Saturday, December 30, 2017

Fall/Winter 2017 Roundup, Part 2

And now for additional things which are in some ways different

Still going here, ladies and gentlemen.  With a new year comes a new attempt to start afresh by catching up with everything we saw at the tail end of this remarkable year.

The General's Post Fall/Winter Roundup, Part 2

Murder on the Orient Express

Alternate Title:  Mustaches on the Orient Express

One sentence synopsis:    Internationally-famed detective Hercule Poirot must spring into action when a man with many enemies is murdered aboard a luxury train in Eastern Europe.

The Verdict:  Those whose tastes run to detective fiction must know of Agatha Christie's most enduring creation, the fastidious Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, a 20th century rendition of the Sherlocke Holmes archetype, the eccentric sleuth whose perceptions and deductive skill penetrates all efforts at obfuscation. The character has been portrayed dozens of times, by great actors across stage, screen, and television, including David Suchet, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Ian Holm, and even Orson Welles (in a 1939 radio-play). It's not entirely astonishing to find someone like Kenneth Branaugh, a man who has never seen a piece of scenery he could not eat, nor a classic character he did not wish to cast himself as, deciding to undertake a rendition of his own.

Unfortunately, nothing else is particularly astonishing either.

Murder on the Orient Express, despite the services of an impeccable cast, a luxurious old-world location, and several decent-to-good ideas on the part of the cinematographer (Cypriot veteran Haris Zambarloukos, of Locke, and Branaugh's Thor), is pretty much a dud, and for this we really have nobody except Branaugh himself to blame, given that he directed the film, starred in it, and helped produce it in conjunction with Scott Free films (Ridley Scott's production company). It is a rote film, blessed with neither novel ideas as to how to perform the material nor any sense of proper excitement as it runs through its labyrinthine and yet rather absurd plot. None of this is the fault of the cast, a fascinating collection of excellent actors, including Judy Dench, Willem Defoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley, all of whom do serviceable work as the various European and American archetypes they are assigned, particularly Dench's turn as a Russian Heiress and Defoe's as a bigoted Austrian doctor who is more than he seems. But none of the characters are given any real personalities beyond the vaguest sketches, it's as though Branaugh instructed all of them to do nothing more than look vaguely worried and recite their lines with a minimum of emotional effort. And given the sheer size of the cast, and the mechanical requirements of the plot (a murder has occurred, and Poirot must interrogate the various persons present to determine who the guilty party is), what this means is that the entire movie is simply a series of discussions wherein Poirot asks the same stone-faced upper-middle-class professional a series of questions which will slightly discomfit them, causing them to glance about their railway car in a guilty fashion before he moves on to the next one. Repeat for two hours and roll credits.

The plot's insane, of course. A wealthy American (Johnny Depp, an actor that studios seem to think we continue to want to see in the late 2010s) with a shady past is murdered while on a train from Istanbul to Vienna, and Poirot must deduce which of the other passengers has murdered him, after first digging into their backgrounds and associations with the murder victim, associations which every single one of them is plentifully supplied. I don't really blame the movie for this, as the book it's based on is equally labyrinthine, but the duty of the filmmakers is not only to give us something to elevate the complex material, but also to differentiate the film from the 1974 version, a rendition that (though I have little use for it) was regarded in its day as being one of the finest mystery thrillers ever made, directed by the great Sydney Lumet and starring a veritable cornucopia of towering screen actors, including Sean Connery (back when he still gave a shit), Lauren Bacall, (Sir) John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), and even Ingrid Bergman (who won her third Oscar for the role). It's not that Branaugh has no ideas as to how to freshen the material, for he does, including a few bits of interesting cinematography (such as an extended long-take from overhead to show the reveal of the murder, with all of the characters hidden from view by their period hats), as well as re-casting one of the principal suspects (Doctor Arbuthnot) as a black veteran of WWI, so as to entwine the racial dynamics of the 1920s into the plot. But minor changes to an established formula are not enough to salvage anything really interesting from the whole affair. As to Branaugh himself, the best that can really be said is that he fails to embaress himself unduly, despite the ridiculous French accent and a mustache that someone really should have talked him out of (though admittedly, a sight gag of the mustache protector he wears at night is pretty good).

The 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express is hardly an abomination, but in a year that has been packed full of great films, it is a decidedly amateurish, and fairly boring effort, one that does little beyond rehash the warmed over material without adding any spice to the mixture. It is a filler film that comes and goes without much actual impact, despite the services of the many talented and skilled individuals who were committed to its creation. It's honestly not worth spending as much time on as I have already, let alone any more, so my suggestion, given the transcendent year we've been having, and the plethora of excellent movies on offer, that you give this one a pass and go watch something worthwhile.

Final Score:  4.5/10


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Alternate Title:  South Fargo

One sentence synopsis:   A woman purchases space on three billboards outside a small town, demanding to know why the police have not solved the rape and murder of her daughter.

The Verdict:  ... for instance, you could consider this.

Martin McDonagh is a man with a strange pedigree when it comes to film in specific and art in general. An English/Irish expat who is probably better known as a playwright than a filmmaker, he has directed only a couple of films, but these included the wonderfully quirky, and difficult to describe In Bruges, as well as 2012's incredibly strange (too much so for its own good, frankly), Seven Psychopaths. This isn't enough of a filmography to really establish a career trajectory, but insofar as one can describe McDonagh's work, he seems to be a fan of extremely black comedy. This isn't exactly an uncommon affectation for the indie-minded directorial set, and there is an established cabal of actors who make the circuit of such films, floating in and out of the Coen Brothers' orbits. Among these actors are Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell, and it is to them that McDonagh has turned to create one of the blackest comedies I've ever seen.

And holy hell, it's so good.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (the length of the title is going to necessitate some adjustment) is a wonderful film, brilliantly written, acted, shot, and produced on every level, a tour-de-force and one of the best movies of an incredible year. It is packed full of bleak humor and deep sincerity, with characters that are blunt and violent and awful and cruel and deeply human on every level. It introduces us to characters that have few if any parallels across mainstream cinema, and forces us to watch their lives and the way that they interact, mocking their foibles and showcasing their flaws all while forcing us to look past the mockery and the condemnation at the humanity beneath. No, I have not just segued into a particularly bad bout of Leonard Malkin worship, that is simply what the movie is about, and if you need further proof as to its qualities, consider that the film is more than two hours long, and part of the reason I didn't give it an even higher score is that I felt like it ended way too early.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the divorced mother of a dead daughter and a living son, the former having been raped and murdered by an unknown assailant some seven months before. Seething with anger and resentment at the lack of progress in the case, she takes it upon herself to rent out three billboards outside of town, castigating the town police chief by name for not prioritizing her case, and lashing out angrily at anyone who tries to talk her into taking them down, whether they attempt to do so by careful persuasion or blunt intimidation. This leaves Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, who has finally found a good role to play) in a bit of a bind, as he has no leads with which to solve the murder, and is presently busy dying of pancreatic cancer regardless. Willoughby's attempts to coax Mildred into taking down her billboards quietly are rebuffed, which infuriates Willoughby's chief deputy, Officer Dixon (Rockwell), a violent, racist thug and incompetent who nonetheless dreams of becoming a detective one day, and who takes care of his widowed mother as best he can. All of these characters, and the ones that surround them are fully realized people, horrible at times, violent, blunt and emotional, and watching them bounce off of one another is a true treasure. McDormand is on fire here, brimming over with relentless moral absolutism as she devastatingly rejects any and all excuses for why her daughter's murder has not been solved. Yet the film doesn't let her off the hook either, as her crusade for justice leads her to make demands that every male in town (or the country) have their DNA requisitioned to determine their guilt, and to ignore and even belittle the consequences that her crusade has for her still-living son (Manchester-by-the-Sea's Lucas Hedges). Harrelson, an actor I've never had a lot of use for, is almost as good this time, a cynical, weary sheriff who is simply trying to do right by everyone he knows with what little time he has left, the only person in town who manages to disarm Mildred, if
only for a moment. But the star of the show is Rockwell, who takes a character that in any other movie would be a (entirely genuine) caricature of small-town ignorance, and manages to humanize even him, using his gift for acidic comic timing and incomparable character work to render Officer Dixon into something more than just a repulsive slug, all without losing the inherent awfulness of who he is and what he does. McDonagh wisely simply lets the characters work, filling in the gaps with superb secondary work by actors like John Hawkes, playing Mildred's violent, probably-abusive ex-husband (again without losing the humanity of the character), or Peter Dinklage (who worked with McDonagh on In Bruges), playing a local car salesman with a deeply un-reciprocated crush on Mildred, who among other things gets one of the best lines in the film.

Mouthful though the name is, and limited though its release was, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an exceptional film, a staggering triumph of character design, writing, and acting, showcasing excellent actors at the peak of their craft. Not only does it contrive to present characters more rich, more nuanced, and more textured than most films would dare attempt, but it does all of this while still managing to come out a comedy, albeit a very dark one indeed. Moments like Dixon's inability to find his badge during a moment where it is particularly important that he do so, or Mildred getting one over on a dentist who decides to take it upon himself to enforce his own moral policing on her behavior are simply ludicrously funny, despite or perhaps because of the underlying issues smouldering beneath the town surface. The entire production is a consequent gem, a movie that demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys pure cinema, or anything related to the Coen Brothers' orbit.

But... if this sort of thing isn't really up your alley, don't worry...

Final Score:  8.5/10



Alternate Title:  El Mariachi

One sentence synopsis:    A boy who dreams of becoming a musician finds his way into the Land of the Dead, and must discover the truth about his ancestors.

The Verdict: ... we've got you covered.

Pixar was the defining animation studio of the 2000s, of that there's really no debating. The 2010s... not so much. An increasing addition to sequels to movies that were not all that good in the first place (the Cars series for instance) was coupled with new features that simply did not meet the high standards of their glory days. Brave, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur were decent movies, certainly, but not the equal of masterpieces like Up and Wall-E, and even these were intercut with things like Monsters University, Cars 2/3, and Finding Dory, which varied from the good to the... less good. Admittedly, most of the above films would have been perfectly acceptable offerings from any studio other than Pixar, but setting high expectations comes with the price of not being able to slum it insofar as the critics are concerned. And with parent company Disney's own in-house animation studio producing signature masterpieces like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, I, at least, began to wonder if Disney hadn't poached all of Pixar's best people or ideas, and if the studio would ever return to the prominence it once enjoyed.

I still wonder that, to be frank, but the question has become somewhat more nuanced in recent weeks, because it turns out that Coco is a goddamn masterpiece.

Yes, that's right, from out of nowhere whatsoever, Pixar has pulled a gem out of their bag of tricks and given us a movie as great as their classics of yesteryear, a film that deserves to sit in the same pantheon as the finest Pixar films to be found. Though not an emotional gut-ripper like Up or Toy Story 3 (movies I have watched reduce whole theaters to puddles of slobbery tears), nor perhaps quite the equal of the singular animated achievement that was Wall-E (one of the finest animated films ever made), Coco is nonetheless a staggeringly great film, thanks to a compelling story, wonderful music, gorgeous animation, and a whimsical sense of fantastical fun drawn from another of the diverse collection of world mythologies that Pixar (and Disney) have decided to dive into in recent times, in this case the Mexican folklore surrounding Dia de los Muertos, known better north of the border as the Day of the Dead.

Miguel Rivera, the young scion of a large Mexican family of shoemakers, dreams of becoming a musician, like his great-great-grandfather before him, a world-famous balladeer who died in an untimely accident many years before. Unfortunately, his family is stridently against music and musicians, due to turmoils stemming back to the family's past, and forbids such pursuits. With the Day of the Dead approaching, and the boundaries between spirit and real worlds wearing customarily thin, Miguel's efforts to circumvent his family-imposed restrictions lands him as an accidental trespasser in the Land of the Dead, where his large, extended family of dead relatives further complicates matters. The mythology here is rich and detailed, but not spelled out beyond the absolute basics required to follow the plot, relying instead on a deep, rich, beautifully-textured and omnicolored art design that draws from everything from Aztec reliefs to Diego Rivera and everything in between. From Alebrijes (chimerical particolored creatures of Mexican folklore), to posthumous cameos by Frida Kahlo and El Santo (just... look them up), the movie is absolutely dripping in clever cultural in-jokes and references, all rendered in Pixar style, with a color palate that explodes off the screen, and a depth of field that, even in 2D, seems to stretch on for miles. What feats of technical wizardry were required to produce this gorgeous film, I can't possibly say, but the effort was worth it, as rarely, even in animation, does one encounter a visual feast such as the one Coco has to offer.

Equally good is the voice-cast, neither stunt-cast from name-brand celebrities nor tossed out as the least important element of the film (you may laugh, but I've watched major studios do both of those things with multi-hundred-million-dollar animated films in the last couple of years alone). Gael Garcia Bernal, of The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel, No, and Desierto, voices Hector, a con-artist and poor dead man with nobody left in the living world to remember him, with whom Miguel falls in in his attempt to find his illustrious ancestor. The ancestor in question is voiced by the increasingly ubiquitous Benjamin Bratt, an actor I have had little use for in the past (he was not exactly riveting in The Infiltrator), but who is unrecognizably excellent in this. Indeed both Bernal and Bratt, as well as youngster Anthony Gonzalez (playing Miguel) are spot on perfect in voice work that rivals anything being done in any animated context in recent years. Miguel is a clever, driven boy, desperate to follow his dreams despite the violent opposition of his entire extended family, living and dead alike, Hector is a trickster and a scoundrel, apparently on first-name terms with half of the dead of Mexico (most of whom would seemingly kill him if he wasn't already dead), while Miguel's Great Grandfather, Ernesto De la Cruz, is the sort of character that would be appearing in particularly un-self-aware telenovellas from the 1940s, all large hats and sweeping gestures. All three, along with a veritable army of secondary and tertiary characters are drawn so brilliantly well, but figuratively and literally, that the movie just (if you'll forgive the term, pops to life before you. And then there's the music, assembled by veteran film composer Michael Giacchino, whose credits include everything from Zootopia to Rogue One to half of Marvel's Phase 3 offerings. Infused deeply with everything from Bolero to Flamenco to Salsa to classic Mariachi fare, it's a fantastic accompaniment for a film that is, ultimately, about diving headfirst into a fantasy realm and luxuriating in its richness.

Coco is certainly not a perfect movie. The film's plot, when boiled down to bare bones, is nothing that special, and it carries a very strange message that could easily be interpreted as "stick with your family, even when they are abusive dicks", but balanced against the fundamental qualities of the film as a film, such complaints are very small beer. Coco is the first Pixar film in nearly a decade that has earned the title of "a Pixar film", and this fact alone should banish all doubt. It is a bouncy, adventurous film, with a vibrant atmosphere and a genuine warmth absent from all but the absolute finest animated movies on offer. Practically everything about this movie is fantastic, and if, like me, you assumed that Pixar's best years were behind them... well you were still probably right, but at least they can still muster up the old magic when it really matters.

Final Score:  8.5/10


The Disaster Artist

Alternate Title:  Oh hi, Oscarbait!

One sentence synopsis:    A would-be actor meets one of the strangest men on Earth, who finances, writes, and directs a feature film that will go on to become one of the worst movies ever made.

The Verdict: There's a concept in film criticism of a movie being "so bad, it's good", movies that are so baffling in their utter wretchedness that they become paradoxically fascinating and even highly enjoyable to watch. As someone who has spent more than their fair share of time watching bad films, I can assure you all, my gentle readers, that such concepts are 99% crap. Bad movies are generally just bad movies, unless of course they are really bad, at which point they become truly awful movies, and you all get to chortle at my misfortune as I expend rivers of virtual ink excoriating them for your amusement. And yet, even I have to admit that there are a very, very small handful of movies who actually do manage to attain some kind of idiot-nirvana, either by being so alien to common sense and decency as to defy belief, or by evidencing an almost touching lack of awareness of their own purulence. Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous Ed Wood magnum opus, is one such film, a movie that today plays like a brilliant parody of Z-grade 50s sci-fi, and features a chiropractor with his face covered serving as a stand-in for Bela Legosi, who died midway through production. Zardoz, the 1974 John Boorman film that can only be explained by vast quantities of hallucinogens or a series of massive brain aneurysms, is another (it features Sean Connery in a red diaper chasing a flying Easter Island statue which vomits assault rifles and intones, with stark gravitas, "The gun is good. The penis is evil"). In all the many years and hundreds and thousands of movies I have seen, only a handful of films have ever reached the lofty heights of being truly so bad that they were good. And one of those is The Room.

The Room, for those who haven't seen it, is a film that defies description in terms of its direction, script, and acting, all three provided by a certain Tommy Wiseau, who is one of the strangest people I have encountered in all my years of filmwatching. A mysterious pan-European film producer of unknown origin, whose accent is unsourceably weird and whose mannerisms resemble those of space aliens unacquainted with the proper functioning of human social structures, Wiseau was the brainchild of The Room, and for this has my eternal thanks. To attempt to describe what is wrong with The Room in a short-form review like this one is simply impossible. Like the Matrix before it, you must see it for yourself, hear Wiseau's unfathomable accent, see the brain-twistingly insane decisions made as to continuity, shot selection, and simple concept, in order to appreciate just what a colossal misfire that it is. And yet I love it, earnestly and honestly, for reasons that I do not properly comprehend, and which likely do not speak well of my general nature as a person. There is something endearing about The Room's cosmic lack of shame and filter, something utterly fearless about its baffling failure to rise to any rudimentary standard of filmcraft and narrative structure. It is platonic in its awfulness, and the ineffable qualities that have led me to love it are apparently not restricted to me, as the film has become a cult hit, playing to midnight screens of rabid "fans", and now, giving birth to a major Hollywood movie depicting its creation, and the minds, tangential to sense as they are, that could have dreamed up such a thing. And so we come to the Franco brothers.

James Franco has been a hit or miss quality for me for years, though on balance I don't mind him, and it is his task in this film to portray Tommy Wiseau, a Herculean one to be sure, as Wiseau has simultaneously one of the most imitable mannerisms and accents of any living human, and a quality to him that utterly defies replication. James does his method-acting best, hamming up the crazy Eastern-European-by-way-of-New-Orleans accent, donning the tragic black hair and curious mannerisms, acting weird at every opportunity, claiming to all and sundry that he is both a native-born American and an experienced filmmaker, all while evidencing absolutely no understanding of either filmmaking or American culture. It's honestly more of an impression than a performance, if I'm being honest, a little too deliberate to actually match the gonzo insanity that is Tommy Wiseau, especially when trying to mirror some of the more infamous sequences from The Room itself. Maybe James Franco is just too good an actor? Hard to say. His brother, however, Dave Franco, whom we ran into earlier this year back in The Little Hours, is better, or perhaps just better cast, playing Greg Sistero, Tommy's best (and probably only) friend, co-star of the Room, and the man who wrote the book on which The Disaster Artist is based. I've not seen enough of Dave Franco to properly gauge how good he is, but his forte seems to be playing earnest young guys getting dragged into strange circumstances they don't quite know how to deal with. Honestly though, however accurate Dave Franco is to the "real" Greg SIstero, he's intensely compelling here, playing the eager young actor who is made to bear witness to the absurd oddity of Tommy Wiseau, as well as the one tasked with showcasing to the audience just what he saw in Tommy in the first place. It's a careful balancing act that's not easy to pull off given the gonzo insanity of the subject matter.

The rest of the film is entirely peopled with a who's who of Hollywood actors, all of whom, I assume, thought it would be fun to appear in a bad movie on purpose for once. The film doesn't draw attention to any of them, to the point where I didn't know that bit characters were being played by Sharon Stone or Melanie Griffith until just a few moments ago, to say nothing of the dozens of little cameos, most of which flew right over my head. Long-time Franco collaborator Seth Rogan plays the embattled Script Supervisor/Assistant Director, and is used just sparingly enough to provide a voice of reason as the shoot for The Room goes completely off the rails, and the production falls apart. The other actors portraying the characters in The Room (the film-within-a-film thing is necessitating an awful lot of over-clarification in this review) range from Jackie Weaver (whom I've always loved) to Josh Hutcherson (whom I've generally not), but all of them are excellent (though Weaver, alone among the cast, cannot seem to get her counterpart's stilted performance right), and are buttressed by an armada of cameos from largely anyone who could convince the director (also James Franco, because a movie like this could only be directed by its lead actor) that they should be involved in it. Quite a few celebrities star as themselves, including super-producer Judd Apatow, who gets to steal one of the better scenes in the film when he berates Tommy for being a creepy bastard and interrupting his dinner out with his wife, insisting to him that he has no future in the movies.

Indeed, the whole film is more about Tommy the weird and occasionally creepy bastard, than it is about the fun-loving keystone-kop hilarity that was The Room's production. The movie pulls few punches when it comes to Tommy, recognizing his passion for film-making, his deep and abiding loneliness, as well as his staggeringly petty behavior as soon as anything comes between him and his one friend or goal. Without trying to diagnose a man over the internet, Tommy in this movie comes across as a truly weird individual, not in a conventional "zany artist" manner, nor a bumbling incompetent, but a sometimes-vindictive, sometimes-incomprehensible, sometimes-tragic, and sometimes-absurd figure who simply has latched onto the idea of making a movie with himself as the hero, and will not be talked out of it, no matter how batshit insane the ideas he has surrounding this notion are. This does not make Tommy Wiseau look particularly good, but paradoxically it humanizes him far more than all the gut-wrenching laughs to be had from The Room showings ever could.

I won't pretend that The Disaster Artist is some masterpiece, particularly as large stretches of it seem to have been included simply to pander to rabid fans of The Room (something I recognize, even as I appreciate it. And as mentioned before, for a film whose entire existence hinges on Franco's impression of the highly-impressionable Tommy Wiseau, Franco's impression is not exactly world-class. But it's an enjoyable and very human film nonetheless, a look into the side of Hollywood far removed from glitter and Oscar statuettes, and the story of how one of the weirdest films I have ever seen (and boy is that saying something) came into being. It may not win many awards, but I am deeply glad that I saw it, and that Tommy Wiseau lifelong dream to have his work appreciated on the big screen has come to fruition.

Though I have to say, if this movie somehow wins an Oscar, and the winner in question brings Tommy Wiseau up onto the stage to help accept it, then my lifelong dream will also be complete.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time: The last roundup of the year covers the films we saw this December, and what a collection of oddities they are...

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