Movie Review ~ Love, Simon

The Facts:

Synopsis: Simon Spier keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends, and all of his classmates: he’s gay. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his identity.

Stars: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was recently reading a book about the impact of John Hughes and The Brat Pack on the generation of teens that grew up in the mid ‘80s.  The book talked about what was going on at the time and how movies once celebrated as sleepover musts are now revered as essential entertainment time capsules for those that came of age in the Reagan era.  I was slightly too young for that wave of influential filmmaking, though I was in my prime when ‘90s teen classics like Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Scream, and 10 Things I Hate About You were first released and I feel that same sense of protection about them.  So I understand why the early buzz around Love, Simon compares the viewing experience to the influential teen movies that came before it.

I tend to recoil at films that are so current that they’ll become dated in six months but Love, Simon is a rare exception.  It’s a genuine gem that speaks to those navigating high school life now while evoking a palpable sense of wistfulness to audience members like me who so wish they had something as assured and confident as this when they were a kid. Yes, Love, Simon is the kind of truthful message movie I wish I had on VHS on the shelf between The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Simon Spier lives a pretty good life.  His family, his house, his friends, his high school experience all seem like the dictionary definition of growing up without much complication.  Yet Simon is more complex than people think.  He’s gay and struggling with resolving some inner conflict about that fact but outwardly showing no signs of stress (or so he thinks).  The good news is that there’s not a lot of self-loathing on display here so it’s not the torturous experience other films have made the coming out saga to be.  He doesn’t hate that he’s gay, he just doesn’t know the right way to say it and risk losing out on future happiness.

Surrounded by friends with their own romantic hang-ups, Simon finds a kindred spirit in the form of an e-mail relationship with an anonymous fellow student who is gay as well.  Reaching out first as a way to take his own baby steps out of the closest, he becomes closer and closer to the guy on the other side of the e-mail who can’t reveal his identity.  Not knowing whom the friend he calls Blue looks like, Simon starts to imagine who it could be.  Is it the handsome quarterback that has a sensitive side?  What about the pianist for the high school musical?  Or could it be the Waffle House employee?  When the e-mails are discovered by a fellow classmate and Simon is blackmailed into playing matchmaker or risk being outed, he finds being gay is the least of his worries as friendships, true love, and familial bonds are tested the more he tries to hide who he is.

As Simon, Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) is a handsome star in the making that ably carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Though he’s Hollywood Leading Man Gay, meaning not too gay, he convincingly plays the conflict without making the journey the least bit maudlin.  By presenting Simon as “just like you”, a balance of normalcy is struck that shows the audience that being gay is who you are and not what ultimately defines you.

Simon’s friends include Katherine Langford (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Keiynan Lonsdale (The Finest Hours), and Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) as a charmingly diverse group that feels like they could be friends had they gone to high school together.  Though each have their own secrets that arise during the course of the film, these developments don’t feel forced or simply existing in service to Simon’s coming out rite of passage.  The adults in the film wisely say their piece and let the youngsters take the spotlight, but kudos to Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Duhamel (Safe Haven) for presenting understanding but not phony portrayals of Simon’s parents.  As the Vice Principal of Simon’s school, Tony Hale (American Ultra) has some good moments and special mention must go to Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher that hates her job and Clark Moore as an out and proud gay man at Simon’s school that has two of the funniest lines in the whole film.

Yeah, let’s not forget that as dramatic as the story arc may be this is still a teen comedy at heart and the film is consistently funny throughout.  The parties, the hallway discussions, the afterhours heart-to-hearts, the long walks home, the car rides…all strike a nice balance between sentiment and humor without tipping the scales either way.  Adapting Becky Albertalli’s popular YA novel, screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have played around with some characters and characteristics from the source novel without losing the message of Albertalli’s original work.  Director Greg Berlanti resists against getting overly saccharine as the film develops and Simon’s secret starts to get out – there’s pain and hurt but laughter winds up making the wounds sting less.

If there’s one thing that might keep Love, Simon from achieving long-lasting high rank status it’s that it feels like the fantasy way a coming out story would go.  While Simon claims to be just like us in the opening voice-over, can the majority of teens that will see the film relate to a privileged white guy who gets a new car for his birthday, doesn’t seem to have a job but has spending money, lives in an upscale home in the suburbs, and has more than his share of compassionate and understanding family and friends?  Also, there’s an uncomfortable value placed on looks – when Simon is scoping the halls for Blue and pondering who he could be he wrinkles his nose in horror at bearded nerds, Game of Thrones loving dorks, and roly poly dweebs.  Heaven forbid Blue turns out to be an ug-o.

Yet the film ultimately has its heart and message in the right place and any nitpicks are easily shooed away in favor of recognizing the accomplishment at a major movie studio putting out a sweet love story surrounding a gay youth and his friends.  It may not live totally in the reality of now but it rhymes with the truth without much discord.  Now if people will actually line up to see this…that would be the real victory.

Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)

The Facts

Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

Movie Review ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Stars: Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Andre Holland, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Bellamy Young, Rowan Blanchard, Will McCormack, Michael Pena

Director: Ava DuVernay

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It was always going to be possible for any adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time to get bungled on its way to the big screen. The deep ideas, meditational themes, and introspective characters didn’t exactly lend themselves to a sure-fire project that could easily be translated from page to film. I grew up with this book and it’s one of the few I’ve gone back to several times over the years. I’ve seen the previous television movie adaptation, performed in it onstage, and seen other theatrical productions over the years. So, full disclosure, this one was close to my heart.

When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to the novel and brought on red-hot director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to guide its development, my interest was piqued and my hopes raised. When DuVernay went on to assemble a cast of A-List stars there was another jolt of confidence brought on by the names and faces of actors that had previously chosen their projects wisely. Then a much-hyped debut of the first trailer got me thinking that the magic of A Wrinkle in Time would indeed survive and thrive.

So imagine how deflating it was to sit in an IMAX theater and watch what should have been a slam-dunk miss the mark entirely. Like, completely. Now I know that I may hold the source material as perhaps a tad more precious than I should, which would make any attempt to bring it to life an impossible bar to overcome. No, I actually went in with eyes wide open and arms outstretched ready to be transported off the ground only to be depressingly earthbound throughout.

Several years after her scientist father mysteriously disappears, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is still struggling to adjust to his absence. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beauty and the Beast) and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) offer support but Meg has descended into a funk that’s robbed her of self-confidence and her spark. That all changes with the late-night appearance of flighty and flame-haired Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, Home Again) who is the first arrival in the trio of ladies that will bring Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) on an adventure across time and space.

Joined by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, Inside Out) who only speaks in quotes and the grand Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) the children explore Uriel, a world far distant from their own. There the Mrs’ reveal to the children that the universe as they know it is coming under siege from a being they call The IT which is an embodiment of evil. After a visit to The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, Muppets Most Wanted) the kids must travel alone to the peculiar realm of Camazotz where they will come face to face with their fears, relying on their inner strength to battle the forces of darkness.

While the script from Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell remains fairly faithful to L’Engle’s novel, it fails to bring forth any wonderment or magic in the proceedings. A novel with themes of rebellion against societal norms and overcoming struggle with finding one’s own originality winds up being an overly talky self-help seminar that’s dreadfully dull. As a strong advocate for social change and equality, you can see why the tenets of the book had long held an appeal for DuVernay but she surprisingly struggles mightily with keeping her film afloat.

While she’s found a nice discovery in the bold Reid who turns in a confident performance, the rest of DuVernay’s troupe is largely made up of miscasting. Winfrey feels like she’s playing a version of herself, a wise, level-headed sage that speaks in new age-y proverbs and spends the first half of the movie 50 times the size of any other character. Witherspoon is badly out of place in the space-y role that Kaling would have been an infinitely better fit for. Kaling instead is relegated to reciting eye-rolling quotes including a downright groan-worthy one from Lin-Manuel Miranda near the film’s conclusion. Galifianakis is a woeful low-point and poor Michael Pena (End of Watch) is stuck playing a red-eyed denizen of Camazotz. As written, Calvin has even less to do with the action than in the book but Miller has a sweetly platonic chemistry with Reid that works nicely. As Meg’s missing dad Chris Pine (The Finest Hours) may wear the cardigan of a scientist studying time travel but he won’t convince you otherwise he’s cracked a science book in the last decade.

For a movie from this family-friendly studio and adorned with a hefty-budget, the filmmakers seem to not understand who exactly the movie is for. It could have been pitched to mid-teens just fine but there’s so many silly elements and goofy developments that it feels like a wide net was cast. When Witherspoon turns into what looks to be a fantastic piece of flying lettuce and takes the kids for a ride through a field of humming flowers, you may wonder if any focus groups were even brought in to steer this one back on course.

A Wrinkle in Time spawned several sequels involving Meg and her friends but if this labored effort is any indication of the thematic future of the series, I hope significant time is spent smoothing out the wrinkles of the lessons learned here. Every person involved with this picture is capable of so much more than what was delivered – the first real disappointment of 2018.

Oscars – Final Predictions

The Oscars, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, air Sunday, March 4 on ABC

1. Call Me By Your Name
2. Darkest Hour
3. Dunkirk
4. Get Out
5. Lady Bird
6. Phantom Thread
7. The Post
8. The Shape of Water
9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Will Win: Dunkirk 
Should Win: Get Out
Why?: OK…I predict I’m going to be wrong here and that’s OK with me.  I just figured in a year where there is no clear favorite, the preferential ballot that is used to determine Best Picture might just come out in Dunkirk‘s favor.  Hard to believe that less than six months ago (and after Get Out was released), Dunkirk was the favorite to win this award.  I’d love to see Get Out win here but wouldn’t be upset if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or The Shape of Water were named either.

1. Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
2. Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
3. Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
4. Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
5. Jordan Peele, Get Out

Will Win: Guillermo del Toro
Should Win: Guillermo del Toro
Why?: del Toro is loved in Hollywood and his movie is so totally his vision that it would be hard to deny him the award for his efforts.

1. Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
2. Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
3. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
4. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
5. Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Will Win: Gary Oldman
Should Win: Gary Oldman
Why?: Even though Oldman has his fair share of detractors after some questionable remarks made in a magazine several years ago, he earns and deserves this award.  After Best Supporting Actress, this is the closest thing to a lock.

1. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
2. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
3. Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
4. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
5. Meryl Streep, The Post

Will Win: Frances McDormand
Should Win: Frances McDormand
Why?: Divisive as the movie is, it’s hard to deny McDormand’s powerful turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  Ronan will win her Oscar soon and if Robbie keeps up the good work she’ll be back in the race in no time.

1. Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
2. Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
3. Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
4. Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
5. Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Will Win: Sam Rockwell
Should Win: Sam Rockwell
Why?: While two people from the same film nominated in the same category often means both go home empty-handed (hello deserving winner Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack from Working Girl!), this year Rockwell will beat out Harrelson and the rest of the guys for this award.  His character has polarized audiences and critics but he’s so well liked in Hollywood and has turned in consistently fine work for over a decade, this is another easy one to call.

1. Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
2. Allison Janney, I, Tonya
3. Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
4. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
5. Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Will Win: Allison Janney
Should Win: Laurie Metcalf
Why?: My heart breaks for this category since there are SO many deserving nominees.  Janney is so damn popular and respected (with good reason!) in the industry that the odds are locked in her favor for the win.  Still, as memorable as she is in the role it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch which is why my vote would go to Metcalf’s performance in Lady Bird.  It’s a much more challenging role to navigate and she does it with ease.  The best of all possible worlds would have Manville best them all — she’s really terrific.

1. Baby Driver
2. Dunkirk
3. I, Tonya
4. The Shape of Water
5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Will Win: Dunkirk
Should Win: Dunkirk
Why?: Dunkirk may not be winning the top honors this year but expect it to do well in the technical categories.  While you could prepare for a I, Tonya spoiler, your safe bet is to fly Dunkirk‘s friendly skies.

1. Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
2. Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
3. Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
4. Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
5. Jordan Peele, Get Out

Will Win: Get Out
Should Win: The Big Sick
Why?: This is another almost impossible category to select the “Best of”.  I loved all of these films so would be fine with any of them going home a winner.  Seeing that The Big Sick got left off of some key categories (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), I’d jump for joy if they got some recognition here.  Still, though it has a weak third act, the power of Get Out will push it to the front of the line.

1. Scott Frank & James Mangold, Logan
2. James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name
3. Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, The Disaster Artist
4. Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
5. Virgil Williams & Dee Rees, Mudbound

Will Win: Call Me By Your Name
Should Win: Call Me By Your Name
Why?: James Ivory is a legend in the business and has never won an Oscar.  At 89, expect him to pick up his first Oscar for Call Me By Your Name (a movie he at one time was going to direct as well)

1. A Fantastic Woman
2. The Insult
3. Loveless
4. On Body and Soul
5. The Square

Will Win: A Fantastic Woman
Should Win: A Fantastic Woman
Why?: I usually make a point to see all of these nominees but this year proved a bit more difficult to catch them all.  Luckily, the one I did see is the favorite to win.  Let’s go with A Fantastic Woman from Chile, featuring transgender actress Daniela Vega who will also be presenting at the ceremony.

1. Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
2. Bruno Delbonnel, Darkest Hour
3. Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
4. Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water
5. Rachel Morrison, Mudbound

Will Win: Roger Deakins
Should Win: Roger Deakins
Why?: 14th time’s the charm?  OMG, if Roger Deakins doesn’t win this award I’ll be SO upset.  After 13 nominations, it’s more than his time.  It helps the work is stellar so it won’t feel like an award for cumulative work.

1. Beauty and the Beast
2. Blade Runner 2049
3. Darkest Hour
4. Dunkirk
5. The Shape of Water

Will Win: The Shape of Water
Should Win: Blade Runner 2049
Why?: Lots of credit goes to the design of The Shape of Water for adding to its fantasy fairy tale feel.  I won’t be upset when it wins but felt that the sets and art direction for Blade Runner 2049  were a huge part of making that film so intoxicating to look at.

1. Baby Driver
2. Blade Runner 2049
3. Dunkirk
4. The Shape of Water
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Will Win: Dunkirk
Should Win: Baby Driver
Why?: Expect Dunkirk to succeed in another technical category, even though some of the dialogue was hard to hear (maybe that was intentional?)  Baby Driver has a more than decent shot to best Dunkirk…but only in this category.

1. Baby Driver
2. Blade Runner 2049
3. Dunkirk
4. The Shape of Water
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Will Win: Dunkirk
Should Win: Dunkirk
Why?: It’s Dunkirk, right?

1. Beauty and the Beast
2. Darkest Hour
3. Phantom Thread
4. The Shape of Water
5. Victoria & Abdul

Will Win: Phantom Thread
Should Win: Phantom Thread
Why?: People were shocked when The Shape of Water recently won top honors at the Costume Guild ceremony and when you think about the monster suit (yep, that’s a costume) it’s easy to see why people were impressed.  Still, the gowns and natty clothing created for Phantom Thread are almost another fully-realized character.

1. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
2. Faces Places
3. Icarus
4. Last Man in Aleppo
5. Strong Island

Will Win: Face Places
Should Win: Strong Island
Why?: Agnès Varda is the oldest nominee for an Oscar and the well-regard French auteur looks likely to win her first Oscar for a film I sadly haven’t seen.  I have seen Strong Island on Netflix, however, and it blew me away.  Gotta go with my heart on this one.

1. The Boss Baby
2. The Breadwinner
3. Coco
4. Ferndinand
5. Loving Vincent

Will Win: Coco
Should Win: Loving Vincent
Why?:  Everyone loves the emotional Coco and for good reason.  PIXAR always makes a beeline to your heartstrings and that usually means a win in this category.  I’d love to see it go to the gorgeous Loving Vincent, a fully hand-painted film that was totally electrifying to watch.  I’ve heard rumors that The Boss Baby is making a late in the game come from behind play but I’m praying this baby goes to bed early…I couldn’t stand that film.

1. Blade Runner 2049
2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
3. Kong: Skull Island
4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
5. War for the Planet of the Apes

Will Win: War for the Planet of the Apes
Should Win: War for the Planet of the Apes
Why?: You want to know why War for the Planet of the Apes is going to win?  Because the first two movies didn’t and they both deserved it.  Here’s a chance to reward the trilogy.

1. Darkest Hour
2. Victoria & Abdul
3. Wonder

Will Win: Darkest Hour
Should Win: Darkest Hour
Why?: While Wonder has the potential to spoil the night for Darkest Hour in this category, I wouldn’t count on Darkest Hour losing seeing that the make-up is praised right alongside Gary Oldman’s work in nearly every review.

1. Carter Burwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
2. Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
3. Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
4. John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
5. Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

Will Win: Alexandre Desplat
Should Win: Jonny Greenwood
Why?: Most signs point to Desplat emerging victorious but I challenge you to find a more beautiful score to any move released in 2017 than what Johnny Greenwood created for Phantom Thread.  C’mon Academy, get this one right.

1. “Mighty River” Mudbound
2. “Mystery of Love” Call Me By Your Name
3. “Remember Me” Coco
4. “Stand Up for Something” Marshall
5. “This is Me” The Greatest Showman

Will Win: “This is Me”
Should Win: “Remember Me”
Why?: Last year I gritted my teeth with Pasek and Paul won an Oscar for composing a song from La La Land but this year I think they might actually deserve it.  Still, I found more emotional resonance in Coco‘s beautiful nominated tune.

Best Documentary Short
1. Edith + Eddie
2. Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
3. Heroin(e)
4. Knife Skills
5. Traffic Stop

Will Win: Edith + Eddie
Should Win: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Why?: Sentiment will carry Edith + Eddie over the finish line but that movie had too many one-sided conversations to feel truly complete.  I found Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 to be an unflinching look at mental illness and how one artist tries to emerge from the darkness.  It was magnificent and deserves an Oscar.

Best Animated Short
1. Dear Basketball
2. Garden Party
3. Lou
4. Negative Space
5. Revolting Rhymes

Will Win: Dear Basketball
Should Win: Garden Party
Why?: Here’s another one that would see like a no-brainer if you truly watched every nominee.  Despite it’s dark twist, Garden Party’s hyper-realistic animation made it the best of the bunch of the nominees this year but somehow the favor seems to be falling on Dear Basketball.  Though animated by the legendary Glen Keane and scored by John Williams, it’s a vanity project love letter from Kobe Bryant to himself that was the absolute worst nominee.  Yuck.

Best Live Action Short
1. DeKalb Elementary
2. The Eleven O’clock
3. My Nephew Emmett
4. The Silent Child
5. Watu Wote/All of Us

Will Win: Watu Wote/All of Us
Should WinDeKalb Elementary
Why?: In terms of crafting a complete story arc within the confines of the Live-Action Short narrative, Watu Wote/All of Us is the clear victor.  For purely emotional raw reaction, I can’t imagine a more deserving winner than the timely DeKalb Elementary.   DeKalb is 20 minutes long and is the kind of riveting, body-tense, make you sweat kind of project that’s unforgettable.

Movie Review ~ Annihilation

The Facts

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

The Silver Bullet ~ On Chesil Beach

Synopsis: Based on Ian McEwan’s novel. In England in 1962, a young couple finds their idyllic romance colliding with issues of sexual freedom and societal pressure, leading to an awkward and fateful wedding night.

Release Date: May 18, 2018

Thoughts: Seems to me that Saoirse Ronan is getting a bit greedy. Her Best Actress Oscar run for Lady Bird isn’t even rounding third yet and she’s already marking her territory for next year with On Chesil Beach.  In all seriousness, Ronan has proven to be a smart actress with a talent for finding projects with characters that have real dimension to them.  After earning her first Oscar nomination with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the actress takes on another McEwan project and it looks like an interesting slice of life tale costarring Emily Watson (The Theory of Everything) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk).  I’m not quite sure where the movie is going but I’m game for a day at Chesil Beach if Ronan is leading the way.

Movie Review ~ Game Night


The Facts

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

Movie Review ~ Early Man

The Facts

Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

Movie Review ~ Black Panther

The Facts

Synopsis: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Audiences growing tired of the endless slate of comic book movies can roar a sigh of relief…Black Panther is here to cure you of all that ails you. After taking a fun leap with the wacky Thor: Ragnarok in November, Marvel Studios has scored another win with this not-quite origin story that manages to function extremely well as a stand-alone adventure while establishing its characters and place within the Marvel Universe. While the movie is clearly designed to make bank for its producers, out of all the Marvel entries so far it feels the most cleverly orchestrated – giving audiences what they want in terms of special effects and spectacle and slipping in a message of social consciousness.

Popping up first in Captain America: Civil War and set to return in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Black Panther (aka T’Challa, a price turned king of fictitious African nation Wakanda) is already familiar with his gifts when the film emerges from its flashback prologue. Coming from a long line of enhanced ancestors, T’Challa understands the mantle he has to pick up when his father is killed in the terrorist attack that occurred in Captain America: Civil War. Now, returning to Wakanda to mourn his king and grieve for his father, T’Challa must face his people.

There’s problems from the get-go, though, when a long-gestating conflict between Wakanda’s tribes must be dealt with and after several of the nation’s leaders press T’Challa to share the wealth of knowledge Wakanda has protected for years. On top of all that, there’s Ulysses Klaue (played with giddy ‘roided out rage by Andy Serkis, Breathe) trying to steal the powerful Vibranium mined richly in Wakanda’s mountains and the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) who has arrived with a vendetta against T’Challa and his family.

By employing writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to sit atop the Black Panther proceedings, Marvel has opened up their universe even further. Coogler brings an intelligence and depth to the plot and character development we just haven’t seen before in these movies. Themes of social unrest, slavery, familial obligation, and correcting the mistakes of the past flow throughout Coogler’s tale without bogging it down in the slightest. Coogler has also brought along Mudbound’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Cake) to film the exciting action sequences and sure to be Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) to design the jaw-dropping costumes. On a technical level, Marvel has truly outdone themselves with this one.

All the beautiful images in the world and keen knack for plot-driven storytelling would have been for naught had Coogler not assembled one of the best casts in eons. Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) makes for a commanding T’Challa, showing the vulnerability of a well-liked son taking over for his well-respected father. Jordan is an inspired choice for Killmonger, creating one of the more memorable earth-bound villains in the Marvel canon. Serkis rips though the movie with a decent amount of glee, Martin Freeman (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to nail his American accent and his droll comic bits as State Department representative Everett Ross, and new Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a confidant of T’Challa’s with his own score to settle

Let’s face it though…though a man leads the movie it’s the ladies that steal the show out from under their male counterparts with next to no effort. The regal Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen) is Wakanda’s Queen and T’Challa’s mother; no one (NO ONE) does regal queen like Ms. Bassett. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is T’Challa’s warrior love interest and Letitia Wright (The Commuter) is a knockout as T’Challa’s mischievous sister. The MVP of the movie is surely Danai Gurira (TV’s The Walking Dead), though. As T’Challa’s army general Okoye, she’s the definition of badass and you won’t be able to take her eyes off of her each time she’s on screen. If The Academy was more adventurous, this is the kind of performance out of the box nominations for Best Supporting Actress are made of.

After a few ho-hum stumbles (sorry Doctor Strange and Ant-Man), Marvel is back on a roll at the start of 2018. Who knows what will happen when Avengers: Infinity War hits in a few months or when Ant-Man and The Wasp flies into theaters later this summer, but for now Black Panther is the king of the Marvel jungle.

Movie Review ~ Loving Vincent

The Facts

Synopsis: In a story depicted in oil painted animation, a young man comes to the last hometown of painter Vincent van Gogh to deliver the troubled artist’s final letter and ends up investigating his final days there.

Stars: Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan, Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Chris O’Dowd, Douglas Booth

Director: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. For months now, I’d been hearing critics sing the praises of Loving Vincent and proclaiming it to be a sure-fire nominee for Best Animated Feature Academy Award and a front-runner for taking home the big award on Oscar night. Yet I resisted seeing it for all this time, nearly getting cold feet again when it popped up at my local second-run movie theater. Could a film that is entirely hand-painted in the style of Vincent van Gogh keep me interested (and awake) for 94 minutes?

Oh yes. Oh boy, yes.

A true work of art, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British production and is the world’s first fully painted feature film. A vibrant mix of colors and ideas, it’s not a straight biopic of the Dutch-born painter who was posthumously proclaimed to be the father of modern Expressionism but a look back at his last few months as seen through the eyes of those that knew him. Van Gogh’s own portraits inspire many of the characters in directors Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman’s film and while the story may not hold up in court as entirely factual, the tale it tells is absorbing and enthralling.

A little over a year after van Gogh’s death by self-inflicted gunshot, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth, Noah), the son of a postmaster (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) who was friendly with van Gogh, is tasked with delivering the painter’s final letter to his brother, Theo. This begins a journey that takes him to the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris where a mystery about van Gogh’s final days begins to unfold. Through recollections by various townsfolk that are relayed in stark black and white, Armand starts to piece together what led the painter who long struggled with depression to take his own life in a most unusual manner. Will the doctor (Jerome Flynn) who treated him and became his friend provide any insight? What about the doctor’s prim daughter (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) or their upright housekeeper (Helen McCrory, Skyfall)? Then there’s the boatman (Aidan Turner, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and a proprietress (Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack the Giant Slayer) of a local hotel where van Gogh took his last breath. All provide valuable clues that propel Armand further into needing to know the truth.

Over 100 artists worked on this film and it’s really a spectacular sight to behold. Everything in the past seems to have been created with a charcoal hue while the present proceedings jump off the screen with van Gogh’s famed thick layers of oil and paint. Even when nothing is moving on screen the film still seems to have a life of its own as the colors and hues change to give more depth. It’s highly imaginative and not the least bit the tough on the eyes watch I feared it may be.

With all due respect to Pixar’s Coco (which is a landmark achievement of its own), Loving Vincent surely represents the best animation had to offer in 2017. The Oscar should go to the film that pushed the boundaries the most and gave audiences something they’ve never seen before. The craft on display here is unparalleled and worthy of taking home the prize when all is said and done. Loving Vincent is currently playing in select theaters but is also available to rent/buy on streaming services and in physical DVD/BluRay. Check it out – it will be money well spent.