Summaries of 2017 Films

By on March 1, 2018

Actually, it’s more accurate to say “My opinion of the 2017 movies I’ve seen.”

Every movie year has its controversies and 2017 is no different.  I don’t need to elaborate on this year’s controversies; they’re in the news on a daily basis and will impact the Oscars ceremonies.  Casey Affleck, who was to hand out Best Actress, will not attend due to his abuse allegation.  I may pass on watching the ceremonies because I’m so put off not only by the allegations but also the media amplification of them and the merciless and unforgiving way the fates of the accused are being decided in the court of public opinion.  Each allegation should stay between the accuser, the accused, law enforcement and the justice system.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is a gossip monger with bad priorities who doesn’t have enough to keep themselves occupied.  Being judgmental and having convictions are not the same thing.  Much of what is happening extends beyond the film industry but, because of the glamour and celebrity associated with it, Hollywood has become the issue’s main focus.  There has been a Harvey Weinstein joke/jab written for every Oscar broadcast for the last 20 years.  Let’s see if there’s one this year.

A few actors appeared in several major 2017 releases:

Michael Stuhlbarg – “Call Me by Your Name”, “The Post”, “The Shape of Water”

Domnall Gleeson – “American Made”, the Netflix bio “A Futile and Stupid Gesture”, “Goodbye, Christopher Robin”, “Mother!”, “Star Wars:  The Last Jedi”

Timothée Chalamet – “Call Me by Your Name”, “Hostiles”, “Hot Summer Nights”, “Lady Bird”

Saoirse Ronan – “Lady Bird”, “Loving Vincent”, “On Chesil Beach”

Lucas Hedges – “Lady Bird”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

I only recently realized Hedges is the son of recognizable actor (and accomplished Oscar-nominated writer) Peter Hedges.

I’m sure I’m missing more actors and not all the films I reference are really “major releases” but I wanted to point those actors out, particularly Stuhlbarg, who appeared in three Best Picture nominees.

I don’t do a summary for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” because I wasn’t that interested before its release or even as I was watching it.  I just don’t care.  I feel like each sequel waters down the legacy of the original.  In real life, I’m a huge proponent of diversity but I find the political correctness of the casting of these recent Star Wars movies distracting.

The summaries are not in alphabetical order.  I’m leaving them the way I typed them.  In some cases, back-to-back summaries reference each other.  The heading format for each summary is as follows:         Film Title (Director) Main Cast


Wind River (Taylor Sheridan) Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Olsen

Similar in tone to Courtney Hunt’s 2008 “Frozen River” in its snowy (I love snow movies), bleak, remote, impoverished backdrop and brutal, violent storyline, I think its August release precluded any chance at Oscar nominations.  If you’re going to release a good movie before the “For Your Consideration” season, be as good as Wes Anderson’s 2014 “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, which released in mid-March and was a hair away from winning Best Picture (won by Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman”).  On the other hand, Oscars are not the only reason to make or watch a good movie and “Wind River” is highly engaging and well-done all the way around.  As I watched, I wondered what happens when you shoot a scene in pristine snow and don’t get it right the first time.  Then I got my answer.  When you’re in the mood for a movie with all the adjectives I use to describe “Wind River”, you’ll find it to be a good watch.

Mother! (Darren Aronofsky) Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domnall Gleeson

I’m a big fan of writer/director Darren Aronofsky and the loaded cast.  I acknowledge the chance all the film makers took, the chaotic complexity of the script and the quality of the acting and production.  If you’re going to make a movie that’s intentionally off-putting and uncomfortable to watch, don’t wonder why the critics and audience (or lack thereof) are repelled.  The star of the movie is Javier Bardem’s artist character’s low self-esteem and need for validation.  Still, I always like seeing the actors I reference, especially Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris cast against type.  Jennifer Lawrence has become too much of a news/tabloid fixture for everything she wears and every opinion she has, which seem to come daily.  Without that, she’s otherwise a good actress.  If you’re paying attention, that she didn’t graduate from middle school and is from Kentucky are not surprising.  One Lindsey Lohan is one too many.  Please just focus on acting.

Because I like Aronofsky — I think my favorites of his films are “Pi” and “The Wrestler” — I’m going to add the DVD to my collection when it comes out.  Now that I know what to expect, I can scrutinize it more objectively.  I’d hate to miss out on a “masterpiece”, an adjective the film makers and some reviewers have used.  I didn’t like David Lynch’s 1977 “Eraserhead” the first five times I tried to watch it.  Once I finally watched it all the way through, I stood up in my living room, applauded and pointed to the TV, saying out loud and to myself, “Now THAT is the kind of film people should be making.”  I later found out that the AFI said that exact same thing when they funded the film’s production.

Added March 11, 2018:   Now that I understand “Mother!” is an allegory for what man is doing to the Earth, I think it’s brilliant and cannot wait to see it again.  It’s not only brilliant but necessary.  I love being enlightened and proven wrong and now I feel brain-lazy for not figuring it out for myself.  I just read this article:

Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino) Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg

Making a gay coming-of-age movie runs the risk of limiting your audience, so it better be good and “Call Me by Your Name”, at minimum, meets that challenge.  While acknowledging the less-than-appealing plot of the sexual relationship between a 24 year-old doctoral student (Hammer) and the 17 year-old (consent age in Italy is 14) son (Chalamet) of his host/mentor (Stuhlbarg), the film is thoughtful, provocative and visually pleasing.  (In real life, there is a 9-year age difference between the two actors, although it seems more substantial than that.)  There’s no question Chalamet committed to the bit to an astonishing extent and his Best Actor nomination is well-earned. Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”, “Blue Jasmine”) is almost subliminal in his contribution to the film until he’s not.  I never see much when I watch Hammer, no matter his role and I find his presence bland.  On the other hand, I never thought to expend the energy to think of a more appropriate actor for his role.  What strikes me most about the characters in “Call Me by Your Name” is the sophistication of Chalamet’s character’s parents.  Sophistication means progressively less in this country, which is tragic.

The film’s final shot — which extends deep into the closing credits — is one of the most compelling you’ll ever see and says more than any other scene in the film and does so without dialogue.  It takes the last shot in Francois Trauffaut’s 1959 “The 400 Blows” to the next level.  Haunting and brilliant.  A great script fleshed out beautifully with a likewise beautiful Italian villa/village backdrop.

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville

The dressmaker-themed “Phantom Thread” bears no resemblance to the adaption of Upton Sinclair’s grimy, gritty, angry novel “Oil!”, “There Will Be Blood”, which has the same writer/director and lead.  You really have to be in the mood for the slow-paced and understated story set in the turn-of-the-century world of fancy dressmaking in England.  If Day-Lewis sounds odd, it’s because this is one of the rare times you’ll hear him in a feature film using his natural English accent.  I stand corrected in that this film shares an intensely serious tone with “There Will be Blood.”  As I was fighting to stay interested in “Phantom Thread”, I could see why Lewis decided to retire from acting upon its completion. Maybe DDL should have followed it up with a Jud Apatow-esque comedy or as a new “Star Wars” villain so this movie wouldn’t be his last experience as an actor.  Or our last experience in seeing him as an actor.

Get Out (Jordan Peele) Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford

As one-half of the they-deserve-all-their-success team of “Key and Peele”, Jordan Peele already established himself as a writer and actor of tremendous creativity and versatility.  Even if you never saw the show, “Get Out” catapults him high on the list of directors with a strong and unique vision and the ability to carry it out.  The storyline is completely unpredictable and seems set in a slightly different dimension and the film is directed with complete authority.  Actually, it’s like watching someone’s nightmare, which may well have been the film’s genesis.  Peele’s THREE Oscar nominations (as producer, writer and director) and that for lead Daniel Kaluuya are well-deserved and the film is a welcome and much-needed injection of something new.  A very un-Oscar type of film that has anyone who watched it anticipating Peele’s next feature.  How can he follow up “Get Out”?  I don’t know, but I’m not betting against him.  I never saw this one coming.  “Get Out” could be the year’s Oscar sleeper.

Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)  Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Stephen Dillane

One of my favorite movies of the year.  Satisfying in every way.  Oldman nails down his Best Actor Oscar win in the first scene and both he and the film only get better from there.  The subway scene is almost excessive in its charm and another scene is so stirring it immediately made me think of Kenneth Branagh’s 1995 “Henry V.”  As you watch it, keep in mind you are watching the portrayal of a man considered “The Greatest Brit of All Time”.

Ben Mendelsohn is so good as King George VI, it’s impossible to see him as the imposing Australian gangster from David Michôd’s 2010 “Animal Kingdom.”  Stephen Dillane, so sympathetic as Virginia Woolf’s husband in Stephen Daldry’s 2002 “The Hours”, plays a Viscount Halifax so undermining and calculating, he’s one step from being Snidely Whiplash.  I dare you to not find this movie riveting and emotionally-involving.  Savoring every word every character says makes me feel like I was born in the wrong place and time.  Americans brutalize the English language.  A brilliant and related quote from Edward R. Murrow in 1940 states Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”  The quote is attributed to Viscount Halifax in “Darkest Hour” and, had Wright not inaccurately used it in the film, I’d never have come across it.  My favorite line from a movie this year, maybe my favorite line in any context.

Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh

Perfect timing for this film to come out the same year as “Darkest Hour” and the two should be viewed back-to-back.  Where “Darkest Hour” ends, “Dunkirk” begins.  This is Nolan’s first movie based on history and is a welcome step away from his usual sci-fi fare.  He deftly handles the demands of a war movie as well as you’d expect from a director that is as technical as he is creative.  Continuing his move toward emphasizing more human elements that started with “Interstellar”, “Dunkirk” focuses on Churchill’s orders for every private citizen with a boat to help rescue the 400,000 British soldiers on the French beach before they are wiped out by Nazi planes.  The film is a high-quality effort documenting a pivotal moment in British and world history.  Despite being good in every way, I won’t be surprised if it comes away from the Oscars empty-handed.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dan Gilroy) Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo

That this film is not based on an actual person — which I assumed for some reason — lessened its impact for me.  Like writer/director Dan Gilroy’s 2014 “Nightcrawler”, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is set in modern-day Los Angeles and has great moments but is not only not completely satisfying, it’s aggravating.  A character study, morality tale and thriller, it uses too much time developing the character, compelling and original as he is.  It’s strength lies in what might be Denzel Washington’s best performance yet, and in saying that I’m acknowledging a career full of great stage and screen performances (and two Oscar wins).  As its defense lawyer-savant lead character whose mind is stuck in the 1970’s (musically and socially), between the hair, wardrobe and the way he carries himself — I mean that literally, because the slouched, crumpled way he walks makes up a big part of the character — Washington is barely recognizable.  What this character has in common with other Washington characters is strong convictions (imagine an asterisk here).  A great acting performance lost in an OK movie.  Colin Farrell is adequate in a role that doesn’t allow him to be anything more.  The scene between Israel and an ultra-modern young black woman is simultaneously confusing and thought-provoking.  The ultimate moral of this story is a brutal and unforgiving one.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonough) Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Another movie I wrongly assumed was based on a true story.  There isn’t even really an Ebbing, Missouri.  That aside, the story of a justifiably and perpetually angry mother (Frances McDormand, about to win her second Best Actress Oscar) who wants justice in the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter, “Three Billboards” is a well-rounded story with scenes as funny as others are jarring, awkward or intense.  A longtime fan of fellow SF Bay-Arean Sam Rockwell, I’m looking forward to his similarly-impending win for Best Supporting Oscar for playing an antagonistic, racist, drunk mama’s boy that you’re not quite sure fully changes for the better.  That aspect of the film, which many have criticized, only enhances the story for me.  The Best Picture favorite, the film’s impact can be seen in the various ways people and organizations around the country have since used multiple billboards to get their messages across.

One point that bothered me was that McDormand’s character uses the N-word, yet one of her best friends is black and another black character gives her unexpected support at a time she needs it.  I find that conflicting.

Another aspect I suppose makes for entertaining movie watching is that almost all the interactions are antagonistic.  You can’t tell the cops are on the same side by the way they talk to each other.  Even the guy who sells the billboard space gives everyone a hard time and can’t answer any question directly.  If I wanted that, I’d engage in a conversation with a provincial New Yorker.

Side note:  Writer/director McDonough’s 2008 Belgium-and-Christmas-set “In Bruges” has become one of my favorite holiday movies.  The scene with the obese American tourists (played by obese Irish actors) is hilarious.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins

According the the film’s IMDB profile, after seeing the trailer, Kevin Smith tweeted, “Seeing something as beautiful as this makes me feel stupid for ever calling myself a ‘Director.’”  (I hope he recovers quickly and fully from his recent heart attack.)

The first of the year’s big Oscar contenders I watched, I wanted it to win every Oscar possible after I left the theatre.  The storyline has elements from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the character and design of Amphibian Man), “The Piano” (the mute female lead) and “Beauty and the Beast” (their unlikely and forbidden relationship) and follows a somewhat familiar storyline (I thought this before the plagiarism suit filed the week before the Oscars), complete with an imposing and evil Michael Shannon-esque villain played by Michael Shannon.  I’m a huge fan of all four leads — only Shannon did not get an Oscar nomination — and all four (and others) shine in a film that is as compelling and visually creative as it is emotionally-involving.  The moment I understood what Elisa (the wonderful Sally Hawkins) was about, I was completely in her corner.  The movie seems to take place in the same world as movies by Peter Greenway and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (IMDB them) and, between the storyline, pacing, visuals and performances, I focused completely on every frame and sound.  You know what?  I STILL want it to win all of its 13 Oscar categories.  I admit having fallen for it.

I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney

A movie that should not have been made simply because its premise is that Tonya Harding had no knowledge of or involvement in the knee-bashing incident that almost kept ice-skating rival Nancy Kerrigan out of the 1992 Winter Olympics.  Here’s one of the many articles discrediting that notion:

Having followed (in perpetual disbelief) the actual story as it played out in the news, I originally had no intention of seeing “I, Tonya.”  Having said that, the movie is surprisingly energetic and entertaining, in no small part due to deserving Oscar-nominated performances by Margo Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her abusive and hilariously vulgar stage mother.  Among its “revelations” is that Harding and Kerrigan were actually friends and often roommates during skating competitions.  It’s funniest character, Shawn, the guy who set up the knee-bashing, is actually less comical than his real-life inspiration, who — along with the other main characters — we get to see during the end credits, which make the film worth watching by themselves.  The irony in casting Robbie as Harding is she looks just like a blond Nancy Kerrigan.  Robbie definitely works at making her character believable and sympathetic, however inaccurate the story is.  That a character can be portrayed as simultaneously driven, abusive and hilarious as Janney plays Tonya’s mother LaVona is a testament to how great an actress Janney is.  That lung cancer thing in her nose doesn’t hurt.

Now I never want to hear about Tonya Harding again.  Ever.  This country makes too many allowances for bad people and not enough for good ones.

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)  Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges

This Sacramento-set personal story by Sacramento-born writer/director Greta Gerwig (the year’s sole female Best Director Oscar nominee) follows fiercely independent Lady Bird (not her given name) McPherson (Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan) through her senior year of high school and the growing pains that come along with it.  Solid support from a cast that includes Best Supporting Actress nominee Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother as well as Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet.  An enjoyable, insightful movie with a lot of heart and wall-to-wall awkward or confrontational interactions we expect from coming-of-age stories.  You want truth in storytelling?  Here it is.

The Post (Steven Spielberg) Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Sarah Paulson

Clearly a response to what is happening in the White House, the fact that the film has a quickly-put-together feel doesn’t take away from its entertainment value and the effectiveness of its extremely important message that you cannot censor the media in a democracy.  As with all movies starring Streep (as publisher of the Washington Post Katherine Graham), she anchors “The Post” with the perfection we’ve been spoiled in expecting from her.  She gets solid support from Hanks, Paulson, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood and TV comedy show partners Bob Odenkirk and David Cross.  While “The Post” might be the least Spielberg-ish of his movies, it’s still very good and, more significantly, it’s the most socially vital of the year’s releases.

Mudbound (Dee Rees) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks

Speaking of being socially vital, “Mudbound” joins “Lady Bird” as an impressive 2017 accomplishment by a female writer/director.  Set in WWII rural Mississippi, the film goes beyond the vile racism of that time and place by adding the storyline of black and white soldiers coming back to the same home town, with predictably different reactions from the townspeople.  Mary J. Blige impressively comes out of the film with Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Song (which she co-wrote with Raphael Saadiq and Laura Stinson) for “Mighty River.”  I’m happy for her but I’m not sure I saw an Oscar-worthy performance.  As with all American racism-themed movies, it’s not an easy watch but it’s ultimately satisfying.  You just have to work for it.  Not only is writer/director Rees female, she is also black.  I forgot to mention that before.

I Love You, Daddy (Louis C.K.)  Louis C.K., Chloë Grace Moretz, Rose Byrne, Jon Malkovich

Released in the wake of Louis C.K.’s sexual harassment accusations and brutally-frank admission, the film’s excessively-sexual theme takes on a grotesque vibe.  A visual and thematic nod to Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan”, Louis C.K. plays Glen, a TV writer whose teen daughter (Moretz) meets then begins dating an octogenarian film maker (Malkovich) Glen has long admired.  It’s their relationship that is the focus of the story.  An ironic-in-its-timing scene shows Charlie Day’s character in Glen’s office feigning masturbation on a sofa while he listens to Glen talk on the phone to an actress both lust after.  But it’s not simply that he jokingly pretends to masturbate, he does it for a long time and it gets more eerie every second, like the film itself.  I have no idea how I would have interpreted the film if there was no associated scandal but the scandal is real and the movie’s storyline prevents you from thinking of anything else and drawing parallels.  That the father and daughter say “I love you” to each other throughout the film and Glen’s obsession with his daughter’s sexual relationship make it even worse.

Actually, I’m not even sure it released in any U.S. theaters.  Louis C.K. financed the film for $5 million and bought it back from the distributor after the scandal broke.  The specter of the scandal makes “I Love You, Daddy” an unpleasant viewing experience but it was still less of a torment than “The Florida Project.”

The Florida Project (Sean Baker) Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe

I am absolutely stunned at the high IMDB (7.7) and Rotten Tomatoes (96%) ratings for this movie, which is a barrage of thematic, backdrop (densely packed tacky strip malls and motels and fast food places as far as the eye can see) and human garbage.  Even scenes that should otherwise be a pleasant and much-needed break from the rest of the story — like the cow pasture scene — don’t work because Florida is inundated with alligators, poisonous snakes and the invasive Burmese python, yet young children play in the tall grass without supervision.

Set in a dump of a large, cheap bedbug-infested motel on a strip outside Disney World, “The Florida Project” — apparently the working name of the park as it was being built — follows the lives of a vile and disgusting unmarried and tattooed young unrestrained loudmouth woman and her fatherless daughter.  There was rarely a moment when either seemed grounded in any semblance of responsibility or stability.  There doesn’t seem to be a screenplay and we witness a seemingly random sequence of repellant people in repellant interactions or exhibiting repellant behaviors.  The lead adult female has only one attribute and that’s the love for her daughter, but even the way she cares for her and talks to her is sloppy, vulgar and — by necessity — dishonest.  Her life is such a mess she aspires to be a cheap stripper and has a john (who she steals from) over to her room while her daughter is there.  She constantly has adversarial interactions with people and leaves literal garbage — in one scene something even worse and unimaginably vile — in her wake, like her version of territorial pissing.  If the lead actress (Bria Vinaite in her only film thus far) was a trained actress, her performance would be easier to appreciate.  Apparently, she was discovered on her Instagram account.  I’d have to see her in another context to see how much we saw on screen was acting and how much was her actual personality.  It seemed very much the latter.

The ongoing theme of seeing the very young daughter in the bathtub made me feel like I was being subjected to a pedophile’s fetish, like how Woody Allen’s films kept pairing him with much-younger women (Mariel Hemingway’s 17 year-old dating Allen’s 42 year-old in “Manhattan” and seeing him make out with teen Juliette Lewis in his 1992 “Husbands and Wives”) or Quentin Tarantino and women’s feet, or John Turturro’s 3-way scene with Sofia Vergara and Sharon Stone in his 1993 “Fading Gigolo.”

The scene with the actual pedophile (see my point?) and the way Willem Defoe’s character handles him is exceptional.  It’s uncomfortably drawn-out but highly effective in defining Defoe’s character and the free-for-all nature of his world.

I have an aversion to seeing young children on screen because you know directors basically tell them what to say and how to say it just before the scene is shot and that’s exactly what their performances look like.  Their loud aimlessness didn’t help and I found all the unruly kids grating far more than I found them sympathetic.  When they’re that bad, just leash and muzzle them.  By comparison, Quvenzhané Wallis gave a phenomenal performance in a similarly impoverished backdrop (but different setting) in Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  BOTSW similarly followed its characters through random scenes but the film ultimately builds to a conclusion that makes sense and Wallace’s character Hush Puppy is much more focused, responsive and coherent.

I guess the people that like the movie like it’s realism and the story is as random and aimless as the lives of the characters.  I was thankful when the social workers showed up because I then finally found clean, well-groomed, responsible characters I could to relate to.  I’ve seen people like the main characters while I was growing up and even currently live surrounded by them in rural upstate New York, so seeing them on film was not something I found enjoyable or entertaining.  I wanted the lead female to die the moment I saw her onscreen and her comeuppance was not enough retribution for me.  As I watched the film, I thought of it as being more of an anthropological study than anything else.  The use of the repetitive and mechanical Latin hip-hop music emphasizes that point.  Try listening to a Pitbull album or even two of his songs in a row.  And this guy’s popularity is massive.

Defoe gets his third nomination for Best Supporting Actor in playing the motel’s patient, supportive, thick-skinned and streetwise superintendent who is called on to put out fire after fire.  I don’t question his nomination at all and his super is a great sympathetic character brought to life by a consistently great actor.

Maybe in time I’ll come to appreciate “The Florida Project.”  Until then, I’m searching online for “Listerine for the brain” to try to wash the memory of this movie out of my mind.  I accept fault in not seeing past the repugnance of its characters and backdrop to more fully appreciate the quality of the storytelling and moviemaking.  I couldn’t even enjoy the great camera work, which uses colors — like the motel’s lights and purple exterior and the vibrant hues of the otherwise tacky strip and especially the skies, including a fireworks scene — and angles to give us something provocative or pleasant to see and think about because it was all ruined by the context in which they exist.  The low-flying helicopters passing near the motel throughout the film were not part of the script and the budget did not allow for the film makers to arrange for them to stop flying during filming.  Ironically, the copters give the film the atmosphere and energy of a war zone, which is perfect and apt for its tone and look.  One of the film’s best aspects is a complete accident.

Here’s your pic of articles on why Florida is “the worst state in the nation in every way”, a claim this film does nothing to dispel.

The Disaster Artist (James Franco) James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, Seth Rogen

Another film tainted by a sexual abuse scandal involving its director and lead actor (and one of its producers), “The Disaster Artist” is the story of delusional and optimistic aspiring writer and director Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) — whose accent, background and source of income are a mystery — particularly the writing and directing of his 2003 cult film, “The Room.”   The film is based on Wiseau’s actor friend Greg Sestero’s novel “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made”.  The film and Franco’s portrayal — more of an impersonation — are unique, well-done, engaging and entertaining.  As you watch it, you can’t help but think of Tim Burton’s 1994 “Ed Wood”, the person Ed Wood, and his similarly-bad 1959 opus, “Plan Nine from Outer Space.”  Franco’s accuracy in depicting his character, the making of the film and the film itself become apparent during the end credits, when they show past and current-day Wiseau and compare scenes from the original movie side-by-side with what Franco shot.  Great support from Franco’s brother Dave — in his first film with James and who always sounds like a mush-brained stoner — Seth Rogen, Jackie Weaver, Josh Hutchinson, Zac Efron and Megan Mullally.  The things Franco as Weiseau does and says are unique, confusing, comical and thought provoking, simply because he’s so much his own person and there’s no predicting what he’ll say or how he will react.  “The Disaster Artist” gives me an appreciation for both Franco — who seems unhappy unless he’s spreading himself as thinly as possible — and Wiseau, although I’m not inspired to go out of my way to see “The Room.”

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)  Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey

“Baby Driver” is one of three 2017 releases that share a title with a Paul Simon composition, the others being Mark Raso’s “Kodachrome” and Marc Webb’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”  If there are others I don’t know about, please chime in.

Heavy on violence, comedy, music, impressive technicals and fast-pacing, “Baby Driver” — which has nothing to do with the song — retains those aspects from director Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, minus it’s video game feel.  As a car movie, this is the movie Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 “Drive” should have been and the stunts are impressive and exhilarating.  Great performances by all the actors, headed by lead Ansel Elgort (who was a top contender for the lead in the upcoming Han Solo movie), who had to learn both driving and sign language for the role as the partially-deaf bank robbery getaway driver who is only doing it because of a debt he owes a crime boss (Kevin Spacey).  John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are accomplices with Foxx playing an itchy-trigger-finger killer.  The film’s clever use of music extends to the way the sound of bullets match the music score — exhilarating and hilarious — and the character’s movements follow the rhythm of the background music throughout the story.  Any lulls from the action scenes are a relief from their intensity but are no less engaging.  Not only does “Baby Driver” deserve its Oscar nominations for film editing, sound mixing and sound editing, don’t be surprised if it sweeps all three categories.

I have to comment on the eeriness of Spacey’s scenes alone with the film’s young lead given the sexual abuse allegations that effectively and immediately ended Spacey’s long and respected career.

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve) Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas

I like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 “The Godfather Part II” and Irvin Kershner’s 1980 “The Empire Strike Back.”  With few (if any) other exceptions, not only do I not like movie sequels, I rarely watch them.  Add to that mindset that I have a love/hate relationship with Ridley Scott’s original “Blade Runner” (1982) in that I think it’s visually/technically impressive and has a good storyline, but it just seems disjointed to me and, combined with the slow pacing, I have to work to keep focused.  When you see the exteriors where a vehicle is going from one place to another — all visual effects — it doesn’t transition smoothly into the live-action scenes for me.  I’ve never heard anyone else have that complaint so I guess it’s just me.  Still, I watch the Director’s Cut of the film about once every other year.  I just Googled and discovered there are seven different cuts of the film, which really is excessive.

Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel (produced by Scott), “Blade Runner 2049”, irons out any problems the original had and there is no aspect I can fault.  Transitions from shot-to-shot and scene-to-scene are fluid and make more sense to me than the original, while the film retains the its mood and look beautifully, even enhancing both.  The story works better for me than the original and the film’s technicals are seamless and tight, especially the production design and Roger Deakin’s camera work which, along with the visual effects, have a solid chance of sweeping those Oscars.  The music score emphasizes what’s happening on screen without being excessive.  I’m conditioned to expect Vangelis (who scored the original) when I enter Rick Deckard’s world and “2049”’s score borrows just enough to satisfy any fan’s need for continuity and an attachment to the original.

I’m still not a fan of Ryan Gosling but I worked around him in viewing this film.  Relying on silent staring pauses is not acting and that seems to be his most effective acting trait.  Jared Leto continues to prove his versatility and was a great choice for the role of Niander Wallace.  Sylvia Hoeks was an effective villain, especially in her fight scenes.

Obviously, Harrison Ford’s appearance as the character he initially fleshed out 35 years ago is a welcome inclusion (he gets top billing here despite his relatively short screen time) and the film comes alive when the two leads meet.  Ford is in outstanding shape and he has not lost any of his screen presence (the same can be said for his appearance as Han Solo in 2015’s “Star Wars:  The Force Awakens”).  Similarly, we need and get the return of Edward James Olmos as Gaff, who has the potent final line in the original, “It’s a shame she won’t live but, then again, who does?”

Oddly for such a defining film based on a book, the phrase “blade runner” does not appear in Phililp K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”  Screenwriter Hampton Fincher made the reference in an early script for the original 1982 film, which had the working titles “Android” and “Dangerous Days.”  He got it from the title of a book by Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs, who gave the original film makers permission to use it.  A good call all the way around.

Coco (Lee Unkrich,Adrian Molina) Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt

Incorporating into its storyline the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”, a holiday of respect and celebration, which is actually three days beginning October 31 and ending November 2), “Coco” is the story of Miguel, who aspires to be a musician like his deceased hero.  Unfortunately, his family has for generations banned music.  He somehow finds himself in the Land of the Dead, where he has to disguise the fact that he is still alive while he seeks to find out the history behind his family’s anti-music tradition.  Typical for a Pixar feature, both the story and the visuals are mind-boggling in their creativity, execution and attention to detail.  The view of The Land of the Dead we see in commercials and trailers is jarring in its beauty and that visual theme runs throughout the movie, save the beginning and ending (like “The Wizard of Oz”).  Oddly, while the entire cast are Spanish-speaking actors, only Bernal voices his character in the Spanish-language version of the film, which opened in Mexico a month before it’s U.S release.  Highly deserving of its high Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB ratings (I think it’s IMDB ranking of #52 all-time might be a bit much) and its box-office success ($740 million world wide), once it takes off, you’re in for a ride.  The explosion of color and impressive visuals are similar to Pixar’s 2001 “Monster’s Inc.” and 2015 “Inside Out.”  You can’t completely focus on what you’re looking at before the scene changes.  The storyline is engaging, hilarious and dramatic and you learn about Mexican culture at the same time.  As Pixar is notoriously brutal on its voice actors — often coaxing dozens of takes until the actors get it right — the voice acting contributes as much to the film as any other aspect of it, and that is a very high bar.

Loving Vincent (Dorota KobielaHugh Welchman) Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Robert Gulaczyk, Saoirse Ronan

A Polish-UK nominee for Best Animated Feature, “Loving Vincent’ tells the story of the last days of Vincent Van Gogh from different viewpoints, like Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 “Rashomon.” Through the son of a postman trying to deliver Van Gogh’s final letter to his late brother Theo, we are given accounts by people who knew the artist to varying degrees, from his purported best friend to the local villagers and a romantic interest, with each person discrediting the accounts of others.  “Loving Vincent” is one of the films this year that will stick with me for its subject matter, its simplicity and relaxed pacing and for it’s ambitious style of hand-oil-painting-on-canvas each of the film’s 65,000 frames (each background being used for multiple character/action cells).  According to IMDB, it is “The world’s first fully painted animation feature”, a concept described in Arthur C. Clark’s 1953 novel, “Childhood’s End.”  More significantly, the frames are painted in the style of the artist himself and the result is phenomenal.  Viewing it was conflicting for me because I have a strong aversion to rotoscoping — having actors fully play out scenes on film with animators then tracing over them before the frames are painted — but the painted cells more than compensate.  It’s fascinating especially to see Saoirse Ronan — the only cast member I’m familiar with — appear in the style of Van Gogh.  Not a film for children or adults with short attention spans and no appreciation for the artist or art in general.

I was conflicted about the version of Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night” that plays during the end credits.  I love the song and it was the perfect way to end a captivating film, but Lianne La Havas’ rendition — while well done — lacks the power, simplicity and sincerity of McLean’s version, especially the last line.  Judge for yourself.

Here’s Don McLean’s version:

For all its visual impressiveness, what struck me most was this Van Gogh quote at the end:

“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly.’”

That quote, combined with an early scene showing boys from the village throwing rocks at Van Gogh while he painted in a field, really got to me.  The whole film did.


March 1, 2018


About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

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