Thursday, February 15, 2018

Jigsaw



Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When the Saw franchise signed off after hitting rock bottom with 2010's awful Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, even the most devoted diehards had checked out and were happy to see it go. After enduring a string of lifeless sequels that drained whatever waning interest was left in the property, the general consensus was that a nice, long break sounded like a great idea. It was also generally understood that with this hiatus came the promise it would return at some point as either a sequel, prequel, reboot or something in between. And now with Jigsaw, it's clear they've decided to go with a straight up sequel.

If anything, this creates an opportunity for the series to recharge its batteries and head in a new creative direction while fans become nostalgic for these movies once again, their disdain for the inferior sequels erased by happy memories of seeing Billy The Puppet usher in a new Saw film each Halloween. We'd remember that initial concept of two strangers locked in a room, the test subjects of a sadistic cancer patient hell bent on dispensing his own form of moral justice as he counted down the calendar days left on his own life.

"Let's play a game..." is a phrase that's become the franchise's tagline before it took such a creative free fall in subsequent installments that even its star, Tobin Bell, sounded like he lost interest in delivering it. While the 2004 original was less a horror movie than an intense psychological thriller, most of its successors failed miserably at building on it, hanging their hats on the worst elements of what was initially a brilliant concept. Plot and narrative was abandoned in favor of trying to come up with the most disgusting and elaborate Jigsaw traps possible, each one more graphic than the last. And for a while, as bad as the movies had become, the shock value still worked and audiences ate it up. But what Saw couldn't survive was the dilemma each new writer and director kept trying to put a band-aid over in each sequel: The antagonist was dead.

Given all the capabilities of modern cinematic storytelling, killing off John Kramer/AKA Jigsaw in only the third film showed incredibly poor foresight, often forcing the filmmakers to embarrassingly work their way around it in the most absurd ways. By claiming it's about his "legacy," introducing hidden apprentices, shoehorning Bell into silly, nonsensical flashback scenes, and even littering the storylines with more law enforcement officials than most CBS procedurals. And that's not to mention physicians, ex-wives and insurance agents. Each sequel became overcrowded and needlessly convoluted to cover for Jigsaw's absence, straying further and further from its original concept. And because of this, EVERY MOVIE FELT THE SAME. That's the problem most in need of fixing.

So, the question becomes whether The Spierig Brothers concede by resting on the same tired formulas or try something different and adventurous with the benefit of a fresh, clean slate. The answer ends up being a little bit of both, which may not be enough sustain this moving forward. While they don't strip the whole thing down and dismantle it as I'd hoped, the good news is that it's the best written and directed post-Jigsaw death sequel yet, despite sharing some of the same issues its predecessors did. There were many points where it felt as if the movie would truly let go, before delivering a clever final twist that undeniably works in the moment, but also serves as an unfortunately painful reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's been 10 years since the death of the infamous Jigsaw killer, John Kramer (Bell), but when a perpetrator on the run finds himself cornered by police detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett), he talks of being forced to play a "game" while activating a mysterious triggering device in his hand. They shoot, sending him into a coma. Meanwhile, five people are being held captive in a barn with buckets over their heads and a metal chain around their neck, dragging them toward a wall of spinning buzzsaws.

With each instructed by the voice of Jigsaw to make a blood sacrifice in order to move on, Carly (Brittany Allen), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles) and Anna (Laura Vandervoort) are the four survivors. They move on to the next stage, with Jigsaw's voice informing them of more sadistic traps in store to repent for their lies and moral transgressions. As bodies turn up left and right, Halloran and Hunt start to wonder how any of this is possible, enlisting the help of ex-vet and forensic pathologist Logan (Matt Passmore) and his Jigsaw-obsessed assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson). It isn't long before their suspicions turn to both, even with evidence piling up that the unthinkable is true and Jigsaw could still be very much alive.

It could be read as a promising sign that the film opens not in a dark, dingy, dirty basement as most previous entries have, but in broad daylight in the midst of a police chase. In simultaneously preparing us for something completely different while also invoking the terribly familiar, the scene serves a microcosm for what The Spierig Brothers plan on delivering over the next hour and a half. While the introduction of multiple law enforcement officers had me groaning, and it's a stretch to say they put an entirely fresh coat of paint on the franchise, there are noticeable changes and improvements that help wash the taste of those sequels out of our mouths. Action taking place in actual daylight would be one, as are more visually intriguing locations such as a rustic barn. It's nice to be able to clearly see everything that's going on for a change, knowing they can still deliver an occasionally dark basement when necessary.

With a slightly more polished look to the proceedings, this doesn't carry the same straight to VOD that too many of its sequels did. Smaller touches, like Jigsaw upgrading from a tape recorder to a flash drive, a new, improved look to Billy The Puppet and some tinkering with the infamous musical cue ("Zep's Theme") work really well. And while it's easy to criticize some of the decisions made, Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger's script is uncharacteristically tight, especially when dealing with the four chosen subjects in Jigsaw's main trap. In that respect, it does bring the franchise back to basics, heavily focusing on what each have done to "deserve" what's happening to them. Their backstories don't disappoint, with the heinous nature of one arguably packing an even bigger punch than the intended twist that arrives in the final minutes. Unfortunately, what happens outside the barn is a bit of a mess, again overcomplicating a plot that should be relatively simple.

With two pairs of police detectives and medical examiners, it often feels like a chore keeping up with them and their motivations. And while the intention is clearly to set each of them up as a potential suspect or copycat killer, we've been around this block so many times that the mere thought of another Jigsaw apprentice is enough to turn me off of the franchise permanently. The more characters and suspects you have, the less they all mean, and if there's one serious fault in the screenplay, it's on a conceptual level, as the series continues to rub our faces in its inability to streamline anything. That said, this does the most competent job balancing this overabundance of characters, even if their presence complicates the story in ways it wouldn't with one strong law enforcement protagonist going up against Jigsaw.

While it may seem unreasonable to expect a Saw sequel to go to deep, cerebral places at this point, it still wouldn't hurt to minimize the excessive plotting in favor of a little more psychology. That all the characters have purposes that logically come to light by the end is somewhat of a miracle, but the series' many filmmakers have always forced themselves into a situation of cleaning up whatever narrative mistakes preceding entry left behind. That's why a completely fresh start was imperative, free from the tiresome formulas that ran the series into the ground.

For audiences, the police and forensic pathologists' exist in this installment to answer the only question on viewers' minds: Is Jigsaw actually alive? Obviously, revealing that constitutes too big a spoiler, but maybe the question should instead be whether that revelation would be any more or less damaging than the ridiculous ways they've had his "work" continue post-mortem, with increasingly diminished returns.

Without giving it all away, this is Tobin Bell's most purposeful outing in a while and his seemingly more motivated performance reflects it. He came to play this time and isn't relegated to the requisite "blink and you'll miss him" flashback cameo that's made each sequel appearance less essential than  his last. While no one would claim the movies are known for their acting, Bell is consistently the exception, his understanding of John Kramer's psychological motivations creepily filling in the blanks where the writing often fails him.

With more to work with here, the screenplay provides a reason for Bell's presence and he sticks around long enough to make it count. If the long layoff reminded us of anything, it's that so many of the franchise's failings can be directly tied to the increased reduction of his role in the sequels. This partially corrects that, and the performances that surround him are mostly suitable for the series standard, with Vandervoort and Passmore doing the most with what they're given.  

There's legitimate suspense in the idea that Jigsaw's grave may need to be dug up, and in the increasingly likely scenario he won't be in it, teasing us with the possibility the franchise may be forced to do something completely different. But the tension is short-lived, as the focus again moves away from Jigsaw to the cops and forensic pathologists trying to implicate and expose each other, as the true purpose of that buckethead game starts fully revealing itself. Taken for what it is, it's all pretty well constructed, capped off with a final twist that's reminiscent of the first sequel in how it toys with audience perceptions of what we're exactly seeing.

While nothing that occurs in the third act is poorly written or an outright disappointment, it does feel like business as usual, revealing nearly all the major changes to be cosmetic and superficial. In the end, it's still all about how gruesome and graphic the traps are, how high the body count, and the number of poorly developed ancillary characters introduced to extend the series. In other words, we're right back where we started. And it shouldn't be lost on anyone that there's a comfort in that for both the franchise's producers and its fans, who generally want to know that what they're getting into doesn't differ to much from what they originally signed on for.

Going in, there was a certain curiosity in finding out whether there's still a place for Saw in 2017 and whether doing this again all these years later would be like hopping back on Billy The Puppet's tricycle. For both better and worse, it is. And yet again we're left scratching our heads at how they'll possibly be able squeeze even more out of this property, as there are apparently more sequels planned. But we should just know by now to stop questioning how they continue suckering us into gladly returning for more punishment.                                                 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

2018 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)



Well, the 90th Annnual Academy Award nominations were announced early this morning by co-presenters Tiffany Haddish and Andy Serkis from the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and represented a return to the original format after last year's disastrous, anticlimactic online unveiling. While being glad Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the hint and went back to what worked, I can't say I enjoyed the butchering of all the nominees' names and jokey, stand-up atmosphere that again revealed the Academy's desperate, yearly obsession with be seen as relevant and plugged in to pop culture. With Haddish, they found a current, newsworthy entertainer to do it, while accidentally creating that inevitable moment of awkwardness when she wasn't nominated for Supporting Actress. But that was a longshot at best. The announcement was what it was, and there were very few surprises or outrageous snubs. There's definitely nothing as undeserved or appalling as Jennifer Lawrence's recent "Worst Actress" Razzie nod for literally one of best performances of the year in mother! 

Say what you will about the Academy, but as frustrating as they sometimes are, at least they don't just count box receipts and call it a day. They did a mostly respectable job here and while none of these categories will set ratings ablaze, how much of a goal is that anymore? The Oscars never did, nor pretended to. But it would be nice if they permeated the cultural conversation a little more, as they did last year with their strongest show in decades, culminating with that shocking Best Picture mix-up. What they have consistently done is nominate and reward respectable work, and this year again appears to be no exception.  Read the full list of nominees here and check out my take on things below.

- Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water leads the pack with 13 nominations, which seems like an absurd amount, even accounting for the technical awards. Sorry, but it does. Dunkirk and Three Billboards follow with 7 and 8, with both standing a better chance at wining Best Picture. How strange is that? After last year, it's already been established anything can happen. The Florida Project and I, Tonya don't make the cut, but you can't seriously believe the Academy would consider nominating Wonder Woman for Best Picture. But that it didn't get any nominations at all in any category is a bit surprising.

- Nine Best Picture nominees in total and I still say they should go back to five and make each choice mean more. Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour are the two surprises here, as everything else went according to plan. Both of those were primarily viewed as vehicles for their lead actors until this morning. And anyone who thought The Post wouldn't get in was kidding themselves.

- Remember when Greta Gerwig was set to star in that now shelved How I Met Your Mother spin-off a couple of years ago? Me neither. I guess everything does happen for a reason, and while a lot people have been waiting a while for this nomination, few could have guessed it would come in the Director category, making her only the fifth woman to ever earn that honor. And it's awesome. Jordan Peele's in for Get Out and the sole surprise (if you can call it that) is Paul Thomas Anderson's nod for Phantom Thread, which got a lot more love than anticipated. Somewhat conspicuous by his absence is The Post's Steven Spielberg, but with five slots to fill, there was always a good chance he'd be squeezed out. More surprising are the omissions of Three Billboard's Martin McDonagh and Call Me By Your Name's Luca Guadagnino.

- Let's just say it: Denzel Washington probably wouldn't have gotten a Best Actor nod for Roman J. Israel, Esq. if not for the recent sexual misconduct allegations against James Franco, who was all but a lock for The Disaster Artist a few weeks ago. Tom Hanks also found himself out in the cold for The Post, as most of the attention seemed focused on Streep's performance. Denzel's joined by Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name and, of course, the recently retiring Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread. Either way, Gary Oldman has this in the bag for Darkest Hour. He's due.

- No surprises or snubs whatsoever in Best Actress. A month or two ago it seemed as if Saoirse Ronan had this sewn up for Lady Bird. Now it's Frances McDormand's to lose for Three Billboards, but still closer than some think. We have our obligatory Streep nomination, but at least this time it's a role of substance in a picture most agree is worthy. No Jessica Chastain for Molly's Game, but that was considered a bit of a stretch to begin with. Wouldn't it be something if Margot Robbie won for I, Tonya?

- One of the few shocks, and a somewhat under-reported one, was the great Richard Jenkins' Supporting Actor nomination for The Shape of Water. No one saw that coming and it was probably the biggest sign that movie would be cleaning up this morning. Christopher Plummer still gets in for All The Money in the World despite all the endless controversy swirling around that film. No Armie Hammer for Call Me By Your Name though. That's a noteworthy exclusion, and maybe the biggest snub of the morning.

-In what's shaping up to be the big Supporting Actress showdown between respected TV veterans Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, Octavia Spencer shockingly slides in for The Shape of Water, while Mary J. Blige and Lesley Manville also get surprise nominations for Mudbound and Phantom Thread, respectively. Holly Hunter missing out for The Big Sick could be considered the only full-blown snub in a category infamous for throwing us some curve balls on both nomination morning and Oscar night.

- Logan becomes the first superhero film nominated for Best Original Screenplay while Mudbound's Rachel Morrison becomes the first female Best Cinematography nominee. 


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dunkirk



Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurid Barnard, James D' Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk clocks in at a tight, ambitiously intense 107 minutes. This bares mentioning not only as an under-reported detail in relation to its quality, but because at just over an hour and a half, it's one of the shortest war movies in decades. And by today's standards, it just might be one of the shortest movies, period. As tough as it may be to believe, there was a time not too long ago where every major release wasn't averaging two and a half hours in length. In fact, producers would do all they could to keep a film's running time to a minimum (remember "Harvey Scissorhands?"), interfering so heavily that the actual editor takes a backseat. The shorter the movie, the more theaters it could play in, and the more money it made.

The rules have now changed as actual brick and mortar theaters rapidly dwindle in the age of home viewing. Desperate to get anyone into a theater, studios are relying on bells and whistles like IMAX, 3D and insuring every movie "experience" is as long as humanly possible. You see, if it's an amusement park ride, you'll never want to get off, no matter how terrible. There's also little sense in leaving anything on the cutting room floor, hoping it'll be a bonus feature or deleted scene on the now defunct DVD format. The result has been movies getting progressively longer. And worse.

When you're packing stuff in just for the sake of it, there's no way the quality doesn't suffer considerably. It's also easy to forget the final bloated product we see is often the heavily edited, shorter version. A scary thought. You wouldn't have guessed the writer and director to break that streak would be Nolan given his career-long propensity to overindulge, with mostly positive but sometimes mixed results. It's still one of the industry's biggest mysteries how The Dark Knight managed to win a Best Editing Oscar when it was the very definition of a picture that would have greatly benefited from a snip and a trim. But implying Dunkirk's greatness only stems from its brevity is just as ridiculous as blaming a film's failures entirely on it running long.

While many factors are at clearly at play, it's still not unreasonable to suggest its length is the end result of many things done well, such as Lee Smith's masterful editing, which assures there isn't a single wasted or unnecessary moment. Proving a war epic doesn't have to be packed with story beats to succeed, Nolan creates this claustrophobic, almost terrifying sense of immediacy and impending doom that reverberates until the final minutes. With its emphasis squarely placed on spectacle and scope over story, it's in many ways the perfect antidote for those put off more emotionally-driven war entries like Saving Private Ryan.

It's 1940 and many of Allied soldiers have retreated to Dunkirk, France to await evacuation during World War II. One of them is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private who survived a German ambush and now joins Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) in attempting to transport a wounded soldier from the beach onto a hospital ship. Meanwhile in Weymouth, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenage friend, George (Barry Keoghan) set out to the beach aboard his boat for a civilian rescue mission that's derailed when they save a shell-shocked, shipwrecked soldier (Cillian Murphy) with little interest in returning. In the air, Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) must assume command after their leader is shot down, but with a shattered fuel gauge, it's likely he won't last much longer himself.

Divvying the screen time between three separate, occasionally interlocking stories that center around the evacuation, Nolan focuses on what happened on land, at sea and in the air, with the each event serving as an entry point.We already know the subject itself is often enough to warrant massive praise and awards consideration, and while this probably will to, he at least went about earning it with some creatively inspired decision-making. Consisting primarily of suspenseful action set pieces with very minimal dialogue, Nolan conveys that war is lost or won on the battlefield and does his best at keeping us there, rarely letting the narrative get dragged down by unnecessary details or needless editorializing.

Despite the obvious commitment to period accuracy, there's this slick, contemporary look to the production design and cinematography that fits Nolan's vision. Sounding like something straight out of a 70's horror movie, Hans Zimmer's pounding, foreboding score never lets up, creating an uncomfortable tension throughout. There's also a significant reliance on practical effects over CGI, which only seems to enhance the authenticity unfolding in front of us. This isn't a character study and I'd argue that unpacking backstory on all these men wouldn't have necessarily brought us closer to the situation they're in and may have even slowed the momentum. What pulls us closer to the event is exactly what Nolan does in simply showing it. If everything we learn about them comes from the situation they've been thrust into, it's still an inevitability that certain segments will be the favorites, outshining others. 

Wisely casting a group of mostly fresh-faced unknowns as the soldiers, the performances are uniformly strong across the board with an excellent Fionn Whitehead as the terrified private being the closest we have to a full-blown lead in terms of screen time.  He's backed up nicely by the very known, but completely unrecognizable Harry Styles, who so seamlessly slides into his larger than expected role as Andrew, a determined British Army infantry private, you'll have to check the credits twice to believe it's him. The strongest plot thread involves Mark Rylance's civilian mariner and the friend of his son who just so happens to tag along, with all getting much more than they bargained for in taking on Cillian's Murphy's emotionally fractured, muted soldier.

In having to stay calm for the boys while navigating a potentially volatile situation, Rylance gives the film's quietest and most assured performance alongside Barry Keoghan, who conveys all the enthusiasm and apprehension of an eager volunteer trying to help, but instead finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in tragic consequences. With his identity as concealed here as it was in The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy spends nearly the picture's entire length masked up in a cockpit, letting his voice and eyes do all the lifting, which we already know he's quite skilled at. Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy probably have the least to do in their respective roles as British Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, if only because there's so little talk of either strategy or politics. It's essentially non-stop action, which works to the film's benefit.

Despite a tame PG-13 rating, nothing about Dunkirk feels sanitized or glossed over to appeal to wider audiences. And yet, it's still one of the more accessible in its genre and among the chosen few worth rewatching. While all of the events are fictionalized, what they went through is very much inspired by true events and feels it, with Nolan employing a fast-paced, docudrama style approach that puts us right there with them. It's almost as if he set all the preventive measures in place to cut off the depressingly common "been there, done that" feeling that's accompanied most war pictures released over the past 25 years.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anothony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Frank Oz, Benicio del Toro
Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers.**

From the moment it was announced George Lucas was selling LucasFilms to Disney and we'd be getting the inconceivable pipe dream of actual sequels the original Star Wars trilogy, it was basically a given they'd be able to creatively surpass the wretched prequels. But hopes remained high that they'd go further and really get it right, and after selecting J.J. Abrams' as the franchise's caretaker and an enormously successful reintroduction with 2015's The Force Awakens, there was finally  reason for fans to celebrate. There was just one more thing. But it's everything.

If you argue few characters in cinema's history have had a greater influence on pop culture than Luke Skywalker, than it's also fair to concede few actors have ever gotten as little credit as Mark Hamill. He's why we're here, and watching Harrison Ford denounce his involvement all these years only served as a reminder that Hamill never complained once, instead appreciating the adulation of his fans and in knowing the only role he'll be known for is at least a great one. While it's difficult to call any aspect of the already highly praised original trilogy overlooked or underappreciated, if forced to choose, it's his performance.

With the promise of sequels also came the promise of something fans like myself have been waiting decades for: Hamill playing Luke as the older, grizzled Jedi Master. Under the best circumstances,  he'd be as instrumental to The Last Jedi as Sir Alec Guinness was to A New Hope as Ob-Wan. With age and experience on his side and a director as uniquely talented as Rian Johnson at the controls,, Hamill would be put in a position to do the work of his career. What I couldn't have anticipated was descriptors like "controversial" and "polarizing" being attributed to any Star Wars installment that doesn't have George Lucas' name attached. Or more specifically, that the controversy would primarily surround Hamill and his return to this iconic role.

The Last Jedi is not The Empire Strikes Back of this series, nor should that have been the expectation. But it is something a Star Wars movie hasn't been in a while, if not ever: Completely unpredictable. Both for better and worse. It is the most visually arresting installment in many moons, while containing a certain degree of depth and complexity uncommon to the franchise, especially at this point. In other words, it doesn't feel as if Johnson was just hired for a job, which was probably one of the bigger fears going in. Unfortunately, mitigating these flashes of brilliance is that it's overstuffed, overplotted and, at over two and a half hours, a bit bloated. There's enough plot here to jam into ten movies, but all anyone will want to talk about is what happens with Luke. And that's fair, since it's about time he gets some attention.

When we last left Rey (Daisy Ridley), she had arrived with Chewbacca and R2-D2 on the remote island of Ahch-To to convince the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Hamill) to join the Resistance in their fight against the tyrannical First Order. But it'll be harder than anticipated, as she discovers a bitter, grizzled recluse who's denounced all Jedi teachings after Han and Leia's son, Ben Solo, turned to The Dark Side under his tutelage, only to reemerge as the vindictive Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Now it's Ren who sees himself capable of recruiting Rey to his side, as Luke fears history could be repeating itself.

Meanwhile, Resistance General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and pilot Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac) are trapped on a transport ship surrounded by a First Order battle fleet targeting their rebel base, as per the orders of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). This is as Stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), joins Poe, BB-8, and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), to embarks on a mission to infiltrate one of their ships and disable their tracking device. The First Order, however, have other plans.

There are about four or five main plots and sub-plots unfolding simultaneously throughout Rian Johnson's script, close to half a dozen huge battle sequences and such a surplus of characters both new and old that you'll need a chart to track it all. Historically, the most successful Star Wars entries are the tightest and most streamlined, narrowing its focus on a few key characters embroiled in a struggle between good and evil. It was that template Lucas introduced in 1977, until with each succeeding effort the universe expanded, the backstories grew deeper and more complicated, and now with Episode VIII, the consequences of that excess are finally reflected in the actual running time of the film. This isn't your father's Star Wars and it might even be the first to fully incorporate the Marvel influence, as the only possible explanation for a universe this packed is Disney looking ahead to spin-offs and sequels.

Injecting the material with his own vision in a way the safer Abrams didn't in The Force Awakens, Johnson manages to heavily diverge from instituted tenants of the franchise while still being somewhat hamstrung by certain requirements. The result is a fascinatingly mixed bag of greatness and frustration that's all about looking ahead, serving as a swan song for classic characters and seriously testing the loyalty of even the most ardent fans who receive what could be their final nostalgia fix. By its end, the most important question surrounds whether enough has been done with the newer characters to get them to the point that they're ready to take over. And the biggest surprise coming out of this is that the time has apparently now arrived, whether we're ready or not.

Much of the gargantuan running time is taken up in the first half by a lot of narrative set-up and an exciting opening battle sequence that lays the cards on the table in terms of what to expect from the Resistance's plan to topple the First Order. Little would we know that the rest of the picture is going to be spent subverting those expectations. While it's easy to quibble that nearly all of these battle scenes could have used a trim and they do employ a good deal more CGI than its predecessor, they're staged impressively by Johnson and Abrams' mandate of incorporating more practical effects has mostly held.

Like its predecessor, the world continues to look dirty and lived-in, the creatures seem authentic and the locations look like actual places rather than actors standing in front of green screens. While most aren't completely incorrect in pointing to the film's middle portion involving Finn and Rose at Canto Bight as lagging the most, there is a larger "Let's do that. Well, that didn't work. So let's try this." repetition to the whole Resistance storyline, often causing the narrative to take an extra step or two in getting where it's going. Whether that's something that would be ironed out in a second viewing remains to be seen, but what's undeniable are that characters are given a chance to shine, even as others are inevitably marginalized.

Anyone who came exclusively for Chewbacca, R2-D2 or C3PO may as well head for the exits since they're given what amounts to extended cameos, save for maybe Chewy who does share a cleverly humorous scene opposite the now infamous Porgs. Most of the comedy in the script works really well, coming off as as natural and unforced as it ever has, especially when it comes to anything involving Domhnall Gleeson's put-upon General Hux, with the actor actually in on the joke this time around.

Despite General Leia Organa spending much of the film's first half incapacitated, the late Carrie Fisher, as promised, is given a substantial role this time around, even as each of her scenes carry a  certain weight in wondering if it's her last. As the glue that holds the Resistance together, she makes her additional screen time count and becomes far more instrumental to the story than most predicted. Even when not on screen, the character's a presence and Johnson crafts a far more emotionally fitting send-off for the actress than that jarring non-appearance as a CGI avatar at the end of Rogue One. Oddly, this wasn't a send-off for the character, who strangely survives through the end of the film despite numerous opportunities to rather easily write her out. Talk about a surprise.     


In a successfully odd and inspired bit of casting, a purple-haired Laura Dern steps in as Leia's temporary surrogate Admiral Holdo, more than holding her own in this universe and proving to be strongest of the new additions. Her casual but stern demeanor plays well against Oscar Isaac's hotheaded pilot, Poe Dameron,who has a more developed arc than you'd expect, undergoing a transformation throughout that puts the character in a more intriguing place than simply the "hero" role he played in the last film. In fact, one of the better, overlooked aspects of Johnson's screenplay is that at least most of the major characters have clearly identifiable arcs, even amidst all the quibbling as to where some of those lead.

The only important character who takes a noticeable drop-off in importance is Finn who, through no fault of John Boyega's, can't help but feel like an expendable accessory following the purposeful, spirited introduction he had in The Force Awakens with his engaging fish-out-of-water plot. His one moment comes in a lightsaber duel with Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, who's quickly emerged as the new Boba Fett by being a relatively minor character whose popularity can be attributed to a really cool costume.

While Finn still has some interesting interplay with Benicio del Toro's stuttering codebreaker, DJ, being separated from Rey hurts him the most since so much of his impact inthe previous film came in those scenes opposite her. But even taking into account my reservations about the ultimate purpose it serves in the film's final scene, the Canto Bight excursion is a really fun detour in the vain of A New Hope's Cantina, and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose is a fun, spunky new character who unfortunately seems marked for death the second she appears.

That Rose doesn't perish should be a shock, if only we cared. And that's the biggest problem. The plot that eats up the most amount of running time feels like a placeholder as we we wait to return to one of the most well-written, directed and performed storylines in the franchise's history. In fact, it's so superior to the other aspect of this production that it superficially magnifies even the tiniest flaws with everything else. There isn't a moment when Finn and Rose are on screen when you're not wondering when they're going to get back to Kylo, Luke and Rey.

In a storyline brimming with possibilities, Luke's training of Rey, and both their relationships to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, is masterfully executed, taking us back to the classic template of the original Star Wars trilogy in a way no film has managed since. With more considerably more mileage and experience behind him now, Hamill brings an undeniable gravitas to the role of Luke that wasn't there before, and despite many complaining about the character becoming a grouch or turning his back on the ways of the Jedi, it make sense. As does his distrust of Rey, who he believes will eventually betray him as Ben Solo did. Of course, we find out that's not completely true through a series of brilliant Rashomon-style flashbacks that present three different perspectives on the inciting event that caused the creation of Kylo Ren. It's really the first time the audience has been seriously challenged to question Luke's morality, and it's a testament to both Hamill and Driver's performances that we are.

With two sides to the same story and the truth landing somewhere in the middle, true nail-biting suspense is built up in finding out whether Rey or Ben will turn to the other side, as each attempts to flip the other. With Rey's calling to the Dark Side ringing louder and more believably than ever (resulting in an unforgettable sequence involving mirror images) while Ben internalizes Snoke's disappointment at his apparent softening due to the guilt of killing his father and lingering attachment to his mother.

What's most clever about all this is how it works on a number of meta levels by having Snoke acknowledge fan criticisms of Kylo Ren as a Vader wannabe and being defeated by the inexperienced Rey in the last film. She and Ben clearly share a strong, unspoken bond that goes beyond being mere adversaries, communicating telepathically as he tries to seduce her into seeing the world his way and vice versa. So palpable is their chemistry, you start to wonder whether they're literally seducing one another, as there's this sexual undercurrent to their relationship that uncomfortably brings to mind the fact we're still unaware of Rey's lineage.

Johnson has fun teasing us with Rey's parentage and playing with fears that the two will be revealed as siblings before pulling the rug out. It comes as a relief when it's revealed that she's essentially a nobody, not only because the idea that everyone has to be genetically linked is patently ridiculous, but it gives Ben another card to play in claiming he's the only one who sees her as a "somebody." It's with all this to unpack that Rey and Kylo Ben eventually arrive in Snoke's blood red Throne Room for their moment of reckoning in a sequence that draws heavily from the legendary Vader turn at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. But it's an important distinction to make that Johnson doesn't try to duplicate it in any way, as the battle feels as if it belongs entirely to this film, with his writing and direction at a level that more appropriately earns a comparison to Luke's and Vader's Cloud City confrontation in Empire.

While it's hard to overstate how much Ridley and Driver wring out of each other and the material, the CG presentation of the creepy, frightening Snoke only helps their cause, far surpassing Andy Serkis' unsuccessful holographic cameo in Episode VII. Not only does The Throne Room scene closes with a shockingly unprecedented moment of brutality for the franchise that turns the story upside down. Or does it?  With neither willing to give in or back down to the others' beliefs, Rey and Ben find themselves back at exactly where they started: On opposite sides. It's now Luke who must face down his ultimate challenge in Kylo Ren. Getting that character to the point where he's at Vader level didn't seem like a possibility a film ago, but now thanks to Driver and the writing, he's alarmingly close. And with Ridley further building on the already solid foundation built for Rey, she stands on her own in a way she didn't a film prior. So while it seems as if the story merely reset itself, it's with characters internally transformed by what's happened here. 

The concept of the Force, which has fluctuated wildly in use and explanation throughout the series, is strongly presented and examined here, lacking in the occasional ridiculousness of previous entries. It's made clear that Rey hasn't yet mastered it and why, and Yoda's holographic appearance from beyond the grave is at least partially successful in so far as looking less like the computerized abomination we saw in the prequels, if still not exactly resembling the iconic Frank Oz creation we all loved from Empire.

While getting the climactic showdown we've always wanted with a seemingly invincible Luke battling Kylo Ren on the red-soiled planet Crait, it comes with a major caveat. Luke's Force projection takes the dive, as his physically spent body remains on Ahch-To, exiting the series as he entered it: Staring into the sunset, before disappearing for good. Taken at face value, I actually don't have a huge problem with Luke sacrificing himself to insure a future for the Resistance and the eventual title character.

Skywalker's arc came to its logical conclusion while Hamill delivers the dark, conflicted performance we've always wished for, becoming the film's centerpiece and beating heart, but in a far different manner than in the original trilogy. The final moment he shares with Leia can be seen as the ultimate symbolic gesture that the franchise is moving forward without them. Almost as sure an indication as a bitter Luke tossing his lightsaber was of Johnson's intentions to completely deconstruct this universe.

What's potentially problematic is a franchise without Han, Luke and Leia, and betting the new characters are ready to move to the forefront. Two of them surely are, while the jury's still out on the rest. That, along with pacing and editing issues, is where the film flounders most. And yet, while the sum of its parts is arguably greater than the whole, it's too sprawling and ambitious to not have staying power. There's nothing "average" about it, as it visually stuns while deepening the characters and mythology. Rian Johnson did his job. It wasn't to send every hardcore fan home happy, or take a safe, risk-free route that paves the way for a smooth, predictable Episode IX. It was to shake things up. Be careful what you wish for.     

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Ghost Story



Director: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky, Liz Franke, Kenneisha Thompson, Barlow Jacobs
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

How often do we hear the obviously discomforting phrase, "Life Goes On" when someone passes away? If David Lowery's haunting and affecting A Ghost Story isn't one the saddest films about loss that's ever been made, then it's certainly among the greatest. It takes that statement and truly gets inside it, offering up a contemplative, poetic meditation on living and dying in this universe that's so important it feels as if we've been given answers to questions we didn't know we needed, or even wanted. And the script never once advertises it's doing that. Lowery just lets his story wash over us, showing what it must be like, to not only live with the grief surrounding a catastrophic loss like this, but be the deceased. It knows that while life does technically "go on" for most, it's nothing but an empty platitude when applied to the person who's gone.

So, how then can this film possibly attempt to articulate the feeling of no longer being alive? It's not as if the deceased can feel or do anything. And that's exactly the point. The entire concept is ingenious in its simplicity, and as you've already likely heard, this is the movie where Casey Affleck stands around in a white sheet with eyeholes and Rooney Mara eats an entire pie. That's the easy description, and on that alone you'll get a handful of people who won't see it, or will, and say they were bored to tears because "nothing happened." That's fine, but a lot happens, just not in the way anyone's used to. Emotionally, it's difficult to get through because it dares to go places that guarantee a lasting experience for those prone to falling under its spell.

Sparse and achingly real, there isn't much narrative to be found because it's interested in ideas large enough to transcend it. What starts as a painful reflection on love and loss gradually builds to more, crossing time, space and existence as it maintains this uncomfortable intimacy with the familiarity and monotony of everyday life. Unbearably depressing and strangely uplifting all at once, it's staying power already seems unrivaled, continuing to grow in my estimation since its initial viewing.

Quiet, sensitive Texas-based musician, "C" (Affleck) lives with his wife, "M" (Mara) in a small suburban home he loves, but she's hoping they can soon move out of. Unfortunately, the final decision rests with neither, as a tragic, sudden car accident claims C's life as he pulls out of their driveway early in the morning. While lying on the mortician's table, his spirit appears to rise from his lifeless body, and wearing a white bedsheet with two eye holes, he returns to their house as a passive, invisible observer of his grieving widow. Watching as C attempts to put the pieces of her now shattered life back together, he takes in the painful realization that things will gradually get easier for her. Soon, he'll be gone a little longer, and as a result, that absence may mean a little less.

C will meet new people and will surely now want to sell a house that contains plenty of warm memories, but stands primarily as a depressing reminder of a future together that's gone. While she can leave, he's trapped, standing on the sidelines long enough to frustratingly witness a new family move in and the house turn over yet again. He stays and waits for her to come back. Will she? When C's journey finally takes him out of the house, he embarks on a transformative trip through time and memory, finding out what it truly means to leave a lasting legacy in a universe where everyone has a history.

Emotional devastation. That's really the only proper description for what Lowery accomplishes in taking a seemingly ludicrous premise of a dead guy walking around in a ghost sheet and wringing such pathos out of it. Even one or two half-steps wrong in the presentation of this admittedly high risk concept could have resulted in disaster, but he somehow successfully walks that razor's edge, delivering this melancholic tone poem that haunts and wonders with each new scene. Much of that comes from the fact that you can sense the presence of C under the sheet.

You can just tell it's Casey Affleck under there rather than some stand-in or double. From the height to the posture and movements, it's definitely him, and you get the impression any attempt at a substitution would negatively manifest itself in a piece built entirely around mood and feeling. He has to move just right for all of this to work and not seem ridiculous, but Affleck goes several steps further with his head gestures, finding ways to convey an entire range of emotions through, yes, a sheet.

Much has been made of Rooney Mara's infamous pie-eating scene, but it seems that audiences are more put off by the audacity of the idea than the actual event, which sees her desperate, grief stricken character ravenously goes to town on this pie all within a single take. It's clear why the scene's here, as it might be the only true release M allows herself in the wake of this tragedy, but what's less obvious is how anyone could have serious thematic issues with it. If they're just bored then that's fine, as the film probably isn't for them anyway since many other scenes feel even longer. But Lowery's not just being pretentious or trying to shock. Rather, it's a deliberate attempt to take us inside the head space of a character who's dying inside, and that it succeeds at it (and much more when factoring in who else is in the room) should be enough to claim it works better than any lines of spoken dialogue could. It also calls to mind an old expression that you'd even watch a certain actor or actress just read the phone book for two hours. This takes less time, but substitute a dessert dish for that phone book and Rooney passes the test.

Possibly from corroborating once before on a Lowery project, Mara and Affleck have this easygoing shorthand as a couple in the early scenes, of which there are surprisingly few. Once the death occurs, most of the remainder belongs to her, carrying those scenes of grieving with expressions and silences that seem unconsciously plugged in to his spectral presence without ever truly being aware of it.
Daniel Hart's unnerving and hypnotizing score also adds to that feeling with invisible subtly, even as the film's loudest proclamation of outright emotion, Hart's band Dark Rooms' "I Get Overwhelmed" exceeds any expectation of a song powerful enough to break down the barriers between life and death.

With long enough stretches of no dialogue to qualify as a silent film, Lowery leans heavily on visuals, sound design, score and the performances to tell the story. The combination of being shot in an extremely boxy aspect ratio and Andrew Droz Palermo's washed out, grainy cinematography recreate the look of a vintage photo, while also serving to enhance the claustrophobia. It's as if we're looking through a peephole or viewfinder into these characters' lives, much like the deceased protagonist.

It's hard to prepare for what you'll experience when a premise this far outside the box lands on your lap. But there's no mistaking that A Ghost Story is, in every possible sense, an experience, albeit one requiring the viewer to enter with an open mind and heart. So many of its scenes are unforgettably haunting. Whether it's a sudden, explosive expression of the ghost's anger directed at strangers who have taken over his home, an unbearably sad, subtitled silent conversation that takes place between apparitions, or time travel trips into the future and past that deliver a cold but somewhat comforting truth: While the world goes on without us, it's entirely possible we each left a mark that made it just a little better for whoever comes next.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

mother!



Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, Kristen Wiig
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
  
Sometimes, it only takes the first few minutes to figure out whether you'll be on a film's wavelength. From the opening scene of Darren Aronofsky's mother! and each succeeding one over the span of two hours, every single moment is compelling. There's a built-in, unnerving tension accompanying the execution of even the most menial tasks and a genuine feeling that you have no idea what will happen next. That's exciting, and for the accusations of this being the most polarizing, controversial, and challenging mainstream film in years (all true), it starts as merely a story about a couple of unwelcome houseguests. But there's this unpleasantness bubbling under the surface, and while we're not sure exactly what, most probably expected something resembling a traditional horror movie with supernatural elements. That's what the commercials and trailers hinted, as well as what we've come to expect and have been trained to spot. And while classifying it as a psychological thriller seems fairest, that description also fails to convey the magnitude of what plays out.

In creating a work of art that challenges and confronts his audience in almost sickeningly uncomfortable ways, Aronofsky backs us into a corner and makes us think our way out. It's not only 2017's best and most audacious effort, but the most accomplished work of this filmmaker's career, which is no small feat considering he's the director behind Requiem For a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. This sees him truly breaking free from whatever creative shackles remained and operating on an almost entirely different level, upping his game in ways I didn't think possible. You'll know when you get to that point in the narrative whether you're willing to go along for the ride, or decide to abandon ship, as most critics and audiences already have.

The cruelest irony is that this isn't a confusing story lacking a coherent beginning, middle or end. It's everything in between that confounds, with very little of it having to do with plot. The only wrong way to watch is literally. And in Jennifer Lawrence, the director finds the ideal vessel with which to deliver it, showcasing her abilities in a manner we've never seen exhibited, or rather, inhibited, before.  At the very distinct point the movie starts riding the rails of the crazy train everyone's been talking about, I just fastened my seatbelt. "It's here," I reminded myself as the madness and insanity unfolds, relishing how rare it is in cinema to get a final act that pays off with such reckless abandon and unexpectedly thrilling consequences.

So much happens in mother! and yet it remains strangely immune to spoilers because what occurs isn't even half of what it's about. Still, a certain degree of restraint is best when describing events.  A struggling poet known simply as Him (Javier Bardem) is rebuilding his life after a fire destroyed the house he shares with his much younger wife, Mother (Lawrence). Prone to unexpected panic attacks, suspicious occurrences around the house disturb and unsettle her as she renovates, while Him suffers from the worst case of writer's block since Jack Torrance took up residence at the Overlook. Endlessly staring at a blank page, he finds his only inspiration from a rare, mysterious crystal object he keeps on a pedestal in his study.

Things change when a stranger named Man (Ed Harris) shows up at the house looking for a place to stay. Chain-smoking and prone to hysterical coughing fits, he's clearly ill, but also gives some indications his arrival isn't exactly a coincidence. Him and Man soon form a bond over the former's writing, but Mother is immediately suspicious. A day later, Man's wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives and the atmosphere worsens. Considerably. Before long, Mother is on the outside looking in, a spectator in her own home and marriage, with Him's behavior growing stranger and more self-obsessed, as these strangers infiltrate their lives.

A clear dynamic exists in this marriage before the houseguests from hell arrive, or more accurately, move in and take over. Him pretty much just does what he wants and Mother is expected to just go along with it, without nary a word. And mostly, she complies, out of love. But it's a love that seems unfairly balanced, as she stands by and watches Him let these strangers run roughshod over their home, basically ignoring the affections and support she provides on a daily basis. It only worsens as their presence grows more invasive, specifically in regard to Michelle Pfeiffer's Woman, whose questioning of Mother about her sex life and marriage, as well as the flagrant invasion of her personal space, has you scratching your head wondering when the latter will finally assert herself. The unexpected arrival of more family members pushes her to the breaking point.

As to why the title character is named "Mother" when she isn't one, and how that fits into the larger picture, is initially a mystery. And just as she starts putting her foot down after enduring far more than even the most patient spouse could, a single shocking event occurs that turns the story on its head, soon severing the already tenuous bond that exists between them. The lengths Him goes to in conveying an illusion of stability when the problem has clearly reached apocalyptic proportions is almost comical. As he explains away everything to placate his wife, you start wondering if this guy's for real. Could he actually be this vain and self-absorbed? If so, what's the possible explanation, and what does it have to do with these intrusive houseguests? O the mysterious crystal? The answers do eventually come, but once they do, you might regret you asked.

With her energetic presence and brash, oversized charisma, Jennifer Lawrence is already a seasoned pro at inhabiting characters who command in any room they walk into. As Mother, the actress gets to do something she's never attempted: Play the victim. A weak pushover whose only purpose seems to be providing for others, most specifically her husband, as she caters to his increasingly absurd whims. Even as the narrative clearly puts viewers in the position of identifying and sympathizing with Mother and seeing much of what happens through her eyes, it's fascinating to see Lawrence's natural playfulness and likability stripped away. Psychologically beaten down, she can't command anything since her character takes a passenger seat in her own developing nightmare. So, we start discovering what else Lawrence can do well, which is unsurprisingly everything. While she's again cast as the much younger wife of a male lead, it's the rare age gap that's acknowledged multiple times in the screenplay for purposeful effect. And not in the man's favor.

The more muted than usual Lawrence somehow finds a way to make what should be mundane, everyday activities like painting and boiling tea crackle with tension and suspicion as she grows increasingly weary of her unwanted guests. There's this slow escalation of insanity around her that explodes in the final act, the full force of which depends on her surrendering to the material and fully giving herself over to Aronofsky's vision, regardless of how disturbing and humiliating it becomes. Even if you despise where the story goes, it's tough to deny how present and gripping Lawrence is in every scene, or at least acknowledge how far outside her perceived zone she goes with the performance, adding "risk-taker" to the growing list of Jennifer Lawrence superlatives. It's also the first performance she's given that represents something bigger than only the interior life of the character she's playing, showcasing darker, quieter shades to her range we haven't been experienced in more mainstream projects that first punched her card as an award-winning star.

Bardem just might have the even tougher role, playing this damaged man who talks of the great love he has for his wife, even as his actions contradict it. He has to commit to this absolutely and does, dialing in on his character's vain self absorption in the face of a woman willing to do anything for Him. But he wants more. Whether it's adulation, admiration, or attention, it just never stops with this guy, and if you can figure Him out, you're a step closer to figuring out the film. As Man and Woman, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are brilliantly aggravating and deplorable, with Pfeiffer given her juiciest, most complex role in decades, especially shining in her combative scenes opposite Lawrence. In fact, she's so good (or rather deliciously bad), a strong case could be made, not only for a supporting nomination, but even more screen time. And yet, the amount she gets seems ideal, serving its function until her presence is no longer necessary. In a broader sense, the same could apply to all four characters, who are very much functional representations of something greater than they initially appear.

In this house, Aronofsky creates a world, and does it via the performances, the camera's perspective, sound and even production design. And when all hell breaks loose in the last third, you start realizing the scope and enormity of what he had in mind when creating this universe. And while much of this is tiptoeing for the sake of spoiler avoidance, let's just say it's one of the few instances where a script builds to a crescendo, then actually over-delivers on any reasonable expectations. It's disgusting, uncomfortable and there's one moment I'm convinced is the sole cause for all the animosity directed toward the film. And yet, somehow, in the end, it all makes sense.

The very last scene is just perfect, providing justification and clarification to nearly everything that came before. It's one of those great endings where you practically hear the sound of a book closing, even as its content, as well as the biblical and metaphysical questions it poses, stay with you long after the credits roll. View the film as a disintegration of a marriage, a religious allegory, a desperate plea to save us from each other, or maybe all of the above, its impact is lasting and worthy of a discussion audiences should have been having. That we're not speaks to a larger problem that Aronofsky is more than willing to throw in our faces, and deservedly so. It's all right up there on screen for intense examination, at least for those able and willing to see it through.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2017


While it wouldn't be completely fair to categorize 2017 as a "weak year" for movie posters given the amount of great work to be uncovered if you hunt hard enough, it won't be remembered as one the strongest. But the good news is that since I first started doing this list over a decade ago, there's been a huge surge in design quality, quietly reversing the fortunes of an art form once at risk of being absorbed into soulless studio PR departments obsessed with the bottom line and lacking any creative vision. At least that's what it felt like in 2006. Perhaps, similar to the reemergence of vinyl records, more film fans started to appreciate and respect the role of the one-sheet in not only effectively selling a movie to the masses, but giving us a tangible piece of art to admire, display and even collect.

Whereas the big complaint ten years ago was the lack of illustration and the growing irrelevance of legendary poster artists like Drew Struzan in an era of excessive photoshopping and floating heads, there now seems to be a legitimate return to illustrated designs. There's still a lot of that terrible stuff coming from the major studios, but for the first time a while, there's an almost equal amount of  inspired work as well. With the rise of companies like Mondo and increased popularity of alternative movie posters, independent artists now have a larger than ever online platform facilitating creativity. And now finally, the major studios are catching on. In fact, you could argue we have a new problem of too many high concept posters competing for attention to the point that they're all starting to look the same. In this way, "geek culture" and superhero fandom has both helped and harmed the movie poster business.

An over-reliance on artistry may be a good problem to have, but it should also serve as a reminder that a movie poster should still look like one. Of course, I say this knowing full well my selection for the top spot this year looks like it should be hanging in an art gallery instead of a theater. But despite echoing the sentiments of the pack and endorsing aesthetics over concept, few could argue 2017's winner is simply the strongest design by a considerable margin. And that's not to say the concept isn't just as strong. There's a reason this poster's topped or appeared on just about every other list out there, with most agreeing it at least equals or surpasses the polarizing film itself.  Regardless of anyone's feelings on the movie, we should all just be grateful that one-sheets from risky, underseen projects are being seen by a much greater number of people.

By now, you know the rules. Any 2017 official theatrical poster is eligible for consideration, even if it's for a movie scheduled for release during the following year. Alternate movie posers, fan-made art of any kind, or a one-sheet not commissioned by the studio releasing the film do not qualify. Below are my choices for the ten best, followed by an alphabetical listing of the runners-up. And of course, they're followed by my depressing picks for the worst. All images are courtesy of Impawards.com


The Best...

10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi


What a difference two years can make. In 2015, an embarrassingly cluttered, heavily photoshopped The Force Awakens poster made the cut for one of the worst that year. And for good reason. This, on the other hand, feels as if balance and order has been restored to the force, recalling that classic Tim Reamer design for 1983's Return of the Jedi, and really all the posters from the beloved original trilogy. Clean, simple and striking, it gets everything you need to know about The Last Jedi across within a single image. The contrast of red against the retro-infused white border and blue lighsaber is eye catching and that familiar trope of the two floating heads spliced together actually seems completely fresh for a change because of its context.

Everyone suspects Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren will be on a collision course with Rey caught in the middle, so besides the choice being visually mesmerizing, it makes creative sense.  And how about that symmetrically perfect placement of the title treatment on the bottom center, where it's never looked as bold. Ironically enough, the ubiquitous artist known as LA also designed that aforementioned Force Awakens disaster, lending credence to claims the designer may just be giving the studio what they want when it comes to a huge franchise like this. Either way, I like what they wanted this time. A welcome return to basics.


9. Baby Driver


At first glance, the official theatrical poster for Baby Driver doesn't seem like much, aside from the fairly unusual color combination. Like me, you could even initially be fooled into thinking that it's another one of those jumbled photoshopped character collages where they try to contractually jam everyone onto the page. But look closer. Someone actually drew this (a really talented illustrator  named Rory Kurtz), and even from a close distance the artwork is so painstakingly realistic you'd never be able to tell it isn't a cast shot. Of all the posters on the list, this is the only one I own, and while that was kind of unplanned, I still can't help but marvel at how meticulously designed it is, especially for a major commercial release.

Besides the detail on the illustration itself, all the characters are incorporated into the print without it looking too busy or anyone seeming unnecessarily shoehorned in. Neon pink (which after Drive, must now be the official getaway driving color) and tan already feel like an iconic pairing that instantly brands the movie, whether that be on a subway billboard, an on-demand thumbnail, Netflix menu, or full-size poster like this. It just works, as do the speeding vehicles careening diagonally as if they're literally racing off the page, creating what's nearly a three-dimensional effect. The credits are perfectly placed on the right, and while the title treatment isn't too flashy, it doesn't need to be because everything else is, allowing it to stand out. It's just a cool, crisp, efficient design, further proving  just how much Mondo and other alternative outlets have infiltrated and influenced the major studios in positive ways.


8. Get Out



As a big fan of using blank or "negative" space in movie posters, I couldn't help but grin with approval upon laying eyes on the one-sheet for Jordan Peele's Get Out, which actually had a lot of options on the table as far as what could be done. And yet, because of the controversial subject matter and sly social commentary, most of those options probably weren't all that feasible. And that was for the best, as the one thing you didn't want was to go over the top, for both the risk of spoilers or marketing the film as something it's not (an exploitive race-baiting thriller). Sometimes the simplest, most obvious solution is wisest, resulting in a design that's subtly powerful precisely because of how much it holds back.

The movie itself is a slow burn and this poster reflects that, as well as the growing disorientation and fear of the protagonist, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), whose teary eyes have become the indelible symbol of the story's horror. And maybe even 2017's. Love how the design recreates that claustrophobic feeling of him being completely boxed in and totally gut-punched by the shocking circumstances he's encountered. This poster, possibly even more than the film, may as well be a case study for using minimalism for maximum impact. The black lettering against a stark white background is most definitely not a purely artistic choice, but it's really all that spacing that makes everything stand out, especially the ingenious tag line: "Just Because You're Invited, Doesn't Mean You're Welcome." Isn't that the truth?
  

7. Lady Bird


This one breaks every rule. A simple side profile shot of the film's star doesn't exactly scream excitement or inspiration. And it probably won't persuade moviegoers unfamiliar with the film's premise to line up at the multiplex. But who are we kidding? Anyone who wants to see Greta Gerwig's acclaimed coming-of-age drama, Lady Bird, already knows what it is, and those who don't, will or won't go anyway based on recommendations and Oscar buzz. Unlike the two previous entries, this is free from the constraints of having to do a hard "sell," resulting in magnificent, stately image that casually envelopes you in the movie's tone and feel.

By taking something we've seen hundreds of times before with a head shot of the title character and making it undeniably captivating, it's as if we've never laid eyes on anything like it. Or her. Saoirse Ronan casts a great profile, the red hair gets your attention and that rainbow-colored stained-glass border with matching credits definitely isn't something you see everyday. And don't even get me started on that classic Gothic title font, which fits like a glove in this particular instance. Even the concise, strangely moving tag line, "Fly Away Home" feels completely right for a female-driven drama. Sometimes it's the smallest touches that add up big and while it's often foolish to equate a movie's quality with its poster (especially before you've seen it), if the advertising can do this with such a basic concept, it's probably a good sign the film has something special up its sleeve.


6. Colossal


One of 2017's most unfairly overlooked films features Anne Hathaway's best work in years, but also presents a conundrum in terms of marketing. This could explain why Colossal, in which the actress plays an unemployed alcoholic unknowingly controlling the movements and actions of a giant monster rampaging through Seoul, Korea. And that just scratches the surface, so you'd imagine there's no guidebook on how to design a poster for such a high concept project. But you have to imagine what Boland Design Company and artist Tim Biskup come up with here is as good as it possibly gets at selling the challenging idea. The title treatment (love that Pac-Man "C"), a highly unique purple/midnight blue color scheme and a really bold video game styled illustration featuring Hathaway and the ubiquitous creature eliminates any need for further explanation. And the tag line, "All She Could Do Was Save The World" couldn't be more fitting.

This was a campaign full of great one-sheets, like this minimalist teaser, as well as the hand drawn Akiko Stehrenberger illustration and U.K. quad version also featuring Jason Sudeikis' character and an arguably even more sensational title treatment. But it's this one that was seen everywhere, justifiably leaving the largest impact. No matter how strange a movie gets, you can usually count on someone having a really clever idea for its poster, or in the case of Colossal, quite a few of them. All the complaints that too many posters get released for a single film is temporarily disproved here, with each serving its own creative purpose.


5. Ingrid Goes West


The whole social media-inspired movie poster phenomenon began a couple of years ago and has been done to death ever since. Whether it's making the one-sheet resemble a Facebook post, a tweet, an Instagram profile, an Iphone screen or some other nonsense, you can't help but roll your eyes or cringe each time you see another one. Some are better than others, but it's still one of those design fads that's spiraled completely out of control, to the extent that nothing would make me happier than a nice, long break from them. But this beautifully illustrated design from the aforementioned Akiko Stehrenberger for the indie dramedy, Ingrid Goes West, nails it.

Starring Aubrey Plaza and described as being about "an unhinged media stalker who moves to LA to insinuate herself into the life of an Instagram star," this entire concept actually makes sense for a change because it's germane to the film. And while that helps, let's not kid ourselves as to why it's really here. It simply looks better than all the others that have attempted to go this route. An already masterful, uncanny illustration of Plaza is heightened considerably by the grid and title design, as it vaguely recalls another classic poster about media celebrity, the ahead of its time The Truman Show. The Instagram-style credits on top are clean, unfussy, and unpretentious. The same can be said about the entire poster, making it a  creative rarity among social media inspired poster art. 


4. Free Fire (Character Posters)









Talk about negative space. You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that out of all these cool, retro-style character posters for Ben Wheatley's 70's set self-contained shootout thriller, Free Fire, the Brie Larson one is my favorite. But they're all almost equally great, providing a welcome respite from the tiresome trend of every release having over a dozen character prints each. If only even half of them were as creative and eye-catching as these. While I've yet to see the film and plan to, it should be unofficially awarded 2017's best print ad campaign, despite its posters going inexplicably M.I.A. on most year-end lists. Part of that can be attributed to the movie being released stateside way back in April and flying under the radar, but let's instead just blame the fact there were too many creative designs to choose from.

There were also a number of alternative options that couldn't qualify, like this similarly old school print from Mondo's Jay Shaw and a Little White Lies magazine cover illustration of Larson's character that's leagues better than almost everything in this top 10. But it's Empire Design's set above, which superimposes black and white, mid-action images of the film's characters onto their own retro-style, grainy, color coded one-sheets that earns the spot here. The color contrast, 70's title treatment (more like a logo) in the bottom left, and what seems like miles and miles of blank space help create the ultimate in retro cool. And look at those shadows in the "Vernon" and "Chris" posters. Impressive attention to detail. 


3. Carrie Pilby


Much like you, I have little idea what Carrie Pilby is and had never even heard of it before seeing this unforgettable poster designed by The Refinery. What I do know is limited to an imdb logline describing it as being about "a person of high intelligence struggling to make sense of the world as it relates to morality, relationships, sex and leaving her apartment." And it's currently on Netflix. But that right there is the very point. We don't need to know anything about it precisely because of this arresting one-sheet. The poster has done the work for the film with a single desperate, illustration of star Bel Powley. In many ways, elements of it recall that classic 2008 Funny Games poster that featured an even more haunting, desperate close-up of Naomi Watts. While this is a tonally similar idea with far different execution, it also proves to be a rare exception to the rule that extreme, giant close-ups of a star's face can't still be presented in a fresh, innovative ways.

The blueish-gray color scheme is captivatingly original and the placement of the title and billing across the side of her face, column-style, is a bold choice. Also noteworthy is how the left side of her face just kind of disappears, merging into the background of the poster. It's entirely possible these types of giant close-ups are frowned upon because its hard to find faces that lend itself to such an intimately invasive treatment. With eyes that immediately grab your attention and successfully function as the print's centerpiece, that clearly wasn't an issue with Powley.


2. Battle of the Sexes


It definitely didn't have to go this well. Given the subject matter and track record for this sport on the big screen, it's safe to say we had a pretty good inkling of the posters we'd get for Battle of the Sexes, which chronicles the circumstances surrounding that infamous 1973 tennis match between number one-ranked player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and flamboyant former champ and shifty hustler, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). We did eventually get those predictably awful posters, complete with the two stars' faces plastered all over them. But that's the great thing about a teaser. It's just meant to set the table and whet the public's appetites by giving them just enough, but not too much. And let's face it - the teaser is usually about ten to fifteen times better than whatever designs follow, and this is no exception.

This approach is so winning that I dare say it actually makes the movie look cool. What happens when the credits roll may be a different story, but this design does supply some hope we'll get the first quality film about the sport of tennis. Variations on this concept have been attempted before, but this is functioning at another level. The fake folds, the optic yellow background, white border and 70's scoreboard title font all successfully contribute to its throwback look . Symbolically topping it all off is that ball with the lit fuse, as fitting a visual metaphor for this movie as it gets. Everything is in its right place here, resulting in the cleanest, most efficiently designed poster of the year. The second you see it, there's no mistaking what film it's for.


1. mother!


If not for Jennifer Lawrence pulling her heart out of her chest, artist James Jean's jaw-dropping design for Darren Aronofsky's twisted mother! more closely resembles the type devotional imagery or religious iconography you'd see hanging in an art gallery. And that's not to mention the fact we're talking about a film that features one of the world's most popular actresses. But it's also everything it appears to be and more, the best of a really strong series of posters for this film, including that impressive Rosemary's Baby homage below that, while thematically relevant, still isn't half as terrifying, strangely beautiful, or compelling to take in as this. I've heard all the complaints that the illustration doesn't "look enough" like Lawrence or that the purpose of a poster is to make you want to see the film rather than run in the opposite direction. And while both viewpoints are duly noted, they fall by the wayside when considering this final product, a visual assault in illustrative form that somehow invokes the same queasy, confrontational feelings as the picture.

Such an extreme juxtaposition of angelic imagery and pure horror has ben previously attempted with similar concepts, but it's interesting to note that for the past three years my top posters of the year have featured visual representations of a female protagonist in a state of serious psychological distress. And two of them were illustrations. As disturbingly flawless as the actual artwork is here, it's the minimally classy title treatment that makes as much of an impression, giving the teaser an even more distinctly non-movie poster aura. As a work of poster art, it stands as an ideal representation of the film's huge ideas, many of which shell-shocked audiences are still attempting to recover from.



Runners-Up (Alphabetical)...
































































































































































And the Worst...


Yes, I get what they were trying to do here. But does that really make the execution any better? Supposedly, Spider-man: Homecoming isn't that bad for an even more unnecessary than usual reboot, but you'd never know it looking at this mess. As far as uninspired ideas go, giving us the same jumbled presentation as any other superhero one-sheet, but hiding behind the scribbled book cover concept, scrapes the bottom of the barrel. And it's aesthetically unappealing to boot. The literal definition of a cut and paste job. Even Spider-Man deserves better than this.



And yet, this might be worse. In an image so poorly photoshopped it'll have you yearning for the 1970's cartoon, Spidey is hanging from something that appears to be a highway sign overlooking what appears to be a city. What's scary about this design is how it seems no one bothered to care at all. "Just put him on the poster and get it out there. They won't know the difference." Sadly, those Marvel execs are probably right.



So, this is what it's come to: An Iron-Man poster for a Spider-Man movie. And a really lazy one at that.


Just so you don't think I'm picking on superhero franchises, I really liked this Justice League teaser, which actually had a cool, original comic book vibe to it. This Batfleck character poster for the same film makes no visual sense whatsoever, despite working with what was probably a solid initial concept. I'm assuming that idea was having a split Bruce Wayne/Batman one-sheet. Instead, this happened, overcomplicating a relatively simple idea. What's going on here with the shading?



There's little doubt a tasteful 9/11 film can be made, as both United 93 and even the lesser World Trade Center have previously proven. I'm not sure why anyone thought a photo of Charlie Sheen (alongside less controversial co-stars Whoopi Goldberg and Gina Gershon) in one of the doomed towers would prepare audiences for anything other than tasteless exploitation. And it may not even be that, which would only make this approach even more head-scratching. Needless to say, few can remember this film even being released anywhere, if at all. While you shouldn't judge a project by its poster, it's just too tempting here.



Following the season premiere of Gotham on FOX, don't miss Christopher Nolan's latest chapter in The Dark Knight saga and fall's most anticipated TV event, Dunkirk: The Series. We know Nolan projects have very distinctive branding as far as imagery and title treatment (blue meet gray), but you have to wonder how it didn't occur to anyone this slick approach would be tonally incongruous with a World War II movie. The scary part of this is that it may not be, which poses an even bigger problem.  



I'm all for ripping off the Jaws poster, but you have to commit to it. For legal reasons, I'd see how that wouldn't entirely be possible, but this looks like an uncomfortable straight to VOD hybrid of Open Water, The Shallows, Jaws: The Revenge, 47 Meters Down, Piranha, or whatever else tickles your underwater horror fancy. This really does look like five or six posters in one, with the layout and design doing none of them any favors. .



This is supposedly a really good film, and given its director, I wouldn't be surprised. But don't you just detest that title, Brad's Status? Or the bland, drab, almost colorless way it (dis)appears on the poster? How about co-star Austin Abram's completely nonsensical silhouette, through which the barely readable cast list appears? Light blue against even lighter gray probably isn't the best idea if you want people to, you know, read text. For a small, character-driven piece from an acclaimed independently-minded filmmaker, it's all surprisingly inept.



I kind of feel guilty including this since an attempt was made to be different, and of all the bad designs, it's definitely the least worst. So, that's saying something. Or, Something, Something. But it's okay to appreciate motivations while realizing the end result is somewhat of an eyesore that looks too mainstream truly to capture the authentic, spontaneous "lightening in a bottle" feeling they're aiming for.  But for those already dead-set on seeing this adaptation of Nicola Yoon's YA novel, none of this will likely matter one bit.



And you'd have to be to successfully read the type or find anything worthwhile about the one-sheet for this unknown vehicle starring Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore that went as quickly as it came. It's a different color scheme, but that's offset by the utterly ridiculous shot of Baldwin, looking as if he was just caught in the middle of another horrid SNL sketch.



You know what we need: Another Little Miss Sunshine, but without any of those expensive actors. And more more photo boxes. Hey, is that the resurrected Orion Pictures logo on the bottom right? The only good thing about this.

It would be insulting that they tried to squeeze all these actors' heads onto one poster except for the fact that no one's actually on it at all. Cut-outs of their likenesses from various other projects are. Forget about finding the father, that they successfully glued on all those heads, decided where everyone should go, and determined who got top billing is the real miracle.



James Franco will do anything for his art. Anything. Whether it's hosting the Oscars, appearing on a daytime soap, starring in a Lifetime movie, teaching college courses, or playing Tommy Wiseau, there's nothing this man won't try. Including that mustache. Or starring in The Vault, which has a poster so bad you have to love it. You can't tell me the studio wasn't completely aware of how gloriously awful this looked and are just messing with us. And that's why the perpetually meta performance artist Franco never seemed more at home than on here. It's everything a bad poster should be and makes you want to see the movie just to say you did.