Sunday, December 24, 2017

A SANTA’S LIST OF MOVIES FOR THE END OF 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.

THE GIFT OF LAUGHTER

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.  

THE GIFT OF SONG

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?

THE GIFT OF LOVE

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.  

THE GIFT OF MARGOT ROBBIE

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. 


BTW...

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! 

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