svorva

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Reviews

Logan Lucky
(2017)

Ocean's with ......
A heist movie with NASCAR, pageants, and pool of pig's feet: sound like a good idea? This is not a rhetorical question. Theoretically I could provide insight, but truthfully, after the analysis I am just going to deliver a verdict that is basically my number out of 10 answer to this question. Yes, there is going to be the rest of the review, but if you're deciding on whether to see Logan Lucky backtrack to sentence one. Your answer is more important than anything I have to offer.

Logan Lucky is an Ocean's with rednecks. Normally critics use comparisons of this format out of laziness. Movie is other movie, but with other stuff. Ingenious. I only stoop to this since Logan Lucky bludgeons you over the head with the blunt end of this premise and to ignore this fact is to be negligent. Steven Soderberg might have had déjà vu when he first read the script. An ensemble cast, long set up, the job, failure?, and, with the benefit of a flashback revealing new perspective, the sting. Ocean's and Logan Lucky are not similar because they are both heist films with the same director, it's because they have the same structure. The West Virginia vibe, a façade.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is latest recipient of the Logan curse. Although content to live simply (without cellphones), his life is threatened when ex-wife (Holmes) wants to move taking their daughter with her. Jimmy is unemployed and desperate. Auspiciously, Jimmy's recent construction job has allowed him intimate knowledge of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, including the subterranean network of pipes transporting cash. Jimmy enlists the help of his younger brother Clyde (Driver), convincing him to get incarcerated so Clyde can conspire with locked up explosives expert Joe Bang (Craig). Together with sister Mellie (Keough) and Joe's bumpkin brothers, the team hopes to break the pair out of prison, pull of the heist of the century, and return the pair to the prison unnoticed. It is a solid plan, but unexpected advances in construction prompts immediate action. The team is forced to give up or tackle the mark during a Memorial Weekend race, the grandest event of the year.

So the bluegrass rift is clearly a creation from someone who has only interacted with Boone Country through TV. Our protagonist is a down on his luck ex-football player with a bum leg, recently divorced, has a daughter in beauty pageants, a veteran brother, daisy duke wearing sister, and his favorite song is, of course, Country friggin Road. Clearly an exploration of the Appalachian experience this is not. Silliness abound, still Logan Lucky is a charmer. I say this knowing that there are those who will never fall for country charm.

Now let us look at the salespeople. With the possible exception Adam Driver, every actor here is clearly playing a part, but loving every minute. Authenticity is out the window, but the magnetism is everywhere. Hillary Swank shows up in the third act as an FBI agent, the closest thing we get to an antagonists, and even her exaggeratedly stern character is likable. Charming potato Channing Tatum has performed variations of this shtick successfully his whole career. Even country pioneer Dwight Yoakam gets in on the act as a warden maybe possibly perchance inspired by Cool Hand Luke. But Daniel Craig is king. He plays the anti-Bond. Totally unrefined and downright bubbly, he is clearly having more fun than any other cast member, maybe even most audiences. The scene in which this convict hick pauses the robbery to explain the chemistry of his explosions is the best of the movie.

I initially referred to the players as salespeople because such slickness aimed at amiability might be occasionally disconcerting, but possibly the only option for the material. The essence of Logan Luck is hockey beyond belief, but never is this pile of clichés painful. If there is anything more to enjoying Logan Lucky then the premise, its understanding the premise is a total fabrication. There is a line describing the events as "Ocean's 7-11." These characters might eat at 7-11, but to suggest this is more real than Ocean sophisticated team is ridiculous. This is a totally contrived fantasy world from people who watched too much Beverly Hillbillies. And I love it.

Dunkirk
(2017)

Familiar Tricks, Unlike Any War Film
The only explanation of the events surrounding Dunkirk are few lines of text and Nazi propaganda. Maps of France, covered in red demarcating German territory, which falls on a squad of British solider scavenging in an abandoned city. It declares: Surrender + Survive. Within seconds of an enemy encounter, only one soldier will survive. This sequence is the closest we will get to combat depicted in more exhilarating war movies. Not in this scene nor any other do we see a single Nazi solider.

War is a favorite subject, why is obvious. Any emotion can be provoked, any existential question explored, against a backdrop of war. As a result, a diverse pantheon of great war films have emerged. Dunkirk, by critical demand, is set to join these hallowed ranks. Call these proclaimers Nolan fanboys, but already comparison are being made to the likes of standards Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. But this is a disservice to all parties. Of the three aforementioned film, all belong to the same genre, but when each are distilled to their most base essence, I would only describe 1 ½ as being "about" war. Almost unimaginable, there is a grander scale where war is just a subtheme e.g. an exploration of human madness. Nolan strives for the exact opposite in Dunkirk. Dunkirk seeks to narrow the scope, it is not about war, or WW2, or even really an event in WW2. Thus the opening scene, were context is rendered to a few measly lines. Don't panic, or at least not yet. Dunkirk is a story of many struggles for survival, and Nolan is going to root through his usual bag of tricks to extract this perspective from history's grandest retreat.

Nolan is back to his trademark storytelling technique in Dunkirk. There are three major plot lines cut together in nonlinear fashion. Two soldiers attempt to escape the beach, a trio of civilians cross the channel on a one boat rescue mission, and a pilot defends all against German aircraft. Individually, each account is almost overly simplistic, but they are edited so that a sleepy film-goer might find the narrative incompressible. The temporal dicing can lead to monumental changes in shot composition from cut to cut, including night to day, clear skies to grey, and from calm to raging seas. When plot lines do briefly converge, their might be a 40 minute gap between one perspective and its reflection. Audiences looking for plot to serve as a guide will be lost. Then, when they make the logical next step a look for a central character, they will grow more bewildered. Dunkirk relies on an ensemble cast, I would be impressed by anyone perceptive enough to walk out of the theater remembering any two characters' names. No time to really explore individual performances, but the cast is astounding. Quality notwithstanding, no single part is hefty enough to serve as a focal point. Without defining plot or characters, people looking to evaluate Dunkirk on their customary schema are going to be unfulfilled. Where the heart of most films lie, Nolan has created a void. Dunkirk is a masterpiece because beyond this absence there is only intentioned craft.

Dialogue is a rare interruption in Dunkirk. There is virtually no exposition. Still, gleaning motivation is never a problem. The solider pair making up 1/3 of Dunkirk observe their situation, and, without speaking, mutually understand the best path to survival. The closest we get to a comical moment is when the duo simply look to each other, no choice to what their next act must be. The audience understands these characters by the same method they understand each other. Only later we learn speech that could have espoused the situation was impossible. The score speaks clearer than any dialogue. What Zimmerman lacks in subtly here is compensated by his brutal effectiveness. Symphonic blaring with an omnipresent ticking, the crux is dissonance rather than resolution. Audiences will pray for silence and its arrival is rapturous. But the eyes will be as overwhelmed as the ears. Dunkirk is constantly upsetting with vastnesses of oceans, beach, and sky as counterpoints against confined quarters, dense with humanity and rising water. There is no rest, or even catharsis. None of the hallmark exhilaration associated with the genre. Death comes via suicide, stairs, water, and oil. Extinction by strafing is almost pleasant because it is familiar within the context of war.

Dunkirk should not happen under the laws of moviedom, it is a fortunate example of when a powerful director can tell a story of personal importance with personal style. The most common criticism will be from those who entirely missed the point, complaints about story and character despite the deliberate steps to make clear these ideals were never the goal. Saving Private Ryan fails if you walk out of the theater without remembering the name of Hank's character. Make a rule of thumb from this, but not a universal standard. For some, the blunderous beautify of war exemplified in films like The Big Red 1. These are their war films. That's fine, but you must also appreciate Dunkirk which requires a bit of investment and does not hold your hand. I can only hope this is not too much of a burden.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
(2017)

A Smaller Superhero
Spider-Man: Homecoming is further evidence that the superhero genre is completely out of gas. Simultaneously, this new Spiderman with his high school shenanigans arguably makes the best laughs and action summer movie of the year. Maintaining these two opinions is not an attempt at contrarianism, rather optimism. I hope this take on Spiderman is an omen of better films to come.

To clarify, when I say "out of gas" I am not commentating on the reboot status. Business is business. Movie rights for Spider Man have been a drama in and of itself. That's not the problem. I'm commentating on the genre: origin stories, high stakes, and humor adjacent to dour edge. The hallowed Marvel cinematic universe is tired. So even though this Spiderman is closer to a spider boy, his role in this world is beyond approach. After all, Thor is in the Marvel universe. Ant Man is in the Marvel universe. A ham sandwich is overqualified as a member of the Marvel universe. Past iterations of the coming of age hero portrayed the character as full of anger and angst. I will have to consult my resident comic book guy, but Homecoming's Peter Parker seemingly returns to the source material. A struggling teenager who combats inadequacy with cheek and a bit of sulk. A character we have all seen before, but maybe less familiar in the guise of a superhero.

Spiderman is a teenager movie first and a superhero second. The Earth threatening consequences take back seat as to whether if Peter Parker can survive high school and ask his crush to the dance. A story of a teen superhero trying to function while fighting crime only to come back home and look himself up on YouTube. Kick A$$ tried this 7 years ago, but that's ancient history. More importantly while Kick A$$ desperately tried to be dark and subversive, Homecoming is just a film content with its place in the universe. Literally. Spiderman can rely on his Avenger brothers to define what it is to be a superhero focusing on doughy best friend fanboy and the rest of the decathlon team. Ironman is shanghaied into role of father figure with the protagonist son who feels underestimated. Captain America is the Boy Scout leader with no helpful advice for those of us living in the real world. Sucked into Homecoming's vortex, in this new reference frame heavy hitting hero reemerge as square authority figures.

In Homecoming, there is not time to waste on origin stories or even Uncle Ben. Peter Parker/Spiderman (Holland) has already battled Captain America in the events of the Winter Soldier. Now Peter finds himself largely abandoned by the Avengers, with only Tony Stark encouraging him to be a friendly neighborhood Spiderman. This leaves Peter helping old ladies and battling bicycle thieves with middling results. Peter feels under-appreciated on the job but overwhelmed at school. Hopelessly infatuated with senior Liz and relentlessly bullied by preppy Flash, he is the superhero at the bottom of every totem pole. Overwhelmed, but still full of grand ambitions, equally nerdy best friend Ned is his only ally. So when the villain Vulture (Michael "Birdman" Keaton) swoops into the story it is Pete's chance at deliverance or total destruction. Is Spiderman a superhero or just boy Icarus who flew a bit too close to the sun? Vulture/Adrian Toomes/Michal Keaton is kinda perfect. Toomes is in charge of a salvage crew cleaning up the mess left behind by the Avengers. This is a break of a lifetime for his company and family, but this dream is swept away when cronies of Stark Industries lay claim to all salvaging operations. Ruined, the team criminally off scraps of alien technology and the Vulture is born. Toomes is a working class hero. And after watching three Iron Man movies, I cannot help but root for Toomes' revenge against arrogant billionaire weapons dealer Stark. Keaton is all charm, a reminder that one nice thing about big budgets is that they attract top talent. But remember, this is still a high school movie, so in an epic twist we discover Toomes has an additional identity and it is so perfect all I could do was applaud.

Holland (spidey) is a neophyte compared to veteran Keaton, but he carries the movie as the protagonist and deserves the corresponding praise. He has this cracking voice that is maddening yet perfect for the role. When a criminal calls him a girl it is not an elementary school insult, but a joke about the performance. I have never laughed more in any superhero movie. There is of course the usual quirky bunch of students, but they are so lovable here. Mr. Harrington, decathlon coach, me in hysterics. Perfect amount of superhero cameos. Homecoming had the entire theater in a laugh riot. Only the over reliance of teenage movie tropes really held Spiderman back from greatness. Of course the girl is going to go to the dance. They never don't end up going to the dance. This idealized high school myth. I know I am a curmudgeon who hated his formative years, but this is just saccharine. After one (admittedly sublime) twist the pieces have all been set and there is only one way the game can play out. The climax has high altitude action, but does not really thrill. Not flawless, or totality original, but a step forward after years of stasis, Spiderman: Homecoming convinced me that superhero movies are not a lost cause. Ball in your court Marvel.

Baby Driver
(2017)

First Remarkable Film of 2017
So Baby Driver is great and if you have not already seen it you should.

We'll expand on that thought in a moment, but first your critic is going to whine about tangentially related personal problems. I just snuck this bit of actual substance in first so you would not justifiably skip the remainder of the review after reading the next paragraph.

Undergoing a bit of an existential crisis. 2017 seems unremarkable thus far, full of 5/10 movies that with spin I could justify a point one way or another. Sure, there are the annually under-appreciated foreign and art-house releases, but nothing hype in the mainstream, nothing worth sharing with friends. So all my reviews just seemed to rain on people's parades. Where is the nobility in criticism? Is Wonder Woman really a disaster? Am I just completely out of touch?

So the Wonder Woman draft got tossed (This kid has drafts? If he felt good enough to share this, imagine what he scrapped). An opinion no one was waiting for or wanted to hear. The greater loss was of spirit. I had just polished a 30,000 word essay and was eyeing the recycle bin like deranged writers of decades past, glowering at their roaring fireplace. My toil was narcissistic expressionism and I was ready to surrender. Scene set, enter salvation.

Baby Driver is the first movie of 2017 that I am going to remember come 2018. A genre picture, but auteur Edgar Wright subverts tropes and our expectations more subtly than in any of his past efforts. If there were any qualms that Wrights direction was geared toward niche fanboys, this is the proof otherwise. So please, don't let Baby Driver just be my personal deliverance.

I don't think a plot synopsis is going to be useful. Time better spent figuring what exactly is Baby Driver. Comparison is the standard method, but this only works so well. Baby Driver is a heist film. A car chase film. Draws influence from those 90's L.A. crime films. And the 70's classic The Driver, well Baby Driver borrows far more than just a cameo. Baby Driver feels familiar, but easily proved distinct from any film it feels linked to. Obviously the archetype for the cold dominating mastermind Doc (Spacey) can be seen past films. So can the child in denial Buddy (Hamm), his enabler Darling (Gonzalez), and the cunning, furious, dangerous Bat (Foxx). Of course there is One Last Job. But this is a heist film where we are not permitted to watch a single heist. A car film where the music is just as important as the chase. A L.A. crime thriller set in Atlanta.

So what do we have here? We have Baby (Elgort). A getaway driver that does not seem to belong in the criminal world, or maybe any world. Baby is withdrawn, sunglasses and earbuds are constant fixtures. Watch how he bumps into every pedestrian as he dances through the streets (in one long shot). His compatriots question if he even hears the plan, but Baby is just trying to cope, a vulnerable soul in a brutal line of work. His favorite tool is his omnipresent assorted music. More than just a soundtrack, Edgar Wright described Baby Driver as a "car musical." It's a cute description, although more a quip for critics to regurgitate than accurate observation, but does emphasize how sequences are defined by their music. It is impossible to describe the first chase without mentioning the song "Bellbottoms." However, unlike in your typical musicals, the world does not start and stop for a song. It's all naturally integrated. Baby uses music to smother his surroundings, logically it would play a major role in our perspective. Almost any sound track this loud and in your face would be overkill, a blunder, but just like Baby, Edgar Wright has style while remaining utterly unpretentious. Wright utilizes cinematic technique that in other films would be called distracting or unnecessary, but when everything is in place and the flow is unquestionable. With music like this, the setting cannot be L.A., it absolutely has to be Atlanta. All the musician cameos, justified. The name on Baby's birth certificate? I won't spoil, but there is only one perfect answer.

Baby Driver just kills. The critics love it, my friends love it, I love it, and I love talking about it. I shouldn't hope, but I pray a film so zany, so early in the year, so not set in L.A. can steal an Oscar or at least a nom. Academy approval of Baby Driver or not, you can be sure six months down the road I will be writing about the decision.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
(2017)

I'm Sailing with Jack Until the End
Odysseys evolve with every chapter. The hero grows while the scenery passes by. Then there are the disasters, with each subsequent episode so disappointing that it begs the question why we enjoyed the ride to begin with. Finally there are the cruises like Pirates of the Caribbean. Dead Men Tell No Tales is neither a return to former glory nor a promise of greatness to come, but it is enough so a fan might reminisce with a smile on their face.

I am sticking with this voyage till the end.

Pirates 5 offers no compelling new characters and a clunky plot, but has the franchise defining Jack based laughs and the absurd action sequences. Unlike its predecessor, this film is not instantly forgettable. Henry Turner (Thwaites) son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, takes center stage in this installment. He is in pursuit of Poseidon's Trident, a panacea with the power to release his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Hearing myths, Turner seeks the Jack Sparrow (Depp) to aid in his quest. Also enlisting in the crew is scientist Carina (Scodelario), who also seeks the trident as a clue to her lost heritage. This expedition is endangered by a cursed Spanish crew lead by Captain Salazar (Bardem) Jack's eternal enemy and greatest fear.

In Curse of the Black Pearl, there was a one golden medallion and a cursed pirate fleet. In Dead Man's Chest, there was a key, a disembodied heart, a cursed pirate fleet, and the British Empire. Now included, but not limited to, in Dead Men Tell No Tales are: a trident, a diary, a ruby, a blood moon, the compass with more rules, the Black Pearl in a bottle, Blackbeard's sword, an accused witch, an actual witch, two curses, two Turners, Jack's crew, captain Barbosa, his armada, undead Spanish pirate hunters, the British empire, and a man wearing pearls with an unattractive sister. We have lost the way. I am pretty lenient on sequels with uninteresting plots, but this is convoluted enough to interfere with the good stuff. I would say the script needs a rewrite, but I am willing to bet that's what got us here to begin with. Lone highlight is a wonderful flashback revealing Jack's backstory, an island of concise and gap filling storytelling in a sea of bafflement. The plot is a mess, but we are not here for the plot.

Unfortunately, we are here for character and these new additions just add to the boring bewilderment. I like the return to naivety in Turner contrasting with Jack's cleverness, but there is no for him chance to shine. More remarkable is Carina, who compared with original Elizabeth seems more intelligent yet out of her league. Still, she feels more like a device to advance the plot then a thinking, breathing, human. Fortunately, one woman's loss is probably a certain pirate's gain.

Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow feels like a living legend of a lost lineage. Part of a tradition spanning from Buster Keaton to Robin Williams. Cinematic comics in constant motion. Performance are more than just a pile of witty lines, but how the actor moves with them. There is more humor in Sparrow's literal hands than half of contemporary comedies. No, Depp is not as sharp or original as he was a decade ago, here he is constantly in a drunk stupor which is a typical act anyone can pull. Still, if Jack is your reason for buying a ticket you are getting a good chuckle to dollar exchange. Thank the return of the completely implausible set pieces that Pirates has mastered over the years. This film is competing another franchise, but here there is a scene with Jack bound to a guillotine that got a laugh from the audience twice as large as anything I have heard in Guardians. The musical theme is still unforgettable, and the sense of exhilaration when it plays remains. Unfortunately most of the magic is spent in the first act, replaced by impressive CGI sea battles with ghost pirates that I have kinda become used to. Pirates is too uneven and overploted to be great or even very good, but the heartbeat endures. Dead Men Tell No Tales is enough for fans to recall the wonder and maybe even return for another sequel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
(2017)

Now With 100% Less Hooked on a Feeling
Hooked on a Feeling was a modest 60's love song performed by forgotten pop star B.J. Thomas. A simple love song, I mostly enjoy it for the electric sitar intro. No, this is not the tune that resurged during the summer of '14. You're thinking of Blue Swede's cover, a track whose abrasiveness can only be matched by the band's pun name. Unoriginal kitsch. Even the (questionably racist) ooga-chakas were hijacked from an earlier cover. I loathe this song, the anthem of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. So naturally I enjoyed Vol. 2 more.

Three years ago I walked out of a theater befuddled. I enjoy space adventures. Guardians had both worthwhile characters and a few good laughs. Yet, I remember feeling largely unsatisfied. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 offers a bit of clarity. The introductions and backstory are all out of the way, now we can finally have a couple hours of quality time. This is a welcome change. My revelation is that it is not the plot or the middling protagonists that carry Guardians, but the side characters with their (literally) colorful world and humor.

Plot. Star Lord Quill (Pratt) and his band of misfits are back, albeit their tree is one tenth the size but thrice as cute. The Guardians get a gig with the imprisoned blue sister villain (name forgotten) as a reward. However, Rocket botches the mission by pilfering the cosmic batteries they were supposed to protect, only to be saved by a mysterious man with unbelievable power. This is the subtly named celestial Ego (Russel), Peter Quill's father and Yondu's (Rooker) original employer. Ego invites Quill and his friends to join him on his utopia planet where he hopes to have some bonding time with his son. Half the crew remains behind to fix the ship, blue sister escapes then rampages, and a mournful Yondu is ousted in a mutiny. Basically hijinks that I won't spoil for your ensue leading up to a final confrontation on Ego's paradise. There is a secret and a purpose beneath the surface of this beautiful lifeless planet. So dark that Ego's servant Mantis (Klementeiff) is reluctant to share. The Guardians will have to save the world a second time and I guess learn a lesson about family.

Guardians Vol. 2 evoked in me, an almost Zen reaction. As the movie winded down after the final climax I almost wondered if I had missed an act. Lights on, curtain down, power up the cellphone, lo and behold I had just watched a two hour fifteen minute film. Nothing really happens, nothing was unfinished, and I was never bored. Not your typical blockbuster fare. The story is just a device, not why you're watching the film.

Chris Pratt is the new age Hollywoodified anti-hero, he is supposed to be cool because he transcends cool. His character never has the right words and can only expresses himself through dated pop culture references in a universe where no one could possibly understand. Although endearing, Pete Quill should not be a captain of ship nor a movie, fortunately in Vol 2. he has a crew with which he can share responsibilities. Rumors of Gamora (Saldana) having personality or appearing in this film have been grossly exaggerated, but Drax (Bautista), Groot (Diesel), Rocket (Cooper), and Yondu are the side character lesser films dream of. They each have carved out their own comedic space. Their lines and shenanigans are uniquely identifiable. I did not care for a moment what was going on in Vol. 2, but I did care about who it was happening too.

Half the footage in this film is inessential. That is not a criticism from me, but I am sure some will disagree. If you enjoy the inconsequential and the associated comedy you are going to enjoy Vol 2. Humor is arguably the most subjective element in film, but I cannot imagine anyone enjoy the original and hating the sequel. One unfortunate side note. I am not interested in political correctness, but Mantis is a caricature of a racist stereotype. I am not saying I was offended and you should be too, I was just baffled I was seeing this in 2017. Even more astonishing was I had trouble finding any similar reactions. Maybe I am out of touch, but if this is tolerable social media warriors need to go out and fight the real enemy. Still, I can forgive this oversight. I have never seen an episode of Star Trek, but Vol 2 is what I imagine, just grander. Almost campy, with its multicolored humanoids and pop rock, but forever lovable because of the charming crew.

Beauty and the Beast
(2017)

Tale as Old as Time, Review too Old to be Timely
I was out of the country during Beauty and the Beast's opening. At the time I could care less, now I am a bit disappointed. There is no chance this review will scale the mountain of 600 more timely critiques. I'm not gonna get a single view. Back then I did not care, I was more interested in the reaction than the film itself. I already assumed the critical consensus would be mildly positive, the only question remaining was if audiences would be tired of a remake. Well, B&theB made budget on first weekend, so expect Disney live action remakes in the future. Still, popular pundits were unhappy. Beauty and the Beast was heralded as a pointless remake of a classic. Even as I wandered Shibuya ward with the soundtrack playing in the streets, I resolved to skip the film after returning stateside. Weeks later, I wake up to find my younger siblings have made plans to see a movie and that I am coming. So here I am, pleasantly surprised.

You're a crusty bunch denizens of the internet. I, like you, agree that there is an increased burden of proof for remakes. However, many of you must have gone to the theater convinced you were going to have a lousy time. Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as 1757 with films adaptations released around the globe since 1946. Does this retelling innovate and drive the narrative to new heights? Absolutely not, but I will claim that this iteration is entertaining and does enough to justify its existence.

The story and most songs remain the same. It's not a shot for shot remake, but if you had any problems with the animated classic, I doubt they went anywhere. Personally, I still think the first song "Belle" makes the title character appear as a brat. Does this immaturity validate Belle's growth and some character arch? Honestly, it has been two films and I am still not sure. Additionally, the Beast is not ugly. This conforms to the axiom that protagonists can never be hideous. It is an ongoing problem that has existed since the '46 version. No serious sins here. If you enjoyed the animated edition and are unallergic to a flagrant derivation there is nothing at the heart to despise. The additional 40 minutes of runtime is spent on a couple songs, a bit more Belle backstory, and most conspicuously some dimensionality to antagonist Gaston and his henchman Lefou. These clowns were pretty forgettable. Devoting additional time to expand these characters seems like a solid investment. Gaston's sick egocentrism and the yielding but aware Lefou are a worthwhile comedic duo. Unfortunately, the cornerstone of Beauty and the Beast is also the best argument for why the film should not exist. Emma Watson cannot sing. Her voice is excruciating enough to eject you from the world and back into your seat. Thankfully Belle does not participate in every song. Watson's acting between numbers is practical, but this is still awful casting. I don't think any more thought went into this decision beyond that a 160 million dollar picture needs a 16 million dollar face. Particularly painful is how easily this problem could have been fixed. The technology has existed for nearly 100 years. Dub her. Bigger actresses with better voices have been dubbed throughout Hollywood history and got over it. You think the sounds of rattling carts and the clomping horses were made by what you see on the screen? Movies are illusions.

Rant aside, I did enjoy Beauty and the Beasty. Beyond Watson's voice (okay I'm done now), is a lavish world. Fantasy, medieval, French. The budget did not wither away here. Every set is gorgeous and half the songs have 100s of elaborately choreographed extras. And the character design. Animation was once the only possible medium to realize Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, Cogsworth and Co, but now modern CGI is more than up to the challenge. Trailers do little justice. You certainly have never witnessed anthropomorphic furniture/dishware like this before. I never thought "Be Our Guest" would be matched in a remake. Too the purists I just insulted, maybe the original still remains supreme, but the fact they are comparable suggests this reimagining is worth your time. It's the same sense of bedazzlement. That feeling is worth more than original story. Beauty and the Beast only marginally expands character and narrative, but this potential shortcoming is compensated with visual ambition.

Logan
(2017)

The Next Generation of Superhero Films
The X-men might be the next step in human evolution, but until now, they were certainly not the next generation of superhero films. With the exception of Magneto, these mutants are a pretty forgettable bunch. They have a host of generic superpowers and equally unremarkable personalities. King of this bunch is the Wolverine. This character dominated the core franchise and spinoffs, ripping enemies to pieces in PG-13 glory. But even after a half a dozen movies this antihero never really grew beyond the loner among rejects persona. Honestly, the only character-centric scene I remember is a dialogue free montage of the immortal warrior fighting in American wars. I have seen enough movies that I know after the first twenty minutes rarely do things change for the better. By this standard, Logan (the 8th film featuring the Wolverine) is a miracle.

Logan takes place in the near future were no mutants have been born for decades. With his race virtually extinct, Logan/Wolverine works as a limo driver earning enough to support Professor Xavier. Xavier is suffering a degenerative brain disorder and is further addled by medication. To keep civilians safe, Logan conceals his former mentor in an isolated Mexican dump. Logan is also seriously ill and detached from the world, so when he is contacted by a stranger who knows his identity he wants none of it. This woman wants Logan's help in escorting a child to an "Eden" in North Dakota. Wolverine grudgingly accepts for cash, but when he finds the woman dead he returns to Mexico and Xavier. However, the child stowaways and with a small army in hot pursuit, Logan is inescapably involved. This mute child is Laura, an experimental subject. She is a product of the Wolverine's DNA, effectively Logan's daughter and a mutant with similar powers. Obviously, the corporation that created Laura wants her back. After a close escape, Logan, Xavier, and Laura head to North Dakota in search of Eden.

Logan is the conclusion of Jackman's Wolverine saga, equal parts superhero movie and contemporary western. Action sequences abound, but set to a background of dying old men driving across America's wastelands. One can sense director James Mangold's vision beyond the norm. His love for the genre has been expressed before in the 3:10 to Yuma remake. Here the approach works because of new vulnerability. Xavier is infirm and, like many elderly, he is stripped of dignity. His seizures and bouts of incomprehensibility recast the man, formally a paradigm of erudition and control. The classic wheelchair takes on brand new symbolism. When Xavier achieves moments of lucidity his reflections reach a profundity that was never matched in earlier films. Speaking of never before seen, this old man Logan. Even the fight sequences are not the same. With Wolverine's regenerative abilities hampered, finally bullets and beatings have consequences. The R rating also helps on this front. I could never quite ignore how a man could eviscerate enemies with metal claws without blood. Freddy Krueger must have been ashamed. But really this improved action is just an incidental upside. The mutants facing inevitable extinction is a scenario that allows for the character to thrive. The immortal veteran never fit comfortably in a boarding school for wayward children. A fight for survival where Logan has nobody to lean on is more reflective. Logan can finally assume the mantle as caretaker for what is left of his family. The best manifestation of this tough love is between Logan and pseudo father. It's shocking, watching Logan assist formerly omnipotent Xavier use the bathroom at a wayward gas station. Although less enthralling are scenes portraying a failed father and lost daughter. Logan has learned love, but he is used up, always drinking and practically coughing up a lung, finally beat. A classic western hero. There is a scene of Xavier and Laura watching the film Shane, but enthusiasts will recognize the tone and tropes without the direct reference. Hired hands, vast empty landscapes, the innocent family. The genre gives the film a familiar structure and ascetic core. Recognizable, but unlike any superhero movie before.

Unfortunately, character and tone brake down in the final act. I don't know what I expected, maybe an operatic twenty minute standoff? The film finally devolves into the been there seen that, dashing a chance at greatness. It's not that the end is even particularly unsatisfying, just that by then expectations had been raised. Still the ride was worth it, and I even walked out the theater optimistic. Logan suggests the potential of these massive multi-movie universes. Usually squandered sure, but with any luck Logan's success will open doors for directors, writers, and actors with fresh takes. Let's hope Logan is not an evolutionary dead end in the superhero movie genre.

John Wick: Chapter 2
(2017)

Action Flick and Cinema
After a few months of award season dramas, it's time for a break. I recommend John Wick to a female compatriot citing positive critical reviews. I emphasized this would be a "pure action" movie. Evidentially, I did not make my point clear. Companion despised this movie. Hated the absence of plot or reasoning. Fed up with ceaseless violence. "You hated it too, right?" Movies should be watched on their own terms. I enjoyed it.

In retrospect, this was not the correct opinion.

I certainly messed up the recommendation. I will not make the mistake again here. There are countless who will find absolutely nothing redeeming among the blood and the beatings in John Wick: Chapter 2. I bear no resentment and wish them pleasant theater going experiences. But I believe anyone who can tolerate pure action will find John Wick a cut above genre competitors. There is no moral justification or handholding. This standard affair is replaced with relentlessness and a brazen confidence where realized characters are presented without explanation. Disclaimer: John Wick is not for everyone, but anyone who enjoyed the original or anything similar, your gonna have fun.

I guess the plot. John Wick (Reeves) is cleaning up some messes that have arisen after his return. After some vicious pacification, John is ready to retire again to his home and new dog. But just when you think your out, they pull you back in. Santino D'Antonio, a kingpin from Johns past, arrives unannounced. Apparently John owes this man a favor, a Mark, a blood compact that is enforced by the shadowy forces that rule the Wickiverse. John initially refuses and gets his house blown up for the trouble. After seeking Winston's (McShane) advice, John accepts he must acknowledge the Mark. To fulfil the compact, John must assassinate Santio's sister, a leader of the high council. However, John is not one assassination away from a clean getaway. He is now a loose end interfering with a newly minted lord. Things are going to get dirty. Shenanigans ensue. Characters from the first chapter return with the appearance of a few fresh faces.

Kudos to Director Chad Stahelski for the technical precision. The former stuntman is clearly aware of the noble Hong Kong action lineage and he was willing to import the talent to the western hemisphere. Hollywood clearly lacks the choreographers, directors, and editors to produce a quality action sequence. Chapter 2 might not be as clean and intense as say, early Jackie Chan or current Indonesian movies, but it's a sure bet that no super hero movie is going to include a comparable fight scene this year.

The underworld backdrop of the original expands in Chapter 2. The shadowy figures in charge of this web, their origins, and rules are taken for granted in the universe just as we take them for granted in the audience. The result is a memorable world with minimal investment. New characters also furthered this motif. I loved under-appreciated actor Ian McShane's performance in the original. His idiosyncrasies ("Johnathan") and tone just immediately establish him as a denizen of this shadow world and we have a great idea of his role without being explicitly told. The Laurence Fishburne addition is almost too cute given his past history with Keanu, but Franco Nero and Ruby Rose are unforgettable. Nero (of Django fame) plays the Italian equivalent of Winston and the match is so perfect I wanted to laugh. Rose has a more significant role as evil henchman in chief. This forceful mute with a scowl that could launch a thousand ships is preferable to any meat headed muscleman. And yes, John Wick knows sign language. Why wouldn't he? I doubt there are thousands of people out there on the fence on whether they are going to see John Wick Chapter 2. Enjoy your sequel fans. And those for those who would hate John Wick and everything it stands for, take a deep breath and a step back. The filmmaking is on the high end of what we will get this entire year, it would be a shame if you never noticed. John Wick Chapter 2 is both action flick and cinema. A combo I will enjoy every chance I get.

Lion
(2016)

2017 Oscars: 100% Cheap Emotional Manipulation Free
I am happy to announce that no Best Drama for Housewives Honorary Oscar will be presented this year.

This semiannual disgrace is bestowed on syrupy films that garner widespread critical praise or awards. They contain emotionally manipulative plots with absolutely no interest in real world consequences. Room earned this distinction last year.

I make this announcement during my Lion review not just because I could not of a clever introduction. The comparison is just too obvious and proves Lion was a potential disaster averted by more refined creators. Both films are adaptations, Lion from the book A Long Way Home. Adaption is a tricky process for even the great filmmakers. One common problem, narration, murdered Room and even gave legend Scorsese trouble in the first act of his 2016 film Silence. Additionally, both movies uses the Child in Peril. An age old technique to manipulate audiences and grab their attention. This method's effectiveness is rooted in human nature and has depreciated in bygone decades. Maybe India's exoticness acted as a distraction, but Lion never felt cheap. Although the film begins to coast after the first act, Lion is the emotional experience we hope to get out of our best drama. I didn't laugh. I didn't cry. But my elation was real and my eyes might have been a bit moist.

Lion is based on the real life story of Saroo, introduced as a 7-8 year old boy (Sunny Pawar) living in the village of Ganesh Tali, India. He is the middle child in a family existing between survival and poverty. The father is absent and Saroo's mother works as a labor to secure a living. Saroo reveres his elder brother Guddu, not many years older, but already working and stealing to survive. Guddu frequently brings his brother on these excursion, but one evening Saroo falls asleep on a decommissioned train. Saroo is trapped on a 1000+ km journey across the subcontinent. After escaping in Calcutta, Saroo is alone and unable to speak the common language in a city filed with predators. Through both misfortune and luck, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple the Brierleys (Kidman, Wenam). Years later, Saroo (Dev Patel) is beginning a career when his forgotten past suddenly reenters his life. Traumatized, Saroo must reconcile with his past, his family, and his girlfriend (Mara).

The first act is sublime. I honestly have no idea how to evaluate child actors, but Pawar commands more love and best wishes than just any cute face. His innocence and filial devotion toward his brother makes him unforgettable. This purity exists in sharp contrast with the world around him. Village slums are bearable with family, but watching him alone in the streets of Calcutta is excruciating. Our perception of the child carries the film going forwarded. There is a natural affinity for older Saroo. His filial devotion remains, making him unmistakable from the child Saroo and still likable. We want this character who is still a child in our eyes to be spared suffering. As of writing, Dev Patel is nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His performance is certainly notable, but the nomination is more a result of underselling the role. Patel is the lead for 2/3 of the movie. That is beyond the scope of a supporting character, but Supporting Actor is much less competitive than Best Actor where Patel would have no chance. Kidman has her own nomination and her role is opposite. She sticks to the background, but then steps up and carries one crucial scene. She has no chance at hardware, but her performance provides some energy to otherwise bland acts. The actual goings on in the second half involve Saroo investigating his roots online, pretty uninteresting. Really the second half is devoted to character emotions, which considering nothing else is happening, are not complex. Obviously Saroo is damaged from his ordeal and simply forgetting his past is not psychologically satisfying. Lion tries working these feelings in the context of family, but by the time Saroo makes breakthroughs this attempt at an emotional tapestry becomes a throw rug. Instantly forgettable. A letdown, considering young Saroo and the cinematography are great film caliber. Lion might not be infallible, but it is the rare honest drama well worth a winter's evening.

Fences
(2016)

An Adapation that Stands on its Own Merit
I attended Fences with full intention of writing a review. It's a hobby. You can sit down, start a piece, and finish. No one is paying me, I don't slog through a dozen revisions, or listen to an editor. And the reward is there, akin to a conversation with a close friend before even exiting the theater. The best are better and the disasters are suddenly goldmines.

But sometimes the words are dead on the page. Out of habit, I scratch out X00 uninspired words without insight, perspective, or anything that could possibly appeal to anyone. See Fences, draft one. An obviously very good movie that was equally obvious not great. What a spectacular thesis. So I trashed it. Time passes. I allow myself to read some reviews. Every critic compared Fences and source material in a lazy attempt to animate their own lifeless reviews. Excuse the metacriticism, but this mediocrity will not stand.

Fences is originally a Pulitzer Prize winning play. The sixth in playwright August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," Fences was revived in 2010 starring the same faces in the film, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It won a fistful on Tonys. I did not know any of this going in, and I shouldn't have to. The film stands on its own.

Fences is a character driven piece with little plot. The universe revolves around patriarch Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), former Negro League star, now garbage man. Troy is an eloquent speaker and captivating storyteller. Good thing, because 90% of the film are his conversations, mostly expressions of deep frustration. Troy's primary salvation is Rose (Viola Davis), a devout, but infinitely strong wife. Together they have a son Cory, who seems to have a promising future in athletics. Troy is wary of such success because of what little professional baseball provided him. Troy forbids Cory's pursuits, an act beyond his son's comprehension that leaves an irreparable rift. Another troubled relationship is between Troy and his eldest son Lyons. Lyons is in his early 30's with a love of music, but without direction. Separated when Lyons was young, Troy outwardly treats Lyon more like a parasite than a son. A final anxiety is Troy's brother Gabriel. Permanently addled by war, the veteran wanders the street with a trumpet waiting for judgement day. Troy acts as caretaker, but it is Gabriel's assistance that payed for the home. Overwhelmed, we learn from friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) that smooth talking Troy is turning to another women for relief.

Seasoned cinephiles can spot adaptations a mile off. Wrought with narration? Fair chance the movie was once a book. Same principal, different guidelines for adaptations of plays. First giveaway, dialogue heavy script. Second, limited locales with action primarily restricted to a single setting. Fences is a prime example of both points. Now these obstructions might bore some audiences, especially those who have never found live drama compelling. Worth mentioning, but the film is still not the play. One essential difference is the camera. In Fences, the camera is quiet, but never static, influencing the viewer in a way that should not be underestimated. A close up cannot be replicated on stage. If little old me knows that, so do the makers of Fences, but they're not resorting to such obvious devices. Critics might have loved an extreme close up or more long takes. In Fences, camera actions exist to highlight the performances. That's what the story calls for. When the takes do get longer, with the perspective slowly spinning around the back yard, that invisible camera dominates your attention. Failing to notice this manipulation is like never seeing strings in a puppet show. The puppet master did their job. Those complaining that Fences never escaped the shadow of the play went to the show hoping to see strings.

Maybe we all missed the opportunity of a lifetime not taking a trip to New York and missing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis act this material live. Can't say, but I was happy to catch them in the movie theater. Chalk it up to nightly rehearsals on Broadway, this pair of performances establishes Fences as one of the best acted films of the year. And Troy Maxson himself, that character is an avatar of an agony beyond race, one that film rarely explores. Fences the film is a success. That should be all I need to say.

Hidden Figures
(2016)

Evident Heroism, Hidden Doubts
This is one of those "based on true events" films that the moment you return from the theater you're going to hop on the internet and explore the story. That's a good sigh. Unfortunately, here the need to do some fact checking might not stem from all the right reasons.

Hidden Figures is an upbeat, inspiring tale about the role three African-American women played in the NASA program during the early 60's. First Katherine Johnson (Henson), our lead, a gifted mathematician and human computer trying to carve out a roll in the Space Test Group. Second, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), leader of the "colored computers." She wants both the supervisor title she deserves and to survive the transition to IBM's mechanical computers. Finally Mary Jackson (Monae), who is trying to overcome discriminatory policies to become NASA's first female engineer. These women must meet challenges in the workplace then return home to more struggles African-Americans were fighting nationwide.

Having the performances to anchor your character drama goes along way. Henson is solid, but Spencer is Oscar worthy and Monae's performance is part of a spectacular 2016. I will be on the lookout for more from this talent. Kudos to the supporting roles played by Ali and Costner. Beyond the highlight performances, the scenario is well worth a shot. We have seen heroes fighting against segregation. We have seen space race movies. The mix presents America at its finest and most appalling. A cute combo. The woman at the core are also very deserving of a chance in the sun. The problems creep in with presentation. The director/writer Melfi and co-writer Schroeder were clearly unsatisfied with the quiet, real nobility with which these woman conducted themselves. I cannot say if what the creators did is ethical, but the addition of obviously manufactured drama was a damning decision. This leads to some awkward trust issues. After watching some Hollywood like Johnson erupting at her boss's boss, it becomes more difficult to believe in the little things. Did Johnson really need to run a half a mile just to use the restroom? Or even the climax. On the day of the launch, did John Glenn trust Johnson's calculations over the IBM? It turns out only one of these inclusions are factual. Not the one you think, and perhaps the true story demonstrates more bravery.

I'm not going to share any more of my digging here. Others asked the same questions and the answers are readily available. The point is after I watched Hidden Figures I wanted to learn if I had been lied too. Sad, because doubts are not what stories this wonderful deserve. Beyond this major stumble, Hidden Figures is well worth anyone's time. Educational, but entertaining. Positive without preachy. Family friendly in a genuine way. At the theater, I sat next to a nineish year old who kept asking her mother questions. The daughter was interested and wanted to follow every detail. The mother gave brisk answers not wanting to miss a moment. That's a true event, I swear, and the best praise for Hidden Figures I can muster.

Loving
(2016)

The Mad Max of 2016
Nothing happens. Give credit to director Nichols for presenting a true story without dramatic dribble. Give credit to the ACLU for picking a model case. But nothing happens.

I think I am okay with that.

We have experienced enough stories pertaining to civil rights that there are now expectations. Allow me a demonstration. I present a theoretical movie. There is a man. A white man. He is married to a black women in Virginia when racism is omnipresent and codified. Besides his wife, his great pride and joy is his car. There are many scenes of this man maintaining and caring for his car. He races his car. He beats the stuffing out of some white folks who look none too happy. Now, a question for all of you who have seen a movie before. How many seconds does this car survive after the race and upon demise how tall are the flames?

Not in Loving. In Loving, the car lives.

Without a scratch.

In a world of kiss, kiss, bang, bang, acts of quiet are the most insane. This is Loving. Where racist sheriffs and judges don't so much snarl as shake their heads. Where a child gets hit by a car and gets back up. Where landmark Supreme Court cases get resolved off screen. Richard and Mildred Loving are a couple. Less a pair of protagonists, more a historical inevitability. Their story shared by countless others. A romance without melodramatic climaxes, but with ongoing support and mutual adoration.

I might have already missed it, but I think this is the point in the review where I am supposed to give a brief summary of the plot. Loving is the story of Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton). The film begins well into their relationship. The couple have already reached a level of trust that when Mildred announces an unexpected pregnancy Richard can only conceive of one path forward. But until death do us part is a tricky proposition in Virginia. State law forbids interracial marriage. The socially acceptable solution is to live quietly, unrecognized. This is impossible for Richard, who decides to drive Mildred to nearby D.C. where they can legally marry. After returning in bliss, their happiness is thwarted when an anonymous tip alerts authorities. The couple is thrown in prison, pleads guilty, and agree to leave the state to avoid prison time. This arrangement is excruciating. Mildred feels torn from her family and that a city is no place to raise a family. Richard simply wants to care for his wife without interference from the outside world. So when ACLU appoints fledging lawyer Cohen (Kroll) to look into the case the development is both salvation and agony.

I try to avoid making convenient comparisons, but my best description of the unfolding of Loving is it is the thematic opposite of 2014's Selma. Selma bludgeoned, the theme, the drama, into, your face, in every, single, scene. Still a beautiful story with unforgettable examples of hard lighting. I am sure Selma well play for ten minutes during civil rights units in classrooms for years to come. But in Loving, trailer moments are sparse, and honestly, when they happen can be a touch awkward. Highlighting scenes to explain the couple seems almost seems a waste of time, but I will give it one try. I laughed the first time the Lovings meet Cohen. The neophyte's knives a plan where the Lovings return to deliberately get arrested. The humor lies in the ridiculous contrast. The pair radiate sincerity and simplicity, and Cohen by comparison is a madman. Over the course of the movie this honest aura mostly fades into the background. It endures, but in a way that is less than engaging.

So yes, many audiences who watch Loving are going to be bored out of their skulls. Full disclosure, if not for the midafternoon show time I probably would have been yawning with them. The heart of the film is a pair of subtle performances and the surrounding material is edgeless. There is one tense sequence when the Lovings first return to Virginia. Probably saved the film. Otherwise, well, it is pretty. I guess will spare you the pitiful cover up with phrases like "well crafted." I liked Loving. I liked the approach. I loved the Lovings, just not the film.

Sholay
(1975)

A Stranger's Take on Sholay
Greetings fellow Top 250 enthusiasts. This might sound overdramatic, but I owe a great debt to IMDb. This website has helped me discover both entertainment and films that have shaped my life. Recently, I have to credit the top 250 list for introducing me to a new genre. Indian movies haves made a controversial splash here on IMDb. To settle aggravated parties, India became the first and only country to get their own hall of fame. These (mostly) Hindi language films have introduced a new word into America lexicon: Bollywood.

For me, the most invigorating flavor to rise from Bollywood are Masala movies. In good ole USA, calling a film "unfocused" or "busy" is almost always a negative criticism. Masala (translation: spice mix) films contain equal parts action, comedy, drama, romance, and always musical numbers. To accommodate, these films often require epic runtimes by Hollywood standards. Their energy is infectious. The best masala films are spirited, engaging, and make 3 hour+ runtimes feel insignificant. Masala and Bollywood have received harsh criticism from both professionals and internet trolls, but I believe the elite examples are on par with Hollywood's consensus great movies. Given this opinion, you can imagine my excitement when first hearing about Sholay. This western masala is considered a classic that continues to influence Bollywood after its release over 40 years ago. I have seen countless spaghetti westerns, a couple "kimchi westerns", and now I was going to see the king of all "curry westerns." Well, you have seen the star rating. Now I must detail my disappointment.

Sholay opens with retired officer Thakur in search of a pair of misfits he once arrested years ago. Thakur was impressed by their bravery. In flashback, we see that on the way to prison the pair repelled a dacoit attack and took wounded Thakur to a hospital. The duo, Veeru and Jai, are living life on the run, in and out of prison. They are not hardened criminals however. These good hearted tricksters commit petty crimes, usually while staying a step ahead. Upon encounter, Thakur has a proposition. He will provide accommodations and an award if the pair return with him to protect his home village of Ramgarh. There they must fight the bandit captain Gabbar and his band with whom Thakur has an overwhelming vendetta. Veeru and Jai think, flip a coin, then acquiesce to this quest. At Ramgarh, both fall in love and shed blood while confronting the cruel Gabbar.

Fans of westerns will immediately notice that the plot is a touch similar to Magnificent Seven Samurai. This is just one of many, many, resemblances to classic westerns. Sholay was released in 1975, almost a decade after the West's last great hurrah. This era is clearly a source of inspiration, but Sholay overreaches. At first, picking out details is an enjoyable hunt for Easter eggs, the familiar sandwiched between masala elements. We strangers have never seen these landscapes and characters before, but they recall comfortable memories. Unfortunately, the novelty continually wears over the 3½ hour runtime. One painful moment is directly lifted from Once Upon a Time in the West. There is a recreation of the massacre at the McBain Farm. Gabbar is a despicable villain, but these cinematographers create an image that is inept compared to Fonda's blue eyed stare. Imitation can be creative, enjoyable, and flattering, in Sholay it can be excruciating. At the time, Sholay challenged censors resulting in a theatrical version and a post release directors cut. Even in the uncensored cut the violence is downright cute compared to what Peckinpah was doing five years earlier. Gun shot, cut to a bloodless victim thrown backwards. Some western connoisseurs on the lookout for international influence will be amused, but when Sholay is derivative, it usually does not work.

So what? Defenders might say. Perfect originality is an unreasonable expectation. Why is it when Sholay draws from the well of classics it fails? I think the problem is Sholay's runtime. Attention is the currency of art. When you ask an audience to sit for 3 ½ hours, the burden is on you to keep them in their seats. When Sholay borrows bits it invites greater scrutiny on the original. Suddenly there is an unbearable amount of pressure on scenes that are just supposed to be fun, even camp. Not all of these moment works. Yes, I am judging humor in a language and culture context I cannot hope to understand. However, I feel confident calling out this international trope: the chatterbox. Why some one thought this gimmick was funny enough to become a love interest is beyond me. No more nitpicks. Enough works. Gabbar deserves to ride with the all-time great bastards in cinema. Veeru and Jai do get up to some amusing hijinks. Still, Sholay is a part of that mid-tier of masala. Films with heart lost in such a tangle that I want to take a machete and cut me a new film.

Arrival
(2016)

Sci Fi Film of the Year
I might be a bit late to the party, but I am solipsistic enough that I feel the need to get my opinion on the record. As of writing, there are 500+ IMDb user reviews about Arrival. The reactions are binary. Arrival is a science fiction masterpiece (oft compared to either Contact, 2001, or Close Encounters)* or Arrival is dribble (boring, unintelligible). I'll address this criticism, but first I will claim that Arrival is the victim/beneficiary of high expectations. Arrival first hit theaters with 100% Fresh rating from a certain other website and currently sits within IMDb's top 100 movies. This hype polarizes responses. Fans will drift toward the critical consensus and the disappointed will be furious. Even worse, Arrival has a twist. There is no middle ground for twists. I sympathize with some of the naysayers' complaints, but I still think Arrival is the sci fi film of the year.

Arrival opens with a montage of mother and daughter. The mother is our protagonist, Louise Banks (Adams), who is a leading linguistics expert. We learn Banks is separated and her daughter Hanna is suffering from a rare disease which she succumbs to in adolescence. This death sets a tone of melancholia that manifests in reoccurring greys, blacks, and blues. Cut to the main story where Banks is trying to teach, but the entire campus seems distracted. Twelve black legume ships have suddenly appeared in seemingly random locations throughout the world. Despite the mysterious arrival, these ships remain stoic. Still, governments and their citizens are in panic. Banks and physicists Donnelly (Renner) are recruited by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to make sense of this situation. After arriving at the military base overseeing a ship in Montana, Banks learns every 18 hours she is expected to ascend into the ship where she can communicate with the aliens between a translucent screen. Banks must learn a language without human parallels while struggling with her brutish military supervisors. Worse, an international contingent lead by General Shang wants to end intellectual cooperation and declare war on the extraterrestrials. Everyone can agree the first act is best. Banks immediately establishes herself as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Despite the military's unrealistic expectations, Banks is able to conjure anecdotes or defy expectations in order to maintain her position. Banks plays the character brilliantly subdued, maybe even cold. The tone works because it is supported by her back story and legitimizes her scholarly theory. Science, even when legitimate and studied by filmmakers, can sound downright hokey when spouted by caricatures. Not here. Another fact that becomes obvious fast is Arrival's excellent cinematography. I have been critical of director Villeneuve in the past, but I have never failed to mention that the shots in his films are gorgeous. There are some interior shots and vistas that will please veteran eyes, but all will be enthralled and nervous during Banks first ascension into the ship. Another Villeneuve trademark, Johann Johannsson returns as composer and he deserves partial credit for Arrival's dramatic scenes. The track underscoring the ascension seems a blend of Tarkovsky's ethereal soundtracks and the monolith's theme in 2001 (last time I mention that film, I promise). I don't think I am being over laudatory and I hope even most detractors are with me so far. Now let us wade into the more contentious.

Arrival is not devoid of squishy sentimentality or tropes. The child's early demise, beings questioning time and the nature humanity, you gotta expect some grandiose lines. Tropes: The military is in control and they are ineffectual blockheads trying to interfere with our hero promoting cooperation. Meh. I think it is unreasonable to ask filmmakers to reinvent the wheel with every movie. Start with the familiar, then innovate. Arrival accomplished this so I was never bothered. Many think the science speak devolved into mumbo jumbo and lines went past Hollywood into the realm of silly. One German commentator noted a line from Arrival literally translates to a slogan for a popular dental hygiene brand. Touché. Still, can't say I noticed. Then there are the Renner fans I never realized existed. Their consensus was his role is a throwaway. Unfair, his character works if you view him as a compliment to the protagonist. Donnelly is the only other person in Bank's intellectual stratosphere and her lone supporter. Finally, Arrival feels long. The structure is responsible. Arrival consists of two long buildups, first the ascension then the climax. The first crescendo is tense, the second is grueling. I fidgeting around the 90 minute mark, but I found redemption in the finale. Walking out of the theater, I could only wonder how my flawed perspective colored past events. Was my interpretation damaged once my framework collapses in the final moments? My silent contemplation consumed all my attention. There were flaws, but they were forgotten. I wish all audiences could have reached that state. That sounds pretentious, but I only wish this so people could enjoy Arrival as much as I did.

Moana
(2016)

Same Tropes, New Skin, I'll Take It
After nearly eighty years, you would think some aspiring film critic would developed a comprehensive criteria for Disney movies. Imagine the man hours saved. I could call my grandmother, put sandbags by a raging river, or perform some other generic contribution to society. Instead, I am typing this review six people will read. The decisions we make.

Moana is the latest product of the patented Disney formula. The general rub: Moana Waialiki (Cravalho), daughter of an ancient Polynesian chief, is torn between her responsibilities as heir and her desire to explore the perilous ocean. Encourage by her Gramma, Moana must embrace ancestral tradition by traversing the ocean in search of demigod Maui (Johnson). Together, they must battle Gods and other foes* in order to restore the heart of the sea to the mother goddess, Te Fiti.

Moana is new age Disney. Strong, independent, competent "princess" with no romantic interests. Recent development, already stale. For comparison, Moana's broad concept is identical to Pixar's Brave. Parental figure pushes the responsibilities of lineage, heroine drawn to broader aspects of the culture. Moana is the same song and dance sans Scotsman. Still, the irrefutable truth remains: the formula works. Moana might lack the original spark crucial to join the pantheon of all time Disney films, but the solid storytelling and fresh Polynesian skin make it an easy recommendation.

Disney is always willing to devote the time, money, and talent to dominate animation. Like most Disney features, Moana spent years and years in preproduction. Furthermore, the team has enough experience to meet challenges like water, hair, and even Maui's moving body tattoos creatively. The directors, voice actors, composer, head animators, all were on location in search of inspiration. Did they get a sweet Pacific island vacation out of the deal? For sure. But they also got details. The ships, village buildings, navigation technique, most viewers never question or notice these details, but their cumulative impact creates an immersive world. Consulting with experts also keeps the mythos honest. In Moana, creative liberties are blended to be indistinguishable from folklore. Well, mostly.** Still, Some people are going to complain about cultural insensitivity no matter what. I am not an expert, but ostensibly Disney has done their due diligence. The most common complaint is Maui's body type. Many claim his obesity is an offensive stereotype. If Maui is obese then I want to be obese. Dude is swole. I don't want to live in a theater where every character is a generic supermodel.

The characters are not quite as on point. Moana is what you would expect. Always rocking the confident façade. Secretly vulnerable because she question her ability to live up to her fate. You get the picture. Kind, but stifling father. Independent, wild, grandma encouraging her to rebel. Yada Yada. Maui is the real deal. This trickster demigod is silly, clever, and arrogant. But due to his backstory, he is also harboring helplessness, in parallel with his newfound buddy Moana. Side characters are a mix. There is a eccentric chicken that gets a laugh with every appearance. The pig on the poster, well, Disney punted away millions in merchandising. I went to a preview on Moana and this guy got the best reaction because he is the cutest creature ever. Only in the movie for two minutes. Most interesting is The Ocean. Now the ocean is plays a vital role in Polynesian culture and the film, but The Ocean is an enigma. Think the alien from The Abyss. Moana first encounters The Ocean as a child. They play and The Ocean gives her the heart of the sea. Henceforth, Moana is always drawn to the ocean. I do not understand why avatar had to be a character. Being drawn to the sea is a commonality between people consistent throughout time and geography. Why Moana needs her personal Ocean is lost on me. She already has the weight of her ancestors and Gramma as enough of a reason to set sail. This character only exists to put Moana back in the boat when Maui throws her off.

Last side note, the music. I doubt anyone is going to be singing songs from Moana five years from now. Most memorable is Lin-Manuel Miranda's ode to glam rock, Shiny. I love it, but it's a bit too kooky and plot specific for mass appeal. It's only been a few days and I have already forgotten most of the main theme, but Maui's You're Welcome might endure. The chorus is catchy and the unrestrained arrogance is adorable. Did Let it Go become a sensation immediately? Maybe I will look the fool for this prediction, but I sense no hits here.

Ugh. This review got a bit long. I guess I felt the need to pontificate because within the Disney paradigm Moana is just middling. Are you sick of Disney storytelling? I have no argument to convince you that Moana is worth your time.*** But I'm not weary of Disney, and sighs indicate I am part of the majority.

*Coconut Pirates

**Coconut Pirates

*** Other than the Coconut Pirates

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
(2016)

We're Back!
You just can't keep a billion dollar franchise down.

After a five year hiatus, the wizarding world is back. But not all back. For better or for worse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is sans Potter and Co. The franchise has escaped the literary series that defined a generation and now we fans are off the map. Hopefully, Here There Be Dragons.

I welcome the change. The last four films were slaves to the bloated books. Every second felt devoted to source material, appeasement. Countless adored this direction, but I remember reading Sorcerers (or Philosophers for you purists) Stone and being enchanted by the setting. Harry's story was secondary compared to the sentiment that I wanted to go to school at Hogwarts. So if this rebirth is happening, let it explore the universe that charmed us so many years ago. Enter Newt Scamander (Redmayne). Newt is a wizarding pioneer. A globetrotter, always learning and spreading awareness about magical beasts. The film opens with his arrival in 20s New York. After smuggling his suitcase menagerie past inspection, Newt's creatures escape, with no shortage of havoc. Consequently, Newt is apprehended by Auror (magical enforcer) Tina Goldstein (Waterston), charged for disrupting the precarious balance between worlds. Newt must collect the missing monsters with the help of a No-Maj witness Kowalski (Fogler) before any further damage can be done. Newt's adventure is part of an unfolding drama. Terrorist sorcerer Grindelwald is on the loose. Religious zealots are trying to expose the wizarding world. Finally, an unspeakable power is wreaking havoc in New York and Newts escaped fantastic beasts make convenient patsies.

First things first, Eddie Redmayne can act. The tradition of loading the HP I.P. with immensely talented English actors continues. He is awkward, but with a compassionate charisma that causes all life to fall into his orbit. Side-kick Kowalski is a perfect complement. His constant affability counters Newt's aloofness. Furthermore, Newt senses a shared genuine wonder that is absent from his own kind. The fantastic beasts themselves are beautifully designed, original creations. The film works best when Redmayne and company are in pursuit of the creatures.

Unfortunately, the greater setting is unutilized. The year plays no role in the film other than justifying some old-timey aesthetics. The New York location is only relevant in so much their muggles are called "No-Majs". It's actually excruciating when vocalized. Particularly the plural. The word "muggle" sounds Shakespearian compared to this horrific abbreviation. While on the subject of pointless quibbling, sci/fi fans are going to have a lot to nitpick. Harry Potter novels were brilliantly accessible. Still, hardcore fantasy fans had problems with the ill-defined magic system and intricacies of the balance between worlds. Nothing changed here. I cannot explain why Redmayne came by boat and not the Floo network or portkey. I cannot explain why Newt risks muggle customs rather than try apparition. This is just the tip of an iceberg, and if this iceberg bothers you, well, maybe stick to the fanfic. I won't elaborate on the overarching plot for spoiler purposes. It is mostly an excuse for a climax and more sequels. I dunno, I am sure many will buy it more than me. Other than the shoehorned romance, blandly faultless.

Usually when I talk about mega franchises I must suppress a sensation of futility. Everyone made up their minds a year before the first trailer. To question them now only invites flame. However, for Fantastic Beasts I am cautiously optimistic. I think the gap has been long enough that filmmakers will have to win their audience back while breaking this new ground. Hopefully this pressure will keep everyone honest. I cannot find it in me to hype Fantastic Beasts beyond that it is a well-made fantasy flick starring Redmayne, but I am surprised at my own curiosity. I wonder how this story is going to play in the years to come.

Hacksaw Ridge
(2016)

Cheesy, Unquestionably Works
You must give the movie a rating. No choice. Those little stars are the first thing everyone sees and for many the last. Today, that's not what I am worried about. My concern is I will look back, see all those pretty stars, and feel like a complete sucker.

Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of "conscientious cooperator" Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). Doss felt compelled to follow his brother and countless others by serving in WWII, but his religious beliefs not only prevent him from killing, but even carrying arms. This causes friction within the 307th Infantry, where many believe his convictions violate the code that binds the unit. Doss remains indomitable despite persecution from all sides and is able to participate as a medic at the Battle of Okinawa.

This story breaks a popular war movie paradigm. Hacksaw Ridge defies the natural pro/con label, even refuting the classic argument that all war films glorify violence by making it exciting. Doss is a hero because he refuses to let the war happen to him. This transcendence inspires his comrades. Many people like to reject war heroes, but Doss aspires to a higher notion: that one must always remain truth to oneself. On a more mechanical note, Hacksaw Ridge is beautifully shot. The combat scenes feel like half the film, but they are always vivid, intense, and uncompromisingly graphic. It is a spectacular break from recent superhero action. I have grown tired of your Wolverines and ilk eviscerating countless nameless without an ounce of blood or consequence. Combat in Hacksaw Ridge might over utilize slow motion and overly dramatic scenarios, but it was never unexciting.

Hacksaw Ridge is going to earn some comparisons to classics like Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan. This will be complete madness. Hacksaw Ridge, for all its qualities, is about as sophisticated and nuanced as American cheese on Ritz crackers. Desmond Doss is the Simple Man. A touch slow and awkward with women, but otherwise immaculate. Doss drops the smile once, when the army denies him a pass to attend his own wedding as an act of intimidation. Oh yeah, there is a female lead. She is blond, blue-eyed, and perfect. Their courtship is also perfect. The only grey character in the entire film is Doss' father (Hugo Weaving), but grey in a Hollywood way. He is a veteran of WWI who lost all his comrades and turned to drinking. Highly original. The unit itself is never really developed. There is one humorous scene when the crew first meet, but for the rest of the movie they are collective plot points. First they haze Doss, then they are won over, and finally they become the men he must save. The enemy are also surprisingly dehumanized in this increasingly politically correct world. The Japanese are evil, psychopathically violent, and exotic. Most notable is an act of Seppuku intercut with combat. Certainly dramatic, but equally derivative and exploitive. And despite all of my whining, Hacksaw Ridge unquestionably works. The story is not forced, as if it needs to be told. Desmond Doss is a hero. The war is beautiful and terrible. Each image of Doss scaling a ridge with his brother, his wife, his comrades, and the final shot, all work. Despite the cheesiness, Hacksaw is in a better class of war movies.

Denial
(2016)

Denying Denial's Higher Aspirations
It's that time of year again. The leaves are colorful and the movies are meaningful. Denial touches on one of film's more serious subjects, the Holocaust. Many among you might be weary of this theme. I assure you, it is a fresh premise. Denial is the story of unsuspecting historian Deborah E. Lipstadt and her battle against the predatory Holocaust denier David Irving. 20 years ago, this libel suit was fought in the English court where it commanded international headlines. Denial spotlights the unheralded heroism of Lipstadt. Beyond the obvious stress, Lipstadt internalizes to clash with bigots on an even platform gives them attention and legitimacy. Still, Lipstadt feels it is her duty to fight the good fight, despite criticism from England's Jewish community. Even her crack legal team continually ignores her personal feelings towards the case. To win, Lipstadt feels she needs to abandon her conscious. Denial is the story of her turmoil. Until it isn't. Our protagonist disappears halfway into the movie. The movie warps into a courtroom drama highlighting the idiosyncrasies of the British legal system. Lipstadt turns spectator. This switch does not make scenes incomprehensible or characters dull, but all direction is lost. Denial has a fertile premise, but the lack of thesis sinks any high aspirations.

Without clear direction or a complex plot, Denial's strength is in characters. Lipstadt (Weisz) is convincingly intelligent as a prolific writer and prestigious professor, but clearly human trying to be hero. My greatest criticism is her personal struggle is not always the focus. Antagonist Irving (Spall) is a creep. He occasionally appears as an eldritch skulk, staring after prey. His ugliness is repeatedly on display. In more neutral scenes, actor Spall does try to reign the portrayal in. Despite Irving's views, he is sophisticated and resourceful. He gets the "David and Goliath" situation he desires, one man against the best legal team in the country and makes a game of it. The man is presented as unambiguously obscene, but at least he is at least complex in his obscenity. Finally, barrister Rampton (Wilkinson) is the counter point to Lipstadt and the focus after her sudden disappearance. Where Lipstadt is emotionally and culturally connected to her case, Rampton's approach is initially impersonal. While visiting Auschwitz he is completely irreverent, approaching the monument like a crime scene. Over the course of a year of preparation he develops a personal hatred of Irving. When Denial becomes a courtroom drama, it is his arguments that dictate the momentum. Rampton speaks the words we need to hear.

I feel a film devoted to the perspective of Lipstadt or Rampton would have a natural edge on Denial. This counterfactual aside, Denial fails at striking a balance between the two. The lack of a thorough exploration is obvious in the final scene. Lipstadt has been told during the trial not to speak to the press, but after the verdict is finally allowed to face the media. Her speech is the cinematic equivalent of high fructose corn syrup. If you are not paying attention, passable, but otherwise cheap and unsatisfying. Lipstadt proclaims all her personal turmoil is resolved, that all voices were heard. But no, movie Lipstadt, that was the poignant point. Lipstadt frustrations were never addressed. Holocaust survivors did not participate as witnesses. Rampton, a third party, was the voice for those who believe that the Holocaust is an unforgettable historical fact. The fact that you were ignored was the tragedy beyond the tragedy. Or maybe that is just what I wanted to think. Denial is worth the price of admission as basic entertainment, but I deny a coherent, greater ambition.

Bacheha-Ye aseman
(1997)

Persian Bicycle Thieves Finds Elusive Balance
I have been on a "family movie" kick recently. An odd genre to delve into. And no, I am not a nostalgia addled twentysomething revisiting Disney. I'm talking anything that moves and talks and is inoffensive enough so that parents can let a screen babysit their munchkins for 2 hoursish. This genus of film shelters the lazy and has historically provided us with the most notorious specimens of hackery. Beyond the trash however, there exists children's movie that inspire wonder. It is these films, where creators did not compromise on their art, that feel as if they are abandoning me. I am inured, always on guard. Is simple innocuous sentimentality so unstomachable even when not squishy? I blame society. Children of Heaven is my only recent escape from this cultural conditioning.

Let's first address the most obvious possibility why Children of Heaven is an exception. Writer/Director Majid Majidi is from Iran and this is a Persian language film. Now any film veteran knows that flowery words can work beautifully as subtitles and be completely hollow when audible. This is a wrench in the works when reviewing foreign language films. So unless I learn Persian, I cannot say exactly how resilient I am to the syrup. I'll get right on that. So I am sure the unfamiliar tongue does lower my guard, but I am convinced that is not the deciding factor. The source of conflict is sublime. Children of Heaven is the story of how young boy Ali survives day to day life after misplacing his sister Zahra's shoes. There is a duality to this problem's scale. Even the smallest mishaps can be tragedies for children. Lost shoes seem like one such problem, yet Ali's family is poor. With the rent past due, Ali's father overworked, and his mother injured, even the smallest mishap can push a vulnerable family over the brink. With this and their father's potential ire in mind, the siblings choose to handle this problem on their own.

This seems a reasonable undertaking for a pair of elementary schoolers, but we forget how integral shoes are in everyday life. They are practical, but also convey style and status. So when Ali and Zahra share a pair of worn out tennies this arrangement colors their day to day life. Still, the loss is not a McGuffin driving a plot, but a perspective. Ali and Zahra live where school is run in shifts to maximize the use of the facilities. Zahra takes the shoes in the morning, dashes to a meeting place, Ali trades her sandals hopefully in time to get to school without being tardy. A reasonable arraignment, but imagine trying to get your sister to ware your beat up oversized shoes or wearing ugly ill-fitting boats to school. So no, plot lovers, this is not a story for you. Just life in the face of the tiny obstacles the size of the world. The dilemmas never seems forced our overly dramatized. The director knows the peril these narratives pose to our attention spans. The movie is not even 90 minutes long. Identical to the similar Bicycle Thieves. There is a climax to Children of Heaven, but it does not resolve the problem of the shoes. There are some hints, but Children does not have a slick Hollywood ending. This has and will continue to perturb some viewers, but I argue they missed the point. Majidi is a measured storyteller. Like the family, authenticity hangs on a delicate precipice. Heartwarming, but another dash of cuteness could send the film tumbling into an abyss that has claimed so many others. Children of Heaven finds the balance and a place in any beating heart.

The Magnificent Seven
(2016)

Why Make a Remake?
Why make a remake? 56 years ago, director John Sturges, writer William Roberts, and a collection of other producers answered a similar question. Henceforth, their response will be remembered as the Original Magnificent Seven.

"Original" is a bit of misnomer. See, 62 years ago Kurosawa gave us a little film Seven Samurai. This 3 ½ hour epic told the tale of seven aimless samurai, unified to protect peasants for room and board. The modern action sequence and the "assemble the team" plot were born from this film. Seven Samurai is 100% classic, instantly recognized as a landmark film. So were the creators of Magnificent Seven irreverently audacious? I don't believe so. They understood if you cannot do it better do it different. Magnificent Seven literally and figuratively took the samurai out of the Seven Samurai. It is an adaptation. The swap is seamless. Modernity threatening an antiquated way of life still works as motivation for gunfighters. Crucially, like in Samurai, everyone one of the seven is a legend. Thus the casting: Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, Horst Bucholz, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, and villain Eli Wallach. If you cannot recognize six of those names immediately, you simply have no relationship with that era. These actors with a new set of western tropes made the movie worth making. Even the director was disciplined. Magnificent Seven runs an hour and a half less than Samurai. Sturges recognized that a carbon copy would not necessary garner the original's eminence.

Cut to present day. Year 2016, the western genre has been dead for decades, the boys that grew up with them are old men. Why make a remake? Unfortunately, Magnificent 7 does not offer an adequate answer.

Magnificent 7 is less a reimagining, more an update. There are a host of creative decisions that seem just a consequence of the times. Bartholomew Bouge, a robber baron, is turning the valley into a mine. He is played without restrain as an embodiment of unchecked greed. As a warning, he orders his enforcers to slay some townsfolk, including Emma Cullen's husband. Avenging angel Cullen (Bennett) becomes the representative of the townsfolks sent to gather the seven. Chisolm (Washington) works as tactical and imposing leader, but other characters suffer. Faraday (Pratt) is the second. He is the most developed of the remaining seven, but Faraday is depicted like modern day hero. Pratt has played this character before, a trickster, fast talking, and unsuccessful ladies' man. He is amusing, but his modern parlance and actions just feel out of place in a western. Ethan Hawke as Goodnight does establish a legacy and vulnerabilities. Further exploration just tires out. I felt the film teased he might drop from the seven. This would leave a spot for Cullen to play the novice role. This potential twist never materializes, a fantasy born out of optimism. Rather, the conflict resolves in the most mundane way. Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio) is the only character who left me yearning for more. The soft spoken mountain man is reverent, but a legend for slaying 100s. A character hearkening back to films like Jeramiah Johnson. Horne's loneliness is the only understandable motivation other than Chisolm's. The remaining trio is…. depressing.

So the modernized villain makes sense. There was no way in the 21st century we were going to watch a group of white dudes slaughtering Mexicans. Diversity among the Seven? Well the gender variation did not pan out, but great! This might give us new characters, new stories. Regrettably, we get a trio that have no substance beyond stereotypes. James Coburn threw knives, which was pretty cool. Hey! I know who else throws knives, Asian people. Bam! One down, six to go. Insane (or should I say loco) criminal, Mexican. Full war paint and eating raw deer hearts, I remember John Wayne shooting up such persons. What could be more 21st century than the token minority?

The neophyte that unifies the Seven is left out of this iteration. Yes, plot changes can be a positive evolution, but this is not a fair exchange. Gone is the drama, the reason for anything. Instead we get a battle, big and beautiful. Seven heroes against hundreds of nameless. A classic climax, but if you don't internalize the heroes it's just the implausibly lucky slaughtering the remarkably unfortunate. Every death among the previous 14 hurt. Magnificent 7 has glorious vistas and carnage. Worth the price of a ticket as a shoot'em up, but unworthy of the name.

War Dogs
(2016)

When Story and Character Works, but Everything Else Goes Wrong
War Dogs is the latest installment in a hopeful trend. These Comedies derive their soul from the absurdism of our most powerful institutions and our underlying fear of this madness. Two twenty somethings Packouz (Teller) and Diveroli (Hill) make millions selling weapons to the United States. Their only attribute: unfounded audacity. Packouz is the innocent straight man in way over his head while Diveroli is a relentlessly hilarious psychopath. I wish I could end the review right here. Narrative and character. When these two elements are working it should be impossible for your movie to fail. Unfortunately, the creators could not trust their story or their audience. A pointless chapter structure, omnipresent narration, overbearing movie music, all gimmicks used to enhance already sufficient material. The nuts and bolts of War Dogs are so botched the jokes play better in the trailers.

A moment of silence, please, to reflect on the tragic demise of half the gags in War Dogs. Packouz is competent and ambitious, but with a woeful lack of direction. He gets by as a massage therapist before joining forces with Diveroli. The job makes ends meet, but it comes with plump codgers conveniently losing their towels. The joke: things we do for a living, eh? Obvious subtext: Packouz is craving any way out. No more explanation necessary. Still, the moment is butchered by the narrator's play by play. Worse is when Packouz and Diveroli must confront top government officials. Our Packouz as narrator drones: We were not prepared, we were nervous, we were out of our depth, and finally, we decided to smoke a bud. We already appreciate this pair and the why behind the last second marijuana breakdown. The sheer ridiculous factor dissipates when everything is meticulously explained. These kids are making a 300 million dollar deal stoned, let me watch. It follows that the best moments occur when events are beyond explanation. In search of weed, Diveroli gets hustled for a hundred bucks. He calmly walks to his car, pops the truck, picks up an automatic weapon, and starts firing in broad daylight. Protesting Packouz is met with a high, idiosyncratic chuckle that will become the character's trademark. Just give Jonah Hill an open opportunity and let him kill it.

Unfortunately, jokes are not the only casualty. War Dogs repeatedly trips over its own style. The movie opens with Packouz accosted by organized crime. Starting with one of the final events of the story is a respected method of building anticipation. Here it is not effective because you only need to watch Diveroli for 5 minutes before understanding this enterprise must end in disaster. Momentum is also a common casualty of the stylistic quirks. There are chapter breaks, a cut to black and an announcement of the title in white font. Yes, War Dogs was based on a book, but if feels that someone had watched Kill Bill and thought it would be cute. Speaking of Tarantino, now infamous movie tune "Girl You'll be a Woman Soon" makes an appearance. And "Don't Fear The Reaper." "Sweet Emotion" too. "Fortunate Son", "Wish you Were Here", "Behind Blue Eyes". If classic rock is not your style, we have 50 Cent, Pitbull, and Beastie Boys. It's like someone wanted to compile a list of the most pedestrian music that has already appeared in at least 50 films. When I heard "What is Love?" I thought I was going insane. This rant might seem absurd, but I promise it does not even cover half the soundtrack. Many appearances are not cute five second samplings either. Cease all dialogue. Maybe add a bit of slow motion. We are taking a minute break from your feature film. Often these episodes occur at the end of each chapter, when emotions and energy should be at their zenith.

War Dogs is more than a way to disappear two hours. Its better, but because of the wasted potential, also sadder. Jonah Hill is not just funny, but an actor that improves every film he performs in. I hope in a month I can forget everything in War Dogs except the big picture.

Kubo and the Two Strings
(2016)

Animation, Not Just for Talking Animals
Trailers that ran prior to my screening of Kubo: Sing, talking animals participate in a citywide talent show. The Wild Life, talking animals and Robinson Crusoe defend their island from marauding pirates. Storks, talking storks deliver packages for an online retail company. This is the state of American animation. Now any or all of these movies could be good, none will push the frontiers of what a film can be. Production company LAIKA understands animation's infinite capacity. The wonder found in Kubo and the Two Strings is a direct result of the filmmaker's devotion to every single frame, sublime sustenance to our collectively starved imaginations.

KATTS is a fairytale pepped with an infusion of Japanese culture. The film opens with infant Kubo and his mother adrift on a raging sea. They are fleeing Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King, who has slain his father. They find land, but Kubo's mother is permanently addled from the journey. Years later, Kubo cares for his mother by entertaining the villagers, manipulating paper with a magical shamisen. One day, Kubo fails to take shelter before nightfall and is discovered. His lucid mother saves him from her moonfolk sisters, but is vanquished. Kubo is forced to go on a journey to discover the three pieces of the mirror armor, the one weapon that can defeat his grandfather. He is joined by a monkey created by his mother's magic and a cursed samurai turned beetle. I guess you can never escape talking animals.

The plot is driven by the McGuffin mirror armor. To win the Sword Unbreakable, Kubo must battle a skeleton colossus with swords lodge in its head. This monstrosity is similar to a mythical Japanese Gashadokuro. It has ferocious face and a suitable ascetic for Claymation. Unfortunately, subsequent conflicts are primary fought against Kubo's aunts. Erie spirts, sure, but these struggles boil down to weapons clanging against weapons. The sickle/counter-weight combination and masks are inspired by Japanese mythology, but if you're going to commit to looting a culture, try harder. This a part of a disappointing pattern: Kubo and the Two Strings is less than the sum of its frames. The fairytale morals also need a bit of work. Family is good. Love is good. Stories are powerful. Family is always with you. KATTS was not intended to be a morality tale, but this is lame. The Moon King is Kubo's grandfather, some ambiguity seemed inevitable. I guess the antagonist's fate is not cookie cutter, but his motivations are basically pure evil.

Our main characters provide some measure of redemption. Gruff Monkey (Theron) is not a typical matron. Her toughness allows her to both play the straight man and hint at a softer interior. Her secret origin might suggest a different personality, but this alternative adds dimensionality. Beetle (McConaughey) is more impressive. His curse denies him all memory and his demeanor is perfectly in line. Beetle's face is animated unlike any other object in the film. I do not know the technique, but it is genuinely unforgettable in close up. Kubo is more of a puzzle. The movie is essentially his coming of age story. He confronts many challenges and his identity, but there is virtually no inner struggle. In most movies this is a problem, but honestly, I was not overtly aware of this deficiency. I think it is because we see enough aspects of Kubo that obvious change is not essential. Kubo is a boy, but also a caretaker, storyteller, and prodigy. His confidence and maturity vary, understandable for a boy in his position. LAIKA also borrowed a classic Ghibli tricks of developing a character by emphasizing their mannerism in performing everyday actions. This is a superior way to build character and can make movements as simple as picking up a piece of paper a joyous event.

So Kubo and the Two Strings occasionally stumbles, but this is after the fact analysis. These nitpicks should only bother the unreasonably sensitive. Kubo's beautiful world, his actions, others' reactions, these are the only aspects I was always attune to. The first act is worthy on any Great Movie. Watching the townspeople listen to Kubo's stories allows us to simply become part of the crowd. The plot might be simple, but this meta-story and the early use of narration suggest a master craftsman. The mythology leaves us wanting more, borrowing from a culture without appealing to exoticness. The Claymation often bizarre or seemingly off tempo, demands attention. Kubo and the Two Strings transcends typical animation. It is not a product, one side designed for children with a flip side for the parents who bought the tickets. Kubo and the Two Strings is an eccentric adventure, capable of inspiring wonder in all audiences.

Pete's Dragon
(2016)

Pete's Big Green Dog
I worry about taking pot shots at a movie like Pete's Dragon. No one wants a twentysomething's jaded take on a kid's movie. I am aware I am not the target audience. The ticket vendor's surprise at my selection was no surprise to me. What can I say? The other option was an anthropomorphic hot dog. I took the chance because a children's film can be a light fantasy. Disney has taught everyone that "fun for the whole family" is not a death sentence. So when I criticize Pete's Dragon, understand I am not assailing aspects of the genre, e.g. the simplistic plot. That's not the movie's goal nor should it be my point. Pete's Dragon fails because it is utterly devoid of wonder.

True, wonder is a pretty squishy concept. Fortunately for me, my sense of wonder need not go on trial. That's because of my official co-reviewer, the kid who sat immediately next to me in the otherwise empty theater. He looked about the same age as Pete, our protagonist. I regret not asking. Regardless, I understand why this story could be appealing to my new colleague. Pete is tragically separated from his parents, but is rescued by a forest dwelling dragon. Pete names his new friend Elliot and together they spend their days playing in the woods and sleeping in a tree/cave/house. It is an idyllic existence, but it is ruined by the interference of other humans. Pete is threatened by greedy loggers and, the Nazis of family movies, child protective services. However, our hero finds some allies in ranger Grace (Howard) and her storytelling father (Redford). The entire movie scored two responses from my associate. First, a chuckle when Elliot gets a dosing of soot from a chimney. Second, a genuine chortle when an EMT dropped a stretcher. That part was my favorite too. Almost Two hours, two laughs. I refuse to believe this is the best Disney can offer. Admittedly, my second did applaud at the close, but this reaction was not half as enthusiastic as when his dad bought him a Slurpee.

Now hopefully I can take over explain what went wrong. First, the titular dragon. It is a dog. Elliot the big green dog. Elliot chases his tale. Elliot sneezes on people. Elliot is a dog. Whyyyyyyyyyyy? This is one of the most pathetic attempts at satisfying the boundless imaginations of children I have ever seen. Even the flying shots are derivative, all rendered in CG that just screams "I was meant to be seen in 3D." Well I'm cheap. All the other characters were equally tedious. Any idiosyncrasy or characteristic would have been appreciated. You can learn all there is to know about these personalities in 15 seconds. For the remainder of the movie, they will never surprise you, or charm you, or do anything worthy or remembrance. Part of the reason I attended Pete's Dragon was to gather data on the condition of Redford's career. I dread saying this, but this another performance suggesting he is washed up. Then again, in the role, Redford might never have stood a chance. Watching him mug like he was witnessing the second coming because a dragon turned a lighter shade of green was embarrassing. Another sad waste of talent was the cinematographer. The forest itself was the most magnetic character in the film. The natural beauty set a tone, only to be beaten down by the ham-fisted elements. So yes, I guess there was some wonder. Not enough to be redeemable. Pete's Dragon is a soulless morality tale on the importance of the nuclear family. Its grand aspiration was being inoffensive enough so you could bring your children. Disney can do better and we should watch better.

Florence Foster Jenkins
(2016)

One Woman's Dream, Her Husband's Deception
Films are a way for us, ordinary people, to experience love beyond the natural encounters of one lifetime. Most movies exploit this by providing a relatable fantasy. Vicariousness enabled by hyperbole. But good movies cheat the common standard. Florence Foster Jenkins is a narrative/comedic rift on the classic Emperor's New Clothes, but there are no ready comparisons for the relationship at its core.

In the biographical account of the titular heiress' late years, Jenkins (Streep), amuses herself and guarantees her place in New York aristocracy by supporting the arts. Always by her side is former soliloquist, now husband, Bayfield (Grant). Jenkins satisfies her artistic longings by taking non-speaking roles in vignettes. However, this harmless hobby appears to be insufficient. Jenkins yearns to fulfill her dream of bringing music to the world personally. She has the funds for any venue and access to the best vocal coach in the city. What she lacks is a confidant willing to inform her that her voice is atrocious. Always loyal, Bayfield remains at her side, bouncing spectators and bribing journalist. Anything to maintain a deception that prevents his wife from confronting the embarrassing truth. As if the situation was not already sufficiently perilous, Jenkins is an infirm survivor of syphilis; her matrimony platonic out of necessity. Every night Bayfield returns to his own apartment and another women, all subsidized by his wife.

The joy of FFJ is the slow reveal of the pair's essence. Each development in the tenuous sham forces the audience to reevaluate the nature of the couple. Is Jenkins a romantic whose dream has obliterated her awareness? Or is this an elderly women, suffering from syphilis induced insanity, leaving nothing but platitudes, vanity, and a preoccupation for potato salad. Equally vexing is Bayfield. He is the ideal highborn companion. Jenkins would clearly be a mess without him. However, this bond is marred by the presence of a mistress. The former actor could just be a charlatan. Trapped in a 20 year charade with a companion who, miraculously resilient to her disease, should not be alive. This is picture painted in the first act, and only grows more nuanced. There might be a correct interpretation, but the fun of guessing makes the drama.

Conversely, the comedy might need help. Most egregious is Jenkins' performances. The horrendousness is intended. In fact, it is a dead on impersonation. The only problem is someone thought they struck comedic gold. There is a sold 15 minutes of Jenkins singing followed by a cut to an audience member's surprised reaction. One pair in my theater thought this was a riot, I and others were not amused. If you thought listening to an awful singer was painful I promise that listening to an awful singer presented as funny is excruciating. But in fairness, most audiences will come to FFJ for Streep and Streep they will get. This consistent greatness has somehow become mundane. A performance worthy of an Oscar nom, but not be career defining. Ridiculous. Grant is a worthy partner. His natural suave makes the casting obvious. Strong apart, together an irresistible force. This is a kind of couple you will rarely see on the silver screen. Florence Foster Jenkin is one of the superior tales of love in recent memory. A romantic dream, but not above the sour notes of deceit and narcissism.

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