Opening in Connecticut – Weekend of 2/16/18

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Black Panther – It’s a phenomenon and (for the most part) deservedly so. It’s already the fourth biggest opening of all time and it’s just getting started. Top ten domestic is in play.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% Metacritic: 88%
Personal interest factor: 9

Early ManCaveman comedy from Director Nick Park. I respect Aardman productions (even if their films are typically not for me) but at a certain point distributors are going to have to accept that they’re better suited as streaming releases domestically. With a three-day cume of just 3.1M, Early Man has earned a place on the 100 worst opening weekend per theater averages of all time.
Rotten Tomatoes: 81% Metacritic: 68%
Personal interest factor: 3

Samson – Bible story told in the style 300 popularized a dozen years ago, but made by people with no talent for creating striking visuals. Looks like it cost less than your average car commercial. Also: Billy Zane.
Rotten Tomatoes: 27%, Metacritic: 17%
Personal interest level: -10

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Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has one major thing going for it: Annette Bening. Not only does she look like Gloria Grahame, the actress whom she is playing, but she has every bit of her down pat. Grahame, who was a star that almost no one but fans of old movies like me remembers, usually played the “bad girl,” (or, as referenced in this film, the “tart”) and won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (but if you want to check out her best work, I suggest The Big Heat, when she played Lee Marvin’s moll). She was also in It’s a Wonderful Life, as a girl named Violet, who makes men stop and stare at her as she walks down the street.

Based on a book by Peter Turner, who was her lover near the end of her life, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about faded glamour and the pursuit of youth. Grahame was about sixty when she met Turner (Jamie Bell) and started an affair. He was an aspiring actor in London, while she was doing a play. There was about a thirty-year age difference. This is only mentioned once in the film, when back in California she introduces him to her sister, who brings up the fact that she once married her ex-stepson.

Grahame is suffering from breast cancer when she calls Turner from Manchester. He is back in Liverpool, the two having broken up (the why of this is not revealed until the end, although the savvy moviegoer may guess). She tells him it’s bad indigestion and wants to recover at his house, where his mother (Julie Walters) can take care of him. He doesn’t find out its cancer until after he phones her doctor (in an egregious example of violating patient privacy).

There are two parallel stories here: the relationship and the dying. Bening is about the same age as Grahame was then, so it’s not hard to see how Bell was attracted to her. There haven’t been a lot of films about May-December romances with the woman being older, so this is welcome to show one as being relatively healthy. Walters and her husband, Kenneth Cranham, are extremely non-judgmental. Bell’s brother, Stephen Graham, is only upset because Grahame has upset the order of his mother’s house, but when the chips are down, he’s there for his younger brother.

What does’t work about this film is that it’s structured as a standard disease-of-the-week weepie. I think if I were a screenwriter or a director I would never want to make a movie about someone dying, because it’s been done to death (pun intended). Why are we so fascinated with watching people, usually vital, die? Is it to comfort ourselves that we’re not going through it? Is it simply morbid curiosity? I’ll admit I got a little choked up and the end of this film, but it didn’t hit me on a gut level. Grahame’s life was a history of sad moments, but they deserve a better story than this.

I’ll say again that Bening sure looks like her, which enables director Peter McGuigan to use actual footage of Grahame without it being a shock to the system. The film closes with her winning the Oscar, and her almost dazed walk up to the podium, where she grabs the statuette, says only, “Thanks very much,” and goes off stage, almost in one movement.

Opening in Las Vegas, February 9, 2018

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I’m going to add a little something to my Openings. I will indicate whether I will see it in a: theater, home video (streaming or DVD rental) or will never see it.

This week’s box office winner was Fifty Shades Freed (32), the third in the trilogy based on the mommy-porn novels by E.L. James. I saw the first one and liked it more than I thought I would, basically because it seemed to get the S/M stuff right. As a movie, though, it was terrible. I plan on seeing the second one soon and will eventually see this at home, if only for puerile interests.

Peter Rabbit (52) opened above expectations. When I saw the trailer I thought it looked funny, but reviews have been unkind. It goes to show that parents will take their kids to see anything. I will never see this.

Coming in third was The 15:17 to Paris  (45), Clint Eastwood’s picture about the young American men who stopped a terrorist attack on a train in France. The men are played by themselves, which sounds good but not anyone can act. I will probably see this at home.

Opening in one theater this weekend is the 2017 holdover, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (65). This film fascinates me because it seemed to have absolutely no marketing. Annette Bening stars as Gloria Grahame, an actress who won an Oscar and had all sorts of drama in her life. Since Bening is in the category of “due for an Oscar,” if this film had been more visible she might have gotten a nomination. I guess Sony Pictures Classics wasn’t interested. I will see this in a theater.

Review: A Futile and Stupid Gesture

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A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, is perfectly grooved for someone of my generation, who laughed like Beavis and Butt-Head at National Lampoon, who can quote whole passages of Animal House or Caddyshack, and steadfastly maintain that the original cast of Saturday Night Live is the best (it is). It is the story of Doug Kenney, who is toasted as being the founder of modern comedy. I don’t know if that’s true, because the film tells me that but doesn’t show it.

Directed by David Wain, the film is meta, with constant breaking of fourth walls and much self-reference. The narrator is Kenney today, played by Martin Mull. If you’re knowledgeable about this, it may bother you, because Kenney died in 1980, falling off a mountain in Hawaii when he was 33. Mull, later in the film, describes himself as a “narrative device.”

Aside from a scene of Kenney attending his brother’s funeral (the dead brother was the good one) starts with him at Harvard, where he and his best friend Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleason) working at the Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, reluctant to actually have to work, he suggests that he and Henry continue the Lampoon. They go around pitching to publishers, and finally connect with Matty Simmons, who is the publisher of Weight Watcher’s.

Eventually they are a huge success, spawning a radio show, and a live show, giving jobs to comedy legends like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray (these actors are played by people who don’t look like them, which the film gleefully admits). The writing staff includes Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra, and Ann Beatts, who also went on to success in television (Hendra played the manager of Spinal Tap in that film). A black couple intrudes to wonder why they have no blacks on the staff, and Mull tells them, “If it’s any consolation, there were very few Jews.”

Kenney is played by Will Forte, who is depicted as a mellow guy who constantly speaks in one liners. Would a comic historian gather anything about him that indicates he was a comic genius? Hard to say. Mostly he sits at a typewriter and is shown as the creator of the food fight. We also see that he can’t sustain a relationship, with either women or his friends, and is one to bolt when the going gets tough.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (the title is a line from Animal House, but you knew that) is more interesting than entertaining. I did learn a few things, such as that Chevy Chase actually cared about Kenney, which belies his current image as a first-class jerk (he’s played, in a bit of irony, by Joel McHale, his one-time Community co-star). A lot of recognizable characters fly by, like P.J. O’Rourke, Lorne Michaels, Ed Helms as Tom Snyder, Chris Miller, Harold Ramis (who, addressing whether Kenney committed suicide or not, says, “He fell when he was looking for a place to jump”) and Ivan Reitman.

This only goes so far, as the script crams so many characters in but doesn’t really give us any insight, and the result is too airy. But I recommend it for nostalgic Baby Boomers.

Review: Hostiles

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I’m up for any Western these days, and Hostiles, per the genre, is a solid effort. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it is firmly in the post-modern Western category, where Indians are seen sympathetically. But, it is too long and lugubrious, and may remind you of better Westerns.

The first images are of a family of settlers in New Mexico in 1892. By that date, according to my own knowledge, the Indian Wars were over, but the family is wiped out by a band of Comanches. There is only one survivor, the mother, Rosamund Pike, clutching her bloodied dead baby in her arms.

Meanwhile, a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has petitioned for release from prison. It has been granted, and he and his family are to be escorted back to their homeland. Escorting him will be Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), who does so reluctantly. Blocker hates Indians, referring to them as savages, and especially Studi, who butchered three of his friends.

But Bale is ordered to do, or lose his pension. He assembles a small detail, including his old friend Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is suffering from what they called melancholia, but now is known as PTSD; a West Point lieutenant (Jesse Plemons); a black corporal (Jonathan Majors); and a French private (the suddenly ubiquitous Timothee Chalamet). Of course, one by one these men will die or otherwise leave the film. They will also add others, as Bale picks up a murderous soldier (Ben Foster) in Colorado.

The premise of the movie is that we’re all people under the skin, a kind of Kumbaya message. Of course, Bale will come to rethink his opinion of Yellow Hawk. But after all his years in the Army, this never occurred to him? It’s sort of like A Christmas Carol in the mountains, but without three ghosts.

Cooper has clearly seen a lot of Westerns, because he lifts from some. There’s the scene of lightning during a march, as from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (which was an accidental bit of good fortune), a shot with a man outside a cabin, shot from inside (like the end of The Searchers) and two speeches that may not be word for word but are certainly familiar in tone to one from Unforgiven and another from Lonesome Dove. That, as well as being similar in message to films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves.

The pacing of the film is uneven, and only Bale’s performance holds it together. Though it seems simplistic to think he just needs to be around an Indian in order to respect one, Bale sells it.

As any movie set in the Old West should be, Hostiles is gorgeous, with some spectacular footage of the outdoors, from New Mexico to Colorado to Montana. We can only be glad that land is still not been commercialized.

Review: Coco

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In checking the list of Pixar films, it seems like there has a been a diminishment in quality. I didn’t bother seeing the Cars sequels or The Good Dinosaur, and Monsters University and Finding Dory were a step down. Coco, by dint of its reviews, seemed to right the ship, and after seeing it I would agree.

However, the film starts slowly and only really finds its groove about halfway through. The story centers around Miguel, a boy who lives in a family that has banned music, because his errant great-grandfather abandoned the family to find success as  a musician. But Miguel has music in his blood, and likes to go into the square where all the Mariachis play, getting him into constant trouble.

The big hero of the town is Ernesto de la Cruz, a popular singer. Miguel worships him, and when he plucks his guitar from his memorial on Dia de Muertas, the Day of the Dead, he ends up in the land of the dead, where he runs across his deceased ancestors. He also meets Hector, a trickster who is running out of time–you see, when the last person alive forgets you, you know longer exist, even as a dead person.

This is not the first film to delve into the colorful world of the Mexican Day of the Dead (The Book of Life) and much of that first film contains the same ideas. In reading over my review of that first film, it wasn’t as good as Coco, because Pixar just seems to do everything better.

Anyway, both films are an example of the embrace of Hispanic culture. Unlike The Book of Life, all of the actors in this film are Hispanic. Gael Garcia Banal voices Hector, and Benjamin Bratt is the voice of Ernesto (who, of course, is not quite what he seems).

There are many songs, by a variety of writers, but the one that threads through the film is “Remember Me,” which was nominated for an Oscar. It could have been the title of the film, as that is the main issue of the film. There is also a heavy emphasis on family. I will admit that during the last ten minutes of the movie I watched through misted eyes. Pixar does family especially well; I think of The Incredibles (before the film was a trailer for the sequel to that film).

Coco (the name of the film comes from Miguel’s ancient great-grandmother, the daughter of the musician who left) isn’t perfect–as I mentioned, the first half is nothing special, and once Miguel gets into the land of the dead there are one too many jokes about skeletons falling apart and coming back together. But it is a beautiful film to look and the touching end more than makes up for any flaws.

Review: All the Money in the World

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For whatever its merits, All the Money in the World may be remembered as the movie that Kevin Spacey was erased from. Following numerous accusations of sexual impropriety, Spacey, who played the pivotal role of J. Paul Getty, was replaced by Christopher Plummer just a few weeks before the film was released. I don’t know if the Spacey version will ever see the light of day, so I can’t compare the performances, but I can say this: Plummer deserves his Oscar nomination. He’s terrific, and the best thing about the movie.

Ridley Scott directs a script by David Scarpa that covers the kidnapping of Paul Getty, a teenager living in Rome, by a radical organization. He is the grandson of J. Paul Getty, who, we are told, is not only the richest person in the world, but the richest person in the history of the world (I’m not sure about that), having a fortune of over one billion dollars (which is the equivalent of nine billion today). The old man is kind of a real-life version of Montgomery Burns (or, before that, Ebenezer Scrooge), who has a pay phone in his house and will not pay the ransom, reasoning that all his other grandchildren would be kidnapped if he did.

Of course this frustrates the boy’s mother (Michelle Williams), who works with a kind of fix-it man of Getty’s, played by Mark Wahlberg. They work with the Italian police, who try to find the boy. They do end up raiding the kidnapper’s lair, but the boy has been sold to another group.

Scott is an old hand and knows how to tell a story, but the one major drawback of the film is what it thinks about all this. The score, by Daniel Pemberton, has a touch of whimsy to it, but otherwise there’s nothing funny going on. While Plummer is terrific in the role, there seems to be nothing the script is saying about him except he is a “rapacious old fuck.” We know that he basically abandoned his son, who comes crawling back for a job but yields to drugs. He seems to love his grandson, but won’t pay a ransom until it becomes tax deductible. Is the spine of this film really just that J. Paul Getty was a terrible person?

All the Money in the World is still entertaining. It is not historically accurate–Wahlberg is playing a fictional character, and so are several of the actors playing kidnappers, including one who becomes sympathetic to the boy’s situation. Williams, as usual, is great, particularly when she learns something at the end of the film and a bit of a smile crosses her face. Scott includes a few scenes that have a haunting beauty, such as parallel scenes of groups of people counting the ransom money.

But the best reason to see All the Money in the World is for Plummer. I can only imagine what this is doing to Kevin Spacey.

Opening in Las Vegas, January 26

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Not much this week. One holdover from 2018 is Hostiles (65), a Western starring Christian Bale. I will probably see this, as I am a sucker for Westerns, and am glad they keep getting made, even though very few become hits. I’m especially interested in this one, since it is about American Indians, another favorite topic of mine.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure (51) is the third film in the series, based on a YA book series. I have seen none of them, so I’m not likely to start with this one.

Streaming on Netflix is A Futile and Stupid Gesture, (54) the story of Doug Kenny, the founder of National Lampoon. I will probably see this, as I was a National Lampoon reader and this is aimed squarely at my generation, who still worships the original cast of SNL and Animal House. Not getting great reviews, though.

 

Review: Star Wars The Last Jedi

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I’m late to this party, but I finally got around to seeing the lastest Star Wars episode, subtitled The Last Jedi, even though it is not the last film (one more to go). As these things go, it was okay, nothing transcendent, and not has good as The Force Awakens, which I think is my favorite Star Wars film.

This one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, and follows three main storylines: Rey (Daisy Ridley), tries to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to help the resistance cause; what is left of the resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her last role) tries to outrun the bad guys; and Finn (John Boyega) along with Rose Trico (Kelly Marie Tran) trying to infiltrate a First Order ship to shut down their tracker.

In addition, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Darth-Vader wannabe, is able to contact Ridley through the force. Each of them tries to pull the other over to their side.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a few more tricks up its sleeve, notably the appearance of Benicio Del Toro as a thief whose alliance lies with who’s paying him, and Laura Dern as a mauve-haired admiral of the resistance, who battles with the hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron about strategy. An old friend also appears, in ghost form.

After appearing at the end of The Force Awakens, this is Mark Hamill’s film, as he is given top-billing and dominates the scenes he’s in. He has sequestered himself on a remote island (in reality an island off the coast of Ireland which can be visited, and I want to go there). The end of the film features an epic showdown between Skywalker and Ren, on a salt flat that when touched turns red. There are the requisite light saber battles, spaceship fights, and comic book humor (at one point Boyega, in a flight with Captain Phasma, calls her “chrome dome”). But somehow the script lacks the spark that has made this the most successful franchise in film history. Aside from a bit in the opening moments with Domnhall Gleason as the frustrated General Hux that may recall the “Can you hear me now?” commercials, I found the film to be too sober by half.

Also, the mystery surrounding Rey’s parents is answered anticlimactically, or is it?) and there is some weirdness involving Organa after her apparent death.

Johnson’s task was to set up the last film, which will be directed by J.J. Abrams, which will end the the last trilogy, although as we’ve seen there are also stand-alone Star Wars films that will probably outlast me.

The 90th Academy Awards: Time’s Up, James Franco

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After the Oscar nominations are announced, the usual chatter is about snubs. Probably the biggest perceived snub this year ties in with the biggest news story this year from Hollywood: sexual harassment. So it is somehow fitting that James Franco, who recently won a Golden Globe for Best Actor (in a Comedy or Musical) for The Disaster Artist was left out of the Oscar party after he had to deal with accusations of impropriety.

Of course, some may have just not thought he deserved it. But the assumption is that he was punished for his misdeeds. In an ideal world, the artist is separated from his faults, but I think the Academy must have breathed a sigh of relief that his possible nomination won’t be a story for the next six weeks. Casey Affleck, who won despite settling lawsuits for sexual harassment, wouldn’t have won this year. He might not have been nominated. The tradition is to have last year’s winners present this year’s Oscars (to the opposite gender), but Affleck may not even be invited to do so.

It is presumed, with no shred of evidence, that Denzel Washington got Franco’s spot for Roman J. Israel, Esq. Washington is now in rarefied air, as this is eighth nomination for acting. Only Jack Nicholson, Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy, and Paul Newman have more. But Meryl Streep is in the stratosphere, breaking her own record and notching her 21st nomination for The Post (the first film she’s been nominated for that was also nominated for Best Picture since Out of Africa in 1985). I wonder if Streep can even name all the pictures she’s been nominated for. Surely even she might forget One True Thing or Music from the Heart. In the ionosphere is composer John Williams, who after his nomination for Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, now has more nominations than any other living person, with 51.

Some other tidbits: Mary J. Blige becomes the first person nominated for an acting Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for Mudbound) and Best Song in the same year. Timothy Chalamet, at 22, becomes the third youngest to be nominated for Best Actor (only Jackie Cooper, 9. and Mickey Rooney. 19, were younger).

There is some diversity this year, so the OscarsSoWhite hashtag won’t be around. In the Best Director category is a black man (Jordan Peele) and a woman (Greta Gerwig). There’s also a Latino (Guillermo Del Toro). Peele and Gerwig are the fifth nominations for blacks and women, respectively (there has never been a black woman nominated in this category). It took 90 years, but there is finally a nomination for a woman in the Best Cinematography category, Rachel Morrison for Mudbound. On the other hand, Wonder Woman was completely skunked (Logan becomes the first comic-book film to get a Best Screenplay nomination, something Wonder Woman was expected to do by many).

In the Best Supporting Actor category, we have a nomination for Christopher Plummer for All the Money in the World. Plummer, who is already the oldest person to win an acting Oscar, is now the oldest to be nominated (breaking Gloria Stuart’s record). This is also the role that was played by Kevin Spacey, until his career was brought down by sexual harassment charges, and Plummer replaced him, shooting scenes over nine days only two months ago.

In the category of “when will I get nominated or when will I win,” Roger Deakins gets his 14th nomination for Best Cinematography for Blade Runner 2049. Will his futility end this year? I hope so, but in technical categories, only the film is mentioned on the ballot, not the name. If people don’t know he’s the cinematographer, he won’t get sympathy votes. Finally getting a nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category is Steve James, who was famously snubbed for Hoop Dreams, this time getting in with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The weirdest nomination is for basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, for the animated short Dear Basketball. If he wins, would he be the tallest winner ever (he’s 6′ 6”)?

I think we’ve got a bead on who will win the four acting Oscars, but the biggest mystery is Best Picture. As with the last two years, the winner of the award will still be a matter of suspense until the opening of the envelope. Two years ago, Spotlight only one other award before winning Best Picture, and of course last year Moonlight won in the famous envelope snafu. I expect something like that this year, along with a comedy bit surrounding the last envelope (will Jimmy Kimmel come out to make sure it’s the right envelope? Maybe Matt Damon could present it).

Review: Call Me By Your Name

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When I think back on Call Me By Your Name years from now, I think the thing that will stick with me is that everyone should have a house in northern Italy. As directed by Luco Guadagnino and photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, summers there are idyllic. An epilogue showing the same house as if it were in a snow globe is equally appealing.

That’s the travel porn aspect of Call Be Your Name, which is a “coming of age” story about a teenage boy and an older grad student finding love one summer. That’s lovely and all, but it’s also kind of wan. That they are two men makes it a bit radical, but not as much as it would have thirty-four years ago, in 1983, when the film is set. There is so much lounging in this film that it may want you to take a nap.

Timothee Chalamet is Elio, a seventeen-year-old son of an archeology professor and his Italian wife. Every summer the professor gives a residency to a student to help him with his paperwork (it’s odd that he chooses students he does not know–I’m not sure where the professor teaches). This summer the assistant comes in the big, blond form of Armie Hammer. He is self-assured, and at first Chalamet finds him arrogant, particularly in his use of the word “later” as a goodbye. But eventually they grow closer and closer, and Chalamet is sexually attracted to him. Hammer resists, but finally they spend a night together.

The film, I think, is about young love and the sadness involved when it has to end. There have been a lot of films like this about heterosexual love, such as The Summer of ’42. But I wonder if this is really a “gay film,” as the two characters may not actually be gay, or even bisexual. Chalamet, during the same summer, is losing his virginity to a local girl (Esther Garrel, the kind of girl every guy would love to lose his virginity to), so in some respects this is his awesome summer. Hammer has conquered the heart of another local girl, but we’re not sure if he consummates this relationship. In any event, the inclusion of references and pictures of Greek statuary suggests that the two may have a man-man relationship in the manner of the ancient Greeks. Pederasty was an acceptable form of social relationship, and sexual orientation was not an identifier. It was acceptable for two men to have a relationship without any of the stigma that the modern West has attached to it.

In any event, Call Be Your Name is a sweet love story but hardly a great one. The film moves at a very leisurely pace. It seems nobody ever has anything to do (Hammer is hardly ever shown working, so I’m not exactly sure why he is there). They bicycle into town, go swimming, and do a lot of reading. This is what it was like for teenagers before texting.

Call Be Your Name is well acted. I’ve never seen Homeland, so I had no idea who Chalamet was (he did have a supporting role in Lady Bird) but he’s great, perfectly capturing what it’s like to be seventeen and horny, all limbs and hair. There’s a scene in the film that will do for peaches what American Pie did for apple pie, and Chalamet handles the eroticism and the shame perfectly. Hammer kind of takes charge of the film when he arrives, and is dashing, a word you don’t hear much anymore. The way he gets off his bicycle reminds me how cowboy actors used to get off their horses–you can look manly doing that or not, and Hammer is definitely manly.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who may well be in three of the Best Picture nominees this year (the iffy one is The Post, the slam dunk is The Shape of Water, and this one is in the middle) plays the professor as a kind of Jewish mother (he is more enthusiastic about good news at the end of the film than his wife, and he says “Happy Hanukkah!” one too many times). But he nails a speech at the end when he reveals what he knows about his son’s relationship with Hammer, and how he wishes he had that kind of relationship when he was young.

With so much idiocy in the world, I enjoy films with intelligent people. There’s a wonderful scene when a statue by Praxiteles is pulled out of a lake, and the excitement of the archaeologists is catching. There is also a dizzying conversation around the etymology of the word apricot, with words being batted around like shuttlecocks.

I give Call Me By Your Name a mild thumbs up. I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t be interested in seeing it again, except for the images of Italy.

Opening in Las Vegas, January 19, 2018

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Here in Vegas we’re getting a mixture of Oscar bait and the usual January flotsam and jetsam, which are actually well-reviewed.

I’ve already seen Phantom Thread (90) and loved it except for the ending. It’s on the bubble for a Best Picture nomination, but surely Daniel Day-Lewis and costume designer Mark Bridges will get noms. Though it’s not perfect, any film by P.T. Anderson is worthy of seeing.

Also a Best Picture contender is Call Me By Your Name (93), a gay-themed drama that has earned fabulous reviews and a string of precursor nominations for its star, Timothy Chalamet. It’s kind of amazing to think that inside of fifty years, from Boys in the Band to now, that gay themes in cinema have totally been accepted. Brokeback Mountain was a hit, and Moonlight won Best Picture last year. Some progress can’t be stopped, no matter how hard some people try.

Now for the January releases, of course there is a Nicolas Cage movie. He’s in Mom and Dad (63), which is getting higher reviews than most Cage movies of the last decade. It’s about parents turning on their children and killing them.

A 9/11 drama, 12 Strong (55) is about a special forces mission immediately after the attack. One great selling point is that it stars Michael Shannon, one of our most interesting actors.

Den of Thieves (56) looks like a cut-rate Heat, but for those who like crime movies this will probably scratch the itch. Especially looks ideal for home-viewing.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (75) is not from Studio Ghibli but certainly looks like it. Getting very good reviews, so for those who savor animation looks like something to check out.

Films that opened in America, December 22-25 2017

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Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle (7.2 IMDB, 76% Rotten Tomatoes) – Probably the surprise breakout hit of the American holiday period, it’s probably going to end up being one of the top 5 most popular films of 2017. What odds a few months ago this would easily outdo ‘Justice League’?

The reviews have been surprisingly good considering it’s directed by Jake Kasdan who’s made some ordinary films in the past. If nothing else, the hit that The Rock took from the Baywatch misfire has proved only temporary.

Pitch Perfect 2 (6.3, 31%) – This finale of the trio of films has done far less well than PP2 did and perhaps that’s because the general reaction to the first sequel was one of disappointment and the box office impact came one film later.

The Greatest Showman (8, 53%) – This PT Barnum biopic has had lukewarm critical responses (and was found underwhelming by our own Jackrabbit Slim) but the IMDB score and strong box office globally suggest an underutilised section of the audience has taken by what appears to be quite an old fashioned film.

Downsizing (5.8, 51%)I reviewed this Alexander Payne film favourably last year but judging by the critical and audience response, I’m one of the few to have taken something positive out of it. Actually, judging by the box office performance (only $7m outside America!) I’m one of the few outside America who’s actually seen it at all. I suspect it’s reputation will grow over the years though.

Father Figures (4.9, 26%) – This Owen Wilson/Ed Helms comedy has been a disaster in all aspects, and judging by the trailer it’s not hard to see why; full of that cringey, crude ‘humour’ that seems to make up 95% of mainstream Hollywood comedies these days. Bit sad seeing Glenn Close in this.

The Post (7.5, 88%) – Spielberg’s decision to make the children’s film ‘The BFG’ was a curious one as it seemed to be an attempt to recapture his glory days of when he was the king of the quality mainstream family film. Especially curious as he’s developed a fine reputation in recent decades of real-life major historical events. His name probably more than any other helps ensure box office viability to films like this tale of the Watergate saga from the publisher’s point of view instead of being on Netflix and HBO and it did very well on its first full weekend of wide release (Jackrabbit Slim’s review is here).

Tiger Zinda Hai (6.7, 57%) – Hindi action film; did very well relatively speaking in its opening US weekend of release, especially as it’s 165 minutes long!

Along With The Gods: The Two Worlds (7.8, 50%) – South Korean fantasy drama

Hostiles (7.2, 74%) – Despite good reviews and the likes of Christian Bale & Rosamund Pike in it, this Western has made little impact at the box office, just showing how hard it is for that genre to succeed these days

Happy End (6.9, 67%) – A Michael Haneke film starring Isabelle Huppert usually would be expected to one of the film events of the year, but the RT score illustrates how many critics were disappointed by the film and felt Haneke was treading familiar territory

The Lucky Man (7.2) – American drama about a preacher who scams people with his fake mystical powers only to find he really has the gift.

Review: Molly’s Game

Standard

If you knew nothing about Molly’s Game going in but knew the work of Aaron Sorkin, you’d put two and two together pretty soon and realize it had his fingerprints all over it. That’s mostly a good thing–nobody writes dialogue like Sorkin, he must be paid by the word–though he can edge into sanctimony. Molly’s Game is mostly free of that–no President Bartlet monologues outlining the progressive viewpoint–and has some terrific acting.

Jessica Chastain, one of our best actors right now, stars as Molly Bloom. For about the first five to ten minutes of the movie, or so it seemed, she contributes voiceover on who she is, a former skiing champion who is injured badly in a fall, who endured an overbearing father (Kevin Costner), and ended up rich running poker games. Some screenwriting books will tell you not to use voiceover, but Sorkin either did not read or ignored those books.

Molly’s Game is Sorkin’s directorial debut, and he has the same flair for that as he does for writing. This is a very busy film, requiring some deal of attention (there is no real spot to go to the bathroom, and it’s a long movie), with all sorts of graphics showing poker hands and how a skier prepares. It’s sometimes dizzyingly brilliant, if not tiring.

Chastain’s Molly (who is a real person) gets a job with an obnoxious realtor (Jeremy Strong) who has a weekly poker game with high rollers (one of them is only known as Player X, played by Michael Cera, who is supposed to a composite of movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Toby Maguire. Which one said, “I like to destroy people?” Maguire, right?). Chastain is smart, smarter than most of them, and ends up stealing the players for her own game. It’s all perfectly legal, as she takes no cut of the winnings, only buy-ins and tips. But she gets arrested anyway, and hires Idris Elba as her lawyer, who accepts the case reluctantly.

Sorkin must really love depositions (The Social Network had two) as there is one here, plus a lot of other legalese. But at its heart Molly’s Game is the story of a woman with daddy issues. A scene late in the film, when she and Costner have it out on a park bench, is sharply written and tremendously acted. I kind of like what Costner has done with his career–he’s taking roles that befit his age (62) and are not necessarily the lead. When he pops in one (I had no idea he was in this) he’s a pleasure to watch. Other aging stars could follow his example.

But this is Chastain’s show. She is both regal and vulnerable, a woman in the world of rich and powerful men who is ready to break. It’s a crowded field for Oscar contenders this year; it will be interesting to see if Chastain can nudge her way in.