PADDINGTON 2 (2018): Charming As a Marmalade Sandwich

Paddington is the personification of British charm. The polite though clumsy bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has always been a bastion of empathy and kindness, something so desperately needed in our divided world. While Paddington has been a staple of international children’s literature since author Michael Bond first published the character sixty years ago, the character saw a resurgence in 2014 after the initial Paddington film became one of the highest grossing independent films in British box office history. Now, we have Paddington 2, in which our titular bear is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and must journey to prison where he makes a few friends while his family seeks to clear his name.

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Paddington 2 carries over the adorable charm of the unflappably kind bear journeying through a storybook depiction of modern London, spearheaded once again by co-writer/director Paul King. King’s work in British television gives way to a series of cartoonish yet grounded sight gags that show off our bear’s determination, right from the start as he tries several odd jobs to save up for his Aunt Lucy’s (voiced by Imelda Staunton) birthday present to mixed results. King’s knack for childhood imagination visuals gives us a window into the optimistic lavish world Paddington sees on a daily basis, one where people and places are able to give off warmth and color even in the starkest of places. Probably the best example is how Paddington restructures the gloomy Victorian era style prison he ends up in into a warm bustling place of good behavior, with diverse scary looking convicts frolicking to the easy listening calypso tunes of Tobago and d’Lime, who return to provide more endearing songs from the original film.

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Paddington‘s prison buddies show off just a small slice of the incredibly endearing supporting cast surrounding our main bear character who – despite being CG – interacts without any seams showing with his various familiar British co-stars. Brendan Gleeson‘s “Nuckles” is a hardened bitter criminal whose heart melts as Paddington shows him the charms of marmalade sandwiches and helping others, which translates over to his prison buddies Noah Taylor and Aaron Neil. The entire prion sequence is a great example of showing how extensive the adorable bear’s reach is, as his boldness in facing the much fear Nuckles or accidental discoloring of the laundry by putting a red sock with the white uniform leads the initially peeved prisoners to wearing pink uniforms and harmoniously be rehabilitated over one hell of a charming montage.

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Paddington‘s family is also clearly warmed over by his generosity as they search to clear his name, with Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the patriarchs taking it upon themselves to find out the mysterious culprit who framed the poor bear alongside their children Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris & family friend Julie Walters. Each has their own hang up established near the beginning of wanting to escape the doldrums of suburban London life but are either too afraid to admit their desire or haven’t quite gotten the chance to grab at it until the elaborate if overlong climax gives them an opportunity. Even most of the neighbors can’t help but be invested in the bear clearing his name… well, except for the angry self instate neighborhood watch guard Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) who keeps the neighborhood as safe as he can from the bear he hates just because he’s a bit klutzy and different.

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Actually, there’s another new neighbor in town whose outward warmth towards our furry friend is hiding a distant apathy. Hugh Grant plays Phoenix Buchanan, a self obsessed actor who serves as our villain, donning disguises while following clues from an antique pop-up book he stole and framed Paddington for the theft. Grant’s portrayal of an actor so unable to work with others he only desires a one man show is devious in an aloof insane way. His thespian roots lead him to have conversations with his costumes in character, carrying on with Hamlet and MacBeth in his attic while hatching schemes that shows Grant’s incredible comedic timing and hilarious commitment to his various disguises. Truly, he’s a step up from the admirable if forgettable turn from Nicole Kidman as the taxidermist in the first film, who had more of a threat yet less of a wit amongst the cast. Here, Grant’s threat is in his indifference to the needs of others, which contrasts wonderfully with the type of empathy Paddington constantly strives for.

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With both live action films, Paddington has really managed to create the rare type of live action children’s films that never hit false notes or talk down to their target audience. Even the worst children’s films out there have toilet humor for children and passing pop culture references for adults. Yet, Paddington 2 and its predecessor set themselves apart by never being crass or bottom of the barrel with their observations of how exhilarating kindness can be. Something that Paddington 2 manages to advance further with more elaborate scenarios and comedic delights. There’s a laid back sensibility here that makes them adorable comfort food, but with a simple message that honestly needs repeating in our modern climate. To quote Aunt Lucy herself, “if we’re kind and polite the world will be right.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Marmalade Sandwiches

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INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018): Opening Doors No One Cared to Open

The Insidious franchise works as a slightly higher end carnival spook house. The charm of the first film was in its limited yet effective scares. James Wan took the lack of resources and used it to his advantage, filling rooms with singular light sources and fog machines until they can pull out their lone elaborate ghost to jump scare us. All familiar trappings of a low budget haunted house. Simple, elegant and spooky, if not as memorable as Wan’s more character driven work in The Conjuring series. The second chapter in the Insidious franchise chose to go more elaborate with the scares, but in the process convolute everything with backstory and time travel that dilutes things to nonsense. The third Insidious got closer, but ultimately repetitive and forgettable, though we wisely focus more on medium/psychic Elise Rainier, played by the series’ most consistent lucky charm Lin Shaye.

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Now, with Insidious: The Last Key one can see that this series has run its course. One can only go back to the same haunted house so many times before they predict the jump scare moments and see the wires holding things up. This is no fault of Shaye, who remains as committed as ever to this part. The struggle she goes through to accept the horrors of her past are far better portrayed on through Lin Shaye’s visual flourishes of PTSD and precious few moments of nostalgic relief on her face. Especially when thinking back on her poor mother and what happened to her. As she wanders the house she grew up terrified in, the moments of the past brings light & horror to her eyes in ways that give this very typical ghost story a bit of emotional grounding it may not honestly deserve. Thus, we feel far more invested in her pursuit of tracking down the paranormal and stopping it from spreading evil into our world. Clearly, she is the glue holding the film together.

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One only wished that those around Elise carried as much weight. Primarily the estranged family members of her distant brother Christian (Bruce Davison), her nieces Imogen (Caitlin Gerard) & Melissa (Spencer Locke) or her abusive father in flashbacks Gerald (Josh Stewart). All of them start with potential to either clash or feed off of Elise’s struggles with her past, but end up either as pawns casted off to the side or plot reveals. Sometimes both at the same time. Hell, the most developed of her family members is her mother (Tessa Ferrer)… and she dies during the prologue. They all could have slowly unraveled the most intriguing lock worth inserting a lost key into; Elise’s mixed emotions on her past. Instead – similarly to Chapter 2 – Insidious The Last Key gives us backstory & previous film connections assuming that’s enough.

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Director Adam Robitel works within the ultimately restrictive confines of the typical Insidious franchise and gives it some breath of life with a few creative sequences. Some of the best ones since the initial entry, particularly with the blandly designed yet incredibly well shot KeyFace (Javier Botet). So, his contributions have less to do with the issues inherent to The Last Key as much as those of co-star/producer/writer Leigh Whannell. Whannell is not an untalented screenwriter, but there’s constant examples of Whannell’s dialogue not trusting the audience. We see clear visual indicators of what’s going on, but Whannell has to have someone explain this because they don’t trust those watching can catch up. For example, Imogen has to go into The Further and sees a red door. One we’ve seen Elise talk about in previous films & earlier in The Last Key… but Whannell’s Specs blatantly states in horrendous ADR “The Red Door. That must be the one Elise was talking about.” Whannell needs to underline, italicize and embolden every bit of important exposition because he assumes the very simple visual shorthand can’t do any of this.

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Of course, brief exposition isn’t necessarily bad at every instance, but when Insidious: The Last Key uses it to spell out what’s clearly there, it shows a total distrust that people watching understand the basics. And when the bar is that low, it turns the characters into far less engaging people. Case in point, Specs and Tucker (Angus Sampson). While never quite a highlight in any of these films, the chemistry they form with Elise during their origins in Chapter 3 and some of their hijinks early on in The Last Key result in a nice chemistry. Yet, as things go along, the two become obviously perverse unsettling characters that prey on Elise’ nieces, making any attempted character payoffs unearned and even creepy by the film’s end. If they were characters whose idiotic attempted romances were looked down upon consistently and not rewarded, it would make them funny yet challenging sidekicks. Instead… it’s treated as cute adorkable behavior to evidently be endeared to.

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This stagnation in the writing also hurts a general suspension of disbelief throughout. There’s a twist involving Elise’s father that immediately dips any attempt at grounding Insidious The Last Key in any sort of reality from which the ghastly horrors can become spooky. The surefire element that made the first film work – and what Wan doubled down on for The Conjuring films – was the believable family dynamic. Those were characters we somewhat cared about. Instead, we have Lin Shaye trying her best to make things tolerable and a director working as well as he can within the creatively looping series. All other characters waver between plot device and squandered potential. It may seem like Insidious The Last Key is a terrible film, but it isn’t quite that. It avoids being Insidious Chapter 2 on the pure strength of a few engaging scares and Shaye. Ultimately, this fourth entry ties more directly into the original to give us a sense of closure. So, hopefully that door is closed and keep it locked for good. Or at least until it’s rebooted like everything else.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Key Fingers

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Two Year Anniversary!

Hard to believe, but it’s already been two years since I started this blog! I want to thank all of you who have been reading since I started. If you’ve been following since the start, your loyalty is important and I’m incredibly grateful for all of your kind words. If this is somehow your first post you’ve seen here, welcome! Take a look at the back catalogue. Hopefully, I’ll remain consistent in 2018, with more retrospective reviews, lists and essay format articles to break up the regular reviews on here. In any event, you’ll still be able to catch me via Horror News Radio and Gruesome Magazine when I’m not writing here.

In the coming weeks, expect my big Top 20 list for 2017 and a few final reviews from the year. In terms of looking back, I’ll say the review that I’m most proud of from this past year would definitely be the mother! review, which you can read here.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017): Bursts Through Language Barriers

Guillermo Del Toro likes to meld genres. The Devil’s Backbone is more of a period drama than it even is a horror movie. Pan’s Labyrinth has shades of horror and period drama mixed into its overall fantasy tone. Now, with The Shape of Water, there’s a lot of genres being mixed up here. The general conceit is sci-fi, the brutal gore that would show off in a horror film and several references to this being a fantasy story. I’m not sure what could possibly be so fantastical about a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) falling for a scaly fishman (Doug Jones), but suspension of disbelief varies I suppose. After all, we’re a little over 30 years removed from Tom Hanks falling for a mermaid in Splash. Then again, our fishman is less humanized than Darryl Hannah in Splash, which would naturally leave people to ponder if Elisa is projecting something onto a non-human.

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Luckily, co-writer/director Del Toro avoids potential claims of beastality by taking full stock into something we as humans could use a better grasp of: communication. Given Elisa’s mute nature, the thematic drive of communication is vital to The Shape of Water. Del Toro does such an impressive job of bringing life to such a romance. The two communicate real feelings of loneliness, disappointment and passionate connection without ever seeming manipulative or false. Del Toro knows when to reveal subtitles and when not to. When he does, it’s intentionally meant to show off Elisa’s progressing assertiveness. When not, it’s meant to show other characters like her painter friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) acknowledging her as more of an individual. It’s a stylistic choice done merely through text or lack thereof that gives us development for the character. This translates beautifully to the bigger more bombastic elements of shadowy lighting, cold mechanical set design and flourishes of color (or lack thereof) that contrast our passionate leads with the unfeeling environment around them.

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Sally Hawkins is mesmerizing, giving Eliza a meek quiet demeanor initially that kicks off a visually gorgeous performance of heartfelt passion and emotionally resonating faces the speak volumes. On a similar level, Doug Jones gives our fishman a consistent creature behavior that still shows off a progression of awareness that feeds off of Eliza without being manipulative. These two are outcasted souls in lesser situations that find a kinship that’s believable. While few people out there can literally relate to being a fishman kidnapped from South America, one can find relatability in the form of a living being far from home and finding someone who shares their lack of connection with the world around them. Which endears us to this untraditional leading man and lady. Even when the element of physical love comes into the equation, it’s more an inquisitive trifle by comparison to the emotional connection that means far more. So many chills go down the spine as these two crazy kids strive to find a place they can be together. Though the kids descriptor doesn’t give enough credit to the fact that these two are adults of their own specieses and – more importantly – to each other.

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Del Toro doesn’t just focus his efforts on unveiling the charm of this couple for The Shape of Water though. His talents are also utilized to slowly unveil the matter-of-fact cruelty of Strickland (Michael Shannon). His coldness is equalled by his sense of duty, which seems to be the only reason he strives to continue on. He seeks the type of approval of his superiors for a sense of accomplishment that makes him feel positive rather than any true personal feelings. Everything from his nuclear family to his brand new Cadillac to his failed attempts at keeping his fingers that were bitten off attached shows he only has one mind set as to what success is and anything outside of that means failure & death. Shannon is a master at being the type of coldly unfeeling characters seen here. His blinking massive eyes give off the feeling of a bug striving for perceived survival instincts rather than a caring individual willing to make concessions in life.

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The rest of the supporting characters in The Shape of Water breath life into what could dangerously turn toward stereotypes. Richard Jenkins gives depth to an artist hoping and failing to find love in a world out against his creativity and sexuality. Octavia Spencer gives the Zelda character more of a personal determination than just a sassy sidekick who’s slowly growing to have her own individual determination against her lazy husband Michael Stuhlbarg takes the least engaging subplot of a scientist with a secret motivation and gives it the depth of a man fighting against his station in a fashion that gives him far more emotional resonance. All of them have individual quirks that Del Toro reveals in action and connection that’s refreshing. All set against a 1960s backdrop that breathes disenfranchisement that’s still sadly relevant.

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As The Shape of Water dictates, love isn’t an easy equation. It’s messy, brutal and harsh in ways that are as complicated as the time period this film is set in. The shifting genres may turn people off wanting to simply find an unconventional love story. Yet, they don’t diservice what’s going on here. If anything, they compliment such actions. Fighting for what we love can often result in brutality coming towards us. We fight against our usual nature if it means giving what we love a chance to survive and grow. It’s hard and often means sacrificing what we deem to be successful in the society we live in. All of these themes resonate just as much now as they did during the era in which The Shape of Water takes place. While the gore and make up may make this a bit less engaging to those wanting a love story in the more traditional sense that endears people to the holiday season, Guillermo Del Toro succeeds in giving us a story that transcends traditional genre or language we’re all accustomed to. Even with some questionable elements to the ending or certain subplots, nothing here is disingenuous. Which is quite refreshing in a dreary world.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Boiled Eggs

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017): Let The Past Die

There are mild spoilers Star Wars: The Last Jedi in this review. If you’re one of the five people who haven’t seen it yet, proceed with caution.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a pretty bold sequel. That’s pretty unexpected, considering Star Wars is made by a multi-billion dollar corporation like Disney and the previous two Star Wars films. One would expect The Last Jedi to be a far more traditional mega blockbuster that pulled punches and relied heavily on the type of fan service that made The Force Awakens one of the most successful films of all time. Admittedly, there are a fair amount of callbacks and allusions to the previous films in the canon. Only makes sense, especially as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) takes a far larger role than his cameo at the finale of The Force Awakens as he’s confronted by young Rey (Daisy Ridley) about the concept of the Jedi. There’s allusions to Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi ladened throughout, but The Last Jedi separates itself from The Force Awakens by setting those familiar tropes up and subverting their original context.

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Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) at one point states “Let the past die” in reference to those who stand to hold him back. Yet, what The Last Jedi aims for is to say that dwelling on the past can hurt you, but forgetting about the past leads to repetition of their mistakes rather than learning from them. These mistakes are central to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Constantly, characters are getting themselves into situations that lead to catastrophic consequences. Rey assumes things about Kylo Ren that lead her into brutal binds she needs to get out of. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) makes cocksure sudden decisions about destroying ships that lead to The Resistance being hunted down by The First Order. Finn (John Boyega) gives into his most base impulses in ways that lead him and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) into trouble. Learning from failure in The Last Jedi isn’t as concrete as “Don’t do A and get B result.” It’s a long game of finessing situations and finding where balance truly lies. Much in the same way director/writer Rian Johnson treats The Force of this universe. There’s lightness and darkness, but there’s a murky middle ground within there to both guide and confuse our people along the way.

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The Last Jedi is perhaps the most morally ambiguous leap forward in the franchise, addressing the wage gap of this galaxy far far away head on during the Canto Bight subplot. We see the frivolous excess of arms dealers who sell weapons literally throw money everywhere, all while the smugglers and thieves like Han Solo or DJ (Benicio Del Toro) just try to make a quick buck. Still, DJ is an engaging character to watch thanks to Del Toro’s usual spark for quirky performances and his skills around tech that make him a surprise at every turn. Admittedly, these sequences on this casino style planet are the weaker moments of The Last Jedi overall, showcasing the tonal whiplash that makes the experience awkward. Yet, these thematic drives and the lovable chemistry between Boyega & Tran is incredibly endearing. Finn continues to try and protect his friends while Tran comes into her own from a meager maintenance worker to a larger part of The Resistance. I’d just hope both of them are involved in a storyline with more direct connections to the overall plot next time.

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This is especially the case when their goal centers around a major ticking clock as Poe, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) try to escape the grasp of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and The First Order in space. This entire subplot has some of the most inventive visual elements that showcase Rian Johnson’s capabilities with both action and character interaction. The space sequence that opens Star Wars: The Last Jedi is honestly the most visually inventive the series has had. X-Wings and TIE Fighters do things here no one has done before, creating visually stimulating space battles that are perfectly edited alongside our folks in the ships. Of course, Star Wars has made plenty of sequences like this, something The Last Jedi is clearly aware of. Humorous jabs at these confrontations and subversive moments during moments of massive damage give these space battles so much more emotional investment and surprise at every turn. All with spectacular digital & practical effects, elegant production design and shining cinematography from Johnson’s crew. Hux and Poe are also allowed to have far more character than they were in The Force Awakens, particularly as one is the butt of the joke for another. Even Holdo and Leia build a believable chemistry that makes one truly believe they’ve known each other for years. Right down to their mutual conflicts with Poe’s recklessness. Of course, this being Carrie Fisher’s final film makes many moments with Leia hit home in ways not totally intended, but that meta layer doesn’t distract from Leia’s own struggles and comedic moments that make her an integral supporting character for this story.

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Rian Johnson is clearly a fan of the series, but really wants to take the themes introduced and makes them murky in fascinating ways. After all, Luke tells Rey at one point that “This isn’t going to go the way you think.” Which it honestly describes The Last Jedi to a tee. Particularly in the trifecta of Luke, Rey and Kylo, where The Force is explored in ways the franchise has never gone to. The connection and lines of dark & light sides blur far more here, allowing more mysterious connections to take hold between Rey and Kylo. Something that Luke finds intimidating given his own past with Kylo. These unconventional connections between these three is leads to certain revelations that people are already incredibly divided on.

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Without saying too much, these revelations are refreshing. Giving larger nets from which the pool of The Force can come from and Luke a continuation that feels natural. His more bitter tone fits a young farm boy who had his only legal guardians burned alive, finally found his father in the form of the galaxy’s greatest villain who chops his hand off and losing his own nephew to The Dark Side while trying to train him. Thus, the optimism of Rey clashes with Luke’s cynicism in ways that are bold, human and chilling all at once. This fight over The Force clearly mirrors our own modern divisive world, fighting the desire to be cynically passive and righteously angry. All done with a not-so-subtle yet powerful brush by Johnson to fit this franchise and not distract.

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There’s plenty of narrative and tonal issues to be found in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It is the longest Star Wars entry and one can feel that dragging moments. The Force Awakens is an inarguably better paced and streamlined film that captivated audiences with good reason. Yet, the dragging bits in The Last Jedi don’t come from overly convoluted plots as much as it does the sheer amount of ideas being shoved in by Johnson. This really is the most ambitious entry in this franchise in quite some time. And while not as consistent as the Original Trilogy could often be, the ambition and unbridled gall of The Last Jedi truly makes it a bolder film that The Force Awakens is. Which in my book can go a long way. The risks on display in The Last Jedi are already dividing many fans, with revelations and consequences that could easily disappoint so many. That being said, none of the hindrances really hurt the characters or drive of this saga as much as slightly hurt The Last Jedi as an individual film. What’s important and makes this one of the better films in the Star Wars franchise really is what it does for this galaxy far far away overall. Keeping the past in mind, but not letting it lead the course for the future. That’s up to the newbies to do. Luckily, they’ve got better non-robotic hands to steer us in the right direction. Then again, JJ Abrams will probably bring back Jabba the Hutt and Ewoks for Episode IX and render all this null and void. But for now, the spark of hope continues to set this saga aflame as a guiding light.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Roasted Porg Carcassases

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The Disaster Artist (2017): What A Funny and Moving Story, Mark

So bad it’s good films are so hard to quantify for many people. “Why would you want to watch a bad movie anyway?” some would say. Well, there’s a true distinction between “Bad” and “So Bad It’s Good.” Mainly, a high amount of genuine enthusiasm that is in direct disproportion to the level of talent of those involved. Passion goes a long way to making films massively entertaining and a lack of this can make a film completely dire, even if it is competently filmed. One fine example of this is The Room, the 2003 diasterpiece from writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. And The Disaster Artist is his story.

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Well, he’s at least involved in this story. Really, our lead is his The Room co-star/line producer and author of the titular book The Disaster Artist is based on Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). Greg and Tommy (James Franco) make for an intriguing pair. One is a charming young man filled with too much shame to stand out in a crowd. The other is an older weirdo who has too much pride and ambition to know he’s standing out in a crowd. The two of them find each other in an acting class that sets up their dynamic in a hysterical fashion that’s also got a kernel of heart to it. This is what The Disaster Artist strives to make its core emotional tether. The story of a middle aged man thinking he’s taking on a young ward while the young man is trying to understand this alien in front of him. Admittedly, some of Greg’s bigger solo moments from the book end up going to the wayside in service of streamlining the story, but Dave Franco’s winning smile and endearing attempts to understand Tommy make him shin here alongside James’ more showy performance.

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The casting of James Franco (who also directs) and his brother Dave is oddly not as distracting as one would suspect. Admittedly, James on paper is too handsome and built to play Wiseau, a man so distinctive. Yet, there are several points where James Franco blurs into his character. His vocal impression and eye twitches in particular feel ripped from Wiseau’s unique presence. James really thrives on the aire of mystery and confusion that Wiseau seeps into his filmmaking. He makes the odd seem nature and sensical. James’ unflappable ballsiness makes him endearing if undecipherable. Thus, his naturally brotherly chemistry with Dave as Greg is incredibly heartfelt. One gets why these two outcasts in the acting community could find each other and form an untraditional bond. Greg needs Tommy’s confidence and Tommy needs Greg’s companionship to balance each other out as they try to make it.

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Yet, buried in the nonsense Tommy Wiseau exudes is conflict as well. But not merely in Tommy’s appearance or accent. No, there’s some dark territories of Tommy’s personality that The Disaster Artist covers. Particularly Tommy’s more cruel treatment of actors on set, with far more grounded and righteous anger than Sestero’s book of the same name. Some of the actions Tommy pulls during these harsher moments can go into the point of no return in terms of enjoying him as a character, but luckily the two Francos juggle this perfectly. Tommy seems socially incapable of having a filter and Greg calls him out on it in a way that feels authentic. That manipulative touch of Tommy cycles with the naivete constantly. One can tell that the director’s chair gives Tommy a power dynamic that he doesn’t seem to have. As Tommy would say, this is “no Mickey Mouse stuff.”

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Now, while James Franco’s performance is certainly memorable, his direction for The Disaster Artist is oddly far more lacking than in The Room. By which I mean on a level of personality, not quality. Franco’s direction is completely competent here. A few slow motion bits and pieces, some well lit shots. Yet, the most compelling aspect of the direction… is when Franco is intentionally recreating the terrible look and feel of The Room. The showroom display level set design. Off kilter cinematography due to an HD/35 mm camera rig. Copious amounts of continuity errors from shot to shot. It’s a testament to The Room for being the vision of an… auteure like Wiseau. Franco’s recreations are even slightly too polished in the side-by-side comparison to Wiseau’s gas station designed lighting schemes.

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The Disaster Artist is far more of a performance showcase than anything else. Not just for the Franco brothers in the lead, but so many other actors that pop up here. So many in fact that they have to cram at least seven of them into a rapid fire opening montage. The more lasting impressions though are made by members of Wiseau’s crew that have their minds boggled as all the silly antics of The Room‘s production take place. There’sSeth Rogen as the long suffering script supervisor Sandy, an ever puzzled Josh Hutcherson with hysterical hair as actor Philip and Paul Scheer as the gradually enraged director of photography Raphael just to name just a few. They’re all grounded characters who gradually grow curious then frustrated then ultimately resigned figures barely able to keep up with Tommy’s typical antics in a hilarious way. Even some of the female characters with smaller roles in both the film and book make a strong impression thanks to game actresses like Alison Brie and Jacki Weaver.

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Yet, the onset antics aren’t the driving force here. For both the book and film, The Disaster Artist could have easily been a list of anecdotes about how inept a filmmaker Tommy is. Yet, both manage to twist these stories of a weirdo like Tommy Wiseau and add a mysterious layer of tragedy and humanity to this bizarre creature unleashed here. Sestero and Wiseau’s relationship is oddly magical as they strive for their dreams and while failing to achieve the traditional goal find another avenue to immortality. One with more laughs amongst the cheers, but it’s still a type of recognition that made the two of them cult favorites. That entire stumbling into success plotline makes this an universal story of someone finding a path to their desires they never anticipated and seizing it alongside true friends. It’s a case of taking the road less traveled yet finding that destination down that dirt path. Now, to quote our film’s titular character, “Here you go. Keep the change. Oh hai doggie. Bye!”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Thrown Water Bottles

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI (2017): Open Up Your Eyes and See The Signs

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri has so much going for it. With the relevant premise of a mother (Frances McDormand) seeking righteous justice for the rape and murder of her daughter against a police department she feels is incompetent by calling them out on a series of billboards is the type of righteously angry story that we need right now for our modern political climate. Yet, there’s one certain element that flushes down the potential greatness of Three Billboards. One that writer/director Martin McDonagh clearly wants to say something about yet ultimately seems muddled and clunky considering the overall message at heart. The effort is noble, but the execution is worrying to say the least.

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None of these issues really deal with the purest aspect of Three Billboards though; Frances McDormand. A fierce performance that brings the type of homespun authenticity of the role of Marge from Fargo that won her an Oscar twenty years ago together with a bubbling anger that’s fascinating to watch. McDormand as the strong headed Mildred is one of the best of the year. There’s so much hilarious grit and conviction that makes her vulnerable moments stand out even more. Her regret and rage is over the top, but righteous in ways that makes one side with Mildred from the start. Plus, McDormand’s dry vulgar delivery is a well of hilarity. Particularly as her strained relationship with her son (Lucas Hedges) becomes more and more confrontational.

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Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a complicated character to balance. One who seems to care about helping this woman yet also trying to preserve his reputation. That dynamic is where the thematic drive behind Three Billboards works best. Making McDormand’s words toward him tough but valid given what she’s been through while at the same time giving us sympathy for Harrelson despite his own issues that are indicative of a slacking police unit. This is the conflict that drives so much of the passionate argument and hysterical laughter early on. The latter is pulled off far better in his interactions with the baffled Desk Sergeant (Zeljko Ivanek). There’s a lot of dramatic and comedic ground covered here that shows the purest potential of Three Billboards shining through gloriously.

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Unfortunately, one aspect of Harrelson’s character is that he willingly allows the crazed antics of Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) to go free. Dixon is a man prone to alcoholism and violent behavior. He’s even been alleged of torturing a black suspect during interrogation. McDonagh seems to want to give this character who shows a complete disrespect to decency and humanity time & time again a sort of redemptive arc. One that admittedly gets him roughed up pretty bad. And in theory, this redemptive arc could be pulled off. After all, Sam Rockwell is a hard face to hate and he tries his best to make Dixon’s moments of awkward slapstick work. There are admittedly some grounded moments of distant family interaction between Dixon and his mother (Sandy Martin) in between there.

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Yet, something just seems off with the way Three Billboards treats this character. We’re supposed to be learning more about him and eventually seeing why he continues to commit cruel actions to innocent people. Yet… we never really get anything worth making him investing. Most of it bubbles up to “having too much hate in his heart.” Not about systemic racism in the South or a corrupt system that breeds laziness. Some of these are attempted to be addressed, but not really in reference to the various things he’s been accused of or even flat out did. We don’t get why anyone would really want to be around him or see any good in him as a person.

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Now, this is all really bothersome because so much of a parallel is drawn between Mildred and Dixon. Very clearly, we’re supposed to see these two share a similar inability to live life because they can’t let go of their pasts. Now, on a very basic primal level, I can see why McDonagh is drawing such a parallel. In a wonderful world, the amount of crimes done against women, minorities, people with disabilities or any disenfranchised person could be solved by two people who are too angry cooling down. However… that’s real false equivalency horseshit, quite frankly. Mildred is a mother who never found the person who raped and killed her daughter. Dixon is a cop who’s violent, bigoted and terrible at his job. The fact that Three Billboards even dares draw this comparison is kind of upsetting and harmful, especially with the fact that the film is set in the same state that the Ferguson riots took place.

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This is all so frustrating considering how great a creative talent Martin McDonagh is, especially with three dimensional conflicting characters we end up siding with. In Bruges is a masterpiece because of the pains it goes through to make a hitman who’d be an inept bad guy anywhere else seem sympathetic and dimensional. Same for Seven Psychopaths, even if it’s a much more awkward and gangly film. Both still feel like they’re coming from somewhere genuine. Exploring the dark hearts of one’s soul and getting a full portrait of their regret and depression with a more European sensibility. Three Billboards honestly feels like someone commenting on a specifically American version of a worldwide issue with little true perspective on the internal machinations at play.

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It’s all a shame because there’s a lot of other great moments and touches. John Hawkes has some compelling scenes with McDormand as her abusive ex-husband. Samara Weaving stumbles into stealing the show as Hawkes’ naive younger girlfriend. Peter Dinklage mumbles hilariously through the part of the awkward man in town. Caleb Landry Jones has a some funny moments and a cute thing with Kathryn Newton that goes nowhere because of issues related to Rockwell’s character. There’s a huge ensemble in Three Billboards that makes this small town feel real.

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However, part of the reality Three Billboards is addressing circles back to many issues we’re still having with modern police brutality and the desire to keep our law enforcement accountable while also going deep into depression and self loathing over grief. There’s so much of that on display with Mildred’s side of the story and I’d love to see a nuanced engaging treatment of a police officer like Dixon who has committed such actions. Yet, he’s treated as more of a lovable goof than someone with deep troubling issues. He comes off as the ironically lightest bit of humor in an incredibly dark comedy drama. Which comes off as offensive in all honesty. Yet, there’s a nearly great film inside of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri worth watching… even with a sour tumor of a subplot being it’s albatross.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Rice Krispies Pieces In My Hair

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COCO (2017): Sends Chills Down Bones

Following a few lackluster delayed sequels, it’s easy to count out Pixar. Just know that as soon as they’re counted out, Pixar always pulls something out of their hard drives that smacks the audience in the face with emotions. Coco is a triumph for the type of emotionally naked stories that have made Pixar so beloved. Admittedly, some of their recent works have suffered because of that formula – the one set by Toy Story of two misfits who go on a journey and find something more about each other – but Coco excels within those limits. Faint praise in theory, but watching it unfold with Coco is truly magical and otherworldly while completely relatable on a human level.

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Of course, a large part of this is the cultural context of Coco. This is no Epcot Center Mexico Pavilion. You can tell that directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina have a respect and knowledge of Mexican culture that gives this adventure an identity. One explored before in recent films like underrated Book of Life. However, the world and designs truly do feel different, mainly in terms of its themes of music and family over Book of Life‘s more romantic inclinations. It’s a far better musical than Book of Life, creating new more distinctly Disney style songs and art styles that fit the Mexican culture. Which isn’t in that a huge negative. The designs of the skeletal creatures are cartoonishly elaborate, like the next evolution of the skeletal creatures featured in the Walt-era short The Skeleton Dance, especially with the Hector (Gael García Bernal). Each individual bone has weight as it rattles along. Yet, there’s still the Dia de Muertos holiday firmly engrained in the look and sound that makes it far more distinctive with each individual skeleton’s shape and body type.

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Speaking of those songs, Coco is Pixar’s first musical production, short of having Randy Newman singing random songs. Here, the music is cleverly designed around the adoration of an iconic musician from this land Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Our protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is so drawn to the songs and feelings he has from hearing that music, he wishes to spread it himself by playing even if his family is against it. Such context gives the catchy melodies so much more meaning and the animation on these performances is magical. Managing to stretch the limits of human anatomy while perfectly imitating the art of being a musician. A visual context for the emotions our lead feels.

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Coco of course wouldn’t have this without the charming cast of characters around. Miguel is a likable child protagonist, with understandable fears and regrets that make his journey a delight to watch. Especially once he tags along with Hector. They have plenty of comedic hijinks that explore the nooks and crannies of this world. The night life, the colorful spirit guide animals and even the sad corners few would want to tread down. It gives the afterlife a sense of fun with just the right amount of gravity to keep the story moving along. The stakes build from multiple perspectives as well, considering Miguel’s own worries about what his family thinks of him now that he’s gone behind their back as a musician. The highlight of the voice cast really is Gael Garcia Bernal, as he gives Hector more dimension than a trusty sidekick role and manages to warm many hearts by the end.

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Although Pixar is known for many tear jerker moments over the last several years, Coco manages to turn this into the entire climax of the film. The tears being jerked here last a solid 15 minutes or so, with few moments to break before the tears fill up your eye sockets yet again. All while being earned spectacularly. Some have accused Pixar of being far too manipulative in their pursuit of emotional catharsis. Even the ending of Unkrich previous effort Toy Story 3 gets a bit of flack for this. But Pixar’s greatest strength really is managing to address brutal emotional scenarios as a way of showing these characters the truth underneath their day to day lives. The core gooey emotional center that makes them all connect.

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Ultimately, Coco is a marvel of Disney/Pixar’s craft. A love letter to this culture with a human story of identity and understanding that’s universal. The gorgeous animation and catchy songs all pour into the typical mold while delivering something special thanks to the ingredients within from the Mexican influences. The Land of the Dead is filled with familiar human touchstones. Including how we can perceive an iconic presence and see something underneath, which is relevant given some recent troubling news related to Pixar. Yet, also relevant were some comments made by Rashida Jones as she exited Toy Story 4, where she claimed that Pixar is “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice. We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring, and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders. We hope we can encourage all those who have felt like their voices could not be heard in the past to feel empowered.” Giving Coco – a gorgeous film with a cultural identity that isn’t stolen as much as deeply celebrated – your dollars is a great way to hopefully move things forward.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Guitar Strings

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JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017): Minor League Is Better Than Nothing

Justice League is the culmination of so much for the DC film franchise. Four films of varying quality introduced us to this world of Gods among men. Of course, the greatest of those Gods is still Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), given the groundwork laid for her by this summer’s massive hit and first great film in this franchise. While striving for brave new ideas, Man of SteelBatman V. Superman and Suicide Squad all suffered from sprawling ideas that ultimately came up short. Now, Justice League has arrived and one can see the ship attempting to be steered back to harbor. It’s not an outright terrible blockbuster. Yet, it’s still guilty of something none of these earlier films seemed to exhibit: a total lack of ambition.

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Justice League swings for mid-field out of most players’ way and succeeds at that by a hair. Much of what transpires plotwise and how it does stylistically can only be described as “serviceable.” Basically, a big bad villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) comes to earth and threatens several different colonies of Earth dwellers, eventually forcing Wonder Woman, Batman (Ben Affleck), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to form a… Coalition of Righteousness, if you will. Justice League  is about as inoffensive a major blockbuster can get in terms of plot. That’s not entirely a slight, either. Despite lofty goals, the first three DC movies failed because of how badly they juggled their own shared universe concept. Simple isn’t necessarily a bad thing and makes this a far breezier ride than most of these others films in the series. Yet, that lack of ambition also makes the action scenes competent yet unremarkable on most every level. Director Zack Snyder made his career on the back of gorgeous pieces of action, but the visuals here are far more mechanical and workmanlike.

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Pretty unavoidable with a villain as bland as Steppenwolf. Crappy forgettable villains aren’t exclusive to Justice League, but Steppenwolf is the textbook example that may outdo someone like Malekith from Thor: The Dark World in terms of unmemorable monologues and underwhelming fight scenes. Him and his flying monkey-style lackeys are adequate to see storm against heroes, but the generic diatribes about “unleashing the motherbox” feel so lacking in personality. Even when Steppenwolf has moments for one liners, it seems jarring. He’s such an underdeveloped character that any semblance of a personality crawl out, it doesn’t seem to fit Steppenwolf’s clammy cold CG husk of a body he lumbers around in. He’s just an excuse for generic minions to menace our heroes and eventually have a giant figure to throw through walls a la the Injustice series of games.

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Of course, this is all just window dressing for the titular group of superheroes to come together as one group. This is probably done most cohesively with Batman and Wonder Woman, given those characters have some kind of a relationship that’s firmly established. Gadot carries that same compassionate warrior persona that made her the surprise hit of this summer, but Ben Affleck isn’t a slouch against her. He’s carrying baggage from the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), selling it far more than any previous scenes with the two of them in Batman V. Superman where he and Cavill scowled at each other. The foundation in general coming from the previous movies is the albatross hanging around Justice League as it tries to course correct. The Wonder Woman and Batman scenes do the best job of that course correction, as Batman acts like a cad with a dangerous yet fair idea for the group to consider. They feel the most like larger than life personas clashing about power and responsibility without over monologuing like Batman V Superman. With Diana calling out Bruce’s asinine behavior and Wayne apologizing to Prince. Character growth is always fun when it doesn’t involve people screaming Martha.

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Speaking of Superman, there’s a lot to go into that might spoil what his role is given his death at the end of Batman V Superman, though it should be pretty obvious from that ending that he’ll be soaring the skies at some point in Justice League. Yet, most of the problems with the effects work and the troubled production blatantly come from Superman’s presence. The biggest one is literally right under his nose, as the computer effects used to get rid of Cavill’s moustache during reshoots throw The Last Son of Krypton straight into the Uncanny Valley. Now, despite the modern news cycle of big budget films like Justice League, I try to not have production problems skew my thoughts on the film itself. Yet, this rush job is so noticeable that it takes you completely out of the proceedings and mutes much of the attempts here to return Clark Kent/Superman back to the roots of the character. Though it’s once again based within the foundation that doesn’t follow through, given the opening is focused around the “Hope” Kal-El inspired that looked far more like fascist fear mongering in the earlier films. This is all despite the best efforts of Diane Lane and Amy Adams who are far better used here than in the previous DC films. For what that’s worth.

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The other members of Justice League are a bit less consistent from there, though none of it really has to do with the performers. There’s an awkward pace going on during the first half of Justice League, as if this is more of a collection of short films about each character rather than one film. The stand out of the other members is honestly Ray Fisher, carrying the mopey tragedy spirit of this franchise with actual weight that makes sense given his origin story. His scenes with his father Dr. Silas Stone (Joe Morton) were some of the more compelling moments of superhuman drama, almost coming across as a Frankenstein monster style tragedy… that works best the less we see him in full Cyborg form. The computer effects aren’t Superman’s upper lip awful, but they occasionally render out in a fashion that makes Fisher look far more plastic than flesh and metal.

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Flash and Aquaman are more of modern and grounded characters meant to balance the team out a bit. Ezra Miller gives the speedster superhero an appropriate manic energy, though his comedic one liners rarely if ever hit. As does most of the humor in Justice League, honestly. Yet, the constantly jittering metabolism and fan boyish joy of being around superheroes made him at the very least a likable presence when used properly. Even if his Flash run is silly as all hell, at least the scenes of him moving fast make for the best use of Snyder’s speed up-slow-mo since 300 a decade ago. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman adopts a more “Thor as surfer dude bro” approach, but it’s not a bad turn at that concept. There’s a confidence and brashness that sells his distance from Atlantis far better than random moments of universe building featuring Amber Heard do. Momoa has a brashness that makes him stand out, which hopefully results in an Aquaman solo film that’s just as confident.

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All of this results in a Justice League film that really disappoints by simply being tolerable. Objectively it’s a more cohesive film that most of the predecessors in this universe, but that lack of ambition also results in less oasis high moments or memorably awful ones that made Batman V. Superman, Man of Steel and Suicide Squad weird cultural talking points. Removing the production problems that resulted in Snyder and writer/reshoot director Joss Whedon sharing a bit more shared credit, this still feels like a more consistent film story and character wise, which is a step in the right direction for the DC films moving forward. Yet, the wild tonal shifts and rather choppy scene to scene editing that especially plagues the first half of Justice League is noticeable regardless of that news weighing in on it. Justice League doesn’t inspire full on blind confidence as much as it does a small sigh of relief. Emphasis on ‘small.’ The future doesn’t look as bright as the sun that gives Kal-El his powers, but it’s at least not as dim as Snyder’s usual Instagram filter lenses he gives to his cinematographers.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Creepy Cavill Close Ups

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THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017): Sprawled Like Buckshot

Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is a man known for his sterile, sleek and odd productions. Two of his earlier films Dogtooth and The Lobster distinctly separated themselves from the real world. Dogtooth baked this into the premise, as it centers around a family that isolates its children from the modern world outside. The Lobster feels distinctly like an alternate universe where courtship is far more cold and impersonal. With Lanthimos’ newest film The Killing of a Sacred Deer however, that line seems to be far more blurry. We see Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) in a world firmly planted in 2017 America. Of course, this is a world that admittedly can seem alien and distant given the daily barrage of awful events.

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This seems to be part of the commentary that Yorgos is getting across. Murphy is a man who often desires power of others. Initially it’s the general superiority of being a man of science. A doctor who knows how to handle one of the vital organs of the human body: the heart. His identity is entrenched on knowing more than others and being the patriarch of his family. It’s something that Farrell shows off in his initially pent up performance during the first hour or so. There’s a delicate yet firm hand Farrell applies toward the other members of the family. He holds a stern hand yet distant hand on his children (Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy) by having them do specific chores on a regular basis. Everyone has their place and disrupting it clearly upsets him. He also treats his wife Ann (Nicole Kidman) as prey in their sexual encounters. She lies still as if she’s under anesthesia as he pounces on her, showing his work does leave the office on a psychological level that keeps her humanity at a distance.

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It’s not subtle, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer shows right off the bat that there’s a weird order that can’t be disrupted for the Murphy household. Something that Martin (Barry Keoghan) barges into. The initial relationship that Martin has with Murphy comes off as a divorced father visiting his son. This is meant to translate to a mentor-mentee type molding, but the pity Murphy shows Martin is clearly the type that has the older man using this young boy. Not in an overtly disturbing way, but in a power struggle fashion. Murphy clearly sees him as a feeble socially awkward plaything under his guidance. He wants to mold Martin into something more because of how unassuming Martin is. He desires to make someone in his own image who he thinks has no direct image of his own.

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So therein lies the biggest asset of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Barry Keoghan as Martin pulls off one of the most intriguing performances of the year. For the first half, he’s so unassuming. His initial moments feel like he has some form of neurodevelopmental disorder. Thus, when he slowly takes over the situation from the manipulative arm of Dr. Murphy, there’s almost a bit of satisfaction mixed in with the unsuspected terror. Martin never really changes his behavior, but the flat deadpan delivery that once seemed awkward now seems purposeful. It’s a quick statement of fact that challenges Murphy’s perception of what is real and what isn’t. Allowing Farrell’s irate mannerisms that follow to be understandable and enraging at the same time. Martin takes that power struggle and turns it on Murphy so fast he doesn’t even realize it until far too late in the game. Murphy is under the thumb of Martin’s poetic justice and won’t get from under it until Martin is satisfied. It’s a mesmerizing performance from Keoghan that mirrors Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in terms of gradual fear. The oddly insestuous undertones of his relationship with his glassy eyed mother (Alicia Silverstone) and a missing father don’t help things.

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Now, where the problem lies is in the comparison. While Martin’s closed off nature is chilling and gradually mesmerizing, it weirdly feels too similar to how cold and detached the Murphy family ultimately is. Particularly with the two children. That detachment may make sense of why they grow fond of Martin, especially since daughter Kim starts to fancy him in a young romantic way. Yet, their detachment makes very vital decisions near the finale feel so underwhelming. These kids feel like extras who are far too late to audition for Children of the Damned. Even Kidman – who initially shows off the type of raw sexual edge the recalls her underrated work in Eyes Wide Shut – grows stale and lifeless, not cold and desperate as the film seemingly wants her to be. Thus as a group, the Murphys never feel like a family or even an engaging gonzo satiric version of it. They feel like strangers in a room, but without the actual human qualities that would make that kind of punch take shape. Especially as we see the normal world all around and no consequence is really given for these actions. It just seems to open more doors for questioning than needed, even in a film where a huge tenant is based in a vague “curse.”

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the title doesn’t refer to a doe or buck, but is meant to give the idea that these pedestals a family is put under. It’s key to the kind of curse Martin puts on this family and the spell he weaves to break them apart. On that more clinical level, I can see what Lanthimos is striving for. A bitter take on the societal roles we place family into and the bitter ends that can meet when something threatens that reality. Yet, there’s no real foot in normalcy within the Murphys to make that have solid footing. Sure, they do seemingly normal things like water plants or go to choir practice, but it all seems so mechanical and displayed. This is obviously somewhat intentional, but only goes so far to get the satiric point across. When we have a clear grounding in the real world, there needs to be some kind of actual human emotion from these characters to ground the coldness that follows, yet it seems to be missing from the onset. There’s not build up to the desperation we’re supposed to get as the situation grows dire for this family.

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It’s all really in how Lanthimos frames the painting. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a horror film much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Lots of aerial views from above gazing or long track shots from far ahead to show our characters inhabiting a space. Often times feeling like the presence of Martin is watching over these people as they try to make sense of the nonsensical. Cold, lifeless, detached. All while missing the bombastic emotion that gave something for the audience to grasp onto. Lanthimos mainly tries to make up for this with incredibly obvious music stings that Kubrick similarly used, though in place of visual ways to show off tension in the story rather than the ways Kubrick complimented his visuals. If anything, the more silent moments of oddly comic disturbing imagery works best. Such as when the children begin to crawl on the floor with numb legs, capturing intriguing levels of unsettling.

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So, the tug and pull of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is often unnerving in its underwhelming nature. Yet, stewing on it further and further gives the sterility more intrigue. It’s a story of asymmetry attacking the symmetric. Allowing those who can’t handle change to face it directly and not know why it’s there. In that way, the film itself challenge perceptions of reality and forces one to face it head on. That initial question might become a bit tone deaf as the ending draws closer, but there’s a lingering sense of dread and disruption that sticks with you as Barry Keoghan’s open mouth gaze haunts the soul. Not for his perceived social awkwardness, but by doubting the potential of those we see as different. A human feeling that could get us pounced on as our bubble is popped into trillions of soapy pieces. The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s placement in our modern times does hurt the subversion by lacking foundation. Yet, there’s plenty of chilling off kilter scares that will burn in the synapses for some time.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Lost mp3 Players

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