COCO

by Alan Yudman

Ok, Pixar. We get it. It is nearly impossible for you to make a movie that is average, or doesn’t tug at your heartstrings by the end. The latest in the “how is a cartoon making me cry” canon is COCO.

Rather than have me describe the plot, let’s go to IMDB: “Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer”. Yeah, that’s pretty much the basics.

It’s a story about family, expectations and how following your heart means doing what you love even if it disappoints those who love you.

The film as a whole is wonderful, but there were several parts that stood out for me. It is visually stunning. When Miguel first enters the Land of the Dead, the detail and color are breathtaking. The story embraces Mexican culture, but does not pander to it. That is a hat tip to Pixar for brining on writer and director Adrian Molina. It was his story and his co-direction with Lee Unkrich (TOY STORY 2 & 3, FINDING NEMO) is a marriage made in storytelling heaven. This isn’t a Mexican story with “gringo” music. Every song is an homage to the rich musical history of Mexico. The performances are simply fantastic. Like Auli’i Cravalho in MOANA last year, Anthony Gonzalez is the breakout star here. He does great voice work as Miguel and his singing is top notch.

And because it is a Pixar movie, bring tissues. The last 15 minutes are sure to make you weep, or at least coax a tear to run down your cheek.

Pixar has raised expectations with each movie. We count on their movies to tell compelling stories and tug at our heartstrings. When they don’t (CARS 2 &3, THE GOOD DINOSAUR) it is a major disappointment and begins wringing of hands. But then a movie like COCO comes along and we once again believe all is right in the Pixar universe.

GET OUT

by Alan Yudman

It only took me 10 months, but I finally am joining the GET OUT is a great movie party. Save me a spot on the bandwagon. Maybe I can just sit on someone’s lap.

Jordan Peele did something that I didn’t think was possible. He made me care about a psychological thriller. That is not my favorite genre. The tension sometimes feels overwhelming. Waiting for the next “BOO” consistently ruins my enjoyment. But, somehow Peele overcame that for me. Maybe it was how he tempered the scares with humor. Maybe because right off the bat, I saw the message he was trying to send about the way Black people see slightly too friendly white folks. Maybe it was the not so subtle slavery references. Whatever tricks he pulled out of his bag, they worked on me.

The performances by all the actors are top notch. But Daniel Kaluuya, LilRel Howery, Allison Williams and Lakeith Stanfield stood out for me. Kaluuya was the eyes and ears of the audience.. finding out what the family was up too as we were, then fighting to destroy the evil. That’s what a hero does. Stanfield and Howery’s small but important roles hit the notes perfectly. Williams sold the outrage initially, which then made her turn all the more shocking.

I heard about an alternate ending in which Kaluuya’s Chris is arrested after the bloody ending at the house. I’m glad Peele decided not to go with that. After watching his triumphant defeat of what are basically slave traders, seeing Chris once again become subject to White society would have been disappointing. The ending as is, is triumphant and satisfying. It was exactly what the audience needed to complete the story.

It took me 10 months to finally sit down and watch this movie that everyone has been talking about. I’m sorry it took me so long, but I’m glad I finally did. Peele’s future is bright and GET OUT is one of the best movies of the year.

I, TONYA

by Alan Yudman

The question I asked myself when I walked out of I, TONYA was, “can a movie about abuse and domestic violence be funny?”. It may leave you uncomfortable, but there is no doubt there is a lot of laughs in here. But you have to remember what is really going on.

I don’t even believe I have to remind everyone of the plot, but I will anyway. Tonya Harding was a redneck who became America’s best figure skater. She was a talented athlete. The first to land a triple axle in competition. She was also a complete mess. Her mom was abusive. She married Jeff Gillooly, who seemed to love Tonya, but also beat the crap out of her. His friend was the completely delusional Shawn Eckhardt. Gillooly and Eckhardt conspired to attack Harding’s main rival Nancy Kerrigan who was knee-capped before the National’s in Detroit about 6 weeks before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

What you may or may not know is how much of a shit-show Harding’s life was. Her mother LaVona was a complete nightmare. She emotionally and physically abused Tonya her entire life. She forced her into figure skating then made her feel like she was doing her a favor. She hit her and tormented her. She is a completely horrible human being and should not have ever had children. The absolutely wonderful Allison Janney gives a perfect performance as LaVona. By the end of the movie you absolutely loathe her. Usually, these characters have some kind of internal conflict. Not here. She is beyond sympathy.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers and Director Craig Gillespie made an interesting choice. They did the film as sort of a mockumentary. The actors portray themselves in interview, 20-plus years after the fact. And they try to explain away their roles or motivations just like a real person might. It’s kinda brilliant. The movie is filled with humor, especially when they get to the plot directed at Kerrigan. But, they are quite possibly the stupidest criminals ever to conspire. They left a trail a blind detective could follow. It’s hilarious.

The aesthetics and attention to detail are also wonderful. If you are a fan of A&R rock and pop from the ‘70’s and ‘80’s run out to buy the soundtrack. It’s wonderful. The skating costumes are kitschy and nostalgic. Harding famously didn’t have money to buy costumes so they were sewn by her mother and later herself.

The casting is interesting. Margot Robbie does a fine job playing Tonya. She’s much taller and physically more attractive than Harding. They try to “ugly” her up. Robbie is 5’6” and Harding is only 5’1”. So they shoot her in a way so she doesn’t tower over her co-stars while she is wearing skates. But it’s hard not to notice that objectively, Robbie is better looking. Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly. Paul Walter Hauser does a great job playing the doughy nincompoop Eckhardt.

None of that matters in the end. This is a funny, compelling movie. Janney better get a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She should get an Oscar to pair with all her Emmys. It’s worth seeing just for her performance. But there is so much more here to hold your attention and keep you entertained. The movie goes for that elusive triple axle and nails it.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

by Alan Yudman

How to write this review without spoilers? I’m not sure I can. So please, don’t be angry if I reveal too much.

The general plot of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI centers around the First Order led by General Hux, trying to wipe out the last remnants of the Resistance. How that plays out and the multiple ways the Resistance tries to survive are the threads that tie it all together. Rey is still on Luke Skywalker’s island, training to be a Jedi and trying to convince the scarred and bitter hero to join the fight. Fin and Rose (a new character wonderfully played by Kelly Marie Tran) are trying to disable a new First Order tracking system that can find ships as they travel through hyperspace. They go to find a code breaker on a distant planet called Canto Bight. Maz Kanata says he can get them onto Snoke’s ship. Poe Dameron has been “benched” because while he takes out a First Order ship in the early part of the film, his victory comes at an enormous cost. While all that is going on, Kylo Ren is shamed by Snoke and he tries to redeem himself by supposedly luring Rey into his corner using apparent “Jedi mind tricks”.

Ok, that covers the broad strokes. And they are strokes ably applied by Rian Johnson who wrote and directed THE LAST JEDI. The story goes places and touches on things we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie. There is class distinction. A distinction between rich and poor. Women are given prominent roles, not just as big heroines but as the important bit players flying X-Wing fighters and Rebel bombers and manning control panels on First Order ships. There are few points at which you wonder, “wait, where did that come from”, but it in no way detracts from the film. It’s solid piece of Sci-Fi and touches on modern themes that Johnson could not have known would be prominent in popular culture when the movie wrapped filming before November 2016. This may be the most visually stunning of the 8 Star Wars films. Two scenes stand out in my mind. There is a battle in Snoke’s throne room that is wonderfully choreographed. The art direction and cinematography are perfect. Also, when the Resistance arrives at its new base, that planet is spectacularly constructed by the production designers.

The performances from Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Domnhall Gleason are all right on point. There are small, important performances from Benicio Del Torro and Laura Dern that are wonderful. Back to Carrie for a moment. It is impossible not to feel melancholy about her appearance. She is so vital to the story and yet it is the last time we will ever see her. Sad doesn’t begin to describe the emotions.

The themes involve family, power and trust. Outside of Rey’s growth as a Jedi, the most interesting arc to me was Poe’s. There wasn’t nearly enough of Oscar Isaac in the THE FORCE AWAKENS. Problem solved. Poe is a “strength means blowing stuff up” guy. He would rather fight that talk. Any step away from a battle is weakness. But he learns from both Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Dern) that sometimes being strong means knowing when not to fight. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in Episode IX.

Before I wrap this up, let me quickly address the Porgs. Those are those little bird/rodent looking things you’ve seen in the trailers. I was fearful they’d be annoying or too cloyingly sweet. Nothing to worry about. They are used as kind of tension breakers or comic relief, which is just fine.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the best Star Wars movie. THE LAST JEDI hits a lot of the same marks in story, tone and plot and in some ways does it better. So while LAST JEDI may not be the best, it is definitely 1-A.

Whew… not too many spoilers I hope. Oh, almost forgot to mention Rey’s parents. Nope. Not going there. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

by Alan Yudman

It’s only mid-December as I write this and there are a lot of “Oscar-bait” movies still to come as Christmas approaches. But, put your money down that CALL ME BY YOUR NAME will be among the nominees for Best Picture and will be a favorite. Yes, it is that good.

Luca Guadagnino has made what may be a perfect film. It is touching, engaging, funny and filled with emotion. He has taken an Academy Award worthy script by the legendary James Ivory and made it better. It’s simply amazing.

The story focuses on the evolving relationship between Elio and Oliver. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver arrives at the Italian villa owned by Elio’s father who is a professor of archaeology or antiquities. Sorry, not clear which but it doesn’t really matter. He has been hired as a research assistant for the summer. Elio is 17, a music prodigy who is exploring what appears to be a newfound sexuality. He is intrigued by Oliver who he tries to seduce, but is put off. Their interactions are tense and confusing to Elio, but their attraction grows stronger and stronger until their mutual desire is fulfilled. It’s a wonderful love story,

Guadagnino knows how to let a scene breathe. He allows the visuals to evolve naturally. There is no sense of urgency. It is the visual definition of languid. But it is so beautiful. The northern Italian countryside is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The colors are muted, and natural. He just lets it be what it is. If you don’t want to travel to a small Italian villa after seeing this film, well I can’t help you. You’re beyond help, actually.

The acting perfect. More perfect than anything I’ve seen this year. Chalamet portray’s Elio’s innocence and insecurity while hitting every note. His nominations for Best Actor from SAG and the Golden Globes are richly deserved. Armie Hammer has done a lot of big budget “tent pole” style films like THE LONE RANGER and THE MAN FROM UNCLE. But he has also been unafraid to take risks, like playing the Winklevoss twins in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. But he has taken a huge leap forward here. Oliver is self-assured but reluctant to succumb to his feelings for Elio. Hammer cloaks it in bravado and it is a spectacular choice. Michael Stuhlbarg also turns in a wonderful performance as Elio’s father and delivers a soliloquy towards the end of the movie that should be copied and given to every parent as a lesson on how to love your children.

The music is also outstanding. Sufjan Stevens provides three wonderful songs. But the rest of the score pieced together by Music Consultant Gerry Gershman and Music Supervisor Robin Urdang compliments the visuals and story perfectly.

Looking back, I’ve used the word “perfect” a lot. It is well deserved. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is very nearly a perfect movie. I cannot find much in the way of flaws, at least none that takes away from the enjoyment of this spectacular film.

JUSTICE LEAGUE

by Alan Yudman

I don’t ask for much in my superhero movies. Action, humor, the heroes spending time as those heroes. And a plot that makes sense. The problem with DC movies (except for Wonder Woman) is they lacked humor. And don’t get me started on the stories. The plots went off the rails and made little sense even in their own universe. Maybe DC has turned a corner because JUSTICE LEAGUE is immensely satisfying entertainment.

Here’s the basics. Batman comes upon a historic evil that is bent on taking the world and destroying it. He has to stop it and he enlists the help of a few friends. At the same time the Amazons on Themyscira engage the bringer of evil, Steppenwolf in a battle to keep him from getting a piece of the puzzle that will give him the power of destruction. He takes it and the Amazons send Diana Prince a signal that doomsday is coming. Bruce Wayne enlists Diana to help him recruit Arthur Curry (Aquaman), Victor Stone (Cyborg) and Barry Allen (The Flash) to defeat this evil. They also get help from an old friend who appeared to be out of the picture (major hint) after BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

So after a bit of backstory for the new guys, we dive into the action. That’s a very good thing. We get just enough set up to make us care about Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash. No long handwringing exposition. Let’s just go kick some bad guy booty. And it totally worked for me. Here’s the dicey part. Maybe it worked because although Zack Snyder is listed as the director he had to leave production of the film midway because of the death of his daughter. Joss Whedon took over and maybe his hand made it better. He is also credited as a writer on the film. Whedon directed THE AVENGERS which was hugely successful critically and at the box office. So he brought the group dynamic experience and maybe guided this to be a better film. It is still unmistakably a Snyder film, but toned down a bit. Plus, the action sequences are easy to follow. If you saw MAN OF STEEL or BATMAN V. SUPERMAN you know the set pieces were exceedingly difficult to watch because they camera’s perspective was too close. You couldn’t get a sense of the action. At times it was nauseating. But there’s none of that here.

Ben Affleck is ok as Batman, but better as Bruce Wayne. Henry Cavill is back as “you know who”. But the real treat is watching Gal Gadot play Wonder Woman again. It is like this is the role she was born to play. She lights up the screen in the same way she did in WONDER WOMAN. How long before we see her again in the role? Too long for my taste.

The additions of Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg) and Ezra Miller (The Flash) all fit in just fine. There’s also a little Diane Lane, Amy Adams and J.K. Simmons (Jim Gordon) just for good measure.

Is this a perfect movie? Not at all. Some of the “here’s how the bad stuff works” explanations are over my head and might be for casual fans of the DC universe. It still has that weird Snyder coloring in every scene. None of that really matters or will take away from your enjoyment. Here’s hoping DC has finally figured it out, because there is another JUSTICE LEAGUE movie coming (plus Aquaman next year). If they have, Marvel should be worried. Because other than Spider-Man, the big names in superheroes are Batman and Superman. And those belong to DC. JUSTICE LEAGUE, like Superman, can be a beacon of hope. Now they just have to follow through.

Oh, post review, review here. The post-credits scene is awesome!

LADY BIRD

by Alan Yudman

SIXTEEN CANDLES is kind of the gold standard in “teenaged girl from the wrong side of the tracks tries to fit in with the popular crowd” movies. Until now.

LADY BIRD is the story of a high school senior who is literally from the wrong side of the tracks. Saorise Ronan is that teenager. She’s a bit of an outsider at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento. Her parents are barely scraping by, but they wanted her to go to this private school. The title comes from her self-given name “Lady Bird”. She doesn’t want to be called by her given name, Christine. It is her way of rebelling against her mother who is demanding and passive aggressive at the same time. It seems Lady Bird can do nothing to please her and she is overly critical of her daughter. She is wonderfully played by Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird also wants to get out of Sacramento, or as she calls it the Midwest of California. Sorry, I don’t mean to give away all the jokes in this movie but there are a ton of funny moments. Laugh out loud funny moments. Theater erupting with laughter moments. But those are also quickly followed by moments where you are touched by the sensitivity of the characters. There is love, frustration and passion. Exactly like a real family.

Lady Bird abandons her best friend to try to get in with a popular girl who is friends with a hot guy who attends the partner boys Catholic school. The results of all this are pretty predictable in a John Hughes movie kind of way. But this is all about the execution of the story.

For her first solo flight at director and screenwriter, Greta Gerwig nails both. She co-wrote FRANCES HA and MISTRESS AMERICA with her now boyfriend Noah Baumbach. So some of his DNA is in this as far as style and character. But the characters are less annoyingly outside the norm. They are flawed and quirky, but real and likable.

Gerwig gets great performances from Ronan and Metcalf. Ronan is achingly innocent and wise at the same time. Metcalf is just stellar. The real surprise was the performance of Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s sister if that matters). Her wide-eyed innocence and arc of growth and maturity are wonderfully portrayed. More Beanie please!

This is also kind of a love letter to Sacramento (even though some of it was shot in the San Gabriel Valley). The cinematography show’s California’s capital in the best possible light. I’ve been to Sacramento, it’s never looked this good. It’s also a love letter to home. You may want to travel the world, or in Lady Bird’s case go to school in New York City but home is always the place you feel safe.

LADY BIRD is a fantastic film that is nearly perfect.. like Oscar-level perfect. I could point out some plot holes, but they aren’t worth mentioning as they didn’t make me love it less. I’ve always appreciated Gerwig as an actress. Now I can’t wait to see what she does next as a writer and director.

DARKEST HOUR

by Alan Yudman

As soon as I saw the first trailer for DARKEST HOUR, I thought, “reserve a spot on the Oscar nominations list for Gary Oldman”. Nothing I saw in the film changes that initial impression. Matter of fact, I believe at this point he has got to be a favorite.

This is the story of Churchill’s ascension to Prime Minister and the days leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk. So in a way Joe Wright’s film is a companion piece to Christoper Nolan’s DUNKIRK. Nolan’s film told the story of the evacuation (Operation Dynamo), while Wright’s film explains what was going on back in London.

There are not spoilers in a historical drama, but there were elements of the story I wasn’t aware of so I will skip by those. But as history has recorded, no one from his own party wanted Churchill to be Prime Minister. Neither did King George V. So the film tells the story of how the legend was made. How Churchill convinced, cajoled and bullied the British government into actually challenging Hitler’s plans for the conquest of Europe. It portrays politicians as sniveling cowards and fatalists. That doesn’t mean Churchill is flawless. He is unsure of himself at times, angry, demanding and pig-headed. It is a version of the great man I had never seen before.

Oldman transforms himself into Winston Churchill through make-up and mannerism. He also makes him very human. That’s hard to do when you see him as a legend. I saw a screening which was followed by a Q & A session with Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn who plays King George. Oldman talked about how that was part of his goal, to go deeper into his personality. The make-up and prosthetic’s by Kazuhiro Tsuji got him half way there. The rest is all Oldman. He is a chameleon-like actor who can completely inhabit a character. That serves him well in this role.

Gary Oldman Q & A at Director’s Guild screening of DARKEST HOUR

The rest of the cast is pretty good. Llly James plays his secretary Elizabeth Layton. Kristin Scott Thomas inhabits the role of his wife Clementine. Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones) is his chief rival in the Conservative party, Viscount Halifax. All are solid performances, but are frames that adorn Oldman’s note perfect performance.

The film overall is fairly successful, mostly due to Oldman. Wright is in love with overhead shots in the film. There are a ton of them and I cannot figure out why most were necessary. He also uses graphics to mark the passage to significant dates, but he chooses to assault the eyes with enormous words covering the screen along with the accompanying dramatic sound effect. Some of it gets in the way. But overall, the script by Anthony McCarten is fine, I just wish Wright had toned down his “creativity”.

DARKEST HOUR is a vehicle for a great actor and students of history will find it interesting. Oldman elevates what could have been a mediocre movie to fine entertainment.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

by Alan Yudman

It is going to be a challenge for the dude engraving the statues at the Oscars this year. How will he ever fit THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI on one of those tiny gold plates? He better start practicing, because this could be the best movie of 2017.

This tale of a mother’s search for justice is dark and funny. That doesn’t mean it cannot be poignant and moving too. It is the story of a mother played by Frances McDormand who deals with the grief over the rape, torture and murder of her teenaged daughter. We join the story seven months after the crime and there have been no arrests. McDormand’s Mildred decides the best way to motivate Ebbing’s police chief (Woody Harrelson) is to shame him with three enormous billboards that question why he isn’t doing anything to catch the killer.

The billboards polarize the town and what is left of Mildred’s family. But she is undaunted by any criticism or threats. And there are threats. Her chief protagonist isn’t the Chief, but one of his officers perfectly played by Sam Rockwell. He is paunchy, dumb, insensitive and brutal. There are references to his mistreatment of blacks in Ebbing, which a skillfully quick way to let the audience know what kind of man and cop he really is. Rockwell’s Dixon is quick tempered and achingly stupid. He’s the kind of cop that punches first and asks questions later. But of all the characters in the film, he is the one that has a defined arc that sees him grow behind himself. It’s a fabulous performance that should get Rockwell a much deserved Oscar nomination.

While McDormand’s Mildred doesn’t especially grow, but her achingly tortured performance is the heart of the film. She seems confident, but you also can see the confusion and grief just under the surface. It’s a part that seems to have been written with her in mind.

All of this wonderful acting would not be possible without a great script and perfect direction by Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, etc). I cannot find any holes in the story. There isn’t a hole to be found. And since he wrote it, McDonagh knew exactly how to put this perfect story on film.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI sticks with you long after you leave the theater. And that is the highest compliment I can pay any piece of art. Because that is what art is supposed to do.. make you think and feel long after you’ve experienced it.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)

by Alan Yudman

So I spent $9 to see THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED). I didn’t realize it was available streaming on Netflix. Ok, in some ways I am still a technological dunce. But, I do not regret spending my hard earned dollars on the latest Noah Baumbach creation.

At its heart, MEYEROWITZ is about family… a very dysfunctional family lead by a father who thinks he is a good parent, but in reality is so self-involved he cannot see how he has misshapen his children. Dustin Hoffman is that patriarch. He’s thrice divorced and married for the fourth time, now to Emma Thompson. Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel are children from his second wife (Candice Bergen in a great small role). Ben Stiller is the youngest child from his third wife. Hoffman’s Harold was a fine art professor and sculptor. He thought he had more talent that he did in reality. He thought his lack of success was always someone else’s fault. Sandler is an aspiring songwriter who never got the support he needed, then gave up his career to be a stay at home Dad to Grace Van Patten. Marvel didn’t follow the arts, she’s some kind of office supervisor for Xerox. And Stiller broke front he family dynamic to become a hugely successful financial manager for actors and musicians.

As with all Baumbach characters, everyone is socially awkward and slightly odd. All except for Stiller who seems to have risen from the ashes of this family. A live-threatening health problem for Hoffman drives the second half of the movie. It brings the three kids together like they never have been in their lives. They must rely on each other and figure out how to make the family work.

MEYEROWITZ is funny and touching. With all the moronic, low effort comedies Sandler churns out it is easy to forget that he can actually act (see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). His Danny is sensitive and tortured, but he hides it under a cloak of responsibility and lightening quick anger. But it is easy to see how clueless about life and his own family he really is. Marvel is solid as the shy, awkward Jean and Stiller turns in a great performance as Matthew. Hoffman is Hoffman and he makes all the right choices as the self-involved shambling mess of a father.

Baumbach always makes interesting, entertaining films. He features characters that have good intentions and high aspirations but are just on the outside of the norm. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) follows his formula and delivers a winning, fantastic film.