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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Thor Ragnarok (2017): Thor SMASH Expectations

Of The Avengers set of heroes, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) tend to be the black sheep in terms of their individual franchises. While Iron Man and Captain America have had solo efforts with lasting impact and praise, Thor’s earlier films have often been brushed off and dismissed. Hell, Hulk hasn’t even gotten a spin off film of his own since Ruffalo took over from Edward Norton. So, MCU puppet master Kevin Feige approved a pretty ingenious idea; why not team the two of them up? Thor Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but in many ways it feels like its own self contained Thor effort, allowing director Taika Waititi (who also plays the understated rock warrior Korg) to turn this into his own sci-fi fantasy comedy sandbox to play in. That definitely results in a rather amusing comedy, but at the same time you can tell the latter part of the title falls to the wayside.

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Mind you, that comedy is quite hysterical. Hemsworth shows off the type of comedic chops that were vital to him in Cabin in the Woods and the 2016 Ghostbusters here all while keeping his action persona of Thor intact. He emphasizes more on the oafish out of sorts charms that made the first Thor more of a charming character based story than some give it credit for. He does an excellent job of balancing the individual stakes for a situation while maintaining an air of confidence. He carries Thor Ragnarok through the jokes at pitfalls perfectly without ever missing a beat and at least attempting to keep his world together during times of extreme duress.

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It’s also a compliment to Waititi for being able to bounce from smaller budget indie comedies to large scale superhero fare without ever missing a beat. Various points of action feel like a great Scandinavian art that shows off the chaotic slow motion glory of various warriors leaping into battle with bombast. Yet, there’s also a great Flash Gordon-gorgeous color aesthetic going on at the same time, thanks to the colorful set design and Mark Mothersbaugh‘s John Carpenter style electronic score. Waititi does an impressive job of balancing all these characters, the elaborate action sequences and gorgeous bits of imagery without it feeling to incongruous. He even manages to integrate Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Doctor Strange into the proceedings for a cameo early on without things being too weird… though it does question why he doesn’t at least pop up at some point later to provide some assistance when Thor & co need it.

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Amongst those characters is Ruffalo’s Hulk, who truly feels like a character for the first time in the MCU. Beforehand, Hulk was merely the beast trapping Banner inside. Yet, we see here that the reason Banner is trapped is because Hulk himself is a larger than life persona that’s more than just “Hulk Smash.” He’s an ill tempered child that enjoys the glory he’s received as a gladiator. Hulk doesn’t want to be cooped up, which makes Banner’s eventual presence have more weight. Plus, Ruffalo’s almost Larry David level nebbish quality once he’s Banner is in perfect contrast to Hulk’s bombast as well as Thor’s main goal of trying to stop Ragnarok. Hemsworth and Ruffalo’s chemistry is the full display of what was promised with the great Hulk-Punching-Thor moment in The Avengers, hopefully meaning the two will get even more screentime in Avengers Infinity War.

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Tessa Thompson‘s Valkyrie provides an intriguing air of confidence, acting as an earlier version of Thor from his introductory film. The brash and drunken confidence hiding something lingering, though her issues are far more tragic and compelling to see her rise against than Thor’s daddy issues. She’s dealing with major regret and remorse, all while still keeping her individual personality and “no fucks given” attitude that makes her one of the standouts here. Of course, Thompson helps bring us closer to The Grandmaster, played with the type of weird rascally charm only Jeff Goldblum could pull off. Yet, it’s not just meme Goldblum that lazily appeared in Independence Day Resurgence. Goldblum inhabits this character with the type of hilarious relish that makes him the perfect benevolent ruler of a far off world.

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Since the start of this franchise, the yin to Thor’s yang has always been his adopted brother God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Loki was the breakout star of the initial Thor film and one of the few tolerable things about Thor The Dark World. He was a miscreant that served as a weakness for Thor as a character. Family that constantly screwed you over yet you still had an attachment to, even after they tried to destroy Earth in The Avengers. The chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston is as on point as always, yet Loki feels more shoehorned into the proceedings here. At any point, Loki’s role is plot driven rather than character driven. It’s even turned into a joke at this point that Thor just usually trusts him despite all the evil he’s done. Then again, this is systematic of a larger problem with Asgard.

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The latter part of the title Thor Ragnarok refers to the complete destruction of Asgard, Thor’s home for eons that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) rules over. Though not a fault of this third entry, one of the big problems we’ve had with this entire series is that Asgard has never been that well realized on a cultural level. Most of what we know is that Odin was the leader, Thor himself was the warrior glory hound,  Loki manipulated from the shadows, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is an intergalactic doorman and Thor has some warrior friends called The Warriors Three. The personalities of the latter group pretty much are chalked up to Valstag the fat guy (Ray Stevenson), swashbuckling Fandral (Zachary Levi) and the stoic Japanese guy Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). They’ve always been sort of sidelined since their introduction in the first Thor and ESPECIALLY in the forgettable unremarkable Thor The Dark World, leading to their early and unremarkable deaths that feel more like the filmmakers brushing dead weight instead of giving this world true weight. Odin suffers a similar fate early on that just seems like a plot contrivance rather than anything emotional. Hell, Jaimie Alexander isn’t even seen or mentioned as Lady Sif.

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Thus the real problem with Thor Ragnarok arises. Even though it’s rather entertaining and joyous, it feels completely incongruous to the world changing stakes at hand. The impact of this entire homeworld being destroyed is brushed off with a rather lazy “eh, home is where the heart is” type disclaimer that feels pretty dismissive of the stakes at play. Then again, most of this stuff isn’t as faulty with Thor Ragnarok as it is on the earlier films in the franchise just not giving this place more thought beyond the aesthetics. It helps that the villain of the piece Hela (Cate Blanchett) gives the old world of Asgard more reasoning that melts the facade we’ve known. A lot of this is revealed via exposition – a common fault with Thor Ragnarok overall – yet she exudes so much confidence and villainy with more pent up joy and violent lashing out to send terror through Asgard in a believable fashion. The arc of pulling between these two versions of Asgard and the potential power one can find within themselves is really well illustrated by Skruge, a henchman type role that Karl Urban gives a surprising amount of emotional weight to.

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Honestly, Sakaar has more vibrancy and world building to it here than Asgard ever has in any of these films. The sets feel more lived in and the cultural concepts of these games as well as Grandmaster’s presence as a tyrannical ruler. Hulk being a sort of cultural icon that people turn into a parade and the various strange creatures seen in the background give us the feeling that this world has existed for ages and we’re just stepping into it. Something that Asgard or any other MCU film rarely manages to translate very well even when we’re on a planet like Earth. Sakaar is where Thor Ragnarok builds up so much steam and barrels ahead with so much energy.

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Ultimately, Thor Ragnarok may feel a bit tone deaf in terms of how it relates to the other entries in its singular franchise, but that problem is only really hindered by the sins of the prior entries. Thor worked as a decent introduction to the character and the basic aesthetic of Asgard without making it feel too silly. Thor The Dark World sort of kept that aesthetic and added a few spaceships to it, but nothing else of true value culturally or stakes wise. Thor Ragnarok chooses to throw much of that out the window in an apocalyptic fashion that may seem a bit cold and kind of cruel due to some comedic jabs near the end. So, as a weird sort of soft reboot of this franchise, it manages to bring in plenty of new life to counterbalance the massive destruction, thanks to Taika Waititi’s spirited humor, a capable cast and a design team that makes this corner of the MCU far more well realized than it ever has. So bring on the Ragnarok and let it all burn, basically.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Notes on Grandmaster’s Synthesizer

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017): The Happiest Place Off Exit 58

Regular readers may not be aware that I was born, raised and still live in Florida. Less than two hours from the Walt Disney World Resorts. Central Florida is known for this shining beacon of expensive amusement and escape from the doldrums of real life. Yet, the part of Florida few dare to think about  just outside of Orlando. An exit or two off is Kissimmee, Florida. A city full of lesser income individuals whose main economic source is the housing and distraction of those who can’t afford to stay on Disney property. The people who run chintzy businesses outside the resort that Walt himself came to Florida to avoid around Disneyland in Anaheim, California. However, his project resulted in another Florida Project altogether. One that this film gets down so accurately, I could swear it was released in smell-o-vision from how it captured the true stench of that environment visually.

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The Florida Project wallows in the people who live in environments like this. Mainly the residents of the rather low star motel The Magic Castle. A true-to-life example of leeching off the magical marketing gimmicks of Disney to hustle people into a much lower rent area. Surrounding it are all these tacky souvenir shops adorned with wizard mascots and signs that say “Ask Us About Disney Specials.” There’s a consistent ploy of magic and escape trying to trick gullible tourists on the road to come by and get the same experience of the parks but for a smaller price. Yet, beyond this surface level cheap idea that tricks tourists, lies a community that makes tries to make the best of these circumstances.

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The central face of all this is Moonee, a six year old who wanders these Central Floridian roadside attractions all day with little to no adult supervision. Newcomer Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee with a wide eyed curiosity and rascally attitude that is so crucial to making The Florida Project work. Even as we’re seeing a young girl be devoid of an education and proper consistent care, Brooklynn gives Moonee such an adorable yet feisty presence that carries the film without being too annoying or cloying. It’s this delicate balance that keeps us involved and enraptured through some pretty slow moments revolving around exploring these backwoods of development outside of the Disney parks. Her observations are often as awkwardly hilarious as they are quietly reflective of her very complicated life here.

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These complications are especially present in the scenes with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Vinaite’s role is a tough one to play, in which her white trash behavior and attitude show off a neglect and lax parental role which easily could turn off many to her as a character and rightly so. The actions Halley takes in raising Moonee clearly have harmful side effects on Moonee’s behavior and upbringing that leave her vulnerable to all sorts of outside circumstances. Yet, there’s a genuine love that shines through. In between scenes of neglect that gives Moonee and her friends license to be arrogant little nuisances, she and Halley share moments of connection and confidence building beauty that stretches beyond their hollow lives. If anything, it feels more like a sibling relationship due to Halley’s immaturity. Halley is a three dimensional character who one can’t completely side with, yet can consistently a humanity hidden beneath the bombast and trashy tatoos.

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The ringleader of all these people is The Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Seeing Bobby in his day to day is a weirdly visceral treat. He’s got to deal with tenants causing a raucous and maintenance that often splashes paint right in his face. He’s the guy trying to keep the chaos of white trash at bay while catering to tourists as best he can with his meager budget. Yet, no matter how annoyed he is with the residents, there’s an affection. Especially in his scenes with Moonee, where Bobby almost feels like a surrogate uncle type. He knows these children deserve better and tries to give them a better environment than what their parents could given the circumstances.  Dafoe shows off some of crazy side that’s painted his career, but also a very sincere subtle side that gives weight to crucial moments, whether it’s the big emotional climax or bumming a cigarette and having a laugh with the hotel’s often topless vagrant Gloria (Sandy Kane).

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These are the type of characters director/writer Sean Baker previously gave so much dimension in his West Coast small scale venture Tangerine. Ones who show off the humanity piled over grit and grime. There are so many gorgeous points showing the child-like importance and wonder out of the mundane. Sometimes this results in the more meandering moments of The Florida Project, but it also gives way to moments that paint a wonderful picture. A boy and his father leaving the hotel complex draws a massive crowd of children for a massive farewell. A power outage at the hotel draws everyone out of their rooms with the scale of town meeting at an orange hued dusk. Even an old building burning down is treated as a community event that draws everyone together in mutual awe of the destruction unfolding. A bit of schadenfreude to be sure, but there’s also a very primal joy on everyone’s faces that immerses them in the destructive joy of a fiery demise.

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When Walt Disney set out to make his own Florida Project, his vision for Epcot was an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” A city where the theme park was the center and branched off from it would be an utopian ever updating future society based in Disney’s image. Walt’s death and some half assed 80s era management of the Disney company results in these visions lying dormant, but Walt did create a community on the outskirts of Florida. One where the Disney resort still acts as an epicenter that trickles into the sidelines. It might not be the utopia Walt envisioned. Far from it. Yet, there’s all sorts of individual bits of wonder and joy to find hidden just beyond. Ironically, in his pursuit to keep the trashy roadside attractions away from the Florida parks, Walt’s vision ended up creating a symbiotic relationship between his resort and the chintzy places he attempted to avoid. One that may be dirty, but there’s a fair amount of beauty to uncover beneath the dirt. Some of this may be the Floridian talking in me, but it does feel like something The Florida Project translates on an universal level.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Twisty Treat Ice Cream Cones

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JIGSAW (2017): A Cut Above… Some of Them

It seems weird to be bringing back the Saw franchise right now. We’re not even a decade out from the previous entry and the world doesn’t seem too keen on a torturous ride through misery at the moment zeitgeist wise. Having recently watched all seven of the original entries, it doesn’t seem like something that could come back nor should come back for more entries. Luckily, Jigsaw seemed somewhat aware of that and dumped most of the continuity, a plus given how that is what sunk the later entries so hard. Yet, that doesn’t save Jigsaw from becoming something that clearly fits in the franchise. Jigsaw is more of a SeeSaw of an experience, teetering between advancing beyond the pitfalls of the original films and sinking back into their bad habits. Yet, it does both with a sense of confidence that’s commendable if not consistent.

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Jigsaw‘s biggest strengths are its two directors The Spierig Brothers. Michael and Peter Spierig got their start in smaller yet surprisingly ambitious genre fare like Daybreakers and Undead. They both took what little budgets they had and made something truly ambitious many times before, making them perfect candidates to graduate to the next step with a studio film that still has middling production costs on that scale. Money isn’t as much an issue here as dealing with the script, which falls back on many of the cliches that made Saw so frustrating after a certain point. The Brothers Spierig elect a more subtle tact for how they accomplish things here, mainly by showcasing most of these traps in far more well lit settings and gradually building up to the gross out scares that the later Saws used as a crutch. Even as the finale reveal is filled with some moronic twists and turns, Jigsaw remains the most sleek and colorful entry in the franchise that relishes in the hues of gore when needed and contrasts the horror of these traps in cool blues and harsh blaring sunlight yellows otherwise.

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Even the acting in Jigsaw is far more consistently tolerable than the soap opera levels of before. There’s not a Costas Mandylor level performance in sight. Now, that’s not to say anyone here is pulling off something masterful. Yet, the main actors we follow in the traditional Saw set up are probably the most engaging characters to follow, with Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein and Mandela Van Peebles (son of Mario, grandson of Melvin) being a solid trio to get us through the more scaled down traps that fill most of Jigsaw. The more cop procedural elements are where things fall apart, as the tolerable acting can’t really disguise the glaring flaws that happen from here on in. I mean, actors like Matt Passmore or Callum Keith Rennie are solid for what they need to do. While that isn’t saying much, it’s a major step up from the mind bogglingly awful work of people like Costas Mandylor in the later entries. There’s even some clever ways of using series mascot Tobin Bell, though those reveals are where the real issues begin.

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These procedural elements that don’t work are mainly shot down by the story issues I mentioned prior. Jigsaw initially seems to be laying out more of a small scale yet intriguing mystery of who the copycat killer is that is echoing the crimes John Kramer committed during his living days. A fair amount of intrigue and surprise that is squarely meant to shock the audience at every turn. Yet, for any of the characters in this context, Jigsaw‘s big reveal and the hindsight of all the major motivating actions make little to no sense. It’s hard to obviously say this without spoilers, but I’ll try my best.

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On one hand, all the reveals in Jigsaw are well put together. The editing and dynamics of the traps distract you just enough to keep one’s eyes elsewhere. On the other, there’s no real story context for them. And I’m not even bothering to include these issues with the previously established continuity of the Saw franchise. That dumpster fire has been burning since Saw IV or so. Even within context of just Jigsaw itself, none of this connects in a way that seems logical. It’s the major reason why the conflict of the pretty muddled script and the intriguing direction have this tug and pull. They both clash and meld together so perfectly in throwing the audience off… until they over explain everything during the finale that ends Jigsaw on a dull period rather than the exclamation mark it clearly wants to be. This is also true of the tone, which occasionally throws in self aware zingers in the trap story, but stays deadly serious about recreating Jigsaw otherwise.

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Thus, the give and take of Jigsaw. The example of two capable directors and a decent cast being held back by a story that dips very deep down into moronic facepalm worthy ideas that ultimately drag it back down to the traditional series standard. Watching Jigsaw makes one think it could easily stand on its own from the other films that had come before and honestly be all the better for it. Just be a complete reboot that didn’t bother thinking the earlier events. That’d be nice… if the sequence of events laid out here made sense within its own singular narrative. Yet, despite the story completely crumbling apart, this is still one of the better entries in the franchise. Once again, a low bar, but one that Jigsaw jumps over solidly. That all being said, I’d hope that Saw doesn’t continue from here. Keep things quiet and if we just have to see the blades & Billy The Puppet again, just reboot it. Burn the barn and start completely fresh to reinvent things. Then maybe we’ll get the Se7en-lite we truly deserve.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Dismembered Body Parts

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The Snowman (2017): Let It Melt Away

The key to making a great mystery film is keeping the audience on it’s toes. We get the clues, we’re shocked by the horrors of our killer and too distracted to piece everything together until just the right moment. This is classic Agatha Christie stuff here, folks. Unfortunately, The Snowman lacks the craft of even the least engaging adventure for Miss Marple. If anything, it feels more like the kind of half ass mystery that would have been thrown out by the staff writers of Colombo. The Snowman wants to evoke both of those characters with lead Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) as he drunkenly wobbles his way towards solving the main mystery at hand. Yup, his name is Harry Hole. And if you think that’s funny, don’t worry. They only repeat his full name at every opportunity possible. Trouble is, unlike fellow detectives with weird names Miss Marple and Colombo, the most interesting part of Harry’s character is his name.

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Though I’ve never read the novel of the same name The Snowman was based on, I’ve heard that the novel is the seventh in a series of novels featuring the Harry Hole character solving mysteries. This made far more sense of the lack of consistent narrative drive than the film adaptation ultimately did. We’re told several – and I mean *several* times – that Harry Hole is the best detective in Norway. He’s solve all the big cases, but he’s washed up due to his recent breakup with long-time girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and destroyed fatherly connection with her son Oleg (Michael Yates). At least, that’s what the film wants us to go along with. It’s odd that this dynamic is spelled out multiple times through blunt exposition and bold emphasis, but none of it ever really sticks to the point where one could completely be forgiven if they totally forgot such a motivating factor. Oleg and Rakel swing in and out of relevance at a moment’s notice, leaving the awkward stumbling of Harry to fill the gaps.

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This may just be the worst performance in Fassbender’s young yet breathtaking career. None of the scenes showcasing his alcohol dependency feel authentic. Both on a superficial level due to Fassbender still keeping a rather strong physique despite being a guy out on his luck staring down a bottle as well as on a pure character level given none of the detective work of this supposedly amazing detective shows any forward progression. Harry Hole’s idea of contemplation is jutting out his lower jaw while a cigarette dangles from his mouth as he looks around dazed until he remembers some off handed point that suddenly gets us a step closer. The Snowman keeps trying to convince us that the killer “gave us all the clues” through letters found at crime scenes, but all they provide is one of three lame calling cards for our killer to leave as Fassbender steps over his feet finding them.

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The Snowman doesn’t do much service to any of the other surrounding characters.Rebecca Ferguson is stuck in a shallow determined young cop role. One that is supposed to create a dynamic that fizzles against the cold cynical views of Detective Hole. Yet, both characters are bland from completely opposing perspectives that the needed fizzle is about as frothy as flat soda. Ferguson and Fassbender have all the chemistry of oil and water. Despite being so close in proximity, their interactions seem like people on other ends of the world who won’t even share a Skype call. There’s nothing to be gained from them investigating this crime. They go through the procedural motions without any life or spark, making this such a dull two hours as they try to solve a mystery that’s pretty clear from the halfway point given how easy the red herrings are and how little we see of our ultimate killer.

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There are smaller appearances that mean just about as much. Chloë Sevigny plays a woman who’s part of the mystery & her twin who pops out of nowhere just so they can announce the fate of the first twin. J.K. Simmons plays a sleazy politician who takes pictures of women he finds attractive with the flash on in plain sight. Toby Jones has about two or three scenes as a cop to be interviewed and completely forgotten about. However, the prime example of pointless and horrendously put together scenes is Val Kilmer as an investigator of past examples of this crime. Kilmer – a recent cancer survivor in real life – shows clear signs of healing from his disease here. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. In the right hands, The Snowman could have used this to play on that character’s drunkenness in a more silent manner. Unfortunately, it’s extremely evident that he was dubbed over by a completely different actor. This is some terrible Godzilla film level dubbing, perhaps the worst in a wide release I’ve seen in quite some time.

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This extends to the overall ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) and filmmaking in general for The Snowman. Characters are dubbed over in very clear close up shots, eliminating whatever lingering threads of investment were still there. It helps break any illusion that this mystery had any tension or consistency left to it. The same goes for the editing, which is bafflingly amateurish. There’s a scene where Michael Fassbender looks at a folder in a car, suddenly cuts to an awkward Val Kilmer flashback… and then cuts back to that same scene of Fassbender only moments later getting out of the car. With no real purpose to it at all. And this happens *multiple times.* Plus, the editing also implies that there was literally no time to shoot coverage. For those unaware, this is when filmmakers shoot secondary shots to cut to to splice together takes or make a scene a bit more dynamic. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of coverage, sometimes awkwardly cutting within a scene of a character going from a seated position to a standing one. The CG is also atrocious, from some horrendous green screened shots of seagulls to the gory moments of that have no stain power. It’s all so astonishingly awful that I’m flabbergasted as to how The Snowman got a wide release.

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The Snowman feels like a movie not made by humans. There are a few human beings in it. They seem to resemble homosapiens in terms of appearance, but nothing these people do resembles the behavior of people. Director Tomas Alfredson is usually someone who understands the subtleties of human interaction. It was a major aspect of what made his subtle vampire tragedy Let The Right One In and grounded spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy work so well. The Snowman wants to have this. It’s aiming to be a gritty noir thriller that captures the type of critical thinking and demented psychology that keeps humanity at a constant war within itself. Yet, The Snowman ultimately feels like an approximation of a gory crime thriller made by alien beings from another world. All the beats and talent are there for this to work. Yet, it never coalesces, resulting in a cruel yet pointless exercise. The Snowman just lies there in the flurry thinking it’s making a snow angel, when really it’s just making a giant puddle of yellow snow.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Snowman Heads

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Happy Death Day (2017): Surprise! You’re Dead!

Following in the footsteps of the sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow, it seems like the horror flick Happy Death Day is officially turning Groundhog Day into a premise that can fit most any genre. Of course, all three of those films utilize the premise of deja vu repetition of the same day as comedic set pieces that allow the lead to gradually change over the course of their repetitive days. This time, that lead is a sorority girl named Tree (Jessica Rothe). Yes, her name is tree. No specifics on type, but she seems like a strong Willow. Determined, yet guarded by an outward display of leaves. In this case, the leaves are a snippy attitude that disrespects the people around her. A good/bad start for a character to grow from.

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There are so many ways a character like Tree could go wrong. Early on she dismisses people all the nice folks around her and is seemingly sympatico with those who are using her, whether it be the professor she’s sleeping with (Charles Aitken) or the sorority house leader that feeds off negative energy (Rachel Matthews). Screenwriter Scott Lobdell got his start writing for comics, mainly X-Men. He’s a guy who knows sci-fi concepts and how to weave endearing if harsh characters into them. That’s on display in a more mechanical form in Happy Death Day, though there are plenty of points where it seems like an older man trying hard to get down the language of modern youths. In the wrong hands, Happy Death Day could turn Tree into an unbearable walking cliche with sexist and dumbfounding undertones.

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Luckily, Happy Death Day made the wise decision to cast Jessica Rothe. There’s so much youthful vibrancy in her performance that truly evolves over the course of her ordeal. Her chemistry with Carter (Israel Broussard) – the young man she went home with the night before her repetitive dilemma – is initially scoffing but believably turns her into a resourcefully endearing final girl who’s also the only murder victim. Her growth from stuck up asshole to decent human being is enjoyable, especially as the tragedies of her life come to light through her behavior and subtle bits of physical acting. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog or Tom Cruise in Tomorrow, she gets us to go from being turned off by her holier than though attitude to rooting for her to resolve this conflict and get her reality in control.

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The rules of Happy Death Day aren’t too determined. We never do find out the reasoning why Tree repeats this day over and over. Which is honestly a plus. After all, Groundhog Day worked because we didn’t know why Bill Murray kept repeating the same day over and over. That reveal was honestly one of the few weak points of Edge of Tomorrow. This story is firmly about the actual character journey, not the reasoning behind the repetition. How much would this quick poppy movie drag if it stopped dead to explain the method behind the repetition? It was a smart decision to keep the reveal toward the killer, though the reveal itself is a bit telegraphed when most of the suspects that matter are eliminated pretty much by the halfway point.

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Then again, the menace and believability of that killer are pretty subdued by the rather goofy mask used here. While Happy Death Day is a comedy horror film, the one straight horror element they’re trying to keep consistent is that killer. Donning the mascot of the college setting as the serial slasher face makes enough sense, given Tree is under constant pressure from her school environment to fit a certain standard. Yet, the actual idea of any college having a baby as a mascot is honestly stretching the suspension of disbelief more than the whole “repeating the same day” premise. Any time this killer shows up, whatever menace we’re supposed to feel is sunk pretty hard. Mask designer Tony Gardner is best known as the man behind the iconic Scream mask, though the genius of that was how authentic and off the shelf it felt. Happy Death Day feels far more like a Hollywood inauthentic mask trying to create something iconic, which just ends up making it stand out awkwardly.

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Director Christopher Landon has shown slow yet steady improvement from his previous films Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. It’s clear that his interests are in interpersonal comedy between the scares and his most effective moments usually are the visual ways we attach to the characters. For Happy Death Day, it’s making subtle differences within the repetitive nature of the story. A simple slightly different angle on one scene we’ve seen half a dozen times gives us a fresh perspective that has us discover more about the side characters and potential outcomes with Tree. Well, at least in theory. Again, the reveal is easy to figure out after a certain point. Though I won’t go into detail.

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Happy Death Day is definitely what one would call fluff. Clever fluff, but ultimately fluff within the horror genre. There’s nothing wrong with being fluff if done well and Happy Death Day is definitely a fluffy confection. There’s a solid sense of humor throughout and a self awareness that makes it slightly above the average snoozer of a slasher. Think of it as a throwback to the tone of the obscurer holiday centered slashers that came in the wake of Halloween in the 80s like Happy Birthday to Me or April Fool’s Day. A lot of the flaws are put off to the side thanks to Jessica Rothe. If Happy Death Day does nothing else, it’s give her a spotlight to potentially craft into bigger roles. Or at the very least, make her a recurring scream queen for the Blumhouse arsenal.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Repetitive Wake Up Calls

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