Molly’s Game

MollyDirector: Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Graham Greene, (and an Aaron Sorkin cameo, of course)

Those of you who like your Wing West, your Network Social, and your Men, Few and Good already know who Aaron Sorkin is. You might know him as the author of some of your favorite long, witty monologues delivered while walking down a hallway. What you don’t know him as is a film director, until now. Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin, whose films and television shows have earned every major critical writing award imaginable. Now, he takes his turn in the director’s chair with Molly’s Game.

Molly’s Game is the true story of the Olympic hopeful turned “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). When a freak accident dashes her hopes at Olympic glory, Bloom turns her focus to business, and while working as an assistant to a real estate schemer named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), Molly is inadvertently introduced to the world of poker. Dean hosts a weekly game with pretty high stakes and a core group of relatively famous attendees. When Dean forces Molly to take on the role of organizing the game, taking records and accepting the buy-ins and giving the pay-outs, she is hooked to the intricacies of the game and begins improving the experience for the players. Soon, Molly is the real draw to the weekly game, much to Dean’s chagrin, leading him to box her out and try to rein her in. Molly instead decides to make a move and start her own game – Molly’s Game.

Things are all Aces for Molly for a little while. She plays by the rules, never takes a rake, and keeps things for the most part, legal. Until she discovers that some of the players in her game, unbeknownst to her, may have ties to the Russian mob. This catches the attention of the FBI and forces Molly to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help save her game, her name, and her life.

Sorkin’s film is anchored by a lights out performance by Chastain. If I were the real Molly Bloom, I’d be in love with this portrayal of my life. Sorkin also proves a credible director. Many a film has fallen victim to the struggle of envisioning how to depict Sorkin’s verbose and chatty repartee between characters (See Steve Jobs), but it turns out Sorkin knows Sorkin better than anyone! He also is smart enough to hire an actor turned Oscar-winning director, Kevin Costner to play Molly’s father, a resource that I assume Sorkin tapped for directorial advice from time to time. Perhaps the casting of Costner’s Dances With Wolves costar Graham Greene as Judge Foxman is also not so coincidental. This is a tight, authentic thrill ride through the lavish highs and deplorable lows that come with games of risk. The film may get a little heavy-handed in its use of The Crucible references to get its message across, but you can’t argue with the timeliness of these references and the relevance to the national conversation right now about reputation and its importance in Hollywood, in politics, and in society in general. Molly’s Game is by no means a flop, and with an ace in the hole like Chastain, you can push your chips in at the turn and let the river run. A-

Molly’s Game is rated R and has a running time of a “Sorkin-y” 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

Interior of a Movie TheaterWhat a great year for movies. 2017 will go down as one of the better years in past decade. Jodie Foster may be out there slamming superhero movies, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a couple of this year’s superhero movies are about nine million times better than Nim’s Island, so slow your roll Clarice.  Of course, as I say every year, here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes – and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only a handful have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. We’re getting better but movies like The Post, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, and Call Me By Your Name are still playing it aloof.

Anyway, Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 23rd, bright and early, and while Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2017.

The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of 2017

mother11!. mother! – Wait a minute; isn’t this a top ten list? Well yes it is, but sometimes something comes out of nowhere that takes you off guard, makes you uneasy, and doesn’t play by the rules (including those of grammar and punctuation!). So fittingly, a film that does all of those things deserves to have an unofficial spot in this year’s list. Now, never have I endorsed a film as impossible to recommend as this one is. My mantra as a critic has always been to write about and critique films based on whether they’re worth your time and money to see. This one, for most of you, is not. However, it is certainly one of the best films I have seen this year, and so it, just barely, belongs on this list. mother! is a parable of nature, religion, and humanity. It uses heavy handed symbolism to unwind its narrative in such a breathtaking and surreal way, that you may be struck silent by the time the credits roll. Another film, Get Out, does all of this to a lesser degree in my opinion, yet has received tremendous acclaim and attention. My hat tips to director, Darren Aronofsky who chooses not to play it safe, allowing mother! to just barely edge Get Out off my list of the best of the year.

war10. War for the Planet of the Apes – Did you see it? Probably not. This, now trilogy, has actually been quite extraordinary, and this third installment is the finest yet. This film has the feeling of an epic, and director Matt Reeves shoots it like a western. Andy Sirkis reprises his impressive role as Caesar, who is pitted against a crazed military colonel played by Woody Harrelson who is fighting off a new strand of the Simian flu that renders human survivors of the previous strand mute. There is a real sense of power and depth to this film and the visual effects are so well done that you easily forget these apes are CGI.

logan9. Logan – This is an X-Men film, but due to some creative play with franchise timelines, Logan gets to be something different. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film than the usual comic book fare, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids. Like the number 10 film on my list, this film is framed like a modern-day western, and in fact, there is an overt and critical reference to the 1953 classic, Shane. It is also directed by James Mangold, who is responsible for other “country-western” influenced films like Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma. While not for the faint at heart, this film is one that can be appreciated on many levels by all types of people.

last8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi A Star Wars film has made my list three years straight now, and while this is the lowest ranking one has had thus far, it would have probably fared better against 2015 and 2016 films. The sequel to The Force Awakens starts strong and finishes strong, which like Rogue One before it, is becoming a valuable trademark of these films. Director Rian Johnson takes a risk by exploring the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds to massive effect. He asks us to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

lady7. Lady Bird Welcome to the artsier part of the list, and Lady Bird is certainly that! This is one of the finer films that attempts to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. Ronan and Metcalf are outstanding and will certainly be tough to beat come Oscar time. Unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

coco6. Coco This is a great film. This is also the first full movie my daughter has ever seen with me, which makes it extra special. That aside, this movie is hard not to love. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. It’s also a great story about Hispanic culture, legacy, life, death, and tradition.

35. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Director Martin McDonagh has solidified his Coen Brother-influenced style with films like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, now with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he goes full Coen even hiring Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand as the lead of the film, who incidentally gives one of the finest performances of her career. This twisty, quirky drama plays at first like a murder mystery, but quickly becomes something more. Woody Harrelson shows up on my list for the second time giving another excellent performance as Ebbing police Chief Willoughby only to be outdone by Sam Rockwell who gives a career performance as one of Harrelson’s officers. Incidentally, Lucas Hedges also has a small role as McDormand’s son, and he played a role in Lady Bird this year as well.

thor4. Thor: RagnarokWell, the Thor movies finally found their legs with this third film, which proves the third time’s a charm. This time, Thor discovers dealing with his brother Loki was child’s play in comparison to fighting his previously unknown sister Hela, played by Cate Blanchett. Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.

dunk3. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan did it again. This is the third movie Nolan has released since I started doing these lists back in 2013, and with Dunkirk he’s 3 for 3! this is such a naturalistic film, that characters hardly matter, and Nolan even goes so far as to cast actors who all basically look alike. He does not want you to be invested in any one hero or character. He wants you to pay attention to the events, the feelings, the sounds, and the visuals. Nolan also implements his famous nonlinear story tricks that he’s become so famous for using in films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar to make the film even more engaging.

baby2. Baby Driver – On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music. It know that sounds weird, but it works really well. Like Dunkirk, story and characters takes a back seat to the experience of watching this movie. In fact, It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. In light of recent events, Kevin Spacey’s presence in this film retrospectively brings it down a peg, but Wright does a fantastic job using authentic sets and stunts along with some crafty camera work to capture the visual feast that is Baby Driver. This is a film not to be missed.

blade1. Blade Runner 2049It’s not shocking that a visually dazzling film from director Denis Villenueve would be my number one film of the year, but it is kind of surprising that that film would be a sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. It dethrones Baby Driver as the best film of 2017. This is also the rare sequel that improves upon its original. The visual landscapes, environments, and overall immersion experienced with this film are breathtaking. It’s no coincidence that my picks for the top three films of the year are complex, multi-sensory cinematic experiences. I think that is the legacy 2017 is leaving, and with James Cameron’s hotly anticipated Avatar sequels slated to start coming out in 2019 or 2020, I think we’re on the cusp of a truly spectacular evolution of the cinematic medium!

The Four Worst Films of 2017

I mentioned that 2017 was a pretty good year for movies, at least in terms of the ones I was able to see. That being the case along with the fact that I cheated and gave you a top 11, I will make things right here and just put up a worst 4.

atom4. Atomic BlondeThis one suffered from heightened expectations. It probably doesn’t objectively deserve to be on this list, but for me, Atomic Blonde was one of the most disappointing two hours I’ve spent at the movies in 2017. All we have is a middle of the road espionage film, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That is the recipe for a high risk of disappointment.

Murder3. Murder on the Orient Express – Speaking of “high risk of disappointment,” try remaking a 1974 Sidney Lumet film based on one of the most famous novels of all time after it has been made into at least five subsequent films over the 30 years in between. Bad idea. Kenneth Branagh is erratic at best as director and star, and while he assembled a decent cast, this is one of the most needless remakes of all time, offering no relevance or value above dull self-indulgence.

Justice2. Justice League – New year, another DC bomb! At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results came in and two of their films made my worst of 2015 list: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. This year, they maintain their reservation on my list once again with Justice League. I will say this, it’s their best bad movie yet, but it’s still bad. If you told me you could put Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in a movie together and still bore me, I’d say you were crazy, but it turns out this is entirely possible. The movie has some fun with some of the characters, but at the end it’s still a messy pile of egos, disorganized and faced off against yet another uninspired villain.

Fifty1. Fifty Shades Darker – How is this still a thing? This movie is unwatchable. This is actually the first time I’ve ever included a movie on any list that I did not actually see in its entirety. I used to have a rule that I would give every movie I review or critique the benefit of at least having seen it through. I can now no longer say that. Thanks Fifty Shades Darker. You have literally compromised my own values as a critic, and for that, you are the worst movie I’ve seen any or all of this year.

 

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

SW8Director: Rian Johnson

Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, and Domhnall Gleeson

Another year another Star Wars film. Man, if I could travel back to 1985 and tell my 5-year-old self that in the early 21st century, this will be a factual statement! That’s right, we have entered the era of annual Star Wars movies, and this year’s entry is a doozie. The eagerly anticipated sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens and the 8th episode of the principal series is here, and it is called The Last Jedi. A formidable title for a film that like no other before it, takes the franchise to some new heights as well as one or two new lows.

This is an immediate sequel to The Force Awakens, and given where that film leaves off, that’s the right move. The First Order being victorious against the Republic, is on the move to seize control of the galaxy under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his loyal legion including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Leia (Carrie Fisher) and what’s left of the resistance continue to stand against the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight.

I’d wager to say, unlike any Star Wars film before it, this one will be the most divisive. The original trilogy is generally regarded as brilliant, the prequels are generally regarded as garbage, but The Last Jedi I think will go down as having the best of both worlds: strong haters and strong supporters, not unlike the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Family-bonds and friendships may be lost forever over this film.

Before I get into why, I will reveal myself as one of the strong supporters. However, I do see where some of the haters are coming from. But they’re wrong, for the most part. Blockbuster films tend to have a ludicrous obligation to deliver predictable comfort-filled experiences rather than challenge audiences with surprises and risks. Most critics of the film are citing the fact that it does not answer the questions that were posed from the previous film. The choice to back away from and subvert expectations often comes with some occasional flaws, but those flaws are worth it, if the overall result is something new, ambitious, and most importantly, something that has direction. That’s ultimately what we have here with The Last Jedi; there are flaws, but at the end we have so many opportunities to see these Star Wars films continue on beyond the immediate threats playing out.

This review is going to play it safe, so I will not be discussing many specifics in terms of plot and developments, and focusing more on the mechanics and commentary. So what’s so great about The Last Jedi? There are two things that I think will stand supreme when all the dust around this film settles. First, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to truly capture the allure of the dark side. Many have taken it for granted, two have attempted to show it, but only this film gets it right. Ask yourself, “What is the dark side?” Why is it attractive? Is it just greed for power? Then why would they ever band together? Why would there be Supreme leaders and Emperors? Is it just basic evil for the sake of evil? Is it fascism? That’s what The Force Awakens attempted to explore. But no, it’s not that either. For all the questions fans are claiming The Last Jedi does not answer, here’s one it does answer that no one was even asking, and it may be the most important one of all. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at this, but I will say that The Last Jedi spins the entire motivation and philosophy of Star Wars on its head and gives us the most authentic perspective of what all of this is really about!

Secondly, The Last Jedi opened the conversation about how the force works beyond just the training, teaching, control aspect. Again, to avoid spoilers, I will be brief and vague. We learn that who we think is supposedly “special” may not be so “special” after all. The force may not be so exclusive, and maybe (like what the net neutrality repeal will inevitably allow), someone is just hogging it all! The force has never been as intricate and involved as it is in this film, and I think that was a brilliant decision.

lastjedi17Where The Force Awakens was an enjoyable (and I do mean enjoyable) romp through the familiar days of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is a far more mature film. This film marks, perhaps, the first Star Wars film not aimed principally at kids and teens. While there is more than enough for them to enjoy about The Last Jedi, the more involved and complex themes will likely go over their heads. Kids will grasp on to the idea that anyone can make a difference, but they may be lost in the exploration of the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds. That theme resonates throughout the film and writer/director Rian Johnson runs with it to massive effect. He forces us (pun intended) to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. Still, as I mentioned, there are a few places where the film admittedly stumbles. The 153 minute running time is not lean and mean. It’s occasionally bloated with some silly additions that feel cheesy and unnecessary, primarily a sequence involving Finn (John Boyega) and a resistance fighter named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who are sent on a wild goose chase to a planet full of “the worst creatures in the galaxy.” Except part of why they’re the worst is because they’re rich. Really Star Wars/Disney, you want to go there? I felt a little dumb sitting in a theater after pre-purchasing tickets to see the latest TLJFathiers-696x467installment of a billion dollar franchise, which then spent a sizable portion of its running time pretending to condemn the wealthy elite. I’m not saying Star Wars is incapable of taking on this subject matter, but the “worst creatures in the world” gag felt a little disingenuous. Also, there’s a weird animal abuse subplot involving some horse-like creatures being force to race for entertainment. This whole part is problematic.

There are at least two other areas that came across cheesy or needless, one of which involves a very precarious event involving General Leia that definitely raised an eyebrow. Still, these are minor qualms in an otherwise, risky, different, and dare I say original installment in a now much more interesting saga. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is worthy of praise and debate. It is both enigmatic and iconic. It’s also a visual and acting masterwork. Director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for a couple of relatively small-time films like Looper and The Lookout, shows what he’s made of. He blows the lid off the theater with one of the finest opening and closing scenes of any Star Wars film, all while carrying the weight of recently beloved characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as introducing new characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and then navigating the tricky terrain of classically loved characters like Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Furthermore, Hamill’s performance is easily the finest of his career, and Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is spectacular this time around. It’s also pretty darn funny at times. This movie’s got it all! In fact this review is just scratching the surface. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is not without its flaws, but it is also one of the most ambitious films of the franchise, and certainly the richest in terms of critical analysis. I think in several years people will look back on this film as the one that transformed the saga into something new. B+

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 152 minutes.

2018 Golden Globes Prediction Ballot

golden-globes-2018-logoThe 75th annual Golden Globe Awards will air Sunday January 7th at 8:00 EST on NBC with host Seth Meyers. With the climate as it is in Hollywood regarding the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment, it will be interesting to see how much these recent events will overshadow the show. This is even more fascinating given that Ridley Scott’s film, All the Money in the World, now starring Christopher Plummer who famously replaced Kevin Spacey, is up for three awards including one for Plummer!

The Golden Globes has never been a show to steer away from controversy. In fact they revel in it with booze soaked acceptance speeches, edgy hosts, and of course, some of the strangest nomination selections of any award show – I’m talking to you, 2018 nominee for Best  Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Get Out (or did I miss the hilarious song and dance number between the scenes of racially motivated torture and murder).

Anyway, my predictions have been made, so now it’s your turn to take a crack at your own predictions on the ballot below! Keep an eye on how your picks measure up to everyone else’s with this results document, or with my official Golden Globe Prediction Summary spreadsheet, which I will update with the actual winners on awards night.  

Lady Bird

LadyDirector: Greta Gerwig

Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, and Odeya Rush

A weird thing happened at the end of the new movie Lady Bird from first time director, Greta Gerwig. The lights came up in the theater and I heard a woman say, “Well, that was weird.” Then another person whispered, “That’s not what I thought it was going to be.” Lastly, someone else just said, “Artistic,” but in a dismissive way. Meanwhile, I sat there silent, listening to these strange criticisms while reflecting on how Gerwig was able to steal so many aspects and events from my life and just put it out there like that. Isn’t that plagiarism? I guess there are a few differences between the character Lady Bird and me. I was a good student, I didn’t have any siblings, oh and I call myself Gentleman Bird, but after that it gets pretty murky.

Saoirse Ronan plays the titular character, a confused high school student from Sacramento, California, who is desperate for a change, but is still pretty confused about who she is in the first place. In fact, Lady Bird’s given name is Christine, but she decided to rename herself Lady Bird, perhaps just to emphasize to the audience that she’s having a bit of an identity crisis. The year is 2002, and Lady Bird is in the midst of some pure adolescent angst. Her relationship with her parents, principally her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), can be described as strained at best, and the weight and eventuality of adulthood is weighing heavily down on her.

The film casually follows Lady Bird as she traverses her seminal senior year at her Catholic high school, which she attends at a great cost from her parents who while hard-working are not financially secure. Lady Bird is ashamed of her status and dreams of the day when she lives in the big house, has adventures, receives opportunity, and lives sophisticatedly. The problem for Lady Bird and the one she grapples with most throughout the film is that she has done nothing to warrant or really deserve any of those things. What’s more, her private Sacramento Catholic high school is filled with other kids who have done nothing to deserve those things…and yet they have them. The one thing Lady Bird does have going for her is an innate artistic spirit that is picked up on by her nun teacher Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith). Sister Sarah Joan encourages Lady Bird to take that spirit and apply it to the school theatre program, which she does along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Danny (Lucas Hedges), a young man, Lady Bird finds attractive.

That’s the gist of the film. It’s really rather typical in terms of its story, but there are some bits of brilliance that do move the “coming of age” film needle. Lady Bird owes a lot to the sensibilities of predecessors like Juno, The Bling Ring, and most of all Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film, Ghost World. All of these films take a different perspective at youth culture and its influences. They all attempt in their own way to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. In retrospect, the opening scene of the film (which I think runs the gamut of human emotion all within the course of two minutes) prepares the audience for this tumultuous relationship, and as this thread develops, it grounds the film and makes it more significant. Metcalf’s portrayal of Marion may be the stand-out performance in a film with several other stand-out performances. She is likely the name we’ll hear most associated with this film come Oscar time, and if not, Marion’s character is certainly the one who is left rattling around in my head at the end.

Lady Bird is not a perfect movie, and it’s not a groundbreaking movie. It is, however, excellent at what it does, and it is very easy to like. Even those people who left the theater with me who were caught off guard by Lady Bird, most likely liked the movie. This is probably because unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is also a film that positions writer/director Greta Gerwig as one of the foremost emerging storytellers in cinema. B+

Lady Bird is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.

Coco

CocoDirectors: Lee Unkirch and Adrian Molina

Screenwriter: Lee Unkirch, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, and Adrian Molina

Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, and Edward James Olmos

So I was about to write a review of the Justice League because I saw it, and it was the only movie I’d seen recently. I was not too excited about reviewing it because the movie didn’t really give me much of an angle to take. It’s just an okay superhero movie that does what they all do. I was going to do it anyway because dammit, I’m a professional, and I have a quota to keep (as miniscule as it is)! And then the opportunity presented itself for me to take my 3-year-old daughter to see Coco. Now my daughter has only attended one movie and we made it about half way through before she decided she wanted to leave. This time, however, we stayed for the entire movie (including the 30 minute Frozen short film that preceded the feature), so thankfully I have a film that is much more fun to review than Justice League and here it is!

Coco TItle

Coco is another triumph of Pixar studios animation. Every one of their movies has such a distinct and unique environment, which is one of the cornerstones to their ability to stay fresh, inspired, and lively after all of these years. What may surprise you, however is that Coco marks only the fourth time in 19 films where the story focuses primarily on human characters. Only The Incredibles, Brave, and Up have previously done so. That alone, puts Coco in rarified air.

Coco is the story of a young boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), who lives in a small Mexican village with his family. Miguel’s family is in the business of making shoes, but what is most pressing to Miguel is his family’s total and complete ban on all music. It turns out Miguel’s great-great grandfather walked out on his family to pursue a career in music and ever since, his family has forbidden all members from engaging in, listening to, or most of all producing any form of music. Miguel, however, has the itch and when he discovers that an old family photo with his great-great grandfather’s face ripped off also features the famous guitar of one of Mexico’s most iconic singers Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), Miguel concludes that he is actually related to the most famous musician in the world! That’s enough to inspire Miguel to challenge his family’s ban on music and compete in the village talent show on the Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family catches wind of his plan and his Abuelita, grandmother Elena (voiced by Renee Victor) destroys his guitar. Desperate, Miguel breaks into the shrine to the late Ernesto de la Cruz where his famous guitar is displayed and steals it resulting in Miguel being suddenly cursed and transported to the Land of the Dead. The curse makes it so Miguel is no longer visible to the living world. Only a street dog named Dante and the skeletal dead relatives of the living can see Miguel. It turns out to break the curse, Miguel has one day to receive a blessing from his deceased relatives or he will remain in the Land of the Dead forever. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family will not give him their blessing without the condition that he never play music again. This leads Miguel to enlist the help of a lost spirit named Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have access to Ernesto de la Cruz, a man whose fame in life is only matched by his fame in death. Miguel hopes that if Ernesto grants a blessing to him, he will be able to return home and be a musician.

If there’s one thing you can say about Pixar, it’s that they don’t take a siesta when it comes to story. Justice League is about one-tenth as imaginative as Coco! I mean, first consider the ambition to make story about family, Hispanic culture, tribute, life, death, and tradition. Then consider the added challenge to do all of that in a film aimed at a young audience. Remarkable stuff. The name of the film, “Coco” actually is in reference to Miguel’s great grandmother. She was just 2 or 3 when Miguel’s great-great grandfather left his family. Now Coco is Miguel’s oldest living relative and her memory is fading. This detail develops the film’s most stirring and poignant theme, remembrance. Coco’s fading memory in the Living World is juxtaposed with how the Hector character in the Land of the Dead is in danger of being forgotten forever because his only living relative, and once you are forgotten in the living world, you are gone forever. Pretty deep. Hector’s reason for helping Miguel is not out of the kindness of his heart, but in the hopes that Miguel would return to the Living World and place a picture of Hector on his ofrenda, a Spanish word meaning offering. An ofrenda is a collection of offerings placed on a ritual alter during the Day of the Dead as a gesture of remembrance and an invitation to the Land of the Living for the dead to refresh themselves at the alter. Since Hector is not on anyone’s ofrenda, he is not able to travel to the Land of the Living during the Day of the Dead, he is not able to refresh his spirit, and he is therefore in danger of being completely forgotten. This resonates deeply with the adult audience because of our awareness of our mortality, reputation, and choices. Having attended this film with my 3-year-old girl, I can also speak to this message’s impact on her. Did she ponder her place in the universe and the afterlife? No, of course not. But she did think about Grandma and Nana. She did talk about her brother. She did see characters crying because they were happy and understand the importance of that feeling. That’s a pretty damn decent return on investment for a $7 movie ticket!

So emotions aside, is this a perfect movie? Not exactly, but it does belong in the upper tier of the Pixar conversation. It’s slow build at the start is easily overlooked due to its heart, lack of melodrama, pleasing music, and also its visual beauty. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. A-

Coco is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. Be warned though, there’s a short film that precedes the feature starring Olaf and the characters from Frozen, and it is about 30 minutes long! It is an amusing short film, but if you were looking to be in the theater for less than 2 ½ hours, you may want to consider arriving to the show late.

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The People’s Critic and his protégé.

Thor: Ragnarok

ThorDirector: Taika Waititi

Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, and Anthony Hopkins

Most franchises 17 films deep into their canon start to spin their wheels, cash in, and forget what got them there in the first place. I mean there are just so many that get this far, am I right? I know you’re all saying but 1989s Godzilla vs. Biollante was such a great 17th movie in a franchise! Well for every Godzilla vs. Biollante there’s a Timothy Dalton as James Bond.

That’s right, if you couldn’t quite catch my subtext there, the point I was trying to make is that Thor: Ragnarok is the 17th studio film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s pretty rare to see a franchise reach film number 17 and for that film to be as entertaining as this one is. Thor: Ragnarok basically picks up where Thor: The Dark World left off…or it would if this were a traditional sequel, but Thor has appeared in two other films since the second Thor film, and the MCU has released 8 films since 2013’s The Dark World. Therefore, Ragnarok is more like a sequel to Doctor Strange than a sequel to Thor: The Dark World. So Thor 3 basically takes some of the characters from Thor 2 and Avengers 2 and picks up where Doctor Strange 1 leaves off with a nod to Guardians of the Galaxy 2’s conflict, which complicates the events from Captain America 3. And if that makes sense to you, I have some tesseracts I’d like to sell you.

If you didn’t follow that bizarre set up, here’s one that might make more sense: Thor: Ragnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) unsuccessful in his search for the remaining infinity stones and returning home to Asgard only to notice that the 9 realms have gotten a little disorganized in his absence. Why? Well, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) of course! Those sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are at it again, but this time the brothers learn that they

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Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

both have an older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), who has escaped from a prison she was sealed within long ago. Hela is Odin’s first born, and she was banished from Asgard for her unrelenting ambition. Now she looks to bring “Ragnarok” (or final destruction) to Asgard. Her first step is to get those brothers of hers out of the way, and so she casts them into space where the ultimately land on a trash planet called Sakaar and ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Now Thor must find a way to escape Sakaar and save his home planet from destruction.

While that synopsis is the gist of this film, the joyride that is Thor: Ragnarok is almost entirely separate from its plot. Humor is the key to this film’s success, and Disney/Marvel’s decision to tap Aussie writer/director/actor Taika Waititi most notable for his hilarious vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was a brilliant decision. This is easily the funniest Marvel film in the franchise. Every Marvel film brandishes humor here and there, but never has the humor been as clever, witty, and endearing as it is here. That’s not to say it’s not also an action film. Blanchett is wickedly brilliant as the scorned and rejected Hela, and for my money, she is now in the top three Marvel villains ever, only rivaled by Michael Keaton’s turn as Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming and the great Tom Hiddleston as Loki (villainy with a dash of heroism). Speaking of Hiddleston, he is once again great to see back donning the Loki horns. While he basically stole the show in Thor: The Dark World, he has far more competition in this film, but still does not disappoint. The competition I speak of is everywhere. Hemsworth, fresh off

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Chris Hemsworth in 2016’s Ghostbusters

being the most comedic part of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, flexes his comedy muscles (along with his other muscles) and delivers a great performance. Mark Ruffalo gets perhaps his most involved plotline to date and has some fun stepping into Tony Stark’s shoes…literally. And then there’s Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, who turns the mostly evil immortal from the comics into the most delightful occasionally sinister master of ceremonies to great effect! Just to add some legitimacy to this acclaim, the actors onscreen in this film net a total of 17 Oscar nominations combined. Really.

Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.  A

Thor: Ragnarok is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one midway through the credits and one afterwards. Both are adequate, but nothing you HAVE to stay for if you’re running late for dinner.

MCU Rankings Update:

Since originally ranking the Marvel films after Captain America: Civil War was released, 4 Marvel films have been released and we are about mid-way through “Phase Three” with only Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1, and Captain Marvel set to round it out. Thus, it is time to update the old rankings, and Thor: Ragnarok is the highest entry in nearly 4 years!

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A
  2. Thor: Ragnarok – A
  3. Iron Man 3 – A
  4. Marvel’s The Avengers – A-
  5. Captain America: Civil War – A-
  6. Iron Man – A-
  7. Avengers: Age of Ultron – A-
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger – B+
  9. Thor – B+
  10. Spider-Man: Homecoming – B+
  11. Ant-Man – B+
  12. Iron Man 2 – B
  13. The Incredible Hulk – B
  14. Thor: The Dark World – B
  15. Guardians of the Galaxy – B-
  16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – C+
  17. Doctor Strange – C+