Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The experience you had watching a movie can often far surpass the movie itself, frequently causing confusion between the two. Strangely, such an experience accompanied my early 90's viewing of the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's It. And while I exactly remember the when, why and where, it's more difficult to recall a single thing about the actual movie other than it being overlong and mostly terrible, as the King TV adaptations tended to be. But that second half featuring the child characters as adults was particularly disappointing, sucking whatever entertainment value remained from watching Tim Curry's evil clown wreck havoc in this small Maine town. And while it definitely wasn't scary, it's hard to point to any miniseries of the era that was.

It's fitting to discuss memories and nostalgia when examining the many merits of Andy Muschietti's reimagined vision of It since that's how he makes this interpretation connect. And if there's one thing we've learned about the frequently unadaptable works of Stephen King, it's that you need to find a way in. His mind goes to these strange, weird places, and unless the filmmaker can find a suitable entrance, it can all seem kind of ridiculous. In this case, that door was in front of our faces the whole time: Stand By Me-era King meets 80's Spielberg by way of Stranger Things. At the risk of simplifying it, that's the key, and the rest of the pieces just fall into place.

Anyone doubting the extent of Stranger Things' pop culture stranglehold needn't look any further than It, since this couldn't or wouldn't have unfolded the way it does without that series. But it would all mean nothing if they didn't put in the work and get it right, taking an approach that's exactly appropriate for material that now suddenly feels purposeful, possessing a palpable sense of time and place entirely absent from its predecessor. If someone asks what this is about, you can now actually tell them with a clear conscience. But why bother, when the film does such a magnificent job conveying that all on its own, earning a spot alongside the likes of Stand by Me, Carrie, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne on any essential list of the most successful cinematic King adaptations.

It's October 1988 in Derry, Maine when nervously stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes his 7-year-old little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper sailboat, which he loses down a sewer drain in the middle of a rain storm. While attempting to retrieve it, he comes face-to face with a terrifying clown who calls himself "Pennywise The Dancing Clown" (Bill Skarsgård). After initially earning Georgie's trust, he viciously attacks the boy, dragging him into the sewer, never to be seen again.

Flashforward to the following year and Bill hasn't given hope finding his little brother, despite his parents' and much of the town believing him to be dead. But when there's another mysterious disappearance under similar circumstances, Bill enlists the help of his friends, foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and reluctant Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), to to go to a local marsh called the Barrens and investigate the possibility Georgie's still alive. While there, they encounter teen bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang who have been tormenting overweight new kid, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), whose hours of research in the Derry library has provided the group with more than a few ideas about these child abductions.

Joining them is another Bowers Gang victim, orphaned African American student Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and the only female member of what eventually becomes "The Losers' Club," tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), whose rumored promiscuity has also made her a bullying target, even as a smitten Bill and Ben compete for her affections. Soon, the kids all realize they've had visions of the same clown, the sadistic Pennywise, who assumes the appearance of whatever they fear most. And each of them have personal demons to overcome before attempting to stop this unpredictable entity who knows just how to exploit those fears, aiming to resume the reign of terror he wrecks on the children of Derry every 27 years. To beat him they'll have to bravely band together, despite the clown's best efforts to drive them apart.

Freed from many of the creative constraints that hampered previous King horror adaptations, this one rips the band-aid off right away, with a declarative opening sequence that lets you know this It means business. Shot in a washed-out VHS-era haze and backed by an unnerving, foreboding score by Benjamin Wallfisch, an unmistakable atmosphere is established that was certainly missing in the original. An "R" rating isn't necessarily a must for any horror entry, but in this specific case it really bolsters the material, at least due in part to the fact that we're just not used seeing characters this age acting authentically and being terrorized to the degree they are here. Much like Stranger Things and 80's classics that inspired it, the young actors actually look and behave like kids, and among a fairly large cast, each are given distinctive personality traits that equip them differently in dealing with the evil clown.

Muschietti masters what so many previous filmmakers adapting King's work have failed to grasp by effectively picking his spots, knowing the trigger buttons for maximum fright, as well as how hard and often to push them. After a terrifyingly graphic introduction, Pennywise's subsequent appearances are strategically placed to count, as the focus turns to building the groundwork of the kids' relationships to each other so when the time comes for that ultimate showdown, we'll care.

The more we get to know the group, the more we eventually start seeing of Pennywise, menacingly played by Bill Skarsgård in a performance that shuts down any and all comparisons to Tim Curry's portrayal, if only because the presentation feels so wildly different this time around. Skarsgård brings an innocent, almost childlike playfulness to him that somehow seems even more sinister and monstrous, as he attempts to meet them on their level. King's story always had the advantage that clowns are inherently creepy, but you can't help think this reckless incarnation is more dangerous, frequently calling to mind the differences between Ledger's and Nicholson's Jokers.

Since Pennywise is used so sparingly in the opening hour, when the time arrives for him to take center stage in the battle with these kids, it actually means something. There are moments of true terror in not only their encounters with Derry's sadistic antagonist (particularly one suspenseful scene involving a slide projector), but in their everyday lives. Darker, more adult elements of King's novel were cleaned up for a suitable network TV presentation over two decades ago such as vicious bullying, child abuse, kidnapping and murder are given a more fully fleshed-out treatment here by Muschietti. Of course none of it would work if not for the casting of these kids, each of whom overdeliver, with one delivering one of the most memorable on screen interpretations of a King character in years.

Jaeden Lieberher ably takes the lead as the reluctant but determined Bill while Jeremy Ray Taylor seems to channel a young, chubby Jerry O'Connell from Stand By Me as chronic bullying victim, Ben. The latter's story arc is sure to remind many of Stranger Things, with Nicholas Hamilton's sociopathic delinquent, Henry, baring more than a passing resemblance to the similarly psychotic Billy from that series' sophomore season. But it's ultimately the work of Sophia Lillis as the abused and ostracized Beverly that makes the strongest connection, both with viewers and the source material.

Handed the most emotionally challenging of the main roles, Beverly carries with her a knowledge and world-weariness that seems years beyond her age, even as she remains paralyzingly stunted and a prisoner of her own fear. Or more accurately, the fear of her evil, abusive father. If ever there was a bridge between the first and second chapters of this saga, it's Lillis who builds it with a performance that basically dictates where that installment needs to go, even prompting many to acknowledge there's no better actress fit to take over that role than Jessica Chastain. Aside from the obvious similarity in looks, that she might be the only one to do it justice speaks volumes about what Lillis accomplishes.

If that casting possibility is the very definition of a no-brainer, figuring out a way to make Chapter 2 as involving will still be the biggest obstacle given King's penchant for sloppy, unrealized endings. There's a reason the most successful cinematic adaptations of the author's work have frequently deviated from their sources in unexpected ways. With this being the narratively stronger section, Muschietti manages to get away with not doing much of that but it'll be intriguing to see what tricks he'll have up his sleeve to further develop the story and characters following the twenty-seven year time jump.

That the ending has us looking forward to that second chapter is something few thought was even possible after the project was announced and then spent some time in pre-production purgatory. And even fewer still could have ever guessed It would become the all-time highest- grossing horror film to date. Watching the last thirty or forty minutes should be a strong reminder why, as that slow, simmering build peaks, and the kids are forced to stare fear straight in his face. And while they do see a terrifying clown, 2017's version of It understands that their true challenge comes in dealing with their own worst fears reflected back at them.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Burning Questions from the 2018 Oscars

Did you think you had the wrong channel?

Wouldn't a black and white opening be more appropriate the year that The Artist was nominated?

Does anyone remember The Artist?

Isn't it nice to start the show at a decent time?

Can we end it at one? 

Were you counting down the seconds until Kimmel mentioned last year's envelope fiasco?

Did you think that would come before or after he joked about the #MeToo movement?

Wasn't his line about Trump liking the first third of Get Out pretty good?

What's with that stage setup?

And all those crystals?

Tribute to Superman's home planet?

How about Sam Rockwell's Philip Seymour Hoffman shout-out?

Shouldn't they really tell the winners to "get out" if their speeches run long?

Between that and the jet ski bribe, have we finally found the key to shortening the show?

Wouldn't it be sad if Darkest Hour couldn't win Hair and Makeup with only two other nominees?

Wouldn't it also be sad if a movie about costume design didn't win Best Costume Design?

Is this the first year I haven't seen any of the nominated documentaries?

Was I thrilled that BOTH Roger Ebert and Back to the Future made it into that montage?

Aren't you glad they're not still attempting to joke about not being able to tell the difference between sound editing and mixing?

When Eiza and Ansel came out, didn't you just know Baby Driver wasn't winning?

Full Sail University shout-out?

Was this the first year a man has ever hosted the Scientific and Technical Awards?

Why is film critic Kim Morgan sitting with Guillermo del Toro?

Does del Toro now HAVE to win Best Director just so we can find out what's going on with that?

Isn't that Coco song catchy?

If a film has "Woman" in its title, isn't it a pretty safe bet this year?

Wouldn't you vote for Laurie Metcalf just on that one Lady Bird clip alone?

Is "I did it all by myself" the best opening line of an Oscar acceptance speech?

Isn't it strange beyond belief how Tonya Harding is now suddenly some kind of victim?

Not a question, but Mark Hamill!

Not a question, but BB-8!

Isn't Kobe glad he was on the Lakers?

How about that shot at FOX News?

So, I guess they fit Sufjan Stevens onto the show after all?

Kind of?

I know the show runs long, but isn't it a little extreme for Kimmel to be ushering the audience out already?

You mean people actually went to see A Wrinkle in Time?

They didn't seem too upset it was interrupted, did they?

Is Ellen DeGeneres going to sue Kimmel for stealing her act?

Poetic justice that this guy mispronounced Tiffany Haddish's name?

Is that the first winner to accept their Oscar with sign language?

Haven't you always wanted to see a short film "inspired by Walmart delivery boxes"?

Didn't you just know we'd get an entire montage dedicated to #TimesUp?

But didn't Kumail Nanjiani's humorous insights make it work?

Did it convey just how strong the love for Get Out is?

If that didn't do it, then Peele's screenplay victory must have, right?

Gal Gadot is all over this show, isn't she?


How many times do you think he's rehearsed that speech over the past decade?

Is it unfair to say he should already have 5 or 6 of these statues?

Seriously, what's the deal with Kim Morgan and del toro?

Were you worried they'd have to bump the In Memoriam montage from the show?

Don't we say that every year?

Should we just pinch ourselves now that Eddie Vedder is covering Tom Petty's "Room at the Top" on the Oscars?

Isn't that a perfect match of song and artist?

Did you know it's my third all-time favorite Petty song?

Can you guess the other two?

So, does that make up for not nominating Eddie Vedder for Into The Wild?

Um, Adam West?

So, I checked imdb and apparently Kim Morgan is co-writing del Toro's remake of Nightmare Alley, so that explains that... right?

Is this del Toro's year or what?

Can you wake me after Gary Oldman wins his Oscar?

Wait, where's Casey Affleck?

On second thought, maybe don't answer that?

Where's Jack Nicholson when you need him?

On that note, didn't there seem to be a noticeable lack of stars in the audience this year?

Did the producers give that away when they kept cutting away to Timothée Chalamet and his mom?

Didn't Chalamet look legitimately thrilled to be there? 

Wasn't Foster and Lawrence's Meryl Streep bit pretty funny?

Were you bracing yourself for McDormand's speech?

Was the audience reaching for their seatbelts?

Waterhouse under the bridge?

Don't you love the story that Beatty knew the winner was wrong, and then just gave the envelope to Dunaway to throw her under the bus?

Do you miss when there were just five Best Picture nominees?

Beatty didn't seem to get any better at opening the envelope, did he?

After going 21 for 24 with predictions, do I regret not entering an Oscar pool?

Kimmel really has this Oscar hosting thing nailed down now, doesn't he?

Didn't you just know Helen Mirren and the jet ski would reappear at the end of the night?

What do you say about a show that was really well-produced, but sort of boring and uneventful?

After last year's, wouldn't anything be?

Saturday, March 3, 2018

2018 Oscar Predictions

While resigning ourselves to the inevitability that few moments during this Sunday's 90th Annual Academy Awards will come close to matching the shocking final minutes of last year's show, I have only wish for the 2018 Oscars: That they keep it about the movies.  We've had about four to six months of #MeToo, #TimesUp and Harvey Weinstein so I don't think it's asking too much, aside from the opening monologue, for the industry to spend one night focusing all their attention on celebrating and appreciating the onscreen work we've seen in the past year. That is, after all, why the Oscars exist. And boy do we badly need that celebration now, with the gap between the tastes of the general moviegoing public and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences growing by the day.

With the notable exception of box office juggernaut Get Out, there's really no 2017 film listed here that came close to permeating the culture or causing even casual chatter among the general population. And there's still the chance that may not even go home with anything. Movies just aren't at the forefront right now, but that's okay since there's still no better night all year for those who love good ones. That one of the best Oscar hosts in years, Jimmy Kimmel earned the call back can only be viewed as a positive, as is the recent news that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway will be returning to the scene of the crime, attempting again to present Best Picture after last year's ridiculously entertaining debacle.

Speaking of which, this might be the most wide open Best Picture category we've ever had, with as many as three films or four films all with a solid chance of taking home the gold. Unfortunately for me, it could also mean owning the embarrassment of incorrectly predicting the biggest category for the third consecutive year. So, as I struggle to play catch up again and cram in viewings of all these nominees, here's hoping they build on last year's momentum to deliver another solid, well produced broadcast that doesn't run over 5 hours long. Below are my predictions, along with some comments on the major categories. As usual, I'm reserving the right to adjust these picks leading up to the start of the show.

*Predicted Winners

Best Animated Feature:
“The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
“The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
“Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
“Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha
“Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Best Animated Short:
“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant 
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Best Documentary Feature:

Best Documentary Short Subject:
“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon 
“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon
 “Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Live Action Short Film:
“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Foreign Language Film:
“A Fantastic Woman” (Chile)
“The Insult” (Lebanon)
“Loveless” (Russia)
“On Body and Soul (Hungary) 
“The Square” (Sweden)

Best Film Editing:
“Baby Driver,” Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
“Dunkirk,” Lee Smith
“I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel
“The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Jon Gregory

Best Sound Editing:
“Baby Driver,” Julian Slater
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green
“Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King
“The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Best Sound Mixing:
“Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
“Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
“The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Best Production Design:
“Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
“Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
“Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
“Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
“The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Best Original Score:
“Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer
“Phantom Thread,” Jonny Greenwood
“The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” John Williams
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Carter Burwell

Best Original Song:
“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common 
“This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Best Makeup and Hair:
“Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick 
“Victoria and Abdul,” Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
“Wonder,” Arjen Tuiten

Best Costume Design:
“Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran
“Darkest Hour,” Jacqueline Durran
“Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges
“The Shape of Water,” Luis Sequeira
“Victoria and Abdul,” Consolata Boyle

Best Visual Effects:

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Battle of the Sexes

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Eric Christian Olsen, Jessica McNamee, Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell, John C. McGinley
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The best moment in Battle of the Sexes comes when Billie Jean King confronts Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer about his plans to be in the commentary booth for her upcoming match against challenger and professional hustler Bobby Riggs. Having already been kicked off the tour for demanding women players receive equal prize money, she argues that while Riggs is entertaining the masses and raising his profile by playing an over-the-top character, the damage Kramer's inflicting with his sexist attitude is actually "real."

That meta observation isn't just true, but also conveys a certain self-awareness about the match and Riggs' place in it that the rest of the film often lacks. And that's the tough part about retroactively heaping such cultural significance on a sports event that largely revolved around laughs and entertainment. On one hand taking itself entirely seriously, while still trying to be a big joke at the same time, Battle of the Sexes is frequently a tale of two conflicting stories.

The stakes for Billie Jean were high and real as we're tirelessly reminded, but what Riggs was doing came closer to the tennis version of Andy Kaufman wrestling women. Far from a sexist pig, he was a performance artist and opportunist who happened to be really skilled at playing the role required of him. He was also a family man struggling with vices and addictions who in reality respected his top ranked female opponent. And not just as a player, but as a person. Unfortunately, the movie isn't about him. It's about King's fight for female equality, a notion the script underlines and highlights in the most heavy-handed way possible, spending nearly every scene drilling into our minds just how important it is. The problem is that no one involved knew that at the time, making the film's voice too often sound as if it's coming from 2017 instead of 1973.

Getting many important details right in its painstaking recreation of the era through costuming, production design and the casting of even the smallest roles, you want to scream in frustration that the script supporting it isn't better. This even looks like it was shot in the early seventies, containing believable tennis scenes and a lead actress who provides one of the worthier depictions of a professional player we've seen yet on screen, topped only by her better cast co-star. Of course, that's not saying much considering the sport's shoddy cinematic treatment in the past, but this was never going to be easy biographical material to adapt, as the end result shows.

It's 1972 when top-ranked women's tennis player Billie Jean King (Academy Award winner Emma Stone) and her brash manager Gladys Helman (Sarah Silverman) complain to Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) that the women's tournament prize money is an eighth of the men's despite equal television ratings. Citing his belief that women players are physically inferior as a defense, he remains unwilling to budge on the terms, causing the women to form their own tour sponsored by Virginia Slims. Billie Jean's also going through some personal issues, coming to grips with her own homosexuality as she embarks on an an affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) that's soon jeopardizing her marriage to husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell).

Meanwhile, 55-year-old retired champion Bobby Riggs (Academy Award nominee Steve Carell) is struggling to keep his marriage to wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) afloat due to a gambling addiction when he suddenly gets an idea. He'll challenge the top women's player to a match, which is sure to net him tons of money and publicity, while also affirming male dominance in the sport. After initially declining, Billie Jean accepts when Riggs handily disposes of her biggest competition, the legendary Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Both Billie Jean and Bobby begin to train, with their upcoming three out of five set match at the Houston Astrodome taking on a level of pressure and anticipation neither anticipated. And most of that pressure is on King.

One of the big surprises to be found is in the humanity both actors bring to their roles, arguably making their real-life counterparts more complicated and nuanced than they probably were. For those unsure Stone would be up to the rigors of accurately depicting one of the greatest tennis players of all-time of any gender, she clearly got into the shape necessary for the part and looks and carries herself like a top athlete would. And whatever photographic tricks they may have used in the playing scenes worked since there's rarely an awkward moment when she has a racquet in her hand, which is kind of a shock.

It's almost beside the point how well Stone actually captures Billie Jean King the person, since this is about as close as it gets to an uncastable role. No one really looks like her, whoever they get will be accused of being too "pretty," and they'll have somehow work around the chosen actress' lack of experience in the sport. Emma certainly has all those things working against her, but somewhat overcomes them by zeroing in on King's determined spunk and spirit, which are qualities the actress never had problems conveying. In fact, if you had told me going in that Stone would be more believable as a top tennis player than a semi-closeted lesbian, there's no chance I'd believe it. But that's exactly how it comes across, no thanks to some writing that makes her and Riseborough's job considerably more difficult.

Simon Beoufoy's script paints Billie Jean's relationship with Marilyn in the broadest strokes possible, as most of their scenes together feature dialogue exchanges that are downright cringeworthy in their obviousness. While King's sexual preference was tennis' biggest open secret and undoubtedly needs inclusion in any accurate depiction of her life, Dayton and Faris seem to be going out of their way to prove they're not afraid to tackle it. We're reminded almost as frequently that she's living a "shameful" double life as we are that women are viewed as socially and genetically inferior to men. No one's doubting this all happened, but being "reminded" in this film most definitely means being told over and over again, rather than necessarily shown.

What the movie does handle well is Billie Jean's husband Larry's defeated but begrudgingly supportive reaction to all this, as he loyally stands by his wife as she carries on an affair with another woman, knowing that any public confirmation of it will crush her image and career. The sight of Larry, slinking down the hotel hallway back to his own room in what looks like a familiar walk of shame says it all. He's always known.        

Everything involving Bobby Riggs is fantastic, mainly due to Carell's deceptively complex comedic performance, which sees him cleverly sidestepping the easy temptation of playing him as a buffoonish clown. The former doubles champ was no dummy and saw the dollar signs in challenging King and what that eventual showdown would mean for him and the sport. As an entertainer, he just "gets it", knowing he had to further amplify his larger-than-life persona to make this character work, regardless of the controversy it would spark. He provided the necessary contrast to Billie Jean, who took herself so seriously that she'd be easy for him to rattle, and for fans to rally behind.  He was also the Pete Rose of tennis in how his gambling addiction nearly overshadowed anything he did on the court. Well, except this.

In one of the film's funniest scenes, Riggs enters a "Gambler's Anonymous" meeting, loudly announcing that their real problem isn't that they gamble, but that they're simply no good at it. Scenes like these are juxtaposed with quieter ones of real regret as he laments that he can't be a better husband. Carell's so good at conveying that none of Riggs' many promises are empty, just simply impossible for him to keep because of who he is. His eventually estranged wife, well played by Elisabeth Shue, does accept that while he'll never be a dependable spouse, he's still a good father to their young son, Bobby Jr. (scene-stealing Cooper Friedman) despite his obvious character flaws.

If Billie Jean's story too often unironically plays as a public service announcement for women's rights, Riggs' carries no such agenda or baggage, and feels more real as a result. A dead ringer for the role physically, Carell goes so far as to capture Bobby's tiniest and strangest idiosyncrasies, in many ways making for a better Bobby Riggs than the man himself.

The primary concern going into this was just how much creative license it would take to believably pull off the big match and have it not look completely ridiculous. For those cringing at the thought of these two actors having to at least minimally recreate a top level tennis match, there's some good news in that it's match from over thirty years ago from which there's plenty of archival footage to draw.

The slower pace, a retro-looking TV feed and what would now be considered archaic equipment help in making what we see on screen appear no better or worse than what likely occurred. At points, it even looks like they slide in clips from the actual match, which is pretty clever. A dripping wet Riggs' refusal to take off his "Sugar Daddy" sponsored warm-up jacket despite looking ready to collapse of heat exhaustion is almost too perfect a metaphor. Except for the fact that it really happened. He does eventually take it off, before losing a little later.

Whether or not Riggs actually "lost" is an issue I hoped the script would explore as rumors have persisted for years that he threw the match, which would be just like him and the ultimate joke on everyone holding this up as a watershed cultural moment. It would also be kind of sad on a number levels, chief among them that the top-ranked women's player really couldn't defeat a retired gambling addict in his mid-fifties. Rest assured the filmmakers wouldn't dare touch the possibility of a fix with a ten-foot pole, making their intentions for this to be an inspirational story abundantly clear throughout.

A powerful moment comes at the end of the picture when both King and Riggs are sitting alone in their respective locker rooms after the match. In a strange way, history has proven that they both won that night. For what seems like a minute straight we see an emotionally and physically exhausted Billie Jean as she just breaks down, sobbing and crying uncontrollably. Watching this, it occurred to me just how hard that is for an actress to believably pull off, becoming more convinced than ever that Stone's undeniably a great one. Whether she was the right choice for the part will likely be debated, but it's tough coming up with viable alternatives that would have brought more.

That aforementioned scene is real and raw, so much more effectively communicating what the movie was attempting to hammer into our heads with all the subtly of a sledgehammer. Of course, it's ruined shortly thereafter when a completely extraneous character played by Alan Cumming delivers a "this is the point of our movie" line that has to rank among the most embarrassing penned by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, if just on timing alone.

Movies that track the hard work and dedication that go into training for a sport, celebrate the spirit of competition, show an underdog overcoming the odds, or bask in the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, have become a rare breed. Think Rocky, Rudy, The Karate Kid, Breaking Away or even something like The Rookie or Miracle. While Battle of the Sexes was never going to be that kind of sports movie, it does make you question whether that genre still even exists, and why the bar wasn't set quite as high for this. We need to care about the person as a competitor before a message carrier in order for the social implications to carry weight. Instead, we find out what happens when everything that should be subtext becomes text, causing the professional athlete to be overshadowed by a reductive version of their own story.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


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


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.