Film Critique Fridays - The Commuter by M. Glenn Gore

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Mild SPOILERS ahead.

January has, for as long as I can recall, always been something of a dumping ground for the movies the studios have little to no faith in, so much so that I'll admit to being guilty of getting hyped while watching a trailer for something only to have those aspirations dashed at the reveal the flick in question has a first week of January release. And while that attitude might seem callous and dismissive, just so you think I'm not a complete monster, here are a few of the cinematic gems that have been regurgitated onto the silver screens of Januaries past: Biker Boyz, Elektra, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne, In the Name of the King, basically anything else by Uwe Boll, and this masterpiece of filmmaking:

                             Though, in its defense, this made more money than I'll probably see in my lifetime.

                            Though, in its defense, this made more money than I'll probably see in my lifetime.

You get the idea. So when I saw the first and only trailer for The Commuter, the most recent entry in the seemingly endless procession of Liam Neeson punches people in __________ movies, I already wasn't particularly enthralled. On the one hand, it was being directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who managed to breathe new, much-needed life into the Shit-There-Are-Sharks-After-Me genre with 2016's nail-biter The Shallows. But on the other, it was coming out in the middle of January, which is as much a sign of a DOA as, I don't know, showing up dead on someone's doorstep somewhere, I guess.

Our story, such as it is, follows Neeson's Michael McCauley, a former police officer turned insurance salesman turned unemployed father of one child and two mortgages when the soulless, dead-eyed corporate overlords at his company eject him after years of faithful diligence. He's a stand-up guy, a decent Joe. He's a good husband and father, he has drinks at the local pub with his old cop buddy Alex Murphy--

                                                                                            No, not that one!

                                                                                           No, not that one!

--and he hates the system, man. All those one-percenters, those hedge fund babies and Wall Street types who make their way by standing on the shoulders of the working stiffs - Michael McCauley's got no love for those cats. And neither should you. Really. The movie is very clear about that.

He's been riding the same train for ten years, exchanging niceties with the same faces day in and day out, but today is different. With the deadline for his kid's tuition looming and unable to tell his wife about his newly doled-out financial misfortune, it appears all hope is lost until Joanna, played by the ethereal Vera Farmiga, sits across from him and offers him the solution to all his worldly woes: $100,000 if he can locate a single passenger aboard the train who is carrying something of extreme importance before they reach the end of the line.

McCauley accepts, quickly learning that failure to accomplish his task will result in the loss of innocent lives, and success will mean a horrible end to the passenger in question. It doesn't take long for this little game to spiral into a full-on conspiracy of massive, career-ending and prison term-sentencing proportions. Admittedly, I found myself roped into the narrative, which was pleasantly surprising. I like anything where a bunch of people are stuck in one place and one of them is not who they seem.

                                                            Added points if one of those people is Kurt Russell.

                                                           Added points if one of those people is Kurt Russell.

So McCauley starts to question the passengers, which, not at all shockingly, leads to some predictable and irritating foolishness, some legitimately tense moments, and two downright righteous hand-to-hand fight scenes, the latter of which is played as a single take. Now, here's where I have to give Collet-Serra some props. The fights are very cool, and while the editing and camerawork throughout the rest of the feature borders on nausea-inducing, here it works really well. Liam Neeson is about 138 years old, so it takes a fair measure of cinematic sleight of hand to trick the eye into believing he's still got his now-trademark "particular set of skills," and Commuter largely delivers that.

When he's not fighting someone, however, the film suffers because, for reasons passing understanding, Collet-Serra wants to shoot everything with an apparently The Shakier The Better-brand handheld camera, which is just not a good choice. Look. I get it. I understand the why. Handheld gives the viewer a feeling of being there. It's organic and inclusive, and it makes all the sense in the world when it's two guys caught in the throes of a desperate, live or die duel, but when it's two guys sitting at the bar, for the love of God, mount the camera.

On the train, I felt like I was in the  middle of those fights. In the bar scene, I felt like I was being strangled by a guy trying to watch two other guys drink a beer. Hell! Paul Greengrass would have been reaching for the Dramamine during some of those scenes.

And another thing. This has happened twice this week, once in The Commuter and again in an overblown Indian actioner called Tiger Zinda Hai. I'm no director, but I'm pretty good at comprehending both the need for and the proper execution of rising action, so if your film features a series of escalating fight sequences and goes out of its way to build to a final one between your hero and your villain, your last fight cannot be less impressive than the two that preceded it. And it damn sure better not be shorter! 

   Learn when to stop, though. I don't wanna see none o' this shit.

  Learn when to stop, though. I don't wanna see none o' this shit.

I also have to take this movie to task over its reliance on CGI. No, on its reliance on bad CGI. We all remember that scene from the end of the first Mission: Impossible wherein a computer-generated and conspicuously taller than we all know he is in real life Tom Cruise is thrown by the shockwave off an exploding helicopter onto the nose of a speeding bullet train. Well, there's a moment like that in The Commuter, inevitably positioned near the film's end because no movie about a hijacked train should end without said train running wholly out of every conceivable metric of control, but whereas M:I had special effects done by the illustrious computer wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, Commuter features effects by, I don't know, Bob's Bargain Basement or something not much unlike. They're almost distractingly jarring, and sadly go a long way to pulling me out of the reality of the film, which is saying something when you take into account just how absurd things get by the Third Act.

All in all, though, it's a better than average ride (sorry), even if only slightly better. The film takes its time with a couple of philosophies, nearly to the point of ad nauseam. One of which is this notion that doing the right thing ultimately leads to an unfulfilling life, a life where you're assured to be trampled on by the powers that be and left behind by those out for themselves, ie. everyone else. The only way to actively combat this is to become the taker, lest everything you've earned be taken from you. It's a sad conceit that lies squarely at the heart of the film and in McCauley's 100-minute dilemma.

The other, brought to stark, embarrassingly blatant light via its shameless, Spartacus-esque finale, is a message about standing up for the strangers in our lives, a hot topic in today's political climate, which seeks everyday to demonize more and more of the so-called outsiders in both our country and the world at large, and while the sentiment is valid and even welcome, I wish the movie had found a less pointed way to relay it to me. The Commuter is a lot of things, but subtle isn't one of them.

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Film Critique Fridays - Molly's Game by M. Glenn Gore

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Mild SPOILERS ahead.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I am an enormous fan of Aaron Sorkin's writing. A Few Good Men, the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated 1992 film based on the 1989 play of the same name, would serve as my introduction to his signature brand of often imitated but never duplicated whip-smart, switchblade-sharp, mile-a-minute dialogue, and to say that I was hooked from that moment forward would be an understatement. The American President would follow, and while this spirited, beloved, and blissfully optimistic fantasy set against the backdrop of a Washington DC that sadly never existed lacked the thematic heft and powerhouse performances of its forerunner, it would soon herald the coming of The West Wing, a weightier, more sprawling exploration of that same universe, which remains some of the most consistently compelling television I've ever witnessed.

I backtracked from West Wing to Sports Night, a two-season, half-hour sitcom chronicling the behind-the-scenes and on-camera antics of a "2nd rate sports show on a 3rd rate network", and that's about when I learned, having no discernible interest (at the time) in sports or politics, that Sorkin's gift was that he could make me care about things I routinely and customarily didn't. He would end up successfully doing this again and again, making me genuinely eager to learn more about how the US secretly supplied arms to the Soviet-opposed Afghan Mujahideen in 2007's Charlie Wilson's War, how Facebook was created in 2010's The Social Network, how baseball teams were built with 2011's Moneyball, and how much of a dick Steve Jobs was in the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs.

How was he able to do this? Well, for one, he has never lacked for exceptional actors. His characters have been portrayed by everyone from Brad Pitt and Jack Nicholson to Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. It's because of Sorkin that I will forever adore the likes of Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford. The two most common attributes that repeatedly draw me to his characters are they're 1) brilliant and 2) passionate. You can count on this every time. I have a love of watching people, heroes and villains alike, be good at what they do, and his characters always are.

So, when I heard Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain, two of the most talented and best looking examples of natural selection alive today, would be tag-teaming not only his newest script but his directorial debut, I didn't even care to ask what it was about. I was all in.

                            I'd have slept outside the theater overnight in a tent to get tickets for this.

                           I'd have slept outside the theater overnight in a tent to get tickets for this.

Molly's Game is based on the 2014 memoir Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom, and tells the true story of a world-ranked downhill skier and soon-to-be target of a massive FBI investigation who ends up operating what has got to be the planet's most exclusive high-dollar poker game when an injury dashes her (and her father's) dreams of Olympic gold. And while this is the kind of subject matter I'd normally thumb my nose at (rich people being rich for no other reason than because they're rich), as with everything from Aaron Sorkin what's come before, I found myself intrigued by it, gravitating toward it, and ultimately being won over by it. Simply stated, it did not disappoint.

First and foremost, let's not kid ourselves. Jessica Chastain can act. She hurls herself into the dialogue, which calls for her to both understand and convincingly expound on the most intricate details of downhill skiing as well as speak fluent poker, a game so replete with rules, terms, and jargon that it's practically its own language, and she does this with seemingly effortless command. Not to be outdone, Idris Elba, who plays Molly's lawyer Charles Jaffey, is no less remarkable in his role. He takes on her case, at first begrudgingly, but it isn't long before he finds himself giving a full-throated defense of her character and her actions before the law that is reminiscent of Tom Cruise's own impassioned turn as Daniel Kaffee in the courtroom masterwork A Few Good Men.

                                                                               Seriously, go watch it. I'll wait.

                                                                              Seriously, go watch it. I'll wait.

Their machine-gun fire-like back and forth is so composed and well-executed it rings like music in your ear, and I couldn't help but notice I had a grin from ear to ear every time they were on screen together.

Kevin Costner puts in severe work as Molly's father Larry Bloom, who settles neatly into the long, storied pantheon of overbearing and demanding Sorkin father figures, a theme that occurs so often in his work that I sometimes wonder about his relationship with his own father. Costner's Bloom is a gruff, terse, and seemingly unfeeling taskmaster, who is more devastated by his only daughter's inability to net him a gold medal than even she is. Their dynamic is tense, and grows only tenser as the film progresses. In a movie made up of excellent scenes, theirs are my favorite.

Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd, and the kid who plays Steve Harrington on Stranger Things all show up and are thoroughly entertaining, even if the latter is only there momentarily.

As this is Sorkin's first time in the director's chair, I want to talk about how he did, and the answer is a resounding, fine. He did fine. It was fine. It's fine. Really. It's fine. Listen, he knows his way around a typewriter in a way few people do, and for that, we can give him a pass, which sounds rude, I know. But he's just not there yet. He's definitely on his way, believe me, and I'll be there to continue supporting his efforts with each new outing. I'm eager to see his skills as a director improve, his eye mature, and his ability to inspire only the best performances from his actors to develop and grow.

I say all of this because Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is akin to his contemporary David Mamet's and, yes, even Shakespeare's. His words are, like music, painstakingly arranged and meticulously scripted. They do not just offer themselves to you, and it isn't enough - not nearly enough - to simply recite what's on the page. No. Sorkin's dialogue is not for the faint of heart. You have to want it.

Have you ever watched someone perform Shakespeare without a complete comprehension of the language? It's excrutiating, like listening to someone read a tongue they don't speak.

                                                                 You thought I forgot about this, but I didn't.

                                                                You thought I forgot about this, but I didn't.

The words are all there, the pronunciations may even be accurate, but the result is a bloodless affair bereft of the proper tone, inflection, weight, and understanding. And while Elba and Chastain both put their considerably well-honed shoulders into the reading, without the experienced hand of a more seasoned director, their best, while grand still, sadly doesn't achieve the caliber of, say, Jeff Daniels' merciless indictment of America's so-called greatness in the pilot episode of The Newsroom, or Jack Nicholson's explosive repudiation of Tom Cruise in the climax of A Few Good Men, or Jesse Eisenberg's glib, hate-filled condescension of his former colleagues the Winklevoss Twins at his deposition in The Social Network, or Michael Fassbender's supremely satisfying final showdown with Seth Rogen in Steve Jobs. The words are there, but the power is lacking, if only slightly.

That said, from a narrative standpoint, Molly's Game is ambitiously constructed, at all times ricocheting back and forth from heavily-narrated, lingo-laden flashback poker games and angry family dinners wherein she and her father vie viciously for each others' respect, to modern day exchanges in Jaffey's office, to the courtroom itself where Molly's future hangs in the balance, and finally to a moving scene on a snow-covered park bench that is easily the most emotionally impactful moment in the film. It is grand cinema that does not presume to talk down to you, and precisely the type of intelligent, confident filmmaking there can never be enough of.

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Film Critique Fridays - Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle by M. Glenn Gore

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Here, there be SPOILERS!

I have a confession. I was never a fan of the 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams, and while it's quite possible I could stand to give it another try to see if my distaste for it has waned over the years, I don't really want to. Old as it is and long ago as it was, I still recall the kids (Kirsten Dunst and... somebody else) being irritating, David Alan Grier ascending to near-Ruby Rod levels of abrasive, and the special effects being just shy of wretched. I have no recollection of how well-executed the story was, and while the late Robin Williams was a national treasure, I think even then I was already starting to burn out on his trademark brand of improvisational mayhem. I know it's a mostly beloved romp, and maybe I was just in a foul mood that year, but I swear all I have left of that movie is a bad taste in my mouth.

Fast forward twenty-two years, where we're clearly at it again, having apparently learned nothing. This only-kinda-sorta sequel to the Joe Johnston movie based on Chris Van Allsburg's original novel brings the eponymous family pasttime into the... late 20th Century, I guess, by updating it from tabletop boardgame to a 16-bit cartridge videogame for a system that never existed. And frankly, the only reason that stands out to me is because Sony has never supported cartridge technology. Truth be told, I kinda need Sony to get over themselves. Their incestuous love of their own brand does more harm in the films they distribute than good. This new story takes place in 2017, yet our main characters, high school teenagers one and all, conspicuously only use Sony smartphones, which is, at very best, difficult to swallow.

But I digress. This newest adventure, unimaginatively titled Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (complete with obnoxious use of 1987 Guns N' Roses' anthem of the same name), is directed by Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and follows four disparate stereotypes who've each been given detention for various unremarkable reasons. While cleaning the high school basement as part of their punishment, the kids run afoul of the dusty console and are immediately warped into the world of the game, and if you think this is all starting to sound vaguely familiar, you wouldn't be wrong.

                                            In all honesty, a movie of this probably would have been worse.

                                           In all honesty, a movie of this probably would have been worse.

Once inside the game, our four players discover they are each controlling the character avatar they selected, complete with skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Spencer, formerly the awkward nerd and game geek of the group, becomes aircraft carrier-sized adventurer and rogue Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); Fridge (that's really his name), the resident dumb jock, who lands both himself and Spencer in detention for having him do his homework for him, turns into diminutive zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart); vapid, self-obsessed alpha girl Bethany learns she is now middle-aged, overweight cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black); and Martha, whose only crime seems to be that she's kind of a jerk to her gym teacher, finds she is now Ruby Roundhouse, "Killer of Men", a Lara Croft-inspired commando in Daisy Dukes.

In an amusing twist that I kinda wish hadn't been in the trailer, each player becomes the game archetype most diametrically opposed to their real-world personality, which would be a blast and a half if the movie was capable of even a modicum of sincerity. Even for a kids' film, and honestly, that's a hard case to make when you factor in all the penis humor, this thing is embarrassingly inauthentic. Someone should have informed the many, many screenwriters responsible for this that you can't pull a Breakfast Club without your main characters at least feeling believable, like they actually exist. Their dialogue is grating, and their attitudes are hyperbolic, making the whole thing feel less like an adult's attempt at writing kids and just adults who dislike kids writing about that disdain.

                                                                                    Yeah, that's about right.

                                                                                   Yeah, that's about right.

Even the moments where the characters look beyond their preconceived, surface notions of one another and realize they've misjudged - Oh my God, I can't even finish typing that. The script is not good. It's so forced. It's so facile and artificial, and, quite frankly, it should never have gotten to the set in the condition it's in. It's frustrating because, at its core, this is a really cool idea for a movie, and it boasts a genuinely great cast. There just sadly isn't anything here for them to work with beyond the superficial. It's hard not to fixate on the film that might have been instead of the blatant brand recognition cash-grab this became.

The kids' primary objective in Jumanji is to return a magical MacGuffin to its place of origin and lift the curse that has befallen the land. In order to do that, they must traverse the jungles, pits, and cliffs of the game world, doing battle with stampeding animals and motorcycle-riding marauders led by the game's boss, a big game hunter-type named Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), whose previous contact with the aforementioned MacGuffin device has granted him dominion over the insects and animals. That part's admittedly kinda righteous, but the movie never goes far enough with it.

This is easily the film's biggest flaw. I don't know if it's that it was written by people who've never actually played a videogame, or if it's written by people who hate videogames, but it's one or the other. Or both. I'm willing to concede it may have also been due to budgetary constraints, but at close to $100 million, this thing is woefully unambitious. There are no discernible "levels", only uninteresting places within the jungle populated by various nondescript enemies. The terrain is unoriginal, lacking even rudimentary danger zones like waterfalls and volcanoes. There are no real puzzles to figure out, no mini-bosses, no power-ups, there are precious few wild animals to contend with, which is disappointing since the villain can control them with his mind, the two and a half fight scenes are not terribly well staged or choreographed, the weather is always compliant, and everything takes place in broad daylight. Even the final boss battle is... well, there isn't one, and that's a damn sin. I'm not saying it had to be Contra up in here, but anything would have been better.

                                                          Alright, this might have been a little much to ask for.

                                                         Alright, this might have been a little much to ask for.

If you'd spent $52 on this at Gamestop, you'd have returned it within hours for a full refund and an apology. What a movie like this needs is to be dialed up to 11. There is so much downtime between actual events in this game world and so few challenges of note you begin to understand why the player would need to be sucked into the damn thing to start with. It'd be the only way to get someone to actually play it. In the end, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle just doesn't try hard enough to make itself memorable.

It's not all bad, of course. Dwayne Johnson is as engaging as always, even if it is clear he hasn't had to imagine what it's like to be small and afraid in some time. Kevin Hart is, as usual, playing Kevin Hart, which is funny at times, though not nearly enough for my taste. Karen Gillan is fine, I guess. Only Jack Black is really putting his shoulder into it as teenager Bethany, and I can admit that when you get them all together, it's fairly entertaining. And there is a nice subplot involving Nick Jonas, of all people, that's surprisingly heartfelt. It's probably the only sincere moment in the movie, and when it unfolds, you're kinda left wondering why the whole thing couldn't be that earnest.

If you have kids, I'd say take them to see it, or if you're just a fan of people running around the jungle screaming for an hour and a half, certainly get there. I can't say I'd stand in line for a sequel, unless they'd be willing to get Hideo Kojima or Blizzard Entertainment or someone to serve as technical consultants and advisors on the project. The potential is definitely there. Sorely, this time around, it wasn't worth the tokens to play.

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Film Critique Fridays Special Edition - Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - Part 2 of 2: The Women of a Galaxy Far, Far Away by M. Glenn Gore

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So many SPOILERS ahead!

As promised, I'm going to attempt to cover a number of topics in the conclusion to my review of The Last Jedi, and what better place to start than with what works?

First of all, this movie is a visual smorgasbord (that word never looks like it's spelled right), a feast for your eyes and, if you were lucky enough to view it in Dolby Atmos, a treat for your ears. The worlds visited in this episode are sweeping and genuinely breathtaking, and that is no small feat given the locations this series has already invited us to explore. The island planet of Ahch-To, home to the first Jedi Temple, is a vibrant swath of lush green jutting from foreboding, turbulent waters. The strikingly stark red and white salt wastes of Crait, with its crystalline, foxlike Vulptex critters, hearken back to not only Empire Strikes Back's ice world Hoth, but also any number of American Westerns, and serves as a more than fitting stage for a final showdown. Supreme Leader Snoke's throne room is a piece of art, a near-installation piece comprised of opposing metallic black and saturated crimson planes, and host to a scene soon to be inducted into the all-time Star Wars Hall of Greats.

                                                                        It must cost an arm and a leg to heat.

                                                                       It must cost an arm and a leg to heat.

The opulent casino palace on Canto Bight, while the least alien thing you'll see in the movie, is designed with purpose that I'll expound on momentarily.

Even the ship designs are worthy of note, which is something I haven't been able to say about Star Wars in a while. The Dreadnought is gorgeous, as much a testament to and an illustration of the First Order's unapologetically militarized id as any Nazi regalia it is meant to invoke. The outdated, rickety, asymmetrical Crait speeders were pitch perfect, serving as an ideal visual metaphor for the shaky ground upon which the Resistance precariously stands.

And the sound design? My God! You just have to hear it. The lightsaber battle in Snoke's throne room is a crisp, piercing soundscape that plays with gleeful, explosive moments of tension and release that come and go in waves until you realize you haven't been breathing for several seconds. The destruction of Canto Bight's casino palace is percussive, with the thunder of stampeding Fathier (a kind of alien horse) hoofbeats and decadent walls of gold and stained glass crashing down one after the other, another metaphor to be certain. But the most memorable piece of audio design belongs to the obliteration of the First Order fleet at the hands of Vice-Admiral Holdo, a scant few seconds of positively awe-inspiring destruction that play wholly without sound, which, in a movie all about sound, is inspired. I could literally hear everyone in the theater gasp.

So, I'll be the one to say it. I loved what they did with the characters in this one.

Adam Driver's Kylo Ren has, in a single movie, become exactly what I hoped he would be as this trilogy's big bad. In fact, he's grown into what I feared he might never be, and that is, following his defeat in Force Awakens, a legitimate threat. But in another subversion of our expectations for what a villain should and shouldn't be, Ren has shown himself to be so much more than a black hat. Full of conflict, desire, rejection, and uncertainty, his arc is more nuanced than Darth Vader's ever was, and while I don't believe he'll ever match classic Vader's now-iconic and intimidating stature, what he brings in its stead is a different kind of menace. Kylo Ren is a wild card. Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Malcolm would say he, "wields power like a child who's found his dad's gun." Ren is vulnerable, unstable, impatient, angry, powerful, and now in complete control of the First Order, the largest military force in the universe. Basically everything you don't want a wild animal that shows up in your house to be. I don't know what happens next, but it's a safe bet it's going to be catastrophic. 

Luke basically ended up in the exact same place Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi did before him, suggesting to me that being a Jedi is a path that just leads to isolation and regret. And let's be honest, what soldier doesn't come back from war without regret, without scars, even when that war is won? Han Solo and Leia's marriage was shattered by their son's turn to the Dark Side and subsequent deeds. It's harsh, but it isn't at all outside of the norm. No one ever wants to see their heroes change, which is tacitly unreasonable. I accept that seeing your favorite character ride off into the sunset is a fair indication they lived a long and happy life, but when you demand a visit after not speaking to them for THIRTY YEARS, I regret to inform you you're sticking your head in the lion's mouth.

                                                 "This is your fault. You should've let me die! NOW look at me!"

                                                "This is your fault. You should've let me die! NOW look at me!"

To talk about what works with Last Jedi, we have to talk about the women. There are no damsels here, thankfully, only a number of incredible female characters who, by and large, do the vast majority of the film's heavy lifting, which is wholly to its benefit.

Carrie Fisher's Leia is the best she's ever been, stronger and more mature in her role than she was even in the original trilogy, and that's saying a lot. Witnessing her staggering mastery of the Force was a welcome delight. She is given so much to do in this outing, a favorable contrast to her too-small part in The Force Awakens. She is the last one holding on, the light at the center of the Resistance. Where Luke was always the hope of the originals, Leia is the heart. She never gave up the struggle even though there remains nary an end in sight, and this was a proper sendoff for her character.

Daisy Ridley's second turn as Rey delivers in spades. I applaud the filmmakers for being willing to say she doesn't have it all figured out yet. Backwards thinking and foolishly beholden to the idea of her parentage as the only means of defining her net worth, she is equal parts inner turmoil and outer hope. Rey holds fast to lore, to the past. This is her weakness, and what makes her an easy target for Snoke, Ren, and the First Order. She's been raised on the legends of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi, only the first of world-breaking disappointments she would have to endure in this story. Shaken to the core by what she learns of herself, she soldiers on, determined to be great even if her name is not, to grow beyond what Luke and Yoda and all who've come before her are.

The Last Jedi is, among other things, the story of non-legendary characters colliding with actual legends. Rey, a nobody, is tasked with persuading the Luke Skywalker to return to the fray; she battles for the soul of Han Solo's son; Poe Dameron, a pilot, must carry out the whims and strategies of Leia Organa; and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico, a mechanic, is the reason Finn, hero of the Starkiller Base Assault, does an emotional, Third Act about-face and goes from coward to attempted martyr. Having just lost her sister in a disastrous bombing run (Thanks, Poe!), she has no time for deserters, and offers Finn no quarter.

Rose fights for the Resistance because she sincerely believes in what it stands for, not because she's the next in some renowned bloodline, or gifted with amazing Force powers. As with all of the new guard, she shows you don't have to have a great name to do great deeds. Throughout the film, she becomes Finn's moral compass and introduces both him and the audience to the true enemy responsible for all the galaxy's woes.

      And the thought she might one day smash the military-industrial complex fills Rose with determination!

     And the thought she might one day smash the military-industrial complex fills Rose with determination!

In Part 1, I said I would talk about the infamous Canto Bight sequence, so here goes. The scene has been lambasted as being superfluous and pointless, a side quest if you will, padding out an already daunting runtime. It also takes flak for not looking alien enough for an alien world, for resembling Earth too much, but I disagree with both sentiments. While the events set here don't appear to directly affect the main thrust of the storyline, I would argue that what we learn is worth the time spent. Canto Bight is a den of wealthy one-percenters, callous moguls and technology barons who have made their fortunes by supplying arms to both sides of the war. They have grown fat off the suffering of entire worlds, Canto Bight itself being no exception, as we are treated to brutal scenes of animal cruelty and quasi-Dickensian children slaving away in poor conditions, all while set against the extravagant, frivolous lifestyles of the high-rollers living mere meters above them. This is a first for Star Wars, an admittance that the battle is not about good and evil, but greed.

Canto Bight looks like Earth because it is. We're looking at us, at our existence-old doctrine of propaganda and war in the service of material gain, and the sobering notion that if you want to uncover why a problem exists, all you ever need do is see who benefits from it. Star Wars has never been so bold.

                                                                    The  real  Dark Lord of the Sith.

                                                                   The real Dark Lord of the Sith.

Now, I can't in good conscience get out of here without talking about Laura Dern's Vice-Admiral Holdo, who takes over command of the Resistance Fleet when Leia is injured during an earlier attack by Kylo Ren and the First Order. She butts heads with Poe Dameron over how the fleet should be run, which leads to a mutiny and countless more Resistance losses. I mentioned this theme in Part 1, and it's back here. Last Jedi, on three occasions, depicts female characters taking their male counterparts to task for their inaction, as is the case with Luke and Rey, their cowardice, as is the case with Finn and Rose, and their impulsiveness, as is the case with Poe and Holdo. Poe wreaks so much havoc in this movie because he simply doesn't listen. He is hotheaded and reckless, and while these are commonly traits and behaviors male heroes are celebrated for in film, I applaud Last Jedi for exposing them for what they are: dangerous, immature, and yes, toxic.

The era of the loose cannon, of the John McLanes, Martin Riggses, and Dirty Harrys, is over.

                                                                                  And good riddance, punk!

                                                                                 And good riddance, punk!

Holdo is responsible for my favorite moment in the film, a brilliant sequence in which she stands alone on the bridge of the lead Resistance cruiser, sets a collision course for the incoming First Order fleet, and jumps into hyperspace, shredding their Dreadnought and its Star Destroyer group into scrap in a concussive blast sufficient to create a new galaxy. It is amazing! I like to think Jyn Erso would have been proud.

Han Solo warned us long ago of the dangers of going into hyperspace with objects in your navigation path, and now, forty years later, we know why. Her sacrifice, known hereafter as the Holdo Maneuver, is so effective, so devastating, it should just be standard protocol when engaging an enemy fleet. The Resistance should be employing this tactic all the time! You wouldn't even require a human sacrifice. Just put a droid on the bridge or, better yet, program a button that just does this for you.

It's a pity she wasn't in The Force Awakens. I wager her death would have had a greater emotional impact had we been able to spend more time with her. And speaking of deaths, let me briefly talk about Captain Phasma, who is this trilogy's Boba Fett. She looks cool, she has a cool voice, and despite what the filmmakers would have me believe, she doesn't do much. Personally, I don't buy that she died in her battle with Finn, and my hope is she'll return in Episode IX with some righteous burn scars, ready for some good, old-fashioned revenge.

                                        Seriously. Don't just stand there. Do something. No! Don't look at  me!

                                       Seriously. Don't just stand there. Do something. No! Don't look at me!

I have to give this movie credit for its full-throated commitment to diversity. Not only are many of the film's most prominent characters women, but people of color populate nearly every scene. The Resistance is a sea of black and brown faces, as is the First Order. It's the way it should have always been, which, not surprisingly, has been another complaint from the more unhinged recesses of the Internet. Accusations of virtue signaling and feminist agendas and SJWs glut the comment threads on all Last Jedi and Force Awakens videos online, as the previous film was the first real salvo into this new world where women were important and people of color could do more than stand in the background or, if they were fortunate, die to save a straight, white, male character.

And I have to say, if you're one of those people who's somehow offended by seeing women and minorities, you're the problem here, not the film, and there's about fifty years' worth of movies you're free to go watch instead. Star Wars and the rest of us are going on ahead. And you're more than welcome to stay behind.

So, what about cons? Oh, yeah, Last Jedi has them. Some of them bigger than I'd like to admit, but they're in there. The pacing is, without denial, all over the place, particularly where it concerns the Resistance fleet's slow car chase to Crait and the aforementioned Canto Bight sequence. The former is never quite as tense as I think the film wants it to be, and truthfully doesn't reach the nail-biting point until the First Order learns of the thirty small craft attempting to slip past them to the planet surface, and then mercilessly open fire on the lot of them. The latter, sadly, does slow the film's already questionable pace to a standstill. I wish there was another way to say it, but the detour into Canto Bight slays any momentum the film manages to build almost every time we cut back to it. This is dangerous, especially when you consider this scene ends up having minimal impact on the main plotline.

That said, my biggest complaint is easily that at no point do BB-8 and his insidious, First Order doppelganger BB-9E fight each other. Last Jedi goes out of its way to make us aware the dastardly and soulless BB-9E can clearly see his orange and white nemesis hiding under that trash receptacle. It goes out of its way to give us a menacing close-up of his cold, dead, lifeless eye, a doll's eye, an eye just barely hiding such malice as you can hardly fathom. And if BB-8 is capable of taking out three armed human guards, what wealth of lethal implements are housed within his shadowy foe's twisted, mechanical innards? Lasers? Explosives? Is he just filled with chainsaw after chainsaw? I guess we'll never know. Yeah, I was disappointed.

                                                                                                   FINISH HIM!

                                                                                                 FINISH HIM!

It's no secret The Last Jedi takes a massive gamble, stepping boldly into waters heretofore uncharted in the Star Wars canon. Whether or not that gamble will pay off can't yet be stated, but it's fascinating to me the amount of vitriol this chapter has garnered when, if you take a look, The Empire Strikes Back, now universally acclaimed as the best entry of the series, received a similar backlash from critics and fans. It, too, was deemed too dark, too bleak, and too aggressive a departure from the tone established by A New Hope, so much so that when Richard Marquand all but reset the board with his 1983 switchback to the status quo Return of the Jedi, a film that rarely cracks the average Star Wars fan's Top Three, it was met with praise and adulation. "Difficult to see, the future is," Master Yoda would say, and it's true. What I think The Last Jedi needs most now is time to let history decide how it's to be remembered, so to all those who felt it fell short of their hopes and aspirations, take a moment as well. In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be watching it for the third time.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This review and critique was a huge undertaking. I would not have been able to get it done without the tireless efforts and brilliant insights of Nicole Cortazzo. Thanks, babe!

Film Critique Fridays Special Edition - Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - Part 1 of 2: The (Not-so) Subtle Art of Subversion by M. Glenn Gore

Kylo.png

Absolutely honkin' huge SPOILERS ahead!

It probably won't come as a galloping shock to you or anyone, really, to learn I wasn't an enormous fan of The Force Awakens. The new characters were fun and engaging, sure, but while everyone around me was carrying on like Tom Jones was in the building, I sadly found my enjoyment waning the longer the movie ran. While my friends were elated and relieved that Star Wars was back (we had been robbed of it for a time, you see, by those garish prequels), I felt left out of the high, electing to mostly stay quiet in the aftershow parking lot meet-up so as not to rain on whatever parade I had apparently just missed. I wanted so much to love that movie, but I didn't. I liked it. For the most part. At the time, that was the best I could muster.

And that's all on me. I accept that. I simply wasn't prepared for just how much of an homage/tribute/re-tread to/of A New Hope it was going to be. Looking backward now, I honestly don't know what else I expected from master Xerox artist JJ Abrams, whom, at this point, had become best known for his big budget replicas (and in the case of Star Trek Into Darkness, full-on ripoffs) of other directors' films and styles.

                                                                               KHAAAAAAAAA --  Ah, forget it.

                                                                             KHAAAAAAAAA -- Ah, forget it.

The decision to use The Force Awakens as a kind of $300 million reset button (Yikes! It hurts to even type that) was instantly validated, however, when I reached the closing credits of The Last Jedi, the ninth and bleakest installment in the harder-to-kill-than-cancer-despite-some-downright-Hank-Aaronian-swings-for-the-fence Star Wars franchise. Written and directed with near-vengeful execution by Rian Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad), this film makes its predecessor look like 120 minutes of Muppet Babies repeats, both in tone and sheer thematic heft, and that's when I finally understood why it had to be this way. If we had started here in 2015, the auditorium following the first show would have looked like this:

                                                                                  I believe you're in my seat.

                                                                                 I believe you're in my seat.

You don't start with a chapter like The Last Jedi. You can't. A movie like this has to be earned, revved up to. It's a vault that requires momentum to hurdle. Picking up nearly where The Force Awakens ends, Episode VIII reunites us with Luke Skywalker surrogate, Rey, and Obi-Wan Kenobi surrogate, Luke Skywalker, who has exiled himself to the island world of Ahch-To following the wholesale slaughter of his students at the hands of Kylo Ren because, as far as I can tell, the Jedi retirement plan consists mostly of, "lose everything you love, hermit yourself on the dump planet of your choice, slowly come unglued."

Rey, played with fearless conviction by Daisy Ridley, whose craft has matured admirably in the last two years, is both at her applause-worthy strongest and heart-wrenching weakest in this outing. She wants Luke to help her get the band back together (read: rejoin the Resistance) and hopefully school her in the ways of the Force along the way, but he's not having it. He's been to this square dance before, and would probably welcome having his other hand lopped off in lieu of taking on another wide-eyed, idealistic pupil.

Seriously, Luke is a ghost here, a mere shell of himself, and outside of his stellar voice-over work in the Batman Animated Series, I have never seen Mark Hamill more confident. He is racked with guilt, swallowed up by the totality of his botched effort to save Kylo Ren from the Dark Side. He refuses Rey's call, and answers with one of his own: Put an end to the Jedi Order, for good. Because, in the end, what have they accomplished? For all their centuries of sermonizing, of pious policing and ineffectual oversight, the worlds are still at war. Only the names and faces of the combatants have changed. The old wisdom borne out of the Jedi Council (you remember what a fun bunch they were) has failed spectacularly to lead us into a future that is anything save for trial and fire, and this is what is (mostly) at the film's core. Notice that I said "core" and not "heart."

                                                                Pictured: All the good the Jedi have done.

                                                               Pictured: All the good the Jedi have done.

While Rey attempts to get Luke back in the game, on the other side of the galaxy, General Leia Organa, played as assuredly as she is elegantly by the late Carrie Fisher, leads the tattered scraps of the Resistance, and believe me when I tell you she is utilized to perfection this time around. That it took us this long to see this Leia onscreen is a crime.

Supreme Leader Snoke (rocking a gold tinfoil smoking jacket straight out of Elton John's Goodwill donations) and the First Order have them on the ropes. Oscar Isaac returns as hotshot X-Wing pilot/man-baby Poe Dameron, whose brazen recklessness at their last campaign cost the Rebels dearly, putting their surviving number on the literal run. He fancies himself leadership material, at all times attempting to save the day the only way he knows how, which is very much the problem. His character arc in Last Jedi is so very satisfying, and I'll be giving it its due diligence in Part 2. John Boyega's Finn, freshly healed from his ill-advised run-in with Kylo Ren at the climax of Force Awakens, is also back in action. And by that, I mean he's once again attempting to desert the Resistance, a plotline I would be grateful if we could just let die.

Unlike Poe's, Finn's character arc is unnecessarily repeated here. The difference this time is he is taken to task for his cowardice and selfishness by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran's earnest and sincere Rose Tico, a maintenance worker in the Resistance. This is a theme played thrice throughout the film, that being women who deny the ids and egos of the men around them who threaten, albeit unknowingly, to jeopardize everything at stake. She refuses to let Finn run away, opens his eyes to the true enemy every space battle and lightsaber duel thus far has failed to snuff out, and ultimately sets them both on a weird and arguably pointless (but not really) trek into RPG side quest territory. More on that later, too.

                                                                         Rose Tico has unlocked Gold Chocobo.

                                                                        Rose Tico has unlocked Gold Chocobo.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, whose path in this new trilogy is rapidly becoming its strongest and most memorable thread thanks in no small part to Adam Driver, finds himself at a crossroads. Rebuked by Snoke for his defeat at the hands of Rey and openly chided for his childish, misguided hero worship of Darth Vader, the seeds of one of Last Jedi's most jaw-dropping reveals are laid when he discovers he can Force-Skype Rey on the other end of the galaxy. These scenes are simply amazing. They do double duty as any good scene should, drawing these opposing characters into such close emotional and physical collision while also deftly expanding on the unknown capabilities of the Force.

So let me talk about that for a second. We see the Force do a number of things new to the Star Wars mythos in this episode. We witness Rey and Kylo Ren communicating telepathically across the cosmos, at one point even going so far as to actually bridge the physical barrier between them; we see Leia, in a moment that took nearly four decades to deliver, use the Force to propel herself through the dead of space, illustrating in seconds that she has been busy these last thirty years; and the coup de grace, the Kamehameha, the tip of Everest, we see Luke astral project himself across light years and whole worlds to confront his former student, proving in an instant that his mastery of the Force is beyond our narrow scope of understanding, and that for all his power, Ren still has much to learn. In a word, it is beautiful.

                               I swear we're only one movie away from this by now.

                              I swear we're only one movie away from this by now.

At first, I thought it was kind of absurd, over the top, even. I mean, we've never seen anyone in the Star Wars universe do this, right? Then I realized I needed to shut up. Each trilogy has always shown us new aspects of the Force. The originals showed us it could control minds, project illusions, levitate people and objects, and even summon lightning. The prequels compounded what we already knew of its ability to enhance the user's physical skill in the way Anakin could pilot a pod racer and in how Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi could Force Dash through the Trade Federation flagship.

It only stood to reason this new trilogy would present us with an updated set of Force powers and abilities, and it did not disappoint. After all, we haven't seen Luke and Leia in thirty years. We have no idea what they've been up to, what adventures they've been on together, though I'm certain they were fighting the powers of darkness side by side the way God always intended brothers and sisters to do.  The kung fu lover in me really wishes we could see one final movie all about their training to reach their current power levels. I'd take that over a Han Solo standalone any day of the week.

So why then is this titled, "The (Not-so) Subtle Art of Subversion"? Because storytelling is a language all its own, and the longer you live, the more stories you hear, hopefully. The more you read, the more movies you watch, the more you learn about plot structure, character motivation, setups and payoffs, and tropes. We know what tropes are; we see them everywhere and in everything, and while they can be fun, they exist for a reason. Tropes are the inevitable result of there basically only being so many types of story you can tell. Tropes lead to convention. Convention begets expectation. And expectation, particularly fan expectation in the case of The Last Jedi, is the mother of disappointment.

The Last Jedi excels as a film, as a story, and as a continuation of the Star Wars saga because it knows the fans' expectations. It uses the false sense of security its eight predecessors and, yes, everything else you've consumed up to this point have laid to subvert those  expectations. After The Force Awakens released, there was barely a corner of the Internet that wasn't buzzing with fan theories about where the saga would go next. Some of the theories were good, most were not, but they all fed into a narrative that it was our place as fans to ask for, even demand, those theories be validated by the revelations of the next installment. Was Rey Luke's daughter? Was she a long lost Kenobi? And what about Snoke? Was he Palpatine resurrected? Was he Mace Windu's ghost? I wish I was making up that last one.

                                            "That's a stupid-ass, mothafuckin' idea. You know that, right?"

                                           "That's a stupid-ass, mothafuckin' idea. You know that, right?"

We believed we were owed not just answers to these questions, but our answers! But here's the kicker. That mentality, that pervasive entitlement that has all but become the uniform of the so-called "true" fans everywhere on the spectrum from Rick & Morty to Steven Universe, it is flawed beyond reason and entirely self-defeating. Why? Because it can only lead to your complete and utter disappointment. These franchises owe you nothing. And obsessing over something does not entitle you to a reciprocation or even an acknowledgement of that obsession.

Rey's parents? Surprise! They were nobodies! They were actually worse than nobodies. They were the kind of people DSS would have had incarcerated. Rey is as devastated by the revelation she does not hail from Star Wars nobility, from a lordly line, as an embarrassingly large portion of the audience was, and that is not an accident. It's the best thing that could have happened. The Force doesn't belong to the Jedi. Greatness is not by pedigree.  It's not as though only the Skywalker lineage can produce heroes. That's the equivalent of saying only George Washington's descendants can lead our armies. Only Thomas Edison's family is allowed to invent things.

                                                      Only a noseless asshole would think something like that!

                                                     Only a noseless asshole would think something like that!

And Snoke's origin? Jesus, who cares? Snoke, at best, was a red herring, a boring placeholder designed to be such a blatant and laughable knockoff of Palpatine that we'd welcome his eventual and unceremonious demise. I breathed a sigh of relief when Kylo Ren gutted him before launching into the coolest lightsaber fight ever because it meant yet another shackle slavishly tethering us to the old ideas was thankfully broken.

And to everyone let down by what Luke became, while it may not be what you wanted, it is what the franchise needed. A hero who cannot be broken is boring. A hero with regret, however, with a worldview shattered by crisis and failure, that is something else entirely. The future may not be in the hands of Luke Skywalker anymore, but his part in the story isn't over. Luke returns, in a fashion, at the climax on Crait, not to duel Kylo Ren in typical Star Wars fashion, but to buy time for Leia and the Resistance to escape, to "keep the Light alive." What the Rebels witnessed in that moment, one man standing down the First Order all alone, is the stuff of legend. It will be talked about for ages to come, and as evidenced by the final scene, will give rise to a new Rebellion. This is why I said "core" earlier instead of "heart."

Hope is at the heart of The Last Jedi, hope that we'll learn from our past failures and use them as fuel for the fire that lights a better tomorrow instead of continuing the same sad and vicious cycle that has netted only wars of varying names and lengths, and produced more corpses than heroes. Rey saved the ancient Jedi texts, making manifest the belief that even she will not be the last Jedi. It is an amazing time for the Star Wars universe, and I have to say, I am more excited for the next installment than I have been in a very long while.

In Part 2, I'll cover the other characters' paths in greater detail, particularly the many women of The Last Jedi and their wealth of contributions to the success of the film. I'll dive into the pros and cons, I'll address some of the fans' more absurd complaints, and I'll finally give my rating. Stay tuned.

Film Critique Fridays - The Disaster Artist by M. Glenn Gore

Strap in. This is going to take me a moment to explain. Not even a little bit dissimilar from the way people were scarred by and will always remember where they were when JFK was assassinated, the same can be said of those who have witnessed The Room. In fact, there are only two types of people in the world: those who have seen The Room and those who need to goddamn see The Room. But what is it? Really. What even is this?

I mean, I could tell you it's an infamous, initially maligned but now strangely beloved independent film turned cult classic that released in 2003 to an $1800 opening weekend (that's not a typo), and the movie that gave the world notorious actor, writer, director, and occasional vampire Tommy Wiseau, but that honestly doesn't give you much. I could tell you that despite being funded entirely by Wiseau himself from what I can only imagine is the near-incalculable wealth he's amassed over his many centuries of immortal life, I won't because that last part's speculative. And confusing. 

                                        Yes. Stare into the abyss.

                                       Yes. Stare into the abyss.

I could tell you that it might just be the single worst movie ever made, a complete and utter trainwreck of such immense totality that attempts to hurdle Ed Woodian levels of cinematic cataclysm, but that still somehow fails to do it justice. The movie simply cannot be quantified. As far as I can tell, The Room was about a love triangle between Wiseau's character Johnny, his best friend Mark (played by real-life friend Greg Sestero), and Juliette Danielle, who played Johnny's girlfriend Lisa. A number of other fairly unremarkable characters and subplots came and went almost without notice.

The Room came about partly as a result of the adversity Wiseau (especially) and Sestero encountered in their mutual attempts to "break into" Hollywood. Suffering an unknown number of rejections and pushed to the point of surrender, Wiseau decided to do a bold end-run around the system and make his own movie, which was pretty daring when you consider this all happened years before YouTube would make creator-owned and produced content the norm.

Which brings us to The Disaster Artist, a docudrama from director and self-professed fan James Franco (127 Hours, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) based on the award-winning 2013 novel The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, written by the aforementioned Sestero and collaborator Tom Bissell. It chronicled in stark, sometimes cringe-inducing detail, the events that led to the creation, filming, release, and aftermath of The Room. So what we have here is a great movie starring Franco as Wiseau, which is based on a fantastic book written by Sestero about his experience acting in a movie. That was terrible. And his friendship to the real Wiseau. Which was inexplicable.

                                                                                   That's about how it feels.

                                                                                  That's about how it feels.

Actually, that's not true, and it's one of the reasons the film (Disaster Artist, not The Room) shines. Under Franco's capable leadership, Artist delves into the budding friendship between Wiseau and Sestero, how they met in an acting class and how the latter was so taken aback by the former that they forged a fast and seemingly unbreakable bond. No joke, it's a sincere and poignant treatise on the nature and strength of friendship, and how dreams, when unchecked, have the power to put such relationships in jeopardy. Odd as it sounds, watching Artist, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Social Network, what with Wiseau and Sestero's friendship following the very familiar trajectory of Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin's.

There's a lovely moment at the beginning of the film in which multiple actors speak briefly but passionately about The Room. And their points are well-made. Hard to argue, even. I couldn't tell you what movie won Best Picture ten years ago. Despite its apparent acclaim, it has managed to slip somewhat by the wayside of our collective film-going unconscious. Yet at fourteen years old, people are still talking about The Room. Think piece after think piece has been written about it. It is referenced in other movies, in TV shows. Its quotes are a signal from complete strangers that, if nothing else, you share this common ground. Midnight screenings that hearken back to the days of Rocky Horror are held regularly. And last night was no exception. The crowd was one of diehards and purists, their mutual love for the source bringing to interactive life what would have otherwise been random, innocuous lines of dialogue to the uninitiated. And it was a thing of beauty. 

                                                         Welcome to the club, TW! We've got jackets. And garters.

                                                        Welcome to the club, TW! We've got jackets. And garters.

The fact that this film has endured is a testament to its rather unexplainable greatness. It may be awful by nearly every metric a film can be judged on, but it approaches that awfulness with such fierce, reckless will that you have to be impressed. Just all in, full speed. It's like there's a Tommy Wiseau-shaped hole in the wall. And Disaster Artist manages to capture that energy. If I could put myself on the set of any one movie from the last twenty years, just to watch it all unfold in real time, it would be this one.

Speaking of which, I can't sign off without giving James Franco all the huzzahs for his performance as Tommy Wiseau. He researched the role meticulously, and it shows through every time he's onscreen. The voice, the mannerisms, the inability to throw a simple football, it's all there. It transcends pastiche. Franco effortlessly discovers Wiseau's vulnerability, an essential feat in pulling it all off. The danger was always that, at the end, it might devolve into parody, but Disaster Artist never mocks. It is, at all times, earnest, handling the dreams and desires of not two-dimensional characters but the honest to God flesh and bone humans they represent. I'm not reaching when I say he deserves an Oscar nod.

Dave Franco puts in equal work as Greg Sestero. Following along with him on this journey is both exhilarating and heartbreaking, like waving to someone aboard the Hindenburg. You know what's coming. It makes enjoying the ride, if naught else, tense. In a way, Artist makes for a striking companion piece to The Room. It is so accurate, so painstakingly recreated, you may find it difficult to return to the original outing, now so heavily armed with the knowledge of the trials and turmoil that plagued what feels like every moment of the production and shaped the lives of all it touched for good or ill.

An impressive motley crew of famous faces round out the cast, most notably Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, who are both wonderful, but I won't even tell you who else shows up. Much of the fun is had just waiting to see who appears. Talented each, Room lovers all.

All told, The Disaster Artist is a thoughtful and sincere retelling of the dreams that ignited the events that ushered in the chaos that gave birth to the creation of one of the most unforgettable films of this century. Its crusade to get every detail as close to the original as possible veers well into obsessive, but that is not to its detriment. Far from it. It is, above all else, an incredibly reverent film, one that makes no misstep in its clear adoration and morbid curiosity of its source material. And why shouldn't it be? No one involved could have known they were making history, but isn't that usually how history is made?

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Film Critique Fridays - Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri by M. Glenn Gore

I'm not certain we've earned Frances McDormand. She's one of those winter rose-rare talents you've been watching, perhaps unwittingly, since you were a child. Odds are you knew her before you had any real understanding of screencraft, any knowledge of what comes when a story is scripted to within an inch of its life, or the magic than can happen when one who comprehends their trade the same way Neo comprehended the Matrix hurls themselves headlong into a role. Time and again, we have seen her transform onscreen until the line between character and actor was no longer discernible. She has raw talent and peerless skill to spare. Her thirty year-plus body of work reads like a film undergrad's Top 10.

                                                                                   No joke here. Just respect.

                                                                                  No joke here. Just respect.

To that Top 10 we can now proudly add Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the somewhat unassuming title to Martin McDonagh's (In Bruges, The Guard) new scathingly dark comedy-drama, and easily my favorite of his films to date. I will admit to feeling a little over-matched here. There is a lot to unpack in the 115 minutes of Billboards, a feat made all the more daunting by the fact that it plays like a house on fire, throwing only haymakers and pulling none as it weaves a story of outwardly inconsolable anger, a cascade of unpredictable escalations, and an equal if not greater number of frightening reprisals, one of which is straight out of Marathon Man.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a fed up and foul-mouthed, blue collar, takes-no-shit mother who goes on a one-woman warpath against the Ebbing Police Department, who has, in seven months' time, failed spectacularly to make an arrest or even drum up a suspect in the unspeakable rape, torture, and murder of her only daughter. To simultaneously rekindle local interest in the cold case and put Woody Harrelson's seemingly inept Sheriff Willoughby on blast, Mildred rents the three titular billboards on the edge of her depressed, rural burg, effectively rendering it impossible for the citizenry's concern over her child's fate to wain. The town's name is not a coincidence.

It's almost cliche to call someone's performance "fearless" nowadays. The word gets thrown around too much, like "genius" or "artisan." However, here, it's well-earned. McDormand gives her all in this portrayal of a woman and a mother who is equal parts rage and regret, both in control and veering wildly. She blames others yet is, herself, to blame. At times, it seems the whole world hates her, that world being a facsimile for the kind of allegedly forgotten red state "skip towns" of America so recently and violently thrust back into the national discourse, and will no doubt cause you to recall last year's similarly sardonic Hell or High Water.

                                                                 Again, no joke. Just a fantastic fucking movie.

                                                                Again, no joke. Just a fantastic fucking movie.

But Mildred's aim isn't pity. In fact, as the film plays out, she offers you fewer and fewer reasons to sympathize with her. She is intentionally placed upon a recognizable, well-tread protagonist's altar. She is meant to be sided with, to have her grief and her increasingly unhealthy actions for dealing with that grief understood and condoned by a caring audience until such time that she squanders that good will and we are forced to say stop! Keep an eye peeled for the scene in the restaurant in which Peter Dinklage, who is not in this nearly enough for my liking, delivers one of the film's strongest indictments. In that moment, he is us. His sentiment is a wake-up call, arriving with wrecking ball force. It's okay to only be in a movie for seven minutes, especially when one of those minutes is as great as his last.

I want to talk about Woody Harrelson for a second, but I'm afraid to. I feel like anything I say about his Sheriff Bill Willoughby will only serve to undermine the beauty and the power of what the character means to Billboards. He is both everything you expect from the gruff, small town police chief archetype and none of it. McDormand is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for her work here, and while I'm not convinced Harrelson will receive a nod, he should. If this movie has a beating heart, it's his. If it has a moral North, he points to it.

I imagine it can be difficult to shine against such powerhouse stars. As Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg asked in The Social Network, "How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SATs?" Starring opposite Frances McDormand must, in some ways, be like showing up to race Usain Bolt. You know, at best, you're vying for Second Place. This should in no way undersell the brilliant and unrelenting performance Sam Rockwell gives to Three Billboards. As Ebbing Police Officer Jason Dixon, who has cultivated a reputation for abusing the town's Black citizens, Rockwell offers us a slow-witted, mentally unhinged, violent character in the throes of a power fantasy. He wears a badge and a gun, which in this town (and too much of America) means he can indulge in whatever sadistic behavior he elects with impunity. It's a story we've all lately become too familiar with.

He is frequently shown reading comic books, which offended me at first glance, considering the film wastes no time in establishing him as a well-known piece of shit. It may surprise you to learn not so long ago, Hollywood (particularly in the 50's) didn't think much of comics enthusiasts, and often considered any interest in such as a sign of depravity, of an unsound mind, of a cultural deviant. I erroneously viewed this as a mirror of that tired sentiment.

                                                                          My comic art degree (finally) at work.

                                                                         My comic art degree (finally) at work.

But then Billboards did what it does best. Without giving anything away, it should be noted that Rockwell's Dixon reads, among others, Mark Waid's Incorruptible, a comic about a villain who makes a go at learning how to be a superhero, to varying degrees of success. It's just a little clue to a small section of the audience, but one I was pleased to catch. Dixon's character arc is difficult to watch, at best, and showcase to several moments of downright cringe-worthy behavior. And it is by far one of Rockwell's most compelling roles. Expect a Best Supporting Actor nomination for him as well. He takes you by surprise in every scene, and reminds you of Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas, whom you found amusing but terrifying, engaging but almost never safe to be with or around.

In a moment straight from comic book lore, Dixon's life is suddenly, drastically, irrevocably changed, in effect setting him off on a new trajectory into the unknown. You'll be surprised, to say the least. You'll probably even find yourself conflicted. And if you're anything like me, you'll be unprepared for just how heartbreaking a simple glass of orange juice can be.

Now, up to this point, I've been very generous. I've lauded the actors for their portrayals, and the film for its narrative depth, complexity, and focus. I should add to the above that it is also impressively shot. I grew up in South Carolina, and while Ebbing, Missouri is not a real place, there is no aspect of it that doesn't remind me of home, warts and all. It's a kind of amalgamation of all those Anytowns tucked away behind the forested exits along America's highways. You've both never seen it before and seen it everywhere. It feels real, lived-in, but I can't say it is wholly convincing. Like Spinal Tap, you don't have to look hard to find that everything in Ebbing is dialed up to 11. Its characters, while certainly reminiscent of faces we've seen and voices we've heard, conduct themselves with hyperbolic frenzy. David Mamet would say, "They speak the English Language," perhaps not eloquently, but certainly, "as viciously as possible."

        Blake would have been proud. And then he would have told you to go fuck yourself.

       Blake would have been proud. And then he would have told you to go fuck yourself.

That said, as I was watching Billboards, I couldn't help but feel like the dialogue, the characters, and even the ever-escalating actions they were taking were so exaggerated, so overblown and farfetched, that it began to damage the film's realism and, I daresay, its credibility. And then I realized what was happening. As with everything else in the film, this was not an accident. This wasn't a mistake on the screenwriter's part, doubled-down on by the director (who are one in the same) because he simply didn't notice or care to notice. No, this was a deliberate choice. Ebbing, Missouri manages to encapsulate the look of all those aforementioned Anytowns and reflect the views of its many put-upon denizens, even if it has been super-sized for the silver screen, but it remains, as it always has, a fiction.

Ebbing is a kind of anti-Mayberry. Its characters are deconstructions or subversions of their black and white counterparts, some of them sincerely so, as with Woody Harrelson's Willoughby, others excessively so, like Sam Rockwell's Dixon. In identical fashion, Mayberry was also never a real place, only a Romanticized fictionalization of an era many people believe in their heart of hearts was real. But it never happened. At least, not the way they want to remember it happening. It's a fascinating and rare gift to see the modern day through eyes commonly only reserved for nostalgia. It's often a cynical lens that we look at this film through, but I'll be damned if that same cynicism doesn't walk hand in hand with a very clear message about hope for the future and the often hard-to-find truth that we are never quite as far from salvation as we feel. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a ferocious, unapologetic outing that burns screen time fuel like only a hungry fire can. It never lets go of you, and as of my writing this, it is my choice for Best Picture of the Year.

My Rating: 5 out of 5

 

Film Critique Fridays - Thor: Ragnarok by M. Glenn Gore

Thor.jpg

If I said the Thor movies have suffered a far harder climb up the hill of greatness than their cinematic Marvel siblings, I don't think I'd be going out on a particularly untested limb. The God of Thunder's 2011 debut is, at best, north of serviceable. With its hamfisted handling of rival brothers vying for the throne of Asgard and the respect of their father, a love interest so forced, unnecessary, and artificial it elicited eye rolls from even the most forgiving of fans, relatively low stakes being played for at the film's climax, and what might just be the 2nd most forgettable villain in the MCU - a walking toaster oven that shoots fire - it's impressive the franchise didn't die right then and there.

Thor: The Dark World, the former's 2013 followup, doubled down on the tedium, again burdening us with the love affair that no one bought and a villain whose name and motivation I challenge anyone to recall without resorting to a Google search. It featured fleeting moments of well-played drama, most notably when addressing how the death of Loki's mother affected him, and was, in truth, only saved by the inclusion of Benicio Del Toro's Collector, the introduction of a new Infinity Stone, and a telegraphed but appetite-whetting surprise ending that had us all amped for the third installment, which is impressive considering how little the franchise had really given us thus far. 

I dare say only Iron Man's two lackluster sequels have come close to usurping the Thor franchise's very underwhelming crown, and I actually liked Iron Man 3.     

                                                                  I still haven't forgiven  you , though.

                                                                 I still haven't forgiven you, though.

Thor 2 ending on such a huge reveal was ballsy when you weigh the knowledge we had to wait four years for the resolution. To put it into perspective, we got two Captain America films, two Guardians of the Galaxy outings, and a whole new Avengers between the release of The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. The wait was long. The fact the movie came out at all means I owe half a dozen people a Coke because I was firmly in the "Never Gonna Happen" camp. So, was it worth the wait? Was all of my hand wringing and teeth gnashing warranted? Ehh. That's where things get tricky.

First things first. When Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) was announced to direct, I turned several cartwheels. Figurative ones. I'm not twenty anymore. And with screenwriting credits going to Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle of Star Wars: Rebels and all Marvel things animated, respectively, I was ready to forgive, forget, and welcome Ragnarok into my arteries like a barbecue bacon double cheeseburger topped with onion rings and a fried egg. 

                                                                           This is what acceptance looks like.

                                                                          This is what acceptance looks like.

And for the most part, it didn't disappoint. It feels very little like its predecessors, both in appearance and in tone. The previous two entries frequently swam in dour waters, especially the latter, each, at times, taking themselves so seriously that you forgot to have fun on your journey through the worlds of gods and monsters. But Ragnarok finds the fun and the humor, effortlessly showcasing both in gleeful, reckless abundance.

Chris Hemsworth seems most at ease with this new, more lighthearted fare, and plays the eponymous role almost as though a great weight has finally been lifted off his shoulders. Tom Hiddleston's trouble-making Loki also delivers in all the ways you've come to expect. Idris Elba and Karl Urban are along for the ride as Heimdall and Skurge, though neither really has a terrible lot to do. There is simply so much going on in this chapter that some characters kinda get swept up by the wave. For instance, if Fandrell, Volstagg, and Lady Sif are anywhere in this wonderfully cacophonous, technicolor rollercoaster of a movie, I certainly didn't notice them.

Newcomer Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is engaging literally from the first moment she appears on screen. She doesn't miss a step in asserting herself as an equal, keeping up with the more seasoned players in this realm as though she'd been there all along. Cate Blanchett's performance as Hela, the Goddess of Death and the film's primary antagonist, is equal parts funny and fearful. But what can you say about Cate Blanchett that hasn't been said already? She's a treasure. I could have used more of her, especially in the moments when she reminisces over Asgard in her time, before the (she would say) misguided efforts of Odin dragged it down from its former "glory."

Mark Ruffalo puts in another fantastic turn as Bruce Banner and his gigantic green alter-ego the Hulk. In many ways, this is his movie, and every scene he's in stands out. Even Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief but amusing appearance as Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange, which isn't at all a spoiler provided you stayed for the credits of Doctor Strange.

But I think, even after all of this, the man everybody showed up to beat has got to be Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster, a kind of whimsically sadistic mini boss who looks and sounds like he spends happy hour swapping stories with Benicio Del Toro's Taneleer Tivan from Guardians of the Galaxy. Goldblum is so wonderfully bizarre here, so far south of normal. At this point, it's almost like he's doing a Jeff Goldblum impression. And it works perfectly.

                                                                         Admit it. You would watch this movie!

                                                                        Admit it. You would watch this movie!

Ragnarok borrows liberally from what's come before, taking from everywhere, which is appropriate given that much of the narrative takes place on a planet made up of other planets' garbage. In the hands of a lesser director, this type of setting could easily have been bleak, but it is instead a wild, colorful mishmash of styles. From its brilliant visuals, which hearken back to everything from Star Wars and Gladiator to Tron and Willy Wonka, to its oddly fitting 80's synth-pop soundtrack, it seeks to overload your senses at every turn, and very nearly succeeds.

The action sequences are kinetic and fast-paced, even if the editing gets a little too frenetic for my taste during some of the fight scenes. It's genuinely fun to witness Thor, Hulk, and Valkyrie really using their considerable super strength and agility. There are moments that feel like you're watching an old school side-scroller like Mega Man or Metal Slug as the action is approached with such fearlessness, such willful abandon.

Unfortunately, the film is not without its shortcomings. I'm not even certain I'd call them flaws; they were just things that didn't work for me. The big one is simply that I wasn't prepared for just how much of a comedy this was going to be. Don't get me wrong. It's damn funny. And frequently. And it has some heart. Not a lot. But some. But there was an almost pathological need to undercut any and all drama, tension, or suspense on display with jokes. And these jokes ran the gamut. People falling down (repeatedly), people getting hit on the head (repeatedly), grand gestures robbed (repeatedly) of emotional impact time and again, all for the sake of the joke. I left feeling like the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would have watched this and recommended they take it down a notch.

                                                                 Stop laughing, you monsters. People are dying!

                                                                Stop laughing, you monsters. People are dying!

If there is anything I'd change about Thor: Ragnarok, it's this. However, in its defense (or in defense of the comedy, at least), Avengers: Infinity War is fast approaching. Thanos is coming, and he's not going to be happy when he gets here. It's not hard to imagine things are going to get very grim for a lot of characters we love very soon. Maybe Ragnarok has it right. Maybe things only seem bad now. And maybe we should all get in our laughs while we still can.

My Rating: 4 out of 5