Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Ten Favorite Movies of 2017

The year 2017 has been a hectic year for movies. It's also been a triumphant one. Although most of these films were written and produced before the political upheavals of the year took full effect, many of them spoke to a mass audience feeling many things: outrage, loss, fear, and confusion. They also provided understanding - and hope.

10) Wonder Woman (Dir. Patty Jenkins)

A long overdue Wonder Woman film hit theaters in June and completely met audience expectations. Gal Gadot delivered a star making performance in an entertaining movie told in classical style.

9) Colossal (Dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

A sleeper from earlier in the year, Colossal is a monster movie with enough social commentary to provide material for a Master's thesis. 

8) It (Dir. Andres Muschietti)

The long awaited adaptation of the 1986 Stephen King novel packed in a plethora of story, scares, and nuanced characterizations.

7) Five Came Back (Dir. John Farrow)

Five contemporary filmmakers reflect on how the Second World War changed five American directors who went off to war. A majestic documentary on history and the power of movies.

6) War for the Planet of the Apes (Dir. Matt Reeves)

A rousing conclusion to the rebooted Apes trilogy that mirrors the 1968 original in its allegorical meaning.

5) Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Dir. Rian Johnson)

Despite the melodramatic reactions to this penultimate entry in the nine film Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi is a splendid space adventure that's unafraid to take chances. 

4) The Disaster Artist (Dir. James Franco)

A consistently hilarious film on the making of the 2003 movie The Room. A reminder on why we love movies in the first place.

3) Logan (Dir. James Mangold)

A violent tale of loyalty, mortality, and heroism that's unforgettable. A "superhero" film that transcends genre.

2) Get Out (Dir. Jordan Peele)

Perhaps the most politically astute movie of the year that was released in the wake of the bitter aftermath following the 2016 election. Jordan Peele crafted a brilliant genre classic that will stand alongside Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Improves with each viewing. 

1) Blade Runner 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Blade Runner 2049 glides over the daily noise of our current discourse and offers a dense vision of humanity's fate. Of all the films I watched this year, the imagery and themes in Blade Runner 2049 resonated with me the most.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Disaster Artist **** (2017)

The Disaster Artist tells the bizarre true story of the 2003 film The Room, directed by Tommy Wiseau. To this day little known as to how Wiseau came up with the 6 million dollars to make the film, nor anything about his origins. James Franco's comedy is an instant classic, a hilarious film about an awful movie. I've never heard so much laughter during a screening. 

The story begins at an acting class with aspiring actor Greg (Dave Franco) meeting Tommy and they become best friends. Tommy's a little eccentric and clearly has no talent, but he believes in his own artistic genius (often comparing himself to Tennessee Williams). The obvious comparison here is Ed Wood, another no talent director who made unforgettable films like Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space against all odds, as told in the 1994 Tim Burton movie Ed Wood.

Greg and Tommy struggle to find work and move to L.A. Greg meets a nice girl (Alison Brie) and starts to get work, but Tommy cannot get arrested in Hollywood. Finally, Tommy decides to write his own script and finance his own film. Then The Disaster Artist takes the comedy to another level.

Seth Rogen is hilarious as the script supervisor Sandy, who stands aghast as Tommy shoots his movie. The plot of The Room involves a love triangle, with Wiseau's young fiancee setting sights on his best friend and chaos ensues. On the set Tommy makes ridiculous demands, forgets his lines, and berates the cast and crew.  Ari Graynor is excellent Tommy's baffled co-star; many from previous Franco films make cameos.

Everything leads to the premiere screening of The Room. The audience is repulsed and shocked at first, but eventually falls in love with the movie. The unintentional humor of The Room must be seen to be believed.

James Franco's acting and direction are first rate, on par with Mel Brooks and Judd Apatow at their best. The Disaster Artist is not a cynical comedy either, beneath the humor there's a positive message about perseverance and friendship.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ***1/2 (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi stays faithfully within the Star Wars tradition, while at the same time opens up new possibilities for the new universe that was introduced in The Force Awakens. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi is an epic space opera, the sort I'm sure George Lucas had in mind when he wrote the first film back in the mid 1970s. Johnson honors the Star Wars mythos and puts the saga on a new path. The central conflict of this new trilogy is how to deal with loaded history of Star Wars and finding new ways to tell these stories, in that sense The Last Jedi is a success.

To pick up the story, The Force Awakens ended with Jedi in training Rey confronting the aging Jedi master Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, the Resistance had just scored a major victory over the evil First Order. Episode VIII informs us that First Order's power is growing and they are close to establishing a new Empire. The Last Jedi begins with an epic space battle and the good guys are losing, shot in sprawling Star Wars fashion. Meanwhile, Rey confronts a rather mysterious and remote Skywalker.

The great strength of The Last Jedi is that all the characters are given good arcs (including the new ones). Daisy Ridley continues to bring a much welcomed new type of heroism to these movies as Rey, perhaps the most original character in the new trilogy. John Boyega almost carries the film as Finn, he brings the right amount of humor and swashbuckling heroics. Oscar Isaac as ace pilot Poe gets more screen time as a more traditional comic book hero. Adam Driver also impresses as the Dark Jedi Kylo Ren, perhaps the most complex villain in the franchise. Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro also appear. 

As for the original trilogy characters. Carrie Fisher shines as Leia, expertly playing the regal matriarch who leads the Resistance. Knowing we are seeing her for the last time on the screen adds an extra poignancy. What the writers decided to do with Luke will upset some fans, maybe leaving them with the sense the original trilogy was all for nothing. I would hesitate to go that far, it may become an unending debate. Who knows? Luke's evolution here is far different than the portrayal in the now non-canonical Star Wars novels. Still, it was fascinating to see what Mark Hamill did with the character that forever defined his screen persona.

Visually and thematically, Johnson has crafted the most complex Star Wars film to date. There's some stunning cinematography and many of these images will become iconic. As an action director, Johnson displays a Kurosawa influence. While there are some welcome allusions to The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, Johnson creates a unique tapestry with some intelligent depth. Gen X fans may long for the simplicity and genuine fun of the originals; new fans will appreciate Johnson's refusal to provide mere fan service. The Last Jedi is more self-reflexive than nostalgic - and that's a bold creative choice. Like Blade Runner 2049, it builds upon ideas introduced in the previous movies. 

At 150 minutes, many will be tempted to call the film overlong. I get that, but I think the long running time is warranted. At times is does feel as if Johnson is frantically trying give all the story lines credence and credibility, the style keeps you a little off balance (that's a good thing). With the exception of a few minor missteps, The Last Jedi works as stand alone space adventure with some heavy pathos. It brings all the elements that makes Star Wars movies memorable, while also offering something new.