Sunday, December 31, 2017


One of the best parts of my five years as a film critic at the Examiner online, before it folded, was discovering indie gems released under the radar. There were many small horror films that, despite not having huge budgets or a big studio’s distribution, scared the hell out of me, and impressed the hell out of me too. Such discoveries still excite me today, horror or other genres. VOD, iTunes, Netflix, Vimeo - these are some of the places you can find such films. More and more, they are chock full of exceptional entries that are giving Hollywood studios a run for their money. They are movies made by very talented filmmakers with few dollars, but plenty of gumption. 

Bryce Hirschberg is one such artist, and his first feature film COUNTERFEITERS is one auspicious debut. Shot for next to nothing, Hirschberg is the writer/star/director of this indie feature and he clearly demonstrates what a triple threat he is. (Watch out, Woody Allen and Warren Beatty!) He also must be quite the bookkeeper too because the film doesn’t look like one that cost a mere $8000. It looks sharp, polished and professional at all production levels. 

The story centers around Bridger (Hirschberg), a counterfeiter who thinks he can bridge the gulf between his normal life and a career in crime. He’s almost a cockeyed optimist about it. He takes an easygoing, casual approach to his less than admirable career choice and it's charming in its way, as well as unnerving. Shrewdly, Hirschberg has his cinematographer David Klassen shoot this thriller with almost the same breeziness that Bridger has. We're sucked into a world that doesn't seem all that dangerous from its appearances, just like Bridger, but we should all know better. After all, in any crime drama, the piper will have to be paid.  

Bridger has chosen this profession of funny money to help pay for his mother’s medical bills once her cancer returns. His normal job will not cover her extensive treatment, and he needs to raise a lot of cash quickly. Thus, he decides to not only make phony bills to pay for her care, but soon the temptation to use the counterfeit dough for more will start bogging down his mind and his morality. He will discover that being such a good criminal rather excites him. He likes living on the edge, especially when he feels as if he's got it all under control.

Such hubris gives him his confidence, his strut. At one point in the film, Hirschberg spends the good amount of a minute just showcasing Bridger walking on his way to his yacht where he makes his product. As he casually and cooly saunters, sometimes on the phone, sometimes just admiring his world,  Bridger appears as if he's a collegiate BMOC. He's almost ridiculously masculine, assured, even jaunty. His face is wide-eyed and open, smiling at his success. This is a man who would never act like a skulking criminal hiding his face from the world.

But his confidence is actually an unfortunate sort of naiveté. Sure, Bridger is great at counterfeiting, and he’s incredibly shrewd to insist on keeping the denominations only in 5’s, 10’s and 20’s as to not draw undue attention to their product, but he brings in his college buddies Rob (Robert McEveety), Preston (Taylor Lockwood) and Jimmy (Shawn Rolph) to help his charade and they are simply not the dependable sort. They’re ambitious, as Shakespeare described Cassius in JULIUS CAESAR, and we all know how that turned out, don’t we? “Who checks a $10?” Bridger tries to reason with his cronies at one point, arguing on why a lower product profile is best, but his guys don't see eye-to-eye with him. They want to make bigger bills and bigger profits. And of course, that will mean bigger risks for everyone involved.

But risk is all around Bridger, and he should see it, yet because he manages his way around it with great aplomb, he tends to not regard it as much of a threat. When he does a favor for a drug lord by dropping off some coke, he is tempted sexually by the zonked-out model at the customer’s address, but he escapes just before succumbing to her charms and her hair-trigger temper. At a local bar, Bridger unwittingly hands an obviously counterfeit $100 to a waitress, but manages to bluff his way out of hot water by distracting her with an invite to a party. No wonder Bridger has a 'cock of the walk' gait, he's got quite a guardian angel on his shoulder.

But soon enough,  his reckless, greedy friends will not only put the business at great risk, but everything else will build to a head as well. There are problems with his mother's bills so the hospital is threatening to throw her out on the street. His girlfriend discovers what he's up to on that yacht and she's furious. Even worse, a cop and a hidden gun will soon appear and all hell will break loose. Hirschberg tightens the screws here, creating delicious tension as Bridger must finally face all of it and the inherent dangers that come with his craft. 

To tell more about where the plot goes would destroy too many of the joys to be found in the viewing of this taut 75-minute film. Suffice it to say, blood will be spilled, lives will be taken, and Bridger will have to contend with his sins. Some of the narrative is inevitable, as it must be in the genre, but so much of this film's fun lies in how Hirschberg gets us there. He mines a lot of laughs out of his dangerous characters and surroundings, and also manages to bend the cliches of the genre with mischievous relish. For example, these types of stories always have a lot of bloodletting, but few show how difficult it is to wash blood off one's face and the upholstery. The clean-ups scenes are both scary and knee-slappingly funny. 

And through it all, Hirschberg holds our complete attention as a leading man too. He’s incredibly assured in front of the camera as he is behind it, and neither his performance or his helming of the film seems to have slipped in any way due to pulling double duty. Most of Hirschberg’s cast are friends of his, and while they aren’t as talented as he is, they lend their out-of-their-depth characters an appropriate guilelessness whether intended or not. Wisely, Hirschberg directs most of them to underplay even the bigger scenes, letting the violent acts speak the loudest.

COUNTERFEITERS has been making the festival route throughout the world, from Marina del Rey to Lithuania to Wales, and it’s won a batch of awards along the way. At Filmchella, in the USA, Hirshberg’s film was awarded the "Gorilla Award" as "the most innovative filmmaking; independent in spirit, often times against all odds with no budget" As more and more Hollywood studios have all but eliminated funding modest films, choosing instead to put all of their money behind multimillion dollar CGI tentpoles, it’s nice to come across a talented and tenacious filmmaker like Hirschberg who's created a film where the greatest effects are its story and characters. COUNTERFEITERS may have been bereft of a decent budget, but its many rewards are hardly phony.

Saturday, December 30, 2017


Hello, friends and followers! As many of you are aware, I am a proud member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and have been for the two years since its founding. We've just announced our film awards for 2017, and you can read our terrific selections in 22 categories here:

I am particularly proud of the fact that we gave our Impact Award to Patty Jenkins for her incredibly accomplished direction of WONDER WOMAN, one of the year's biggest and critical hits, not to mention a game-changer for DC Comics, as well as a veritable call to arms for persistent women.

Jenkins not only showed the misbegotten men directing for DC how to do it with flair, humanity, and superb storytelling instincts, she also did it without the sexist "male gaze" which has become quite a problem in Hollywood these days. Bravo, Ms. Jenkins. And thank you.

Also, I'm more than a bit tickled to say that we gave our award for Best Independent Feature to the wondrous LADY BIRD. That was also my pick for Best Film of 2017, and we awarded Best Actress to Saoirse Ronan for her performance in the title role too. (She was also my pick as you can read here: 

All in all, there were so many terrific films out this past year that it was hard for all of the critics at the CIFCC to narrow the field. Still, we did just that, and I believe you'll find our final roster of winners to be an incredibly smart group of select honorees.

Friday, December 29, 2017


Original caricature by Jeff York of Saoirse Ronan as LADY BIRD (copyright 2017)
As the year 2017 draws to a close, movie critics, pundits and bloggers make their lists of the top films that they liked best. Thus, it's time for me to publish my list too. 

Despite all the consternation in American politics this year, not to mention problems internationally, 2017 was a great and inspiring year at the movies. It was difficult to hone the list of impressive films I saw down to 10. Some of the terrific films that didn't make it include the following (in no particular order) :


Whew! And there were many other good ones too. Still, here are the 10 that did make my list of the absolute best, along with the links to my previous reviews of them.

8.) GET OUT (

(NOTE: PHANTOM THREAD has yet to be reviewed due to an embargo on Chicago critics' reviews until after January 1. )

Oh, and if I was handing out the Oscars in the major categories, here's what I would choose:

Best Director                Greta Gerwig LADY BIRD
Best Actor                    Kumail Nanjiani THE BIG SICK
Best Actress                 Saoirse Ronan LADY BIRD
Best Supp. Actor          Christopher Plummer ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
Best Supp. Actress       Tiffany Haddish GIRLS TRIP
Best Original Script     THE BIG SICK
Best Adapted Script     CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Best Cinematography  THE SHAPE OF WATER
Best Prod. Design        BLADE RUNNER 2049
Best Costume Design  PHANTOM THREAD
Best Sound Mixing      BABY DRIVER
Best Sound Editing      DUNKIRK
Best Visual Effects       WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Best Original Score      PHANTOM THREAD
Best Original Song       "I Get Overwhelmed" (A GHOST STORY)
Best Makeup                 DARKEST HOUR

Those are my picks. What did you like best?


Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Original caricature by Jeff York of Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
(copyright 2017)
A few months back, the Oscar buzz surrounding the Best Supporting Actor contest came down to two names – Willem Dafoe for THE FLORIDA PROJECT and Kevin Spacey for ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. Then in November, the infamous sex story involving Spacey and his alleged molestation of young boys broke, and his award chances faded away. So it would seem did the film’s fortunes at having a healthy run at the Cineplex, let alone getting awards attention. Who would want to see a film, let alone honor one, with such a horrifying scandal attached to one of its stars? 

Well, the powers that be associated with the film, including director/producer Ridley Scott, met to discuss their options and considered all kinds of efforts to salvage their efforts, including delaying its release. Then they decided to go for a true “Hail Mary” pass of an idea - to completely excise Spacey from the film, cast his role anew, and ready it in time for the holiday season. Not only that, but they would release the film only two weeks later than originally scheduled. If they could accomplish such an unprecedented re-do, that would be one helluva Christmas miracle.

Scott quickly recast the part of J. Paul Getty, the famous billionaire at the center of the story, with the actor he originally wanted – Christopher Plummer. (Studio bigwigs had lobbied for Spacey early in pre-production, citing his stardom on Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS series as a drawing card for audiences.) In a matter of days, Plummer was signed, flown to the locations, and shot all of his scenes. Then the film was recut, finished and released on Christmas Day. So, was it all worth it? Yes. Spectacularly so. 

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is one terrific film, a crackling, shrewd and thoroughly involving thriller. And after seeing Plummer in the part, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Getty. In fact, Plummer is so fantastic, he should be in contention for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, just as Spacey was rumored to be earlier this year. (Look out, Willem Dafoe!) The veteran actor gives a towering performance here, utterly dominating every scene he's in, creating a villain who can be vicious as well as charming. The 88-year-old Plummer is more believable as Getty than Spacey would've been too, especially since the younger actor required a ton of makeup to look even close to Getty's 81 years. Plummer doesn't have that problem and you buy him in the part the second he shows up. 

The story concerns the real-life kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher) in July of 1973. The favorite grandson of billionaire J. Paul Getty was kidnapped in Rome at the Piazza Farnese and held for $17 million dollars in ransom. The kidnappers hid out with the 16-year-old boy at a deserted farmhouse in the southern Italian region of Calabria while waiting for the money. But it didn't come. The boy's mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) wanted to comply but she had no real money to her name since divorcing John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan). Thus, she turned to Getty Sr. for the funds and the billionaire balked.

The boy's grandfather could've easily opened his checkbook and taken care of the matter immediately. Instead, the senior citizen argued that if he caved, all of his grandchildren could be ransomed and he'd lose millions upon millions. This man, who had no trouble buying all kinds of property and art and God knows what else, didn't deem his own flesh and blood worthy of such a barter. Did I mention that at the time he was not only the richest man in the world, he was also the richest man in the history of the world?

The crux of the movie thus follows Gail’s struggle to find the money and save her son while the clock ticks away. Her son starts losing hope and weight while the kidnappers lose their patience. Getty makes a token concession to the matter at hand by lending Gail his fixer named Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to assist her in the negotiations, but he's mostly there to stall, drive the price down, and hunt for the kidnappers while playing out the clock. 

One of the extraordinary parts of this film is how Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa paint such an awful picture of the Getty family dysfunction. Flashbacks show Getty's consistent cheapness, starting with his negotiation of oil extraction from the Middle East. The senior Getty dislikes his Arab partners and grouses about them at every turn, complaining about the money they're making even though he's reaping a fortune.  
In one darkly comic flashback scene, Gail and her husband visit the old man who's staying in a Rome hotel and discover that he's hanging his wet laundry throughout the suite. It seems that he refused to pay for hotel laundry services and washed his underwear in the bathroom sink to save a buck. And in yet another painful flashback, Getty is shown hoodwinking the young John Paul with a gift he says is a relic worth millions. Later on, Gail discovers that the miniature piece is nothing more than a cheap gift from a local museum's souvenir shop. You can say this for the old miser, at least he's consistent.
Throughout, the senior Getty proves to be more evil than any of the kidnappers. These would-be gangsters aren’t very bright either as two of  them expose their true identities to the kid after unwittingly removing their masks. One of those kidnappers, the compassionate Cinquanta (Romain Duris), even befriends John Paul III as the days of the boy's captivity drag into weeks and then months.

Scott milks the story for every last ounce of tension, reaching crescendos when the kidnappers cut off one of the boy's ears to prove they mean business. It's grisly and unsettling, but necessary lest we laugh too much at the dark comedy at play here. Additionally, Scott films Gail and Chase's ransom delivery in the last act with a nail-biting blend of tension as they're put through the ringer to finally get JPG III back safe and sound. Of course, Scott should also be commended for brilliantly ripping the 1% throughout, especially as we are currently seeing one of the most egregious cash grabs pass as "tax reform" in the United States. Scott's skills as a filmmaker are as impeccable as his timing. 

And as great as Plummer is, so is Williams in her jittery, tangled nerve performance. Again, she delivers an Oscar worthy turn, as in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN and BLUE VALENTINE, and in any other year she'd be a leading contender. She will be lucky to score a nomination in this year with10 leading ladies in contention for Best Actress. Wahlberg holds his own among such greatness, imbuing his character with a low-key wryness and subtle masculinity. The only thing wrong I could find in his performance was the noticeable difference in his looks for the reshoots. He clearly has lost some weight since the original production and it's the only noticeable problem with the reshoots.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is an utterly gripping drama, rendered all the more startling by what Scott, et al. did to make it happen. To my eye, it looks like Scott reshot a full third of his film. And in watching this miracle of a film, one can't help but compare how swiftly the Plummer reshoots came together this fall versus the foot dragging of the ransom negotiations back in the summer of '73.  Six weeks for the latter, six months for the former. That indeed constitutes all the irony in the world.  


Original caricature by Jeff York of Jessica Chastain in MOLLY'S GAME (copyright 2017)

Call me easy, but I’m a sucker for movies about gambling, Vegas, heists, and the like. There’s something about the danger of cards and casinos and the Mob that gets me every time. Whether it’s Michael Corleone not seeing eye-to-eye with Moe Green on how to run a casino in THE GODFATHER or James Bond playing cards against a terrorist in CASINO ROYALE, or even Danny Ocean bringing in a “Baker’s Dozen” of friends along with him to help heist three hotels, I love the snap, crackle and danger of that high-stakes world. Thus, I may have been an easy mark for Aaron Sorkin with his first big screen helmer MOLLY’S GAME, but I loved his film from first second to last.

Indeed, the acclaimed screenwriter makes his big screen directorial debut with the gambling tale starring Jessica Chastain and it’s one of the season’s most entertaining yarns. Sorkin adapted the biography by Molly Bloom entitled Molly's Game: From Hollywood's Elite to Wall Street's Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker. That title is a mouthful, and so is this movie what with its long, complex story about an over-achieving young Olympic hopeful who went from skier to illegal gambling den entrepreneur to multimillionaire to government stoolie all before she was 40. And it’s the perfect kind of story for Sorkin to write and shoot, as it comes with his trademark crackling dialogue, pithy lead character narration, and a righteous moralizing that fits right in with the #MeToo movement this year.

Like his previous biopics THE SOCIAL NETWORK, MONEYBALL, and STEVE JOBS, Sorkin takes liberties with his subjects. But he always remains true to the core of his lead character. Here, he serves up Molly warts and all, and she’s been very complimentary about both how he adapted her story as well as how well Chastain plays her. Indeed, at the end of the day, this may be a crackling thriller but it really is a deft character study. Chastain is in virtually every second of the film, and she gives one of the year’s most nuanced and intricate performances. That’s saying a lot, given the caliber of female leads this year, but Chastain should make the final five nominated for Best Actress with this one. She presents a Molly who is shrewd, naïve, mature, girlish, implacable and relatable, all those contradictions, and often in the same scene.

Molly had to be a bit of everything to lure in the esteemed clientele for her games. Many were celebs, famous athletes, and titans of business. All were men. And these guys weren't exactly used to a woman flying solo and running dangerous, underground casino games held in luxurious, private hotel rooms. Thus, Molly had to do all sorts of things to win over these macho asshats. With some, she was all business talking math and strategy. With others, she played up her feminine wiles to make them relax and feel coddled. Still others, like some of the insecure child-men, she played up the mothering role. Molly was as good at sizing up all kinds of men and figuring out what made them tick. Figuring out how to play them may have been her true game.  

One of the most interesting parts of the movie is how Sorkin has costumer Susan Lyell dress Molly. At times her clingy ensembles, bursting cleavage, and three-inch heels border on porn star garb at the AVN Awards, but that is how she had to dress to win over the Neanderthals parading through her gambling den. These oafs would  eventually come to respect her professionalism and fairness, but Molly always had to add some eye candy to seal the deal.

Seeing a smart character like Molly, let alone a savvy actress like Chastain, wearing such over-the-top garb makes for one of the film's more richly comic tropes. Molly caricatures her femininity to appeal to the basest he-man instincts of these nincompoops, themselves cartoon versions of men in far too many ways. Chastain even wears her hair dark throughout most of the film to add to the femme fatale fantasy men could buy into more easily. 

Sorkin’s script jumps around a lot in time and space, but the newbie director's camera keeps up with all his shifts in story. There are a ton of flashbacks, flash forwards, and retracing steps to add new meaning to certain scenes, but Sorkin the director gives it all a Martin Scorsese style energy and verve. Still, at other times, Sorkin is content to let his camera just sit there and bask in the witty banter that Chastain and Idris Elba as her lawyer engage in while plotting  the strategy to get her out of hot water with the Feds. He is one of only two admirable male characters onscreen. The other is Molly's father, played by Kevin Costner.

Costner is terrific in his supporting role here too, adding a fun crustiness and moral rigidity to her father character. (Does anyone play crusty and rigid better than Costner these days?) There are also clever turns from Chris O’Dowd, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James and Bill Camp as the various gamblers who cross Molly's path. But this is all Chastain’s game in the end and she plays steely strength as well as doe-eyed vulnerability better than just about anyone. Quite simply, she is aces here. Let's hope Oscar gambles on her when nominations are announced January 23rd.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


On Christmas Day, after the presents are opened, church is attended, and holiday pies are carved and consumed, a lot of families ask, “Now what?” Ah, that’s why the Cineplex’s stay open, my friends. And there are a number of films you can see now that will bring the gift of entertainment to you and your family. Okay, maybe some of the following choices aren’t for everyone, but here are a number of potentials presents waiting for you at the theater this holiday season.


Who’d have thought that a reboot of 1995's JUMANJI would offer so many big laughs, enough to shake Kris Kringle’s bowl full of jelly? Indeed, the new film JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan is a hoot and a half. Now, a farce that lampoons video games may seem a decade or two late in relevance, but this holiday charmer still hits its satirical targets with great aplomb. It doesn’t matter that it’s barely a sequel to the Robin Williams vehicle, it stands completely on its own whether you've seen that one or not. 

The story here starts with four high schoolers being assigned to detention for their naughty behavior. Geeky Spencer (Alex Wolff) helped jock Fridge (Ser’Darious Blain) cheat on an essay. Mean girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) blabbed on her cell while in class. And misanthrope Martha (Morgan Turner) insulted her gym teacher. They’re assigned to clean up a storage room in the bowels of the school when they stumble upon an old video game. They decide to play it and as they choose their avatars they're literally sucked into the mysterious and mystical game.

The mini-BREAKFAST CLUB transports to the game’s jungle setting where they realize that in order to return to their natural state, they must play the game and achieve the end goal of restoring a sacred jewel to its original shrine. They will have to face all sorts of levels and challenges, and each player has three lives that if used up will mean that it's literally “game over” for them.

The film borrows more heavily from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE MUMMY than it does from the original JUMANJI and there is even a snarling, cartoon villain (Bobby Cannavale) and a band of motorcycle marauders who would be at home in either franchise. The action set pieces here can’t hold a Tiki torch to Steven Spielberg, but director Jake Kasdan does deliver them with verve and wit. The CGI may appear a bit cheesy, and yet it somehow seems fitting with the aged video game tropes as well as the film's farcical sensibilities.  

90-pound weakling Spencer gets a heroic upgrade when he turns into his avatar, becoming the tall and hunky Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Football player Fridge loses yardage as he gets stuck playing the diminutive Finbar (Kevin Hart), Bravestone’s nervous sidekick. Martha, who hates Phys. Ed class, ironically becomes the ass-kicking Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). And teen princess Bethany gets the worst avatar exchange of all as the comely teen turns into the portly, middle-aged Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). The body exchange premise alone is almost funny enough to sustain the film, but luckily the screenwriters, all five of them, give the actors plenty to play within it.

Spencer struggles with his leading man stature and Johnson renders a surprisingly sensitive performance as he never lets us lose sight of the inner nerd guiding him. Hart can play motor-mouthed cowardice in his sleep but he gives the role 100% here. Still, the two best performances come from Black and Gillan, who mine subtleties you wouldn’t expect in a film like this. Black expertly exploits the sad girl imprisoned by the image-conscious Bethany, and Gillan steals the show as awkward teen Martha learning to be the cool girl. Even as Rhonda, outfitted in booty shorts and midriff, Martha hasn't clue on how to use her feminine wiles. Gillan runs with the film's best scene as Black's Bethany/Professor must show her how to flip her 'do, bite her lip coquettishly, and walk like she rules the school, er uh, jungle.

One miscalculation of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE might be its over-reliance on dirty jokes. Sure, teen boys are going to go wild for all of the urination and penis gags here, but it seems a bit out of tune with the more sophisticated character comedy at play. Of course, most film comedies today push similar boundaries so perhaps it's an asset. And while no one is going to mistake this movie for Oscar Wilde, it’s funny how shrewdly this film recognizes that the high school caste system may be the silliest role-playing game of all.  


You have to applaud anyone who tries to do a movie musical these days. Writing 8-10 songs that move a story along is an intricate and daunting task. Requiring modern audiences to watch actors recite pages of dialogue and then launch into song isn’t easy either. Such tropes can quickly become corny or even laughable. Finally, musicals tend to require an earnestness that is lost on the cynical mindset of today. Last year’s LA LA LAND worked because it was so well written and performed, plus it took a serious look at the trials and tribulations of trying to make it in Hollywood. This season, another original movie musical about show biz hits the theaters with THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. It's a loose bio about circus impresario P.T. Barnum, one being sold on having songs from LA LA LAND’s Oscar-winning lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.) And while this one is no LA LA LAND, it is an admirable effort, and suitable for the whole family.

No movie star can sing, act, and dance like Hugh Jackman and casting him ensured most of the film's guile and charm. The Aussie talent is a lot sunnier than the New Yorker Barnum really was, and the film takes a ton of liberties with the showman’s life to make it more palatable to the family audience. It also counters its 1800's setting with aggressively modern orchestrations and music video style editing. Even its costumes come very close to being steam punk to ensure it doesn't seem too old school.

Barnum is presented in the early scenes of the story as a plucky pauper (Ellis Rubin), one who bonds with a rich girl named Charity (Skylar Dunn). She's out of his league, and indeed, her rich father (Fred Lehne) forbids her from mingling with the urchin. Barnum vows to win her when his social status rises and it does. Quickly. Barnum uses his longshoreman earnings to buy a museum displaying ‘freaks and geeks’ for regular Joes and Janes to gawk at.  Soon, Barnum is developing a variety show with his talented misfits and they included the strange but lovable bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), pint-sized Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and exotic trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Kudos to the film’s script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon for ensuring  that these people become full characters, rather than remain 'types.' It may not be a wholly accurate portrayal of the huckster, but here, Barnum has been turned into the Pied of Piper of inclusion.

Jackman’s ability to project utter decency, even when playing a film-flam man who cracks wise constantly, makes all of what could be unsavory, go down easy as a sweet confection. He’s so easy to love with his megawatt smile and twinkling eyes, it’s amazing to think he became a superstar playing such a grump in those eight X-Men films. (You won't find any claws here, but he does display plenty of jazz hands!)

The film is buoyant and constantly in motion, daring us not to tap our toes or feel the rush. Only when it gets monotonous in its hammering message of inclusion does the film start to bog down some. Barnum’s circus performers are a defiant bunch, fighting for their right to party, storming into one-percenter soirees, breaking into brawls backstage, joining in fracas in the streets, and taking over saloons. Their voices will be heard beyond the stage or center ring, and it is a noble message in this day and age where minority rights are being stymied throughout America.

The exquisite Rebecca Ferguson shows up mid-movie to play Swedish songbird Jenny Lind as the subplot to lure Barnum away from his crew and loyal wife heats up. Luckily, the film lets Barnum be utterly chaste, not only virtuously returning to his wife Charity, but to his loyal band of misfits as well. Michelle Williams dazzles with her effervescence and singing voice. Zac Efron gives this his all too, playing Barnum’s protégé and business partner Phillip Carlyle with the right mix of youth and moxie. In fact, the whole cast performs with so much gusto throughout, it's no wonder that the movie clocks in at a breezy hour and 45 minutes.

The songs could be a bit more memorable; they're good, not great. And it’s difficult to watch the exploitation of the animals knowing what we now know it took to make elephants and tigers perform such feats. Still, director Michael Gracey minimizes their screen time and focuses his strong direction on ensuring that the dancers's bodies are shown fully in motion and that the editing is clear and precise. He even manages to make the CGI-created New York look amazingly real. This may be only his first feature, but he has mad skills. Perhaps Hollywood will let him handle the big screen version of HAMILTON next?


About half way through CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, I stopped thinking of the couple onscreen as a homosexual couple and started seeing them as merely a couple. Love is love is love is love, as many have said in these past years as they make the case for LGBTQ rights, and this film is a fantastic exclamation of that sentiment. In an age of so much tribalism, bigotry and polarization, this film is an antidote to all that negativity.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a coming-of-age drama directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Andre Acimen. Guadagnino considers it the third and final installment in his Desire trilogy, following I AM LOVE (2009) and A BIGGER SPLASH (2015). It’s interesting that all three films are about secret affairs, suggesting that the most passionate desire is driven by the forbidden. But here, the affair is kept secret because it’s between two young men in 1983 Italy and coming out as gay was still quite rare, particularly overseas. The naive Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old American living in Italy, becomes engaged in a summer fling with the more experienced Oliver (Armie Hammer), a grad student assisting Elio’s professor dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) for the summer. Their story becomes the story of any first love in many relatable ways: the passion, the giddiness, the obsession, and it's all played out as lushly as the gorgeous Italian settings which are their stomping ground.

Elio is a smart, moody teen, who needed something to bring him alive. At the outset, he seems utterly bored by his parents’ money, stature, and even the opportunity of the three-month stay abroad. He's cresting into manhood and dabbling with alcohol, tobacco, and sexual trysting, yet in a non-committal way with all three. He and local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel) fool around but it’s nothing serious to him. He seems to want to be alone most of the time, that is, until Oliver arrives.

They're instantly drawn to each other, though they masquerade the attraction with bravado and stand-offishness. Oliver is tall, bronzed and handsome, almost an equal to the statues Professor Perlman is studying. What draws Elio to him is a sense of kindred spirits. They're both aloof, cynical, and looking for something greater than the average day in even idyllic settings. They do forge a friendship, but it has its fits and starts, until one day, halfway through the summer, they both give into their true feelings. Now, they only have a few weeks left to explore their relationship, and boy, do they make up for lost time. They fall in love, body, heart and soul.

Apparently, James Ivory, the lauded filmmaker who adapted the novel for the screen, wished for full frontal nudity in the filming of his script, but Guadagnino resists, and wisely so. It makes this film more accessible and concentrates on the full connection without being distracted by overt explicitness. It could’ve been closer to something more brazenly naked like Abdellatif Kechiche’s BLUE IS THE  WARMEST COLOR from 2013, but instead Guadagnino  opts for a tone more akin to that of Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE trilogy. It's about love. Lust is just a by-product here.

Both Chalamet and Hammer are extraordinary in their tricky roles. They lure us in slowly but surely, and make us warm to their often too cool for school characters. Hammer’s Oliver starts out as an enigmatic and remote hunk, but soon his slyness and love of fun makes him more accessible and we see how worthy he is of Elio's affections.

Chalamet is getting all kinds of awards for his role, and he works absolute wonders even though he has very little dialogue. It’s a very reactive performance, at times almost a silent one, and yet the actor lets us see all the contradictory emotions going on inside him.  Kudos to Stuhlbarg too. The character actor is having a sterling year of support in 2017 movies, doing exemplary work in THE SHAPE OF WATER as well. Here, he gives a powerful monologue at the end of the film, lauding true love in any form, and offering acceptance of his son's version of it. The scene should be required viewing for any parent of a child who comes out to them.

As is the case in most films about summer love, when the season ends here, so does Elio and Oliver's Oliver travels back to the States and Elio is left reliving and cherishing his memories. In this upbeat film, neither Elio or Oliver is punished for acting outside of normal society, and that is so refreshing to see onscreen. Instead, their love may return and we're left as buoyed by that as Elio is as the credits roll. And in that end, the exquisite camera of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom continues to rest upon Elio's face for a number of minutes. It's an extraordinary shot, showing all the emotions dancing across Elio's features as he thinks back upon his first love. It’s a must-see film for any and all couples who believe in the power of love.  


From the trailer, you might think that I, TONYA is a sneering black comedy, a near farce milking its humor from the misfortunes of disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding. It’s actually more of a tragedy, albeit one with a lot of big laughs. Harding saw her fame as a superb skater obliterated when it was revealed that her husband Jeff Gillooly and his goons plotted to take out her rival Nancy Kerrigan by bashing in her knee. As tragic as that attack on Kerrigan turned out to be, it was ultimately Harding who was bashed irreparably. Her career never recovered from her vilification by the press and public. But then, Harding was used to abuse, having suffered under the vicious hands of her mother and hot-headed hubby all her life with them.

Margot Robbie plays Harding and it's absolutely one of the year’s best. She looks nothing like Harding, of course, not facially nor physically, but she thoroughly becomes her nonetheless. The deft makeup and wigs help, but the transformation is really all what  Robbie brings to the party as she inhabits the antiheroine. 

Harding’s slouching gait, the mile-wide chip on her shoulder, the legendary potty-mouthed jibes - they're all there in Robbie's nuanced and detailed rendering. Better yet, the young actress manages to coax out both the comedy and tragedy in each scene, sometimes simultaneously. It's a brave and unflinching performance, often ugly as well, but always sympathetic, not dissimilar to the marvels Charlize Theron worked in MONSTER in 2003. 

Robbie first attracted audience's attention in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) where she was lauded for both stunning ingenue looks as well as her superb comic sensibilities. In SUICIDE SQUAD two years later, she cemented her up-and-coming reputation with her scene-stealing turn as psycho villainess Harley Quinn. She's great at American accents and has Harding's cadence down pat. Robbie even learned to skate for this film, and director Craig Gillespie blends her moves seamlessly with a stunt double and sneaky CGI. If she doesn't get an Oscar nomination, then something is very wrong with the actor's branch of the Academy.

Gillespie also aces the direction of the rest of his cast, pushing them to hilarity without ever letting them lapse into caricature. Sebastian Stan makes Gillooly both pathetic and sympathetic. Allison Janney does some of her drollest and precise work as Harding’s bitter mom LaVona. And even Paul Walter Hauser makes Gillooly chubby buddy Shawn as threatening as he is stupid. They’re all big characters, but Gillespie and his cast ensure that they remain real people. He also instills each scene with maximum snap, crackle and pop to match the verve of his cast. 

Screenwriter Steven Rogers lays out the story with economy and clarity, yet still manages cinematic flourishes-a-plenty as when he lets the characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to camera within a scene. It’s a showy device, and it tends to gild the lily some considering that Rogers' script already uses a wrap around documentary framing device, but it all works and adds more sting to the drama.

If there is anything to criticize here, it is that the film cannot help but leave a bad taste in our mouths because of all the abuse portrayed onscreen. If we see her mother and husband smack Tonya once, we see it a hundred times. You’ll wince each time, and should, but it starts to push the black comedy towards something much more painful. It robs some of the fun out of this outrageous yarn. 

At the end of it all, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the stories of how actresses like Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd were blackballed throughout the entertainment industry with Harvey Weinstein’s slurring of them after rejecting his grotesque advances. Tonya Harding lost out on a meaningful career as well at the hands of abusive and asinine men. She's still paying the price too. Perhaps this fair and thorough examination of Harding, warts and all, will help give her back some of the respect she deserves. Who knew that I, TONYA would become one of the most powerful #MeToo stories of the year. 


The Establishing Shot still will be reviewing ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD and MOLLY’S GAME before year's end, and yes, there will be caricatures too. Be sure to watch for my 10 Best List too coming next week as well.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Friday, December 22, 2017


Few films open with a timeliness like that of THE POST. After all, when the sitting POTUS derides the Washington Post as “fake news”, a film that both lauds the paper and decries such autocratic leanings couldn’t be more opportune. And THE POST does tell one hell of a story about a newspaper seeking the truth while fighting forces in the highest corridors of power. It’s a film that is a must-see just on its relevance alone.

The film from director Steven Spielberg and first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah, illustrates the Post’s quest to release the scandalous Pentagon Papers in 1971. They were so controversial because they documented the futile efforts of the United State in Viet Nam over the course of four administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) and the cover-up of its less than winning facts. Those four presidents knowingly sent thousands to their deaths in a war that was deemed unwinnable almost from the start.

The film starts with that secret data being copied illegally by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an aide to Asst. Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton. He then sends the reams of paper to the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times prints excerpts first and in doing so, legal action is brought upon them from the White House. Did the Times commit treason? Did they break the law? And what will the Post do in response to it all? 

The Post faced a humongous risk following in the Times’ footsteps, and the rest of the film centers around the debate to publish or not. Reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who received the papers, pushes his editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to splash the remainder of them all over the Post, arguing that the people have the right to know the truth, and that, quite frankly, he always wanted to be part of a revolution. Indeed, the revolutionary release of the papers ultimately changed the course of the Viet Nam War, not to mention help corrode people's trust in the federal government, as well as start the decline of the Nixon administration. Bradlee, being a fly in the ointment himself, is more than gung-ho to go ahead, but he faces an uphill battle in persuading the Post’s conservative brass to see it his way.

While Bradlee and his cadre of reporters, including Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) and Howard Simons (David Cross), pour over the papers in his house readying them for publication, he must go back and forth to the home of publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) as well, imploring her to run with the story. The clock is ticking on the deadline as the publisher weighs the pros and cons in her residence, during a dinner party no less. Joining in the debate are various board members in attendance, as well as other high-powered players. Even former Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is on her guest list, and he offers his thoughts, especially since he's implicated in the papers for his time under Kennedy and Johnson. It's a lot for her to handle, and there are no easy answers.  

In many ways, this is a war movie, albeit one whose battlefield is the front page. Spielberg does a very good job milking the drama out of what is essentially an ethical debate between talking heads onscreen, but he crafts an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is never less than involving, and frequently enthralling.

There are a few issues though that mar his overall efforts. For starters, as great an actor as Hanks is, he's not quite right as Bradlee, lacking the inherent gruffness of the legendary newsman. He attempts to pull off the cragginess and aggression with cynical expressions and a dangling cigarette, but he's not to the manor born like Jason Robards was essaying the role in the iconic Post drama ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN in 1976. 

Spielberg also has trouble enabling all the supporting players to come to life in truly meaningful ways. It's a great cast he's assembled, what with Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, and Jessie Mueller among them, but few register as strongly as they should. Hannah’s script short-shrifts too many of them, and Spielberg fails to identify the large roster of characters with an onscreen title for each explaining their significance when they're introduced onscreen. 

THE POST makes a number of other missteps too. The legendary Meg Greenfield, one of the most important journalists of the last 60 years, isn’t given a single great line or scene in this movie. And to cast a talent of Coon’s capabilities, yet deprive her of such, is an awful oversight. Same with Matthew Rhys, who as Ellsberg gets almost no screen time. He’s the catalyst of all this and yet as written by Hannah, he’s all but a cipher. 

Of course, Spielberg had the Herculean task of creating a newspaper drama about the Washington Post in the shadow of the legendary classic ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN from 42 years ago. There, Alan J. Pakula directed William Goldman’s taut script as if it was film noir, and Gordon Willis’ shadowy cinematography, along with David Shire’s moody score, only enhanced that POV. The Post doesn't try to recreate such a take, but it's style is almost too straight forward, lacking edge. Even legendary film composer John Williams contributes a good score without it being particularly memorable.  

What Spielberg and Hannah do get spectacularly right is the character of Graham. She is the truest hero of this story since she is the one who could say "Yes" and did. Her daring-do was all the more incredible considering that few women yielded such power in those days. Streep fills the role completely, acing the East Coast patrician requirements, yet also bringing forth all of Graham's steely reserve. It's one of her all-time best performances.

At the end of it all, THE POST is terrific in so many ways. It’s smart, probing, and rich with period detail. Still, the film feels a bit rushed, as if its script could have used another pass through the typewriter, and the production would've benefited from more time in pre-production. Spielberg had a very short window to shoot this, squeezing it in between his lensing of READY PLAYER ONE and waiting for its post effects to be completed. Sometimes, that haste shows. Look no further than how the veteran filmmaker presents Nixon in the White House windows. He's shown as a wildly gesturing figure in an amateurish performance that surely would've been corrected had Spielberg more time to complete it. His film may miss greatness due to errors like that, but the timing of THE POST just may trump such shortcomings.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


It’s been an annual tradition since the beginning of The Establishing Shot in 2011 to select my ten favorite images from films that year. Thus, as 2017 comes to a close, here is this year's list. (NOTE: There are spoilers included, so be aware.) 

The moment I remember and cherish most from any film this year occurred in WONDER WOMAN, directed by Patty Jenkins and written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. Diana (Gal Gadot) has gone to the front in WWI with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to battle the German army and is confounded that no one will venture out onto the field to engage in battle. Trevor tells her that it’s called “No Man’s Land” because no one has dared cross it due to the machine gun nests on each side. That may be a good excuse for such men, but not for a woman of her capabilities. Diana drops her cover, exposing her Amazonian war attire, and races out to confront the enemy. She is shot at with bombs and bullets, but bats them away like so many annoying flies. In a year when women protested en masse and took back their power from misogynists in Hollywood, Washington D.C., and beyond, it could not have been a timelier or more stirring moment.

Pixar’s COCO may be the odds-on-favorite to take Oscar gold this March, but I’m hoping that LOVING VINCENT pulls a big upset. The film, written and directed by Dorota Kobeila and Hugh Welchman, is both an incredible feat of animation and storytelling. First, the animation consists of 65,000 hand-painted cells in the style of Vincent van Gogh. Second, the story is an amazing portrait of the artist whose death was as steeped in controversy as his life. As family friend Armand Roulin investigates the impressionist’s last days, Vincent’s world swirls around him like starry nights and cascading irises. It’s a serious work that still manages to be puckish at key moments. The best is when the animators toy with cinematic convention by having the reflection of a local village appear in Roulin’s train window. It’s an easy effect on film, but to achieve something like that in animation is genius.

My favorite movie of the year is writer/director Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD. And one of the adroitly observed coming-of-age film's best moments occurs three minutes in. The mercurial Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has a complex relationship with her passive/aggressive mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). One minute they are warm and in synch, the next, bickering and contentious. As the two argue while driving home, mom lays on the insults a bit thick and her daughter decides she's heard enough. In an act of questionable teen defiance, the bird flees the coop, literally and figuratively, by bailing from the passenger seat. It’s both shocking and hilarious. Of course, the girl recovers, albeit earning a broken arm from the act, but it sets the stage for an anything-can-happen vibe in this episodic dramedy. 

No film this year had as many stunning images as this sci-fi thriller. In this nihilistic thriller, the world created by director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Green, production designer Dennis Gassner, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, is one bleak dystopia. Yet, the decay and ugliness is often glossed over by the sheen of advertising and escapism. One of its most impressive images is that of the ginormous 3-D billboard that directly talks to main character K (Ryan Gosling). He is a replicant (a humanoid robot), undervalued and treating shabbily by his superiors, and here, he is mourning the death of his digital girlfriend whom he just got killed. Yet, she's also happens to be the hologram from the ad pointing at him. In that moment, K realizes that his A.I. lover was a dime a dozen. It's a cold, cruel world out there.

You’d expect the gowns in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about a fashion designer to be exquisite, but in PHANTOM THREAD, there is one knockout dress after another. Equally as gorgeous is how Anderson, as the uncredited cinematographer of the film, shoots them. He frames his images with an old fashion magazine sensibility from decades past, employing open spaces and a cool color palate. Is this story a period piece? It almost could be considering how "old school" his main character is in every way. Designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) loves control and he boxes in Alma (Vicki Krieps), his newest muse and model, throughout the story. He needs to direct every aspect of his world, and it's one sumptuous cage, albeit, still a cage. 

In writer/ director Byung-gil Jung’s THE VILLAINESS, he and fellow screenwriter Byeong-sik Jung contrive all sorts of way for their female assassin character Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) to get into trouble. Starting with the film's opening slaughter of an entire battalion of baddies, shot in the style of a first-person shooter, Sook-hee's character arc plays like levels in a video game. Each new phase brings increased stakes filled with impossible odds. One of the greatest occurs right before her wedding late in the film. She's ordered to commit an assassination in full bridal regalia. As she trains her scope on her target, Sook-hee is framed to show off  the gown's endless train, echoing her endless contract with her demanding employer. It’s a chilling moment in this visually imaginative South Korean import.

Despite its title, this indie stand-out from writer/director David Lowery is not a horror film, but rather, a character study. Casey Affleck plays a musician simply known as “C” who dies in a car accident and then comes back to haunt his home and lover “M” (Rooney Mara) as a ghost. But he’s no spook or villain. Instead, he’s a reticent specter, draped in a rather dramatic if not silly sheet, who must watch mournfully as her life plays out in their house without his participation. It’s an elegy on loneliness, forcing us to relate to the POV of such a strange, remote and tragic figure. One of the greatest shots that Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo present is that of this ghost tethered to his surroundings even when that humble home is bulldozed to make way for a glitzy high-rise. As the ghost contemplates his new world from a high floor, he is dwarfed by the enormity of it all. It’s beautiful, bold and tragic, much like the film itself.

The best horror movie of the year was from writer/director Jordan Peele. There were so many marvelous shots, from lead Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) falling through space into his sunken place, to Bradley Whitford’s slyly sinister patriarch auctioning off the young man to the highest bidder amongst the 1%.  For me, the best visuals were Peele's cheekiest. He is an Emmy-award winning comic, after all, and one of his funniest was the reveal of villainous girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) scouring the internet for her next African-American victim. She does so with utter calm, eating individual Fruit Loops and washing them down with milk slurped from a straw. Is Peele suggesting she's so racist that even in her snacking there's a reticence to mix the multi-colored cereal with white milk in a bowl? Indeed, social satire doesn’t get much more stinging than that in this new era of the "Alt. Right" and a POTUS who defends Nazis as "some very nice people."

Ridley Scott recast the role of J. Paul Getty after the fallout from original star Kevin Spacey’s sex scandals, replacing him with veteran character actor Christopher Plummer. Plummer was his original choice for the part in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD anyway, and in order to save the film from a PR disaster, Scott simply filmed the Getty scenes (written by David Scarpa) anew with Plummer in the role. The director then worked them into the finished film in a matter of weeks. The gamble paid off as Plummer is more suited to Getty's age and patrician ways. My favorite moment from the film is when Mark Wahlberg’s fixer questions the billionaire's motives and grabs his arm to make his point. Getty is not used to being challenged, let alone being touched in such a manner, and the outrage Plummer gives the scene is palpable. Note too how cinematographer Dariusz Wolski's framing shoves both Plummer and Wahlberg over to the far left of the screen, further marginalizing the Getty character. It's a great moment showing just how weak bullies are when they are bullied back.

This critical darling and worldwide financial juggernaut warrants a second favorite image here. This one is an extended close-up of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. He's just hijacked the plane carrying gas bombs destined to obliterate American forces and is overjoyed at his accomplishment. Yet, the more he thinks about it, his mood darkens. True, he's saved thousands and thousands of lives, but now he will have to die mid-air when the bombs explode. He also frets whether or not Diana happened to hear his final exclamation of love during a noisy battle prior to stealing the plane. We see all of that play out on Pine's face in an incredible moment of unedited bravura.

Those are my favorite film images from this year. What were yours?