Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick's Day 2018

I've posted this song before, but it's one of my favorite picks for the day. Here's Dead Can Dance (with Lisa Gerrard singing) performing a striking rendition of the 19th century Irish tune, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley":

My copy of the The Irish Songbook says:

This is an excellent example of many songs that serve both as love lyrics and rebel song. The scene described refers to the 1783 rising. The words are the work of Robert Dwyer Joyce, a professor of English Literature at Catholic University at Dublin. In danger of arrest for rebel activities, Joyce fled to the United States. He later returned to Ireland and died in Dublin in 1883.

Wikipedia gives some more information, including a nice list of the many bands who have recorded the song. (Ken Loach's 2006 film takes the song for its title.)

Feel free to mention or link any favorite Irish songs or poems in the comments. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 05, 2018

2017 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2017 was a decent year for films, with a solid crop of noteworthy movies. Many of the best were genre pictures, including the usual superhero flicks, but also a science fiction film, a western and a monster movie.

Jimmy Kimmel did a good job overall hosting this year's Oscars. He offered (and delivered on) a jet ski to the winner with the shortest speech. His too-long-and-unnecessary gag last year was a Hollywood tour coming into the theater, and this year it was the Oscar attendees surprising moviegoers across the street. Other than that, though, the ceremony didn't have that much extraneous padding. The themes for this year's show were very consciously about diversity and inclusion, plus several nods to the "Me Too" movement to end sexual harassment. (This also made for awkwardness when Kobe Bryant's film won Best Animated Short, given the rape allegations against him.)

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani, both immigrants, had some funny banter, then gave a shout-out to the "Dreamers," the children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. Nyong'o's was a doubly good choice, given her Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, about holding onto dreams, one of the more memorable ones of the past several years.

The set was spectacular – 45 million Swarovski crystals that changed with the lighting – but also a little distracting.

As usual, the Oscars' montage game was strong. The acting categories had great little montages of previous winners, and a longer piece celebrated 90 years of Oscar-nominated films. Native American Wes Studi (who's a Vietnam vet, it turns out) introduced a montage honoring veterans, and even said some words in Cherokee.

Some of the older presenters (Eva Marie Saint and Christopher Walken) were preceded by a clip of their Oscar-winning work, which was both smart for younger viewers and a nice reminder for the older set.

Allison Janney probably had the funniest acceptance speech, thanks to starting, "I did it all myself." She waited for the laughter to die a bit, then gave gracious thanks, including a nice shout-out to Joanne Woodward for encouraging her to continue acting. Other winners flashed some wit as well: Lee Smith, who won the Oscar for editing for Dunkirk, said, "I'm trying to wrap this up; I'm an editor, I should be able to do this."

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph arguably were the funniest presenters, arriving with the heels in hand because they said their feet hurt, and assuring the audience that the Oscars hadn't become too black, because they had seen plenty of white people backstage.

In a cool gesture, screenwriter and actress Rachel Shenton used American sign language in her acceptance speech for Maisie Sly, the deaf child lead actress of the Best Live Action Short, The Silent Child. The director (and Shenton's fiancé), Chris Overton, mentioned they'd gotten funding on Indiegogo. (It's neat to think that an Oscar short was crowd-sourced.)

The screenplay categories were even stronger than usual this year. I haven't seen Call Me By Your Name yet, but it was lovely to see 88-year-old veteran filmmaker James Ivory become the oldest winner in either of the writing categories. He gave a gracious speech thanking the book's author and his long-time and now deceased filmmaking partners, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant. I cheered when Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, and would have been likewise thrilled if The Big Sick won.

Although a fine actor, Gael Garcia Bernal was unfortunately out of tune when he started to sing eventual Best Original Song winner, "Remember Me," but luckily when the chorus came in, single-named singer Miguel took over lead vocals and rescued the melody. Sufjan Stevens and his band also sounded a bit off on "Mystery of Love," although it's a pretty song. The performance of "Mighty River" by Mary J. Blige (also nominated for acting!) was solid and those for "Stand Up for Something" and "This Is Me" were boisterous.

For the last several years, the Montage of Death has been accompanied by a good chanteuse, and it's worked well. This year, Eddie Vedder delivered a fine performance of the late Tom Petty's "Room at the Top," which made for a nice change of pace.

The most memorable speech of the night was probably from Best Actress winner Frances McDormand. She started with, "I'm hyperventilating. If I fall over, pick me up because I've got some things to say." She proceeded to give a fiery speech, calling on every single woman nominated in every category to stand with her, and then addressed producers and studio execs: "We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Invite us to talk, and we'll tell you all about them." She ended by saying, "two words: inclusion rider," which is a contract provision that requiring some degree of diversity in a film's cast and crew.

As far as the awards themselves, I'd have given Best Sound Mixing to Baby Driver over Dunkirk, which deserved its Best Sound Editing win. As much as I love Allison Janney, who was great as usual in I, Tonya, I thought Laurie Metcalf gave a meatier and more varied performance in Lady Bird and should have won Best Supporting Actress. Roger Deakins winning for Best Cinematography after 13 previous nominations for great work was long overdue. I've been a big fan of Sam Rockwell since he showed his versatility in 1999 as both a creepy killer in The Green Mile and a panicked goofball in Galaxy Quest, so I was happy to see him win. Likewise, Gary Oldman has been amazingly malleable in his roles and consistently fantastic, but due to much of his work being in genre flicks instead of "prestige" films, he hasn't always gotten recognition. It was nice to see him win. I think my favorite, though, might be Guillermo del Toro's double wins, because he's an imaginative, intelligent, generous, enthusiastic fanboy of a director, and The Shape of Water deserved all its awards, including Best Picture.

Here's del Toro's acceptance speech for director (video):

I am an immigrant like [fellow Mexican directors] Alfonso [Cuarón] and Alejandro [G. Iñárritu], my compadres. Like Gael [García Bernal], like Salma [Hayek] and like many, many of you.

In the last 25 years I've been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere. Because I think that the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.

The place I like to live the most is at Fox Searchlight because in 2014, they came to listen to a mad pitch with some drawings and the story and a maquette. And they believed that a fairy tale about an amphibian god and mute woman done in the style of Douglas Sirk, and a musical and a thriller was a sure bet.

I want to thank the people that have come with me all the way: Kimmy, Robert, Gary, Wayne and George. And my kids. And I wanna say, like Jimmy Cagney said once, 'My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my brothers and sisters thank you. And I thank you very much.'

Here's del Toro's acceptance speech for Best Picture (video):

Growing up in Mexico as a kid, I was a big admirer of foreign films, from films like ET or Willy Wyler or Douglas Sirk or Frank Capra; and a few weeks ago, Steven Spielberg said, “If you find yourself there, if you find yourself in the podium, remember that you are part of a legacy, that you’re part of a world of filmmakers and be proud of it.” I’m very, very proud.

I want to dedicate this to every young filmmaker, the youth that is showing us how things are done, really they are, in every country in the world. I was a kid enamored with movies. Growing up in Mexico, I thought this could never happen. It happened and I want to tell you, everyone that is dreaming of a parable of using genre of fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it. This is a door. Kick it open and come in. Thank you very much.

That's good stuff.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to avoid spoilers and label them, and also follow the rule: if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler. The reviews are split into three sections: The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2017 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The Shape of Water: Much like Pan's Labyrinth, probably still Guillermo del Toro's best film (and the second film reviewed here), The Shape of Water is a fairy tale both dark and wondrous. It's 1962 during the Cold War, and mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works the night shift in a government lab with her friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who translates Elisa's sign language for others as needed. They're tasked with cleaning up the mess after an amphibious humanoid creature (Doug Jones) attacks Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the menacing and authoritarian figure running the facility. Elisa dares to try to communicate with the creature, first by offering eggs, and then by playing music. They slowly build a bond, despite or perhaps because of the lack of a shared verbal language. Elisa confides in her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic artist struggling due to underemployment, alcohol and being gay in the 60s; the two of them share a love of musicals. The Soviets learn of the creature and are interested in obtaining it, thanks to their spy Dmitri Mosenkov, known in the lab under his alias of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). But Strickland, cruel by nature already, is under pressure from his boss to deliver knowledge that will give the Americans an edge over the Soviets, and decides over Hoffstetler's objections that they will vivisect the creature. Elisa learns of this, and is determined to rescue it from the lab.

As usual, del Toro brings a sense of magic and a visual flair, with a production design full of greens and blues and a camera that is often moving or at least floating, if subtly. Alexander Desplat's score emphasizes the wonder and menace. Hawkins is always good, but is particularly impressive here, using her facial expressions to tell most of the story. As the creature, frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones needs to covey emotion mostly with body language, and shows once again why he's one of the best prosthetics performers around. It's nothing new to see Shannon as an unsettling villain or Spencer as an amusingly no-nonsense character, but they're excellent in their roles. Stuhlbarg captures the torment and sensitivity required for Hoffstetler, and as Giles, Jenkins also narrates the film with a gentle sense of awe and affection. (By the end, we know which character is the "monster" he refers to.) The film works because we buy the relationships between the characters, most crucially between Elisa and the creature, and we care about them. We'll willingly enter this fantasy world, which includes a lovely musical number and some welcome female sexuality. As he always does, del Toro even humanizes his villains, bringing some moral and narrative complexity to the proceedings. Pan's Labyrinth was meant to be paired with The Devil's Backbone, but I think Pan also goes very well with The Shape of Water. I'd still rank Pan as the slightly better film, but it has an intensely sad side and is more of a tragic fairy tale with moments of wonder, whereas The Shape of Water is more of a romantic fairy tale with moments of darkness. As a few people have observed, it's too bad that Universal Studio's silly "Dark Universe" initiative to retread their monster movies yet again didn't hire del Toro and like-minded writers and directors instead, but maybe all the Oscars The Shape of Water justifiably nabbed will make the Universal suits reconsider their approach.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn't a perfect film, but its strong performances and original touches make it welcome viewing. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is mourning the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), and comes up with the idea of renting three billboards to pointedly press local sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for justice. Her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is embarrassed by it all and Mildred's abusive ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), blames her for their daughter's death. (He's taken up with a much younger woman, Penelope, played by Samara Weaving.) The townspeople may be sympathetic to Mildred, but most ultimately side more with Bill Willoughby, because they know he's dying of cancer. Willoughby's most aggressive defender is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop who's alternately bumbling and menacing. Be warned that this is not a feel-good romp, as some of the ads suggested; it's a drama with some comic moments, and much of that comedy is dark.

This is Irish-British writer-director Martin McDonagh's third feature, and his most complex and substantial. His first, In Bruges (the ninth film reviewed here), is mostly a fun buddy film with violence; his second, Seven Psychopaths (the sixth reviewed here), is more uneven, often going for flash over substance, but has a few great scenes (the best one starring Sam Rockwell). McDonagh seems to have an uneasy relationship with America, and I'm not sure he completely understands it – In Bruges has a ton of digs, some of which are funny, whereas his latest two films occur in the States. More specifically, Three Billboards… is set in McDonagh's mythic idea of middle America, where the characters can shift from ungrammatical folksy dialogue in one scene to poetic eloquence in another (most notably with Willoughby – "I don't think those billboards is very fair."). I'd characterize McDonagh's work as a bit self-indulgent but still interesting and entertaining (for instance, the lengthy title seems unnecessary). In the case of Three Billboards…, the virtues of the film far outweigh the flaws and there's plenty to like.

The main characters possess depth and complexity, and our views on them shift over the course of the film. Mildred Hayes is sympathetic due to her terrible loss, and her feistiness is admirable to a point, but, for instance, she doesn't give a damn about due process, which Willoughby reasonably points out is not a workable system. As we see in flashbacks, she was emotionally damaged even before Angela's death. She's not always kind even to the people who help her and she takes increasingly extreme measures to achieve her idea of justice. Mildred's flaws make her much more interesting, and her redeeming quality is that she herself is generally taken aback when she sees the negative consequences of her actions. Likewise, Jason Dixon is a multilayered character. He starts off as mostly comic relief, but then we see he can be violent and legitimately dangerous. His desire for redemption seems sincere but also doesn't excuse his past excesses (nor does McDonagh suggest it does). It's a challenging role, and Sam Rockwell puts his likability to its most extreme test to date. I thought both performers deserved their Oscars; McDormand's won before but is reliably good and brings weight and nuance to the role. As for Rockwell, I've been a fan of his versatility since he first appeared on the scene. These two characters really become the core of the film. If there's a third lead, it's Willoughby, who starts as kind of a bureaucratic villain (because we see things from Mildred's eyes) but our notion of him significantly changes as we get to know him better. Meanwhile, almost all the secondary characters have at least a good scene or two. Robbie's exasperation at his mother is refreshingly real. Penelope is played as a ditz for most of the film but then says something fairly profound. Peter Dinklage has a minor role as a would-be suitor to Mildred, and is given a nice moment sticking up for his dignity. The characters aren't always likeable, but they're consistently interesting.

The film drags on a bit in the final stretch, but I'm glad McDonagh picked the ending he did. And although I have my quibbles with McDonagh (who I've followed since his playwriting days), I'm glad he's making films. Not everyone can write and direct roles like this. And whatever else Three Billboards… is, it is not a cookie cutter movie. A little originality plus performances this memorable are always welcome.

Logan: One of the best movies of the year just happens to be a superhero movie. For stretches, as Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X/Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) verbally spar, it's easy to think we're watching a more conventional but still really good drama about aging, mortality and regrets. (I'm going to assume readers are at least somewhat familiar with the X-Men and these characters.) Logan's healing power is finally starting to fail him, and he doesn't help it any with heavy drinking; he just can't recover from external or self-inflicted damage as fully or quickly as he used to. Meanwhile, Charles remains one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, but he can't always control his telepathic powers anymore, which (we infer) lead to disaster at some earlier time. Logan as the best and most savage warrior on the X-Men and Charles as the most idealistic and pacifist always made for some interesting dynamics, and Jackman and Stewart embrace the opportunity fully, delivering two of the best performances of their respective careers. Add a stunning, dynamic feature debut by young Dafne Keen as the feral wild child, Laura, and you've got one memorable film.

Be warned that Logan is extremely violent, although it doesn't feel gratuitous. James Mangold's previous outing with Logan was The Wolverine (reviewed here), a mixed bag of a movie and pretty bloodless (thanks to censors) despite the depicted violence; in Logan, less is left to the imagination and we see more of the effect of Wolverine's claws. This feels necessary, though, because the film is so strongly focused on the idea of consequences and their continued weight; at this stage in his life, nothing comes easily anymore for Logan. Logan the film is, in the end, a story about an aging warrior, friendship, mentorship and choosing one's legacy. Genre snobbery seems to be slowly dying, thankfully, with more critics willing to acknowledge that Logan actually has better performances at its core than many a "straight" drama. If you know and like these characters, it's actually one of the most moving films of the year. (One quibble: one of the trailers used Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt," which was an absolutely perfect choice, and I wish the ending credits had stuck with that. Meanwhile, the disc has a black and white version of the film, Logan Noir, which I've yet to see but have heard is pretty interesting.)

Hostiles: It's been a few years since we've had a really good western. It's 1892 New Mexico, and Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is nearing his retirement from the U.S. Cavalry. He's given one last assignment – escort the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal lands in Montana. Bale refuses; he's fought native tribes for years, and has lost friends and comrades in the process; he's filled with bitterness and hatred, which he views as well-earned. But his pension is at risk if he doesn't comply, so he reluctantly agrees, taking with him a few men, most notably his friend, Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who's as world-weary as Blocker or more. Blocker also insists on putting Yellow Hawk and his family in shackles as soon as they're out of sight of the fort; the two share a history. Along the way, Blocker and his party encounter Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a severely traumatized woman whose entire family has been massacred by the Comanche. Yellow Hawk urges Blocker to be unshackled, pointing out that the Comanche will kill them all, even the Cheyenne. Blocker is gradually forced to trust Yellow Hawk somewhat, and their relationship shifts over the course of the journey. Most notably, Rosalee's plight awakens compassion in Blocker, and he's genuinely kind to her; serving her awakens his humanity and over time eases his bitterness.

Centering on a journey, the plot is unsurprisingly episodic. A memorable section involves Blocker (after stopping for resupplies) escorting a cavalry officer to trial. Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster) is due for hanging for brutally killing a Native American family. Blocker knows Wills, and the hate-filled Wills insists the two are exactly alike. Throughout the film, Blocker is confronted with moments like this, of facing who he was and who he wants to be, giving the film some moral complexity.

Bale always commits to his performances, and he's excellent again here, making Blocker's shifts and gradual overall transformation plausible. Pike likewise sells a difficult role, playing a woman who's understandably been driven beyond sanity but has increasing moments of lucidity and is, like Blocker, ultimately a survivor. Wes Studi has been one of the go-to Native American actors for decades, and he's very good here; it's interesting to contrast his performance as the dignified Yellow Hawk with his breakout role of the villainous-if-understandable Magua in 1992's The Last of the Mohicans. Western buffs will pick up on echoes of several classics, most notably with the film's final shot, which works on its own but has an added emotional punch for viewers who get the reference.

I've read some criticism that the story doesn't work for the depicted era; on the other hand, Hostiles has been praised for working to get the languages and other aspects of Native American culture right. I liked Jeff Bridges' performance in one of Scott Cooper's earlier efforts, Crazy Heart (the second film reviewed here), but was less impressed by the movie overall. I found Hostiles to be better and more moving than I expected. More in the:

2017 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch investigate a murder on an Indian reservation.

Wind River:Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an experienced federal wildlife agent, discovers the body of a young Native American woman in the snow on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Lambert knew her; Natalie Hanson probably froze to death, but was apparently raped, beaten and was likely fleeing her assailants. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate, but without even a decent winter coat. As the film progresses, we learn much more about dark secrets on the reservation and nearby towns and work sites, and gradually discover the story of Lambert and why he's divorced from his Native American ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones).

What makes Banner interesting and admirable is that she's in way over her head but knows it, and is trying to do right by Hanson and her family, so she openly appeals for help from both Lambert and Ben Shoyo (Graham Greene), the tribal police chief. She occasionally makes cultural or social flubs, but owns up to them. Banner's inexperienced and slightly naïve, but also smart and dedicated; Olsen makes her likable. Meanwhile, along with The Hurt Locker (the first film reviewed here), this is Renner's best work to date. Lambert is skilled and reliable, but also carries deep wounds that resurface from investigating this case. Greene is solid, as usual. Be warned that Wind River has moments of disturbing violence, including sexual assault; I appreciated that none of it was glorified. My one problem with the film was watching it thinking that Renner's character could have been Native American instead of white. Him being white does play into at least one scene on the reservation, but doesn't seem to add much to the story overall, and white audiences already have Olsen as a surrogate. Likewise, in a scene with Lambert and Martin Hanson (Gil Birmingham), Natalie's deeply grieving father, I wanted more focus on Martin. Your mileage may vary. My guess is that casting Renner helped get funding for the movie, and I don't want to knock him too much; he's genuinely good, and even moving in some scenes. This is a fine effort by writer-director Taylor Sheridan.

Lady Bird: Lady Bird is nothing groundbreaking, but it's always welcome to see a well-made character study. In this case, we follow young Christine McBride (Saoirse Ronan), a senior in high school who's decided to call herself "Lady Bird" and frequently clashes with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Ronan consistently gives fine performances, and all her scenes with Metcalf are superb; they can shift from bickering to bonding and back again on a dime. (A dress-shopping trip is particularly knowing about mother-daughter dynamics.) Lady Bird's father, Larry (actor and playwright Tracy Letts, in a nice turn) is often stuck playing peacekeeper. Beanie Feldstein is a standout as Julie Steffans, Lady Bird's best friend, similarly quirky and a bit of an outcast. However, their friendship becomes strained as Lady Bird becomes closer to popular girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush). Lady Bird's dating forays start out promising but often don't meet her expectations. This is an enjoyable, promising directorial debut by actress and writer Greta Gerwig, who's especially adept with the female characters but gives all the secondary characters interesting moments. As I've mentioned before, as much as I like Allison Janney, I'd have given Metcalf the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and it's always worthwhile to check out Saoirse Ronan in a good role. (After her performance in last year's Brooklyn, playing a slightly older character, I'm glad she got to play a teenager again while she still could.) The plot has some wrinkles, but this is a film built on performances and relationships; if you like the actors, check it out.

Blade Runner 2049: If you're going to make an unnecessary sequel, at least make a good film. The original film, 1982's iconic Blade Runner, was set in 2019, which hasn't aged well as a prediction, but the sequel-makers decided to stick with the time line. (Just say it's alternative reality and everything's fine.) As in the first film, the world has replicants, artificially created humans with enhanced physical abilities but who cannot reproduce, and it has blade runners, cops who apprehend or kill ("retire") replicants who get on the wrong side of the law. We start the film with K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner hunting replicants who's a replicant himself, which comes in handy thanks to the added strength and faster reflexes. K is working for the LAPD, specifically Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), who's kinder to K than his fellow cops (who taunt him), but also seems to enjoy the power she has over him. In the course of a mission, K discovers something extraordinary (slight spoilers) – the remains of a replicant woman (Rachael, played by Sean Young in the first movie) who apparently died giving birth. The idea of a replicant child forms an explosive revelation that could cause outright violence between humans and replicants, so Joshi orders K to investigate and destroy the evidence, including the child itself if he can find it. In Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation ("More Human Than Human") was the leading creator of replicants. In Blade Runner 2049, we meet Tyrell's successor, the extremely powerful Wallace Corporation, run by messianic, eccentric CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who sports enhanced eyes reminiscent of the owl in the first movie. Wallace also want to find the child, because he can't create replicants quickly enough and if they could procreate it would help with space colonization Wallace sets his right-hand woman on the case, the formidable replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Meanwhile, as K probes, he discovers more and more clues about his own past, which leads him to question his mission, which in turn could jeopardize his own safety and even existence.

The most interesting aspects of Blade Runner 2049 are the identity and intimacy issues, which make for a pretty existential storyline punctuated by action, all presented in a well-realized neo-noir aesthetic. (K, who also goes by "Joe" privately, is almost certainly named in homage to Kafka's protagonist in The Trial, Josef K.) K has been a dutiful cop but leads a lonely life, despised by many of his colleagues and other parts of human society. His main solace is his virtual girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI whom he loves; he even buys her a mobile emanator, which allows her to leave his apartment, where the AI is housed. Joi becomes a fascinating character because she does seem to genuinely care about K, but was manufactured, and presents as a kind of male wish-fulfillment of devoted feminine companionship, albeit with intelligence and original insights. How much autonomy does she really have? And K was manufactured himself. How much of their relationship, or even their existence, is real? What is K's true past and his identity? Perhaps he can gain more knowledge from replicant memory artist Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), or the veteran, retired blade runner who knew Rachael, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

At 163 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels it at points; Deckard seems unnecessarily regulated to the background in a climatic scene; and the film leaves several significant plot questions (possibly intentional with the idea of another sequel or two). Still, it's one of the most interesting films of the year. Unless you hate sci-fi and know this isn't your thing, it's worth checking out. Gosling and the other actors are excellent. The aesthetic is impressive (and it's nice to see that cinematographer Roger Deakins was finally given an Oscar). After this film and Arrival (reviewed here), director Denis Villeneuve has shown a promising feel for good science fiction. As with many of the best noir detective stories, the investigation becomes both external and internal, giving the storyline quite a bit of depth and thought-provoking aspects.

Dunkirk: Writer-director Christopher Nolan shows his usual technical acumen and love of intricate structure in this historical drama set during World War II. It's 1940, and the "Battle of France" has been going poorly for the Allies; the British and French armies have been surrounded by the invading German army and retreat to Dunkirk on the northern French coast. The Allied forces are effectively stranded, without enough suitable transport ships to evacuate the beach; 300,000 men could be killed or captured, giving Germany a significant advantage. In desperation, Britain commandeers civilian vessels such as fishing boats to cross the English channel and rescue the military. Nolan tells the tale from three main perspectives, and different time scales: the perspective from land, covering about a week; the perspective from the a sea, covering about day; and perspective from the air, covering about an hour. The interweaving storylines work surprisingly well, and it's impressive that Nolan makes it look so easy. As usual, though, he's a bit cerebral and reserved. He gives viewers almost no context whatsoever for the depicted events, assuming they're familiar with not only World War II, but specifically the Battle of France and Dunkirk. (British viewers probably are, and French as well; most Americans would know D-Day much better instead.) Nolan also doesn't introduce characters well in the land portion – you're lucky to catch a name, and it might take a while to figure out that guy from that other guy. Mark Rylance is superb as usual and a standout as Mr. Dawson, who decides to pilot his boat across the channel himself before the British Navy can requisition it. He's the very picture of quietly plucky Brit, and Rylance removes the taint of stereotype by infusing his performance with his usual humanity and nuance. Traveling with Dawson is his young son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan), who joins them at the last minute, seeking adventure. Familiar Nolan players Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy give memorable turns – Hardy as Farrier, one of only a few fighter pilots available to help, and Murphy as a shell-shocked sailor. It's also nice to see Kenneth Branagh, who's great as the weary-but-practical Commander Bolton, fully aware of the stark odds they face. Nolan shot Dunkirk in 70 mm and the IMAX format; some scenes are projected in widescreen, but most have the added IMAX image space on top and bottom. As I've written elsewhere, I'd have given Dunkirk's Best Sound Mixing Oscar to Baby Driver, but it fully deserved its Best Sound Editing win; there's little dialogue in the film, and the score and sound effects contribute a great deal. I thought Dunkirk was overhyped, but I suspect it will improve on repeated viewings.

Molly's Game: Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut has two good lead performances and all the snappy patter you could hope for. Based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, the film follow the smart and extremely competitive Molly (Jessica Chastain) as her Olympic skiing dreams are shattered and she gets involved in running a secret, high-stakes poker game for big shots and celebrities. Most of the story is told in flashback to her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), because Molly's being prosecuted for illegal activity, thanks to growing interest from organized crime in the poker game and related interest from the feds. This is one of Chastain's best performances; she enjoys playing a spitfire and has the chops for the verbal fireworks. Likewise, Elba's a reliable performer but isn't often given this much verbiage, and he seems to enjoy the ammunition he's been given. All the Chastain-Elba scenes are fantastic. Molly makes for an interesting character, facing sexism but also using it to her advantages (the film could be summed up as snappy patter, poker and cleavage). This is entertaining fare as long as you like Sorkin (asides about The Crucible included) and take it for what it is. This is a tale told from Molly's point of view, and she's the sympathetic heroine of it, even if she does dabble in drugs; I found myself wondering how accurate the film was. Some scenes strain credulity; Kevin Costner plays Molly's demanding psychologist father, Larry, and a late scene is a bravura piece of dialogue-writing, but implausible for consciously cramming in so many revelations in rapid succession. (It was so unlikely I found myself wondering if it was a Molly fantasy sequence.) Meanwhile, although Molly is attractive, rich and driven, we never see a hint of a personal relationship, not even the occasional fling, which seems odd. Some characters, including Elba and "Player X" (Michael Cera) are apparently composites, and many scenes feel devised for dramatic effect or to avoid legal liability. Still, fans of the Sorkin style or the actors will be entertained.

Phantom Thread: We're mainly tuning in to see Daniel Day-Lewis' final screen performance before he retires for a second time. The results aren't as good as his previous collaboration with writer-director P.T. Anderson, There Will Be Blood (the first film reviewed here), but fans of fine acting will want to see this one. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a talented, meticulous and demanding fashion designer. Everything in his life must be just so; he detests disruptions from his routine, and although he can be generous at times, he can also be vicious to those who fail to anticipate his desires (which are generally fixed, but not always). Reynolds' most loyal aide is his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who runs the business side of things and plays fixer for Reynolds while he handles the creative side. One day, young waitress Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) catches Reynolds' eye, and he adopts her as his latest muse, bringing her to live with him and Cyril and outfitting her in his latest gorgeous gowns. Stories about abusive geniuses feel a bit old-hat at this point, but luckily, Anderson and the rest of the team have plenty of twists up their sleeves. You might see a few of them coming, but probably not all. Day-Lewis is as splendid as ever, bringing his usual level of detail and nuance, and it's a shame he's stepping away from acting (we can only hope he'll reconsider again). Manville is a robust presence and fantastic; I was lucky enough to see her on stage recently, and went based on her performance in Phantom Thread. Most of the time, Cyril seems fiercely possessive of her brother Reynolds, reminiscent of Mrs. Danvers, the domineering housekeeper in Rebecca. At other points, she strongly and startlingly opposes Reynolds. Meanwhile, Vicky Krieps (from Luxembourg!) is a revelation. She has a sweetness and luminosity in the beginning that make Reynolds' attraction to her understandable, but the character also has a hard edge and striking vindictiveness. Alma's mixed feelings about the consequences of her actions are key to selling the later sections of the film. (This household has some messed-up dynamics.)

As with Anderson's other films, I found the sound design was a mixed bag. In a nice touch, he juices the sound effects of spoons in tea cups and slurping when Reynolds is getting (irrationally) annoyed with someone. On the other hand, I felt Anderson went over the top with some crashing, melodramatic music cues (Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood was once again the composer). I like other films from Day-Lewis or Anderson more, but this is worth a look (not the least for Manville and Krieps).

Get Out: Comedian Jordan Peele shows off his range by writing and directing this unconventional and ridiculously successful film, which was marketed as a horror film but also plays as a really dark comedy. It's time for Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented photographer, to finally meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). The parents are well-to-do and live in a big, isolated house in the upstate countryside. They're ostensibly liberal, and Peele has fun casting The West Wing's Bradley Whitford as dad Dean, a neurosurgeon, and typically likable Catherine Keener as mom Missy, a therapist. Their son, Rose's brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is a bit odd and has a knack for saying inappropriate things. It turns out that this weekend is the annual party the Armitages throw for their rich friends. Much of the first section of the film is cringe comedy as white people trying to be racially sensitive say clueless things to Chris, who bears it all with good grace. The dynamics are made all the more awkward by the Armitages having two black servants, the muscular Walter (Marcus Henderson), and graceful Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of whom behave oddly with Chris – and then there's the key utterance of the film's title.

Some of Get Out's elements don't hold up to extended scrutiny (more in the spoilers below), but it manages to be genuinely unsettling, with plenty of creepy moments. There's also no denying its originality. Peele plays with genre and cultural expectations throughout, probably most directly with Chris' best friend, Rod (comedian Lil Rel Howery), who serves as a kind of black Greek chorus audience surrogate. Peele has mentioned that black audiences tend to find Get Out much funnier than white audiences, and it'd be fun to attend a mixed screening and see the reactions. Likewise, some of the scenes surely play differently on a second viewing. (Peele considered at least three endings, which are apparently shown or discussed on the disc.) Viewers who don't normally like horror might still want to consider this one; it's not particularly gory, and most of the discomfort is psychological, and thought-provoking. Personally, I didn't think Get Out deserved Best Picture, as some critics have argued, but I was happy to see its acclaim, its financial success and Peele's Best Original Screenplay win. (SPOILERS)

The Post: It's hard not to like The Post, a paean to the First Amendment that focuses on efforts in 1971 by The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon papers and internal debates about it. The Pentagon papers were a classified report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, showing that, among other things, the U.S. government had misled the American people about how the war was going and whether it was winnable; their positive public declarations were at sharp odds with their private assessments. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers, and the government sought to prevent the press from publishing any part of them.

As usual, director Steven Spielberg assembles a top-notch cast, led here by Meryl Streep as Post owner and publisher Katharine Graham and her hard-nosed editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Graham's father owned the paper and her husband, Phil, used to run it before his suicide. It's still a man's world, and the men surrounding Graham, even if they believe they have her best interests at heart, do not show her much respect. Graham is also faced with several dilemmas – publishing the papers over the threats of the Nixon administration could, as some her advisors warn her, ruin The Post. She's also friends with some of the people implicated by the papers, most of all former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood); Bradlee accuses Graham of being too cozy with McNamara (just as Bradlee was with the Kennedys).

Even for viewers who know this history, it's pretty engrossing. Streep is simply fantastic in a pivotal decision scene. (It elicited small cheers and applause in my screening.) Hanks is solid as usual, although I've heard (and find plausible) that his mannerisms are less Ben Bradlee and more Jason Robards' version of Ben Bradlee from All the President's Men. That earlier film remains better, but The Post makes for a nice companion piece. The supporting cast is stacked, with Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greewood, Alison Brie, and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others. Spielberg made this film quickly, and if it's slightly less polished than some of his other work, there's an energy to it – and relevance, unfortunately. It's also an impressive first feature screenplay from Liz Hannah. The Post has at least a few touches that are invented to provide some typical Spielberg hokey moments, but it's nice to see films like this, made for adults.

Baby Driver: Writer-director Edgar Wright has joked about filming crazy car chases with crappy cars – and he has, for comedic and entertaining effect – but this time out, Wright delivers a slick, glossy-ad, big-budget version of the car chase, with the chases central rather than peripheral. Title character Baby (Ansel Elgort) has hearing and focus issues and is obsessed with music, allowing Wright to direct many scenes like a music video, as Baby listens to his tunes and dances about, sporting his Han Solo homage vest. (As I wrote in my Oscars post, I'd have given Best Sound Mixing to Baby Driver over Dunkirk, which deserved its Best Sound Editing win.) Baby's a misfit, but he's also an almost supernaturally talented wheel man, serving as the getaway driver for a crew of hoodlums working for Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby owes Doc a debt and he's working it off, with the usual movie temptation of one more heist and then I'm out looming large. Baby has extra motivation after hitting it off with a waitress, Debora (Lily James). Among the crooks, the standouts are Leon "Bats" (Jamie Foxx) and Jason "Buddy" (Jon Hamm), both of whom manage to be genuinely menacing. (I suspect Hamm especially enjoyed the change of pace from playing his usual charmers.) Elgort and James have nice chemistry together, and soon we're rooting for the young couple. Meanwhile, Wright pulls out all the stops to deliver spectacular action sequences that will have you laughing with admiration or gripping your seat in tension. Be warned that the movie does get pretty violent at times if that's not your thing, but mostly it's a summer popcorn movie romp. Baby Driver is not the deepest film, but this is joyful filmmaking with superb craftsmanship, and it's an awful lot of fun.

The Big Sick: Judd Apatow produces and Michael Showalter directs this film based on the real-life story of its star and cowriter, standup comic Kumail Nanjiani. Kumail starts dating Emily (Zoe Kazan) and they hit it off well, but Kumail's traditional parents do not approve of him dating a woman who's neither Pakistani nor Muslim, and this puts a major strain on Kumail's relationships with both his family and Emily. Then a mysterious illness sends Emily into a coma, and Kumail is forced together with Emily's parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter); Beth really doesn't like him but Terry makes an effort. Although Apatow didn't direct The Big Sick, it shows the same mix of drama and comedy that's his hallmark, and the script, by Nanjiani and the real Emily (Gordon), is full of interesting and genuine moments. The performances are natural and believable, working well for the material. Don't expect either a typical comedy or disease-of-the-week movie; The Big Sick is at times funny but more often goes for moving, and generally succeeds. As I wrote in my Oscars post, I cheered when Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, but would have been likewise thrilled if The Big Sick won. I enjoyed its originality and authenticity. Not everyone likes this type of movie, but a certain crowd will really appreciate it.

2017 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and Noteworthy Films.

Murder on the Orient Express: Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of one of Agatha Christie's most famous mysteries isn't as good as Sidney Lumet's 1974 classic, but like Lumet, Branagh tries to assemble an all-star cast. Similar to the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film is the equivalent of a new production of a classic play with a new cast and is worth a look. Branagh both directs and stars as master detective Hercule Poirot, who he plays as obsessive-compulsive and an aesthete. Branagh's a fine actor and tackles the part with verve, but you may find yourself entranced by Poirot's elaborate handlebar moustache as much as Branagh's piercing blue eyes. As the title suggests, someone is murdered on a train, and Poirot (who was just trying to enjoy a vacation) must figure out who done it. The scenario dictates a fairly contained set, and Branagh occasionally throws in overly flashy camera moves to try to open things up; they're so unnecessary they draw attention to themselves and away from the story or even the presumed point of the shot. Branagh's a good actor's director, as he shows again here, so I wish he had just trusted his skills and the performances instead, and opted for effective versus flashy camerawork. Perhaps the best scene in Lumet's version features a long, uninterrupted take as Albert Finney as Poirot circles Ingrid Bergman's character as he interrogates her; the camerawork is so subtle it's easy to miss the technique if you're not looking for it, but the effect quietly increases tension to the point of claustrophobia, anchored by a great, Oscar-winning performance by Bergman. Along with crazy crane zooms in Branagh's version, some of the added comedy feels a bit forced as well. Branagh (or the studio) seem worried that the kids today will get bored without some glitter. But in the end, we're here to see good acting, and the film delivers; in addition to Branagh, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer are standouts. Johnny Depp plays the sleazy Edward Ratchett and has a great scene with Branagh wherein Rachett tries to hire Poirot. Star Wars star Daisy Ridley is also pretty good, and it's nice to see her do well in this kind of material. If you like any of the cast or appreciate mysteries, check this one out; there's a reason this story is famous, and although Lumet's version is better, this is an entertaining outing. Branagh might be making Christie's Death on the Nile next.

Mudbound: This period film follows two families, one white, one black, and premiered at Sundance before being picked up by Netflix. Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) is swindled on a property deal and takes up farming in Mississippi, which entails living in a small cabin without indoor plumbing or any niceties; Henry's wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) is none too pleased about the setting or raising their daughters there. Nearby tenant farmer Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) isn't thrilled about what Henry demands of him, but bears it with good grace. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), works as a housekeeper for the McAllens until Hap is injured. Henry's father, "Pappy" (Jonathan Banks), is a virulent racist, making for some tension. Laura acts much more kindly toward the Jacksons, and she and Florence help each other out in small and later significant ways. Meanwhile, Jason's brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and Hap's son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), are both returning World War II vets and hit it off well. Ronsel chafes at being treated like a second-class citizen after relative freedom in Europe. Jamie is likely suffering from PTSD, and cares little for racial divisions, but doesn't always seem to fully account for how Ronsel might be endangered by the time they spend together. This is a good but not great film that I wanted to like more than I did. Director Dee Rees gets good performances from her lead actors, particularly Mitchell, Hedlund and the always-good Mulligan. Blige is decent, but I didn't think she deserved an Oscar nomination for acting (absolutely for her song, though). Cinematographer Rachel Morrison nabbed an Oscar nomination, but the opening scene is so darkly shot it's almost impossible to see anything (possibly not her choice, and her other work is solid). For Rees' part, narratively, the opening is an odd choice to start a film and to introduce key characters; I suspect the execution did not fully match the intent. Mudbound felt overhyped, but it's still worth a rental. The racial dynamics are interesting, and it earns points for some originality and memorable scenes.

Darkest Hour: As with most biopics, the lead performance in Darkest Hour is much better than the surrounding film. The versatile Gary Oldman is made to look like the much more heavyset Winston Churchill during World War II and, well, arguably Great Britain's darkest hour, when surrender to Germany looked like a real and perhaps the only option. Churchill is pugnacious, stubborn, and has an irascible nature, angering his colleagues and opponents as much as they do him. But this nature, coupled with his accurate assessment of Hitler, makes him the right man for the right time, and Oldman tackles the role with gusto. The film ignores Churchill's bigotry and a scene on London's new subway system ("the Tube") where Churchill mingles with the people starts decently but then becomes painfully sappy and implausible. (Apparently, the real Churchill did mingle above ground, but never had a crisis of faith.) This is British mythmaking and director Joe Wright's least nuanced film, and I wanted more. It is worth seeing for Oldman, though, and more interesting because of Dunkirk coming out in the same year and those events playing a central role in Darkest Hour. (Meanwhile, Brian Cox played the famous man in Churchill, also in 2017, although I've yet to see that.) Kristen Scott Thomas, Lily James and Stephen Dillane are good in small roles.

Logan Lucky: Steven Soderbergh delivers a decent but not great heist film centered on a Southern family, the Logans, supposedly cursed by bad luck. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) works construction in North Carolina but is fired. His ex-wife, Bobbie (Katie Holmes), and her husband plan to move out of town, making it harder if not impossible for Jimmy to see his young daughter anymore. Logan's brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), is a sad sack who runs a bar and has a prosthetic arm due to an Iraq War injury. Jimmy decides they should change their fortunes by robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race; his construction job let him see how food vendors use pneumatic tubes to collect money downstairs. They need to assemble a crew, most notably their sister Mellie (Riley Keogh) and Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a bomb expert who insists that the Logans also use Joe's two dumb brothers on the job. Craig's Southern accent is dodgy, but he's fun to watch, and the rest of the actors are pretty likable as well. Soderbergh keeps things pretty light, and most of the humor is of the bumbling crook variety, but occasionally the Logans show themselves to be surprisingly clever. Hilary Swank is a late arrival as an FBI agent and makes some odd acting choices, perhaps going for quirky but landing in the realm of the distractingly strange. Seth McFarlane is memorable as a pompous, British race team owner. Katherine Waterson plays Sylvia, a do-gooder running a health clinic who Jimmy used to know in high school. Waterson's fine, but it's a slight role. This is an okay rental, but it's hard not to think of Soderbergh's best heist film, his ridiculously enjoyable version of Ocean's Eleven.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi: The latest Star Wars flick is a mixed bag. For the new crew, former stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and raw, developing Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) remain interesting. In this installment, hotshot flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets to do much more, and Rose, an earnest rebel techie (Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran), makes a welcome addition. (Her introduction was funny, a fangirl moment over Finn, and I liked that she's not a conventional starlet. I also liked that the Resistance was diverse but just as a matter of fact, never commented on.) Maz briefly appears, but it feels like a forced cameo. For the bad guys, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) actually gets a featured fight this time, even if it's too brief for my tastes. Of the old crew, Leia (the much missed Carrie Fisher) gets several good moments. Chewie, C-3PO and R2-D2 basically have cameos, although they're welcome all the same. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is also back, and get some stellar scenes by the end.

In the meantime, writer-director Rian Johnson (of Looper and Brick) has Luke walk away from Rey, who wants to be trained, at least four times, and it gets really tiresome. A visually neat mirror sequence when Rey goes into a pit strong with the Dark Side (shades of the tree in The Empire Strikes Back) doesn't really go anywhere narratively. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey form a bond of sorts, but Kylo remains whiny, petulant and easily the least interesting arch-villain in the franchise. We get to see more of the evil-emperor-with-a-dumb-name Snoke (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis), and we're told a bit more about how he recruited Kylo, but only a little. Basically, as with the previous installment, The Force Awakens (reviewed here), it seems as if the major story has taken place mostly off-screen. Although the Empire wouldn't just completely fold up after the destruction of the Death Star, the loss of a key fleet, and the death of both the emperor and Vader in Return of the Jedi, those were nonetheless four colossal setbacks, utterly demoralizing and representing a massive victory for the Rebel Alliance. How did the Empire's successor, the First Order, completely take over the galaxy? Where did Snoke come from? How could Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia, and trained by Luke, turn out evil? Were the key three heroes from the original trilogy the worst child-rearers ever, unable to intercede? A series of Rashomon-like flashbacks with Luke and Kylo showing the same events from their different perspectives is intriguing, but the clips are short and leave us with many questions; Snoke doesn't really explain much more. (Bridging the gap between Episodes VI and VII might be something the studio does with its later films, including a new trilogy in the works, but it's a huuuuuge leap. )

The biggest problems, though, are with plotlines involving the newer characters. The center of the movie is a long-and-slow space chase with the First Order ships chasing the Resistance ships, who are running out of fuel; the First Order has developed tech to somehow track them through hyperspace, so they can't jump. Finn and Rose go on an implausibly lengthy side mission in the middle of all this to recruit someone to disable the tracker. Although Benicio del Toro's character, DJ, introduces some welcome moral complexity by pointing out to the pair that he's sold arms to the Resistance as well as the First Order, narratively, the side quest feels largely pointless – exemplified by a casino scene and a high-roller apparently just there as red herrings. Meanwhile, although Laura Dern is normally a fine actress, as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, she lacks steel and is woefully unconvincing as an authority figure. Her conflicts with Poe Dameron make little sense and scream of bad writing; what's maddening is that just a few tweaks could have solved obvious objections made by many viewers. (In contrast, in Poe's conflicts with Leia over the early bombing run, they both make good points.) Give The Last Jedi credit for a memorable climatic showdown, and many other good moments besides, but its errors feel awfully unforced, making them all the more painful. I suspect "too many cooks" was a key problem. Here's hoping the filmmakers stick the landing with Episode IX. Plenty more in the…

Wonder Woman: Wonder Woman is an above-average superhero movie and was a summer cultural phenomenon. Wonder Woman is probably the most famous female superhero, and Wonder Woman is really the first good DC comics movie since Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Director Patty Jenkins becomes the first woman to helm a superhero blockbuster, with its appeal to female moviegoers playing a huge part of its success. Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is supposedly not born, but crafted from clay by the Greek god Zeus, growing up on the magically hidden island Themyscira (Paradise Island in some of the comics), where the all-female Amazon warriors train to defend the world from the Greek god of war, Ares. One day, the illusion that hides the island is crossed accidentally by an American pilot working with the British during World War I, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). The Amazons help Steve defeat some pursuing Germans, he tells them what's happening in the outside world, and Diana is convinced that only Ares could be behind the war. She steals the "godkiller" sword that supposedly can slay Ares, and taking her magic lasso and armor, leaves with Steve for London; he's carrying news about a lethal gas being developed by a German evil scientist, Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aided by German general, Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Diana and Steve manage to convince the British high command of the peril, and they assemble a team to somehow get into German territory.

The core of Wonder Woman's success is Gal Gadot's performance as Diana/Wonder Woman. She's tall, athletic, and convincing in the action scenes, has charisma, and shows not only wit but deep compassion. She and Pine have great chemistry together, providing both humorous banter and plenty of flirtation. The film provides several memorable scenes, including a montage of Diana trying out British women's clothing in London, testing the outfits for the ability to fight in them (most fall short, of course). Diana dealing with a sniper in a tower is impressive and also funny, and a charge she leads across No Man's Land may be the most striking sequence of the film. Diana is a heroine not because she overcomes emotion, but because she feels it, and her compassion for the victims of war both defines the character and drives the plot. I also appreciate that the film is set in World War I and isn't yet another World War II flick; the later war has many great films about it, of course, but also plenty of mediocre ones and the subject is just overdone. I think the First World War is too little remembered and its dynamics (more moral complexity, mass slaughter, dehumanization) make a much better fit for the main character's journey.

The film has some issues, though. The Amazon mythology isn't really explained; in the comics, the Amazons are supposed to be immortal, but in the movie, viewers might be left wondering how an island of only women reproduces or persists. The Amazon actresses adopt an invented "Themysciran" accent, but they're not consistent, which occasionally makes for some unintentional comedy, as when Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta asks Steve Trevor, "What eess your meeeshun?" The final battle opts for visual effect spectacle over human (or demigod) drama, which is typical for the genre but remains a choice I almost always dislike. It seems like a wasted opportunity given the strength of the movie's best scenes, which trust the performances by Gadot and the other actors. Still, the movie's worth checking out if you haven't already.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: It's not as good as the first movie (reviewed here), but it's still a lot of fun, and develops a few of the secondary characters nicely. The Guardians are hired by the Sovereign – a haughty, gold-skinned race that considers itself superior to everyone else – to defend special energy batteries from an interdimensional monster (with plenty of teeth and tentacles, naturally). This leads to an entertaining opening credits sequence. The feat also earns the Guardians Gamora's half-sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan) as payment, but Rocket reverts to his scoundrel ways, earning the enmity of the Sovereign. Soon the Guardians are being pursued by the Sovereign as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his crew. Luckily, they're saved by the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be the father of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). The humor works well, as you'd expect, and we get to know Rocket, Yondu, and Drax better. Nebula and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) have a number of good scenes together, and we gain new insight into their complicated relationship. Pom Klementieff is a standout as Mantis, an empath with antenna and large, dark eyes. She's socially awkward because she's grown up knowing only Ego, leading to some good comedy but also some more poignant moments. I didn't like that the big finale was so visual-effects-heavy; I know that's a common Hollywood decision, but the first film's big finale focused more on the characters (although thankfully, the very end of the big showdown here does). There's an odd discontinuity with Gamora urging Quill to reunite with his father and then feeling rebuffed for it. Sylvester Stallone gives a painfully overbaked, grim performance in a small role. Still, this is a fun summer flick.

Thor: Ragnarok: The third solo Thor film has fun moments, but Marvel decided to make it too much like Guardians of the Galaxy and cram it with jokes, which doesn't always work well for its main character. This time around, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Norse goddess of death, arrives to take over Asgard and destroys Thor's powerful magical hammer, Mjolnir, leaving him at a grave disadvantage. If that weren't enough, Thor is kidnapped and forced to fight in gladiatorial bouts by the wry, decadent Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), and Loki is no real help. Can Thor find true power within himself, gather friends and save the day? Director Taika Waititi is best known in the U.S. for the funny 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (reviewed here) and also voices rockman gladiator Korg, delivering improv riffs throughout. On the plus side, Blanchett is fabulous as Hela, bringing a powerful, regal bearing to the character (complete with occasional Jack Kirby lattice horns) and even a goth sexiness. Chris Hemsworth continues to make a good Thor, and Tom Hiddleston is great as always as Loki. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk mainly provides comic relief but also some more tender moments, and his marquee fight against Thor (advertised in all the trailers) is fun. Tessa Thompson is okay playing a drunken former Valkyrie turned kind of bounty hunter/slaver, but the American Thompson's accent veers considerably, occasionally ending up oddly cockney. The beats of the final fight feel a bit by-the-numbers. The use of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" (also used in the trailers) is likewise unsurprising, but admittedly awesome nonetheless.

Some of the gags are funny, but others are predictable. Waititi's improv riffs as Korg, helping Thor pick out weapons, work well for that scene; funny, but also reinforcing the underlying peril. The same approach doesn't work as well elsewhere, and the worst instances feel forced, obvious or out of character (the Banner "bounce"; an Asgardian saying "We don't know who you are" to Hela after she's just announced herself simply to set up her quip back; Thor being scared, or awkward, or constantly bantering). The best moments of humor are based in understanding the characters and their relationships. Thor works better as a comedic straight man, not a quip machine. For example, as noted in our review of the first Thor movie (it's the 15th film reviewed here), that film "has a number of funny moments, most of all from Hemsworth being incongruously lordly, as when he bursts into a pet shop and demands a horse. (Female lust for the hunky Thor also is a frequent source of humor.)" Likewise, the best humor in Ragnarok stems from understanding the characters. Loki's self-aggrandizing little play is funny but also in character for him, as is Thor's method for breaking it up (borrowed from Walter Simonson's wonderful run on the Thor comic book). Consider also the "get help" bit and the elevator scene right before it; as in each of the three films, Thor disarms Loki with surprising sincerity and affection. The "get help" bit itself is funny and advances the plot, but the two scenes together also capture the heart of Thor and Loki's long relationship as brothers: competition, some irritation, but also a sense of devotion underneath. It's great stuff, and I continue to wish the Marvel team would make the Thor and Loki relationship more central to the films and ditch some of the visual effect spectacle. The actors have become friends in real life and have great screen chemistry. Mythology and other discussion in the…

Alien: Covenant: You know the drill: the nightmarish alien xenomorphs (or in this case, the earlier form neomorphs) terrorize and kill a bunch of humans accompanied by an android. The Covenant, a colony spaceship crewed by married couples, experiences a bad accident and makes a detour when they pick up a distress call from a nearby habitable planet. The usual mayhem ensues. Ridley Scott helming the previous entry in the Alien franchise, 2012's Prometheus (the first film reviewed here) meant a great visual style, plenty of atmosphere and some good performances, but also bad story moments so inexplicable and unnecessary many viewers were pulled out. Some of the actors are appealing in this one, too, especially Michael Fassbender in a dual role (the android David from Prometheus and Walter, a new android) and Katherine Waterson as traumatized, weepy but plucky Daniels. Danny McBride, normally a comic actor, is surprisingly good as country-music-lovin', ace pilot with nerves-of-steel Tennessee. The David-Walter scenes are intriguing, and a few scenes (medical experiments, etc.) are genuinely creepy. At one point, the film's title was Alien: Paradise Lost, and thematically, the film owes a great deal to Milton's Satan, Frankenstein and the Romantic poets, which some literary-inclined viewers might appreciate (and some critics found pretentious). But ultimately, the film holds few surprises and, as in Prometheus, presents supposedly smart characters making really stupid and inexplicable decisions. That makes it hard to root for anyone. At this point, the best reason for seeing Alien: Covenant is being a completionist and wanting to finish out the series; unfortunately, there's not much inherent value. The film didn't do that well at the box office, which reportedly may mean that only one more Alien prequel may be made rather than a planned two. Sadly, that's welcome news, given that the series has produced two great films, Alien and Aliens, but none of the next four (six if you count the Predator crossovers) have been very good (even if some have had good moments). More in the…

What Happened to Monday: This sci-fi film is mainly interesting for Noomi Rapace playing identical septuplets. In the future, overpopulation has become a serious problem, and having more than one child is outlawed, so Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe) has to get creative when his daughter dies giving birth to seven girls. He names each of the girls after a day of the week, which dictates their schedule for taking turns sharing the public identity of Karen Settman, all the while trying to stay clear of the Child Allocation Bureau (CAB), the brainchild of Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close). The sisters have different personalities, though, and some chafe at their predicament more than others and the severe restrictions it imposes –for instance, one-night stands are possible, but long-term relationships are almost impossible. On her allotted day, Monday goes to work as usual but does not return to their apartment at the end of the day, throwing their precarious existence into greater turmoil. Rapace is good as usual, even if the sisters could have been presented to viewers with more clarity; also, some of them seem defined mostly by cosmetic shtick. Dafoe is always a welcome presence. Close is decent but isn't given that much to work with. Viewers will guess one of the dread "secrets" of this society easily, but the film does present some unexpected twists. What makes the film the most interesting is that the sisters can be rivals at times, but do feel affection for one another, creating emotional stakes as the their peril grows more intense. This is an okay rental. (Unintentionally funny and distracting: several characters receive blows to the head, but in one scene a brutal blow will only temporarily phase the recipient whereas in another a lighter tap will knock the recipient out. Unrealistic reactions to physical trauma is nothing new in the movies, of course.)

The Wall: The Wall starts with a promising premise for a thriller – it's the Iraq War (exact year unknown), and a two-man American sniper and spotter team are investigating the aftermath of a pipeline attack, possibly the work of an enemy sniper. After waiting and watching for almost a day, shooter Shane Matthews (John Cena) advances, covered by spotter Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But they take fire, and have to take cover behind a low, not-very sturdy wall. The range on Isaac's radio's isn't working, their water is low, and somehow they need to survive with no relief coming anytime soon. (Slight Spoilers) Eventually, Taylor winds up talking to the enemy sniper over the radio, who speaks English, and enjoys probing and subtly taunting Isaac. Cena's solid, Taylor-Johnson gives a good performance as the rattled but resourceful Isaac, and the movie delivers some tense sequences, but also becomes increasingly implausible. The enemy sniper gradually becomes a cinema Master Villain, seemingly omniscient and omnipotent, which does fuel both the physical peril and psychological games, but also strains suspension of disbelief the more one thinks about the narrative and the characters. Viewers who just go along for the ride might not care, though. Doug Liman has a good command of the genre, although The Wall falls far short of his best thrillers, Edge of Tomorrow and The Bourne Identity.

I, Tonya: This surprisingly good biopic of infamous tabloid fodder Tonya Harding is engaging thanks to a strong central performance by Margot Robbie as Harding as well as Allison Janney as LaVona, Tonya's demanding and abusive mother. For those who don't know, Tonya Harding was one of the United States' best figure skaters, vying for the Olympic team in 1994, but she was seen as classless and crude, unlike golden girl Nancy Kerrigan. A crazy, semi-successful plot to injure Nancy Kerrigan was put in motion by people in Harding's circle, although her exact involvement remains a matter of dispute. Harding grows up being abused first by her mother and then by Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her off-and-on again husband; as she remarks, to her, it seems normal (sadly). It's hard not to feel at least a little sympathetic for Tonya Harding; Robbie is particularly affecting in a late courtroom scene. What's odd is that the relationship between Harding and Kerrigan is barely shown, although it would seem to be key to the story. It's established that the judges like Kerrigan better, but also that the two skaters were pals of sorts and occasional roommates on the road. It almost seems as if the filmmakers steered clear for fear of a defamation lawsuit. Margot Robbie learned to skate for the role, although a double did the more difficult maneuvers, and Robbie studied footage of Harding, including old interviews wherein the young teen spoke emotionlessly about her abusive mother. I had little interest in the actual scandal at the time and likewise scant interest in the movie, but it's pretty well done.

The Disaster Artist: Director and star James Franco wisely takes the sincere route while depicting the roots and creation of one of the worst films ever made, cult classic The Room. It'd be easy just to laugh at The Room's delusional and almost talentless writer-director-star, the odd and enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, but Franco focuses on the friendship between Tommy and his best friend, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, James' younger brother). Tommy can be creepy and controlling, but also generous, and the self-conscious Greg is genuinely inspired by Tommy's fearlessness. The two dream of making it in big in Hollywood, and after facing a series of rejections, Tommy gets the idea to make a film themselves. It's a familiar show biz tale, and it's easy to root for them – too bad that Tommy is so awful at every aspect of moviemaking. The filmmaking scenes are both painful and funny, aided in large part by Seth Rogen playing Sandy, the script supervisor, who voices the obvious WTF questions the crew (and much of the audience) is asking. I've seen The Room a few times, including screenings introduced by Tommy Wiseau and/or Greg Sestero, and read The Disaster Artist book by Sestero and Tom Bissell this film is based on. Franco's film is a pretty faithful depiction of what's known (or has been publicly admitted to, at least). It winds up being a pretty good movie about an absolutely awful one. Stay through the end, which shows scenes from The Room side-by-side with recreations from The Disaster Artist cast, and demonstrates how hard it is for trained actors to be bad – The Room's special, unique ineptitude was dark lightning in a bottle, and can't be fully recreated intentionally.