes, and look for the November 29, 2017 episode.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (Movie Review)

ThreeBillboards
** out of ****
Rated R
(for violence, strong language throughout, and some sexual references)
Released:  November 10, 2017 limited; expands through December
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Zeljko Ivanek, Abbie Cornish, Sandy Martin

Welcome to Hollywood’s version of Trump’s America.

The rural Midwest in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri plays like the result of research done exclusively at coastal cocktail parties. The script compiles the best, most venomous quips about those rubes from flyover country, then constructs a heroine that embodies all of the bitter, violent impulses those elites would, if given the chance free of consequence, love to inflict upon Trump voters.

Three Billboards isn’t a movie. It’s a premise with caricatures, ones that exist primarily as targets and proxies for vicarious liberal venting.

The local cops – a batch of white alcoholic short-tempered racists – haven’t solved a seven-month old case of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered. The victim’s mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), is fed up with the cavalier disregard, so she rents space on three sequential billboards on the outskirts of town to publically call out Sheriff William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

It does the trick, causing controversy and a media storm, but the conservative (a.k.a. backwoods) yokels are on the side of Willoughby and his dufus officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Even the local priest panders and enables. It’s a town full of deplorables who likely cling to their guns and Bibles.

This keeps the angry, hostile Mildred as an underdog against an entrenched misogynist patriarchy. The screenplay provides her with plenty of opportunities to tell them off, in perfectly scripted fashion, with the kind of verbal takedowns that Julia Roberts patently chews up and spits out. When that’s not enough, Mildred strikes out violently – or worse. Even a hick high schooler isn’t safe from a sucker kick to the crotch.

What little support Mildred does get ends up being too progressively perfect, from a Latino financial benefactor to an out-of-town African-American cop brought in to straighten things up. This isn’t a compelling example of diverse casting; it’s agenda driven spite via identity politick comeuppance.

Attempts are made to humanize Willoughby and Dixon, but for the sheriff it’s a cheap device, not a complex characterization, and for Dixon it strains credulity. These are just a few of the forced contrivances in this ridiculously false melodrama.

The premise is potent enough on its own terms; it shouldn’t require such cynical excess. But instead of settling in after a provocative setup, Three Billboards just gets more preposterous as it goes.

Director Martin McDonagh hails from London, a filmmaker known for dark crime-based comedies like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Small town America is clearly foreign to him as he stacks it high with redneck clichés. While not specifically political, Three Billboards works as a parable for our nation’s culture wars but told strictly by one side of the conflict, with derisive, dismissive condescension.

It’s no surprise McDonagh pursued McDormand for the lead. He clearly wants his film to feel like one made by her husband and brother-in-law Joel and Ethan Coen, but McDonagh approaches his material from a simplistic posture. The Coens examine human sin with humility, even soberity. McDonagh, on the other hand, mocks it with pride.

He even hires longtime Coens composer Carter Burwell to make the tone as Coen-esque as possible but, along with the superb images framed in Ben Davis‘s cinematography (superior to most of his Marvel franchise work), McDonagh’s aesthetic feels borrowed, not inspired.

Three Billboards isn’t challenging or nuanced filmmaking, but it thinks it is. That lack of self-awareness makes the whole endeavor increasingly obnoxious. Key turns and plot progressions rely entirely on convenient coincidence or unearned shifts. The more leeway I tried to give it, the more insulted I felt.

What’s particularly unfortunate is that McDormand’s character is so perfectly timed for this cultural moment of Male Pig whistleblowing. I just couldn’t buy this specific movie that provided it.

There’s an interesting story to be told here. A worthy one. A relevant one. But with broad, flat characters and a SJW chip on its shoulder, it’s not this one.

CASABLANCA at 75

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Casablanca is a movie about both fate and choices.

It’s fitting, then, that its journey to the screen was a mix of fate and choices.

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, finally bringing the United States into the Second World War. One day later, on December 8th, a story analyst in the Warner Bros development department received a manuscript to an unproduced play. It was called “Everybody Comes To Rick’s”.

Many of the story’s elements instantly jumped out to the analyst as being eerily relevant. Perhaps chief among them was the cynical indifference embodied by its lead character, Rick. Like America herself, Rick was ambivalent to take sides in the war. Set in the summer of 1941, the story takes place at a time when the United States was still neutral and unengaged. As Rick puts it, “They’re asleep all over America.” But like America, Rick would eventually be forced to wake up.

The analyst’s final report enthusiastically recommended that this story be immediately put into production, saying:

  • “Excellent melodrama! Colorful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, and sophisticated hokum. A box office natural for Bogart, or perhaps Cagney in an out-of-the-usual role, and Mary Astor.”

While that description reads like a great summary of the film we’ve all come to know and love, the play manuscript went through an extensive overhaul in its adaptation. Using the play’s narrative as the basic spine, producer Hal Wallis hired four different screenwriters to mold it into the story that he wanted to tell, with the themes that were important to him.

First were the Epstein twins, Julius J. and Philip G., a brother duo with a strength for comedy and experience working for Orson Welles on his radio productions. Then came Howard Koch; he was brought in to beef up the script’s dramatic stakes and social consciousness. And finally, writer Casey Robinson developed the romance, although he remained uncredited.

To bring these writing voices together, Wallis hired director Michael Curtiz. Primarily known as an action filmmaker with big hits like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Curtiz was a bit of a gamble for something with deeper thematic ambitions.

But after legendary director William Wyler turned the gig down, Wallis tapped Curtiz because of his inventiveness with camera movement and lighting, use of visual symbolism, and the ability to blend diverse styles into a cohesive aesthetic.

This would launch Curtiz’s career into another realm, leading to further successes like Mildred Pierce and the enduring holiday classic White Christmas.

The production, while not tumultuous, was in a constant state of flux, starting with the last minute casting of the young, mostly unknown Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. Even the lead, Humphrey Bogart, was a replacement for the originally announced Ronald Reagan.

Primarily known as a baddie, Bogart was a risk for a romantic lead, but no one could’ve made Rick – a tough guy wrecked by a broken heart – this real, or iconic.

More notable were ongoing daily rewrites throughout production, including several passes at the now classic ending. In fact, the writers gave Bogart a line as a nod to this challenge, when Rick says to Ilsa of their romance, “It’s still a story without an ending.”

The shoot wrapped late summer of 1942 and was being prepped for a January 1943 release. But then, current events triggered a rush in post-production to make a premiere date of November 26th, 1942. This enabled Casablanca‘s debut as to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa, the region of the film’s setting.

Casablanca went on to win three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Curtiz, and Best Adapted Screenplay. And for the past 75 years, as time has gone by, we’ve been playing it again and again and again.

Watching it today, we can see visual motifs that future directors would later emulate, notable among them Steven Spielberg in his Indiana Jones movies. Curtiz’s use of dolly – starting on one subject, then tracking, and eventually ending on another subject – is a staple of Spielberg’s entire career.

There are also wonderful visual cues that foreshadow. For example, the first reveal of Rick is of him playing chess; the final act, fittingly, is entirely driven by Rick as he plays a complex chess game with everyone’s lives and fates.

We can also see how its themes remain relevant even to this very day, with its story of refugees fleeing a war torn land, hoping to find safety in America.

But perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in our contemporary viewing – and this point can’t be stressed enough – is that Casablanca was made and seen during World War II, not after it.

At the time of the film’s release, the fate of the war and the world was very uncertain. Casablanca played in theaters 18 months prior to the D-Day invasion, well before that crucial turning point. A Nazi Europe wasn’t just a possible future; it was a present reality.

So when we see expressions of patriotism in this movie, ones that still get many choked up today, we must remember that these were portrayed in very uncertain times, making them all the more inspiring and substantial. The “dueling anthems” scene especially was a true act of courage, resolve, and defiance.

The late, great film critic Roger Ebert defined “a classic” as being a movie he couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing again. He then added that, for him, Casablanca fits that definition perhaps more than any other movie in history.

Listed at #2 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the greatest American films of all time, second only to Citizen Kane, this enduring work celebrates its 75th Anniversary as one of the greatest films ever made.

Here’s looking at you, Casablanca.