The 15:17 To Paris

If 1992 Best Picture winner “Unforgiven” was the work of an aging movie star making good on his promise as a filmmaker, 2018’s ‘The 15:17 To Paris” is, unequivocally, the work of the octogenarian who spent ten minutes on stage at the 2012 Republican National Convention talking to a chair. Clint Eastwood, once a force on both sides of the camera, now seems so far removed from cogency, filmmaking or otherwise, that his most recent directorial triumph, 2008’s “Gran Torino,” must have come from another dimension.

With “The 15:17 To Paris,” Eastwood dutifully recounts an August 2015 incident wherein three American friends (two of them military) courageously subdued an armed terrorist on a Paris-bound train. Fair enough. But toplined by gimmick casting (the three heroes star as themselves; not one can act a lick), “Paris” ends up the most amateurish, inadvertently funny studio film in recent memory.

Moreover, unlike the director’s relatively nuanced (if fact-challenged) “American Sniper,” the pic has no interest in shading its characters, only in stoking the already hot flames of American nationalism.

Real-life twenty-somethings and best friends Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler are our leads, with the lion’s share of screen time going to Stone. A warning to moviegoers pining for a comprehensive look at the titular incident: the bulk of the film is spent following its largely uninteresting protagonists through adolescence and into adulthood, much of it tailbone-numbing. The moments leading up to the train attack briefly open the film (Eastwood tellingly hides the attacker’s face but lingers on his brown skin). Then the incident is only teased in occasional flash forwards over the next hour.

Actual, proficient actors like Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer (they play Spencer and Alek’s mothers, respectively) are wasted on Dorothy Blyskal’s outrageously ligneous script. Adapted from Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler’s book of the same name, the first-time screenwriter (whose mysterious ascension from staff assistant on Eastwood’s last film, “Sully,” is the most interesting thing about “The 15:17 To Paris”) bears the unenviable burden of non-actors delivering much of her dialogue. Nevertheless, it is very bad dialogue, the majority bookended by stilted exclamations of “man” and “bro.”

Beyond the dreadful acting and writing, the pic has all the visual flair of an insurance commercial, barely flickering to life in its violent homestretch. It only registers as rote re-enactment, far less memorable than an embarrassing scene where Stone, Sadler, and a new friend shoot the breeze in an Italian Gelato shop.

Whether or not the story behind “The 15:17 To Paris” is substantial enough to carry feature film is a moot point. It exists and it is laughably bad, through no fault of its subjects – their acting abilities notwithstanding.

-J. Olson

Rating: 1/2 ★ out of ★★★★★ (Garbage)

Release Date: February 9, 2018
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Dorothy Blyskal
Starring: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, P.J. Byrne, Tony Hale, Thomas Lennon
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for bloody images, violence, some suggestive material, drug references and language)

Phantom Thread

It’s wild to imagine anyone – even esteemed “There Will Be Blood” and “Inherent Vice” auteur Paul Thomas Anderson – staring down a blank piece of paper or a blinking text cursor only to peck out the bit of fashion-centric romantic esoterica that is “Phantom Thread.” The Daniel Day-Lewis starrer is both visually and narratively singular, virtuosic. It’s also liable to leave casual moviegoers cold to the touch.

Like the best of the writer-director’s oeuvre (still 2012’s “The Master,” “Phantom Thread” purposes its time and place (1950s London) not as mere background but a call to arms. Upper crust fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis, in supposedly his final performance) and his couture house are a general and his battlefield, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) his battle worn lieutenant. Their quarrel is more with insiders (uncouth customers and disobedient domestics) than outsiders (the competition), Woodcock’s success and power making for an especially insulated if not isolated existence.

Anderson smartly keeps us as blindered as his protagonist, seldom venturing outside haut de Woodcock.

The rare exception is the introduction of a young waitress named Alma Elsen (Vicky Krieps). While on holiday in the countryside, Reynolds visits a restaurant where his soon-to-be muse waits on him. Alma accepts a dinner date that ends in something arguably more intimate than sex: measurement-taking. As Reynolds methodically, almost preternaturally moves his measuring tape all over Alma’s body – the scene’s editing both frenzied and elegant – the duo’s power dynamic begins to calcify. He communicates in slings and arrows, she in quiet deference. For both, this is love – or one of its misty permutations.

For a time Alma seems to contentedly bask in her squeeze’s extravagant world; we soak in the pic’s lush art design and Anderson’s rose-colored cinematography. At the midpoint between the Woodcock’s deceptively soft tyranny and Alma’s newfound significance, there is a comfortability; ostensibly sexless, but powerful all the same. Cyril is the only wild card in the house, wordlessly seething over her new station as the third most important woman in her brother’s life. (He obsesses over his late mother, manifesting his sense of loss in both his work, sewing remembrances into his dresses, and his dreams.)

As in real life, small annoyances in the partnership grow into bigger ones. Alma is a noisy eater, the crunch of her morning toast leading to increasingly cruel protestations on the part of Reynolds. After Alma’s good faith gesture of a cozy homemade dinner is met with avoidance and then hostility, she deliberately puts poisonous mushrooms in her beau’s food. To note that this is the film’s fulcrum is an huge understatement; Reynolds’ resulting illness adds a mesmerizing dimension to his and Alma’s relationship. He descends from his tower of terror, returning into something resembling a human being again. But it doesn’t last.

The film’s third act is so delicate, so well considered that to write of it here would be as malicious as Reynolds Woodcock at his worst. Suffice it to say, Anderson makes indelible psychological work of his leads, shepherding viewers who’ve hung in with him to a quietly brilliant denouement; here a brief, surprising medium close-up of a side-lying Day-Lewis is all Paul Thomas Anderson needs to answer any lingering questions we might have about the rapport between his two leads.

The whipped cream on this confection is Jonny Greenwood’s beautiful, string-heavy score – perhaps the musician’s finest work to date outside of Radiohead. Crucially, many of Greenwood’s cues strike as warmly familiar (the main theme half-evokes The Beatles’ Abbey Road cut “Sun King”), ensuring that the effect of the world Anderson has created never breaks, keeping us entranced throughout. In fact, the score is so pervasive that more than once it comes off as oppressive. But listening to it removed from the film reveals a richly textured, deliberate manipulation of mood. There might be no better partnership between filmmaker and composer going right now; this particular collaboration begs many more.

Although elements of “Phantom Thread” are liable to register with some viewers as preposterously subdued, its cumulative effect is striking. As the pic’s end titles arrive, we realize just how well it’s done its fancy, cagey thing, never compromising its vision and stiffly rebuffing the negative connotations of melodrama. With the aid of an impeccable cast and crew, Paul Thomas Anderson has done it again, leaving nary a doubt that he’ll be back in a few years to do it again.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
MPAA Rating: R (for language)

The Post

The great newspaper films in history (“All The President’s Men,” “Zodiac,” “Spotlight”) all have one crucial thing in common: they’re not really about newspapers. Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is about a newspaper (the Washington Post circa 1971), its most engaging imagery by far being the inner workings of a printing press. Despite a wealth of theoretically fascinating players – Meryl Streep stars as trailblazing newspaper magnate Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks as her editor Ben Bradlee – the pic’s transparent award season aspirations create an impassable fissure between subject matter and charisma, resulting in the kind of glib, baby boomer-friendly production the director used to cede to the likes of Robert Zemeckis.

Unlike David Fincher’s peerless “Zodiac,” for example, Spielberg’s twenty-ninth feature fails repeatedly to locate the human center of its story. From the opening scene’s apathetic deployment of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” – the song accompanies arguably the most perfunctory combat scene the director has ever participated in – it’s apparent that “The Post” is chiefly concerned with broad strokes, rough etchings, and, ultimately, self-celebration.

Instead of the kind of narrative time jumping that might have greatly benefitted such temperate material, screenwriter Liz Hannah and “Spotlight” co-scribe Josh Singer keep things strictly chronological, attempting to exposition us to death for the better part of an hour. It only proves fatal to the film itself.

Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), now working as a civilian military contractor, has a crisis of conscience and decides to photocopy and make off with decades worth of classified papers, clumsily narrating insert shots for us all the while. Ellsberg’s disillusionment with the Vietnam War is corroborated. The documents confirm that several U.S. Presidents insisted on fighting a war they knew was futile – that they kept sending troops off to die – to keep up appearances of American exceptionalism. Ellsberg leaks the papers to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post is on the verge of an IPO, setting up 54-year-old Katharine Graham to seize the dreams of her late father and late husband for herself. As the razor-sharp heiress is belittled by her male advisors in advance of her paper’s big move (a common occurrence), Post editor Ben Bradlee becomes aware of his competitor’s big scoop. A scoop that lands the Times in court. As soon as Bradlee persuades Graham to fearlessly follow the Times’ lead with the Post, to risk its very existence, the film finds its mojo. A handful of terrifically tense scenes materialize, several involving Post assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) as he tracks down leads.

But the journey there is a bust. Although Streep and Hanks blessedly keep theatricality to a minimum, they don’t even begin to disappear into their characters, their star power combining with Janusz Kaminski’s suffocating cinematography to preclude immersion. Even when “The Post” finally begins to pop, Spielberg’s hallmarks – emotion and spectacle – merely get their feet in the door, the bulk of the movie practically announcing itself as a side project for the director while his special effects heavy “Ready Player One” undergoes post-production. The urgency of the filmmaker’s historical epics “Munich” and “Bridge Of Spies” is nowhere in sight.

There have been shoddier Oscar-friendly “issue movies” with superficially appealing casts. (Regrettably, television heavyweights Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson waste away in small supporting roles). But the film is staid and tensionless for too long, undermining the same sense of importance it proudly hangs its hat on. That it ends with a slick but gratuitous tease of the infamous Watergate apartment complex burglary is the perfect compendium: “The Post” is a foregone conclusion to the very end.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: 20th Century Fox, Amblin Entertainment
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Alison Brie, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Zach Woods
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and brief war violence)

The Cloverfield Paradox

“The Cloverfield Paradox” will never be remembered as anything but the movie Netflix bought off Paramount Pictures and abruptly released immediately following Super Bowl LII; the derivative “Cloverfield” prequel feasted upon by grumpy critics given no advance access or notice but a thirty-second spot and a hastily composed press release during the big game. Indeed, the list of titles the film borrows from is too long to catalog here, its familiar sci-fi horror bent set to invade living rooms like a houseguest so comfortable they’ve taken to rearranging furniture.

Except, when in this dimension or any other has grown-up sci-fi melded with lightspeed pacing and honest-to-God laughs? It’s not always a natural fit, but the frequently precise silliness of “The Cloverfield Paradox” – not to mention its killer cast – deserves a permanent spot on many a Netflix subscriber’s List.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Concussion”) stars as Ava Hamilton, one of seven crew members aboard the Cloverfield space station. She, Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Kiel (David Oyelowo), Monk (John Ortiz), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), Tam (Zhang Ziyi), and Volkov (Aksel Hennie) have been tasked with testing a dangerous particle accelerator in hopes of curbing a global energy crisis. At long last they create a stable beam, but their burgeoning personal baggage (Ava’s marriage is on the rocks after the loss of their children to a house fire) dovetails with a startling, Rod Serling-esque revelation: Earth has vanished.

From here, an admittedly familiar space movie grows increasingly kooky, upshifting into the kind of mystery box-isms to be expected from a J.J. Abrams-produced series. But unlike the ultimately fruitless twists of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Paradox” has a delirious mind of its own. Like Mundy’s curiously independent severed arm.

Director Julius Onah and writers Oren Uziel and Doug Jung make no bones about their film leading directly into the events of Matt Reeves’ original film. As the Cloverfield crew accidentally finds itself trapped in a warped new dimension, Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) skitters about back home, on the run from the mysterious monsters that first invaded multiplexes almost exactly ten years ago. It’s a fun nod to the series’ roots, building on but not over-explaining them.

Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the pic’s fun occurs in space. By the time Brühl’s Schmidt loudly bemoans the perils of “quantum entanglement,” Onah and his writers have drawn their line in the sand; theirs is not a serious movie. It possesses no unearned air of self-importance like last year’s dreadful “Life,” no penchant for the coy narrative leaps of “10 Cloverfiend Lane” – only a taste for audiovisual bombast (Bear McCreary’s score is most memorable) and a wicked sense of humor.

Its only aim is to make us jump, make us laugh, and send us off with a thrilling final shot that’s everything a “Cloverfield” fan could want from a prequel – screen size notwithstanding.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 4, 2018
Studio: Netflix, Paramount Pictures
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriter: Oren Uziel, Doug Jung
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, Elizabeth Debicki, Ziyi Zhang, Aksel Hennie, John Ortiz

Call Me By Your Name

It’s an extraordinary thing for a narrative film to successfully observe its characters like they aren’t of its own creation – to make them utterly alive in front of us. It’s a feat that director Luca Guadagnino and writer James Ivory achieve in “Call Me By Your Name,” adapted from André Aciman’s novel of the same name. At 132 minutes, the ambrosial, free-flowing piece is overlong and almost too precise in its representation of a surprise romance in the Italian countryside circa 1983.

But as singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ “Visions Of Gideon” unfolds over the movie’s end credits – accompanied by a stirring close-up of star Timothée Chalamet – nothing else in the world matters. The character’s monsoon of emotion is all consuming, a considerable summary of everything the pic does right (spearheaded by two tremendous performances) and how roundly that outweighs what it does wrong.

Chalamet stars as Elio Perlman, a slender 17-year-old Jewish Italian-American living in northern Italy with his parents. An introverted musical prodigy, his days are spent composing music, poring over literature, and burning daylight with his French girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). All of this changes when his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a soft-spoken archaeology professor, receives his summer assistant: a tall, handsome Jewish American graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio cedes his bedroom to Oliver, and soon, every nerve ending in his body.

James Ivory’s screenplay unfurls one of the most credible big screen romances in ages, evolving Elio and Oliver’s initial, mutual standoffishness into something closer to friendship. By the time their increasingly comfortable rapport does snowball into a full-on love story, Ivory and Guadagnino have found the perfect balance between fantasy and reality, never allowing us to forget the likelihood of the former being flattened by the latter.

The film’s sense of time and place is second to none, from the al fresco dance party where Oliver flails winningly to The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” as Elio looks on longingly, to the idyllic bike rides where the pair ultimately find easy silence and soft kisses in the tall grass. Guadagnino is careful to engage as many of the senses in each scene as possible – apricots and peaches feature heavily – while Ivory’s dialogue marinates in his characters’ surroundings.

Chalamet and Hammer are so convincing as Elio and Oliver that it’s difficult to communicate their successes in actorly terms. At times it seems they’re hardly acting at all, marrying perfectly natural performances to the amplified world that writer and director have made for them. Without Chalamet and Hammer’s involvement the project might have been a near miss; an ontologically challenged Italian getaway. The pic’s uncommon equanimity required not one but two career-defining performances. It found them.

Alternately, Stuhlbarg’s widely celebrated character and performance is, in the end, a bridge too far. The actor remains as endearing a performer as ever, but his climactic monologue to Elio is the wrong kind of unreal, illusory instead of immersive. His big speech is an unnecessary shortcut to tears that would have been there anyway, liable to ring hollow for all but the few moviegoers fortunate enough to have a unicorn for a father.

These missteps won’t strike all viewers as missteps though, and the totality of “Call Me By Your Name” is handsome and hypnotic.

The movie has been met with some criticism for its avoidance of more graphic sex scenes; this avoidance may or may not have to do with its existence as a high profile gay love story. But one or two scenes aside, the movie is about much more than sex, humming along on a rollercoaster feeling of new love. Above all, the film’s images and sounds don’t soon leave the mind, the familiar but haunting chord progression of “Visions Of Gideon” and Timothée Chalamet’s tear-streamed face burned into our brains for all time.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 24, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: James Ivory
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Esther Garrel, Amira Casar, Vanda Capriolo
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity and some language)

I, Tonya

Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding was a dying star the moment she hit the national scene. The high school dropout from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in Portland, Oregon arrived as the perfect villain for the primly proper figure skating world, fated to be the sport’s Harvey Dent – used up and summarily sacrificed to the media gods. Nevertheless, Harding had a hand in her own undoing.

Even Craig Gillespie’s reality-adjacent film “I, Tonya” concedes that the triple axel trailblazer used her ex-husband and alleged abuser Jeff Gillooly to feign a sense of familial normalcy in an attempt to placate the sport’s snooty judges. Harding finally had a clean break from the man who purportedly made her life a living hell. And then she took him back, unknowingly setting into motion the event that would end her career.

The question at the center of “I, Tonya” – whether Harding deserves to be defined by her accomplishments in the face of impossibly long odds (poverty and abuse defined her life for decades) or written off as possible accomplice in the unthinkable attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan – is a compelling one. Frustratingly, but appropriately, it’s left unanswered.

Largely based on contradictory interviews from Harding (played here by Margot Robbie) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Steven Rogers’ screenplay is half biography, half recreation of the events surrounding the moment Kerrigan was struck above the knee with a tactical baton. Gillespie begins with a faux-documentary style akin to Richard Linklater’s superior “Bernie,” then crossfades into a traditional narrative feature wherein the characters occasionally break the fourth wall. This approach is neither here nor there; the pic’s successes and failures ultimately come down to the marriage between script and cast.

The film’s first hour is all overacted biopic (Allison Janney turns scenery into projectiles as LaVona Golden, Tonya’s cruel stage mother), rife with bad digital face replacement during the skating scenes and a startling imbalance of tone. One minute we’re in the late 1980s and Gillooly is beating Harding to a pulp, the next minute we’re in the present day in talking head mode with Ms. Golden cracking wise about the pet parrot perched on her shoulder. Audience whiplash is likely; neither writer nor director have any apparent desire to make their story congeal – only to impart it in pithy, bite-sized chinks.

But then the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics come along, the Kerrigan incident comes into focus, and the film lands a triple axel of its own. It spins into something that plays like a stand-alone episode of FX’s “Fargo,” only instead of small-town police it’s about the most infamous happening in figure skating history. Largely unknown actor Paul Walter Hauser nicks the back half of “I, Tonya” as portly Gillooly goon and Harding bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. The character takes center stage as the mastermind of the Kerrigan attack and Hauser shines, earning some enormous laughs that are safely removed from the specter of domestic abuse that haunts the rest of the picture.

There is, of course, nothing funny about the attack on Kerrigan, but the circumstances are so odd, so preposterous that it takes on a life of its own. Harding’s involvement (or non-involvement, as the film posits) becomes immaterial. Harding v. Kerrigan is an incredible story in its own right. The film’s sideshow becomes its main attraction. We’re hooked.

Remarkably enough, this is where Margot Robbie’s performance really breaks through. Gone are the chains of biopic tropes (she and Stan are utterly unconvincing as teenagers early in the film), disappeared is the shadow of Janney’s histrionics. Perhaps that’s the point. Here in the story Harding gains agency and our sympathy only to be finally and fully constricted by her circumstances; a hard-earned career gone up in the puff of a Marlboro. What begins as a prosaic performance from Robbie ends up an impressive physical one, suggesting that she’s only getting started as a performer.

If “I, Tonya” is confused – it unusually shifts its focus off its subject at the halfway mark – it’s only as confused as its title character. Tonya Harding was and is nothing if not an uneven personality. The movie that bears her name is the same way, too lopsided to elicit the degree of sympathy it’s aiming for – the scenes of abuse are weirdly bookended by David O. Russell-style comedy – but it builds to the point of dramatic success.

The Kerrigan incident may not define Harding, but in the movie, as in reality, it may be the best way of understanding her star-crossed life.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 8, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Neon
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity)

Darkest Hour

Among the actors to play fabled United Kingdom prime minister Winston Churchill on film: Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, and Brian Cox, each lending an obvious physicality and proper Britishness to the role. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” actor Gary Oldman is not an obvious fit for Churchill at all, making his turn as the iconic Englishman in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” all the more rousing. His casting is a ruddy middle finger to stodgy prestige pics everywhere, his typically over-the-top acting style a cozy fit underneath dazzling make-up work.

Buttoned-up period piece-isms (a la Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech”) are blessedly hard to come by here.

Scribe Anthony McCarten (“The Theory Of Everything”) smartly constrains his screenplay to one month in the life of his subject, from Churchill’s appointment to Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 through his famous speech to Parliament on June 4. Although World War II was only in its infancy, the Allies would soon be backed into a corner (events in the film overlap with Chris Nolan’s recent “Dunkirk”), requiring the kind of robust leadership that an increasingly frail Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) could not provide.

Political oddity Winston Churchill was the first choice of few – the conservative was unpopular with many in his own party – but both Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who summarily turned down the position, and Chamberlain believed him to be the candidate who could unite the most political parties. From a tensely humorous exchange between King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill early in the film, the aim of Wright and McCarten is clear: to elucidate the spine-compacting pressure that comes with a starring role on the world’s stage. And to highlight just how unprepared we mere mortals are for it.

Oldman’s performance is every bit as blustery as the pic’s trailers suggest, but not at the cost of multi-dimensionality. The actor’s experience playing against type as Commissioner Gordon in Chris Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has apparently rubbed off on him; his Churchill never outsizes the other characters in the room and he makes Churchill’s dialogue seem as considered as it probably was. The actor also paints a picture of a stubborn man concealing pockets of self-doubt; unsure to the end that the will to defeat fascism is enough.

Wright’s supporting cast adds considerable depth to both subject and story. Mendelsohn’s screen time is terrific, our protagonist’s uneasy rapport with King George VI providing both laughs and an entry point into the psyche of Churchill’s critics. Kristin Scott Thomas is just as compelling as Winston’s wife and anchor Clementine, albeit underutilized. And Lily James is ideal as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s personal secretary. Her scenes feel like movie’s greatest creative liberties but they effectively flesh out the quirks and insecurities of her boss, James’ innate incorruptibility bringing out a warmer side of a man some consider a warmonger.

Apart from Oldman and his make-up team, the film’s MVP might be director of photography Bruno Delbonnel; his visuals prove indispensable to Wright’s historical pressure cooker. A scene that depicts Churchill’s first radio address as Prime Minister sees him bathed in red light and shadow, the weight of the microphone in front of him signaling the weight of the world. It’s a brilliantly choreographed moment, evoking both the seriousness and silliness of one man holding the spirit of a nation in his hand. Oversimplified, yes – the entire movie is necessarily short on nuance, political or otherwise – but unforgettable all the same. Delbonnel puts us right there in the room – a front row seat to how the wheezing voice of a cigar-sucking 65-year-old might credibly turn the tide of history.

Despite some narrative doldrums in the pic’s home stretch (a sequence that features Churchill interchanging with British civilians on the London Underground is broad and overly sentimental), the whole of “Darkest Hour” is taut and transportive. The pejorative “Oscar bait” is immaterial when it’s this good.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle

Robin Williams starrer “Jumanji” was hardly a box office world-beater for Sony Pictures when it debuted on December 15, 1995, sparring with Pixar’s “Toy Story” (then in its fourth week) for family moviegoing dollars. “Jumanji” had legs though, carving out a legacy on VHS and cable, ensuring that, come 2017, millions of millennials would remember it more fondly that it deserved to be remembered when a belated sequel beckoned for their children.

With dear Robin Williams departed, Sony has called on “Central Intelligence” duo Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart to star. Then there’s Jack Black, who successfully reignited another 90s staple (“Goosebumps”) in 2015, Karen Gillan of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” fame, and pop star Nick Jonas. Add a clumsy format reformulation from board game to video game and Sony has their sequel “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle,” as loud and soulless a family movie as there’s been in years.

The pic centers on four teenagers – more accurately, four stereotypes of teenagers: Spencer the nerdy gamer (Alex Wolff), Anthony the towering jock (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha the hopelessly shy girl (Morgan Turner), and Bethany the Instagram-obsessed social butterfly (Madison Iseman). The four are sent to detention and end up in a dingy storage room, tasked with removing staples from old magazines. There they discover an old jungle-themed video game and are literally sucked in; the film finds most if its prospective humor in their character selection.

Spencer becomes the sinewy Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Anthony a diminutive zoologist named Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), Martha turns into midriff baring commando Ruby Roundhouse, and, in the film’s would-be coup, Bethany transforms into the portly professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black). Director Jake Kasdan (“Sex Tape”) and the film’s four screenwriters mine “Jack Black playing a self-absorbed teenage girl” for all it’s worth and then some, running the screenplay’s body swap theatrics into the ground early and often.

The pic’s repetitive humor would be more palatable if its accompanying story weren’t so lifeless. The screenwriters appear to have no concept of how action video games work, moving their characters haphazardly through a nondescript jungle with only fleeting instances of combat and problem-solving. A torpidly written villain played by Bobby Cannavale comes with the depth and menace of a nameless “Indiana Jones” henchman. Meanwhile, the script comments on the sexism inherent in Gillan’s character only to utilize it in all the wrong ways, leaving her to distract bad guys in a ludicrously skimpy outfit that the camera ogles with abandon.

The climactic moment – Kevin Hart charging into the frame on an elephant, screaming “Zoology, bitch!” – is the film’s essence: thoughtless, nonsensical, and aggressively unbefitting its target audience. The script’s surplus of penis references, human or otherwise, isn’t so much offensive as it is unnecessary, signaling a team of screenwriters that simply doesn’t know how else to be funny.

The original “Jumanji” is hardly an exemplar of family filmmaking; it’s unnecessarily violent, its storytelling shaggy. And yet it retains both an internal logic and Williams’ endless charm, two vital ingredients that its follow-up misses by lines of longitude. If a sexist, incomprehensible, two-hour CGI extravaganza that can’t even properly copy a middling 90s family comedy sounds like a good time, cheers: “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” is a bottomless pit angling for your money. Everyone else ought to find a different jungle.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: December 20, 2017
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for adventure action, suggestive content and some language)

The Shape Of Water

Universal Pictures has long been at work reimagining their iconic 1954 monster movie “Creature From The Black Lagoon” for modern audiences. So long has it been that directors once attached to the project have died; once modern audiences have aged out of key demos. In the wake of this past summer’s disastrous “Mummy” reboot, “Black Lagoon” for the twenty-first century will have to wait in the wings for years if not decades more. But one of the filmmakers once linked to the project, Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”), has circumvented both development hell and copyright law to deliver an updated vision of a wild amphibious humanoid colliding with the developed world.

Fox Searchlight’s romantic fantasy-drama “The Shape Of Water” is set in 1960s Baltimore and stars Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) as Elisa, a single woman who works as a janitor at a top-secret government laboratory. As she was rendered mute by a childhood neck injury and can only speak in sign language, her social circle is limited to her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist and closeted gay man, and her best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Apart, the trio might be defined as loners, but together they’re loners with purpose, sharing the burden of their solitude with one another.

Elisa’s world is as impeccably lit and period accurate as del Toro’s name would suggest, with the auteur’s copper patina visuals boasting no expense spared on art design. No matter the effect of his screenplay, his visual eye remains one of the best in the business. He directs his heroine’s daily routine with energy but not excitement, an important delineation when it comes to the relative doldrums of bathtub masturbation.

When Elisa and Zelda’s place of employment receives an exotic fish-man (actor Doug Jones, in a getup highly reminiscent of what he donned for del Toro in “Hellboy”) for scientific experimentation, Elisa and the creature become close. Very close. A la “Beauty And The Beast,” she becomes infatuated with her monster to the point of romantic interest, only here del Toro – and Elisa and her fish-man – go all the way. Elisa manages to steal the creature away from the malevolent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), stowing the man-phibian away in her bathroom and having lots of sex with it.

Hawkins sells the duo’s curious physical relationship as best she can, aided by Dan Laustsen’s dreamy photography. But del Toro attempts to seize both wistfulness and raw sexuality at once. He can’t have it. Del Toro’s typically lusty visuals and the impressive mix of practical and computer-enhanced effects that comprise his fish-man smother the would-be intricacies of his drama. All that’s left to stand up next to to his crew’s significant technical accomplishments is some interminably loud symbolism, echoing noisily over an innately small story.

“Crimson Peak” was perhaps del Toro’s most immersive film since “The Devil’s Backbone,” drawing on but not imitating films and genres gone by. “The Shape Of Water” is too concerned with homage and sentiment to ever envelop on its own terms; when it comes close it jerks itself back in fits of awkwardness. (The film’s left-field dance sequence works in a vacuum but in reality it’s twee and pointless.) Strong performances from Hawkins and the rest of the cast (Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as a mysterious scientist) do little to assuage the feeling of thin characters orbiting a thin romance, and the pic’s intoxicating final image is just that – another intoxicating image bereft of verisimilitude.

Universal was wise to see that del Toro was not the person to shepherd “The Creature From The Black Lagoon” back into the spotlight. Even at their best, his films are ornamental instead of elemental; “Black Lagoon” requires the latter. The most lasting thing the filmmaker finds in “In The Shape Of Water” is accidental irony – irony in a tale of inner beauty coming off so superficially.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language)

Bright

Will Smith vehicle “Bright” is far and away Netflix’s biggest original film to date, a lavish blend of cop movie and fantasy pic that cost the streaming giant a cool 90 million dollars. It is also, no matter the viewing numbers the company touts, an unmitigated disaster.

Occasionally effective tough guy director David Ayer (“Fury”) and never effective screenwriter and nepotism beneficiary Max Landis (“American Ultra”) didn’t work together on “Bright,” but they make for a hellspawned creative team all the same. Landis’ conceptualization of a gritty crime movie set in a world where humans, orcs, and elves co-exist – one spilling over with juvenile pontifications on race relations – unlocks the worst, most testosterone-inflamed instincts in Ayer. The byproduct is ugly, dumb, incoherent, and preposterously silly – a lethal cocktail when heading for the exit is as easy as the press of a button.

Praise be to actor Joel Edgerton (“It Comes At Night”) who, beneath mounds of blue orc makeup, lends the film a soul it does not deserve. He co-stars as Nick Jakoby, the unwanted orc sidekick to Will Smith’s loudmouthed, trigger-happy LAPD cop Daryl Ward. As the first orc cop in the city’s history, Nick is treated as a pariah by criminals and fellow cops alike, going about his job diligently and quietly until he and Ward find themselves on the trail of an elf in possession of a dangerously powerful magic wand. Then Nick inevitably steps up to the plate to prove, once and for all, that orcs are people, too.

It is a genuine miracle that Edgerton is able to find dignity in a character forced to repeatedly play off of Will Smith-isms like “Fairy lives don’t matter today” and “We are not the fucking wand police!” “Bright” is Smith’s lousiest outing among many since “Bad Boys II” and the actor plays Daryl like he’s well aware: halfheartedly smirking at the camera, ad-libbing extra profanities as if to gloss over the tragedy of Landis’ writing.

The supporting cast doesn’t get off any easier.

Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”) is an all-out dud as the movie’s baddie, a dark elf named Leilah whose place in the story begins and ends with losing her wand and then chasing after it, leaving eviscerated bodies in her wake. Edgar Ramirez (“Joy”) appears briefly as an elven federal agent (his department is actually called the Magic Task Force) and Aussie actor Lucy Fry is a non-presence as the vulnerable elf in possession of the aforementioned wand.

None of these deficient performances are necessarily the fault of the performers, only telltale signs of Landis’ ceaselessly shoddy scripting and a director with rapidly dwindling levels of self-awareness. The pic’s fusion of magical realms to graphic street violence and racial stereotypes (the undesirable orcs mostly appear as chain-wearing gang-bangers) is unbelievably ill advised, exacerbated by Landis’ wildly misplaced but unflinching belief in his story’s profundity. It would all be hilarious if it weren’t so nauseating.

Ayer’s previous film, the amusingly cluttered “Suicide Squad,” is a paradigm of filmmaking by comparison. Despite that movie’s conspicuous shortcomings, it’s mostly a lark, just as easily experienced as forgotten. “Bright,” on the other hand, comes with the kind of stench that’s hard to get off. It is terrible and shameful, not necessarily in that order, breeding the same kind of hatefulness an even slightly better version of the film might have combatted.

Most of all, it is a significant stain on Netflix’s already middling record with original films and a low point in the still young content wars. It’s a bad look for the company’s biggest undertaking to date to suggest that it doesn’t think much of its customers – or think of them at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: December 22, 2017
Studio: Netflix
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriters: Max Landis
Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz, Happy Anderson

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