MOVIE REVIEW: 12 Strong

12 STRONG (2018)

GOING IN

12 Strong is a film based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers, that dramatizes the true story of a U.S. Special Forces team who deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. They were some of the first American military to engage in unconventional warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces. As the title of the book and all of the film’s marketing shows, this group in particular used horses as part of their fight against enemy forces. Chris Hemsworth leads an interesting casts that includes Michael Shannon (who I don’t see as a special forces soldier), Taylor Sheridan (in his first acting gig since becoming a hot new writer/director), Trevante Rhodes (coming off an incredible performance in Moonlight), Michael Peña (most likely for some comedic levity), William Fichtner, and more. The film is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, a former war photojournalist making his directorial debut, which means it should at least look good. I also expect the film to be rousing and patriotic, and as someone who was serving in the military and stationed in the Middle East at the time of the attacks, it will probably be quite affecting regardless of quality.

2 Hours and 10 Minutes Later.

COMING OUT

9/11 is one of those days that most everyone can remember in vivid detail. Each year on Patriot Day, it is common to hear the question “Where were you when…?” whispered around the office as co-workers somberly reflect on the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks and share their stories, additionally observing a moment of silence at 8:46 am. It is nearly impossible to not feel those emotions of grief and sadness again, as we collectively remember those who lost their lives because of hate. And so, early in 12 Strong when footage of the crashes is shown, I’ll freely admit to immediately becoming emotionally invested. Then we are introduced to some of the soldiers that make up the team at the center of this story, and we watch as they struggle with feelings of anger and rage. They want payback, and they want it now. They know that it means leaving their loved ones, but these are men of ideals and they must fight. Again, emotion washed over me as I remembered my time in the Middle East, learning of the attacks and then sitting in my off-base apartment armed and watchful as demonstrations took place at a local mosque across the street. I, too, wanted payback. 12 Strong begins by presenting us with this background and bringing us back to that moment that we realized safety on our own soil was no longer a guarantee. It is a powerful and evocative opening act.

At the heart of 12 Strong, as with most good war films, is brotherhood. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leads a Special Forces team that includes many men older and with more combat experience than himself. He is fiery and determined, though, and his natural leadership has them gladly follow him into a dangerous mission as the United States seeks to work with a local Afghan warlord to take a key city back from Taliban. The one thing that will quickly sink any war film for me is an inaccurate portrayal of military life. Thankfully, the team is shown in way that is very reminiscent of my own experience, effectively capturing the camaraderie that exists between these men who must rely on each other for their very lives. Also accurately shown is the way in which Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), the grizzled vet, supports and provides advice for Nelson, understanding the role in leadership that he has and helping the young officer to make wise choices. The relationship between the entire team is a joy to see, but there is a special bond between Nelson and Spencer – a strong mutual respect. At one moment as the men are about to embark on their mission, Spencer muses “It’s a hell of a thing we do. How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?” Honor, of course is partially the answer, but brotherhood sure makes it easier.

Once in the mountains of Afghanistan, Nelson and the team meet up with General Dostum (Navid Negahban) who serves as a guide and provides his army to help the Americans regain control of the city for them. Negahban’s performance is wonderful and was the surprise of the film, outshining the solid work by Hemsworth, Shannon, Peña, and others. Dostum and Nelson must learn to work together in what starts out as a tenuous relationship but ultimately provides a great example of what it means to grow to trust one another. What 12 Strong does differently than so many films set in this era is use this relationship to remind us of the Aghani people who were victims of al-Quaida and the Taliban themselves. General Dotsum is a truly great man who led his people in opposition of the Taliban and went on to become Vice President of the country in 2014. Here we see why, as he mentors Captain Nelson, teaching him the difference between a soldier and a warrior, and forming a bond that has grown into a lifelong friendship between the two men. This relationship as depicted in the film was probably my favorite aspect, and amidst the chaos of war it provided some dramatic character depth and an arc of growth for Captain Nelson.

The one thing that I dislike most about 12 Strong is the choice to include a villain. Around the beginning of the second act we are introduced to the Taliban leader who has taken control of the city and are shown examples of the horrific way in which his group operates. I did not feel this was necessary because we have enough real-life motivation to root for our heroes already. His addition was a distraction somewhat during the action and removing him might have trimmed off 10 minutes or so and made the film feel a little tighter. His inclusion doesn’t sink the film by any means, he just felt a little out of place.

Technically, the film has many strong qualities, chief among them the sound design. Gunfire and explosions sound crisp, real, and terrifyingly close. Cinematography is also very good, which is not surprising given the director’s photographic background. The film is full of beautifully framed shots, the likes of which you would see in a magazine from a wartime photojournalist like Fuglsig, but there is also an inconsistency to this that shows his lack of directing experience. Mostly the film looks and sounds great, with a near non-stop pounding score escalating our heartbeats in rhythm with the tension and action playing out on screen. It’s also a relief to see that the horses are not used as a gimmick at all, but their place in the story feels genuine and realistic (with the exception of one slightly unbelievable, but awesome, action scene).

VERDICT

12 Strong is a tight, tense thriller that retells an incredible story in American war history. It focuses as much on the diplomacy needed between the U.S. and Afghanistan as it does the incredible battles with Taliban fighters to show a well-rounded picture of how the two nations worked together to accomplish their mutual goal. This is not a propaganda film, but it does evoke powerful emotions related to memories of a terrible tragedy, and especially so for those who left their own loved ones to take up the fight themselves. Anchored by strong acting performances across the ensemble cast and without relying on manipulative fake motivational speeches, 12 Strong shows how loyalty works in a military brotherhood, and how powerful it can be. Many elements of the film may feel somewhat generic, but the emotional resonance can’t be ignored, and make this one definitely worth seeing.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Phantom Thread

PHANTOM THREAD (2017)

GOING IN

Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis together again. In 2007, this pair of genius artists gifted the world with There Will Be Blood, one of the finest films of the 21st century, which resulted in Day-Lewis’ second Academy Award for Best Actor. Now, after a career of unrivaled success, Day-Lewis gives his final performance as a renowned dressmaker in 1950’s London who finds his muse, bringing love, creativity, and disruption to his methodical life. Paul Thomas Anderson serves as the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer – a rare feat that is no doubt within his ability. The film will almost certainly look and sound incredible, and in an Anderson script there are sure to be surprises along the way. With Anderson and Day-Lewis’ track record of excellence, it is impossible not to be giddy with excitement to discover the secrets Phantom Thread hides.

2 Hours and 10 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

Reynolds Woodcock. The name of Daniel Day-Lewis’ distinguished dressmaker should have tipped us off. It is a fine, strong name that sounds prestigious enough, but also one that provokes a little private chuckle on the side. And that is exactly what Phantom Thread turns out to be – part period romance melodrama, and part dark personal comedy. At times it felt almost wrong to be letting out an audible laugh when the characters are taking things oh so seriously. Come to find out, though, that is precisely what makes these wonderful moments so funny.

Phantom Thread turns out to be quite unpredictable. In addition to the humor, there is a psychosexual nature to the story that is both fascinating and uncomfortable. Alma (Vicky Krieps) and Reynolds’ relationship quickly becomes something unexpected. Woodcock puts dressmaking first, and Alma soon realizes that her existence is only noticed and appreciated within the routine he allows it to be. What he isn’t prepared for, though, is her push back and willingness to engage and challenge his status quo. Also vying for Reynolds’ attention (though in a much different manner) is Cyril (Lesley Manville), Reynolds’ sister, manager, and closest confidante. This triangle of relationships is always a little uneasy and how they ultimately resolve is the crux of the film.

Anderson’s work as the film’s uncredited cinematographer is incredible. His camera often focuses close-in on the actors’ faces, and much is said in a lingering stare or the slight turn of an upper lip. Though the dialogue is brilliant, so much is conveyed via body language. It speaks to the acting prowess of the entire cast, but also to PTA’s eye for knowing how to capture it perfectly in the frame. The atmosphere and set design of the film is mesmerizing, as well, combining with a beautiful violin and piano based score from Jonny Greenwood to cast a spell on viewers and immerse them in another time and place.

Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the obsessive, controlling Woodcock is pitch perfect. As expected, the method actor whose preparation is the stuff of legend, put in plenty of work to become the sought after dressmaker. For Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis actually learned how to sew, going so far as to hand-stitch a Balenciaga dress from scratch, while his wife (director Rebecca Miller) served as a model. Oh, and he also apprenticed for a year under costume director Marc Happel of the New York City Ballet, sewing 100 buttonholes as he learned the intricacies of the craft. All of this incredible effort leads to a performance that feels perfectly natural. Day-Lewis’ history is so fantastic that it might be easy to compare and call his work in Phantom Thread merely “very good”, but when measured against the rest of the acting field it really is one of the finest performances of the year.

However, it’s not even Day-Lewis that gives the best performance of the film. That honor must go to newcomer Vicky Krieps who is not just his equal, but is able to even outshine him at times. Her patient demeanor is both delicate and fiery, always giving the impression that at any moment she might crumble under Reynolds’ force or powerfully take control of a moment herself. Her acting is exquisite and the ability to emote so much without words makes her performance such a force. Not to be outdone is Lesley Manville, who also holds her own in every scene opposite Day-Lewis as the ever-steady rock of their strange sibling union. Combined these three stars are as good as any other ensemble cast you will see all year. They make every line sing and create characters you won’t easily forget.

VERDICT

Though PTA’s films had never commanded much of my attention before, Phantom Thread captivated me from the opening scene to the end credits and bewitched me unlike any other film experience in 2017. Thematically, it’s exploration of an unconventional romance between the obsessive man and his delicate muse goes in directions you never expect, and never ceases to hold your attention throughout. Cinematically, it is one of the most well-crafted, stunningly beautiful, perfectly scored, impeccably acted dramas I’ve seen in years. PTA’s meticulous attention to detail marries so well with Daniel Day-Lewis’ devotion to character immersion, and newcomer Vicky Krieps owns the screen in every scene. Like the notes left by Reynolds inside the seam of his dresses, Phantom Thread will embed itself in your memory and linger in your thoughts for long after your initial date is over.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Paddington 2

PADDINGTON 2 (2018)


GOING IN

In 2014, a movie based on a children’s book about a talking bear who is discovered in Peru and moves to modern-day London, became an overwhelmingly positive critical success. I’d never have bet on this happening. But it did, and so much so that the British live-action/CGI hit has spawned a sequel. Paddington was recognized for being a warm-hearted family-friendly adventure full of charm, wit, and with a playful sense of humor. It was also filled with gags that made it just plain fun, and my family is excited to see where the immigrant bear’s story goes from here.

1 Hour and 43 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

Rarely does a film so exceed my expectations that I’m left with a feeling of awe, but my face literally almost broke into pieces from the immensity of my smile as I sat watching one of the most perfect post-credit scenes I’ve ever witnessed follow-up a film so adorable that I wanted to hug it, then see it again immediately. The word awesome may be overused and have a wide range of application, but when expanded to its full definition of something that is “extremely impressive; inspiring great admiration”, it applies perfectly to Paddington 2.

Now with the origin story out of the way, director Paul King is able to show us what Paddington’s every day life in London is like with the Brown family. It still requires some suspension of disbelief to see humans interacting with a talking bear as if it’s routine, but it doesn’t take long to start feeling the joy that Paddington is bringing into the lives of everyone he interacts with and accept him for who he is, and not how he looks. Watching the Brown’s operate as a family is particularly sweet, and each member has their own personal issue of identity that they are dealing with in some manner. Each of these is introduced briefly and King’s ability to pay off each individual family member’s struggle while maintaining a balance of character focus throughout the film is a triumph. As for Paddington, he simply wants to find the best present possible for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, and due to a bad case of wrong place/wrong time he ends up in the most unlikely of places… prison. The rest of the plot takes everyone on whimsical adventures, complete with treasure hunting, plenty of detective work, and hijinks on a train. The film has plenty to say about being yourself, having manners, and looking for the good in others, but it is never distracting and rather genuinely uplifting.

Along Paddington’s journey, one of the characters he meets is former star actor turned dog food salesman Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Phoenix wants what Paddington wants and serves as the villain of the film, and boy oh boy is Grant having the time of his life in this role. It’s impossible not to smile and laugh constantly because Grant’s performance evokes these involuntary reactions at every turn. While he doesn’t have the kind of Oscar-worthy moment that is thought of when awards are handed out for best acting work, his consistent greatness in playing this character perfectly should not be overlooked. Also hitting a home run with his performance as Knuckles McGinty, a prison cook, is Brendan Gleeson. McGinty and Paddington enter into a unique sort of friendship that is as much gut-busting fun as it is soft and caring. Paddington is the kind of bear who always looks on the bright side, after all, bringing people together and making the best of whatever situation he is in, and McGinty and the other prisoners find it as hard to resist his unrelenting kindness as audiences do his charm.

All of this is well and good, but what truly raises Paddington 2 to greatness is that it’s not just a wonderful family-friendly story full of laughter and smiles, but also a technical marvel. The blending of live-action and CGI work is really special, never once being noticeable or feeling out of place. The cinematography is always fantastic and often striking with vivid color. Many times I was reminded of Wes Anderson’s work, particularly in The Grand Budapest Hotel, by the way in which a variation of angles were used to frame characters and scenes in interesting ways (usually centered). That color, though, bursting off the screen as if it was alive, added so much to the overall joy of the experience and was a treat for the eyes.

VERDICT

Shocking as it may be to read this early in the year, Paddington 2 is a truly wonderful film that will stand as one of 2018’s best. As the sequel to a great film, this one is even better. More heart-warming, more hilarious, and with outstanding performances by Grant and Gleeson that set it apart from other animated and similar genre pictures. In a world that often gives plenty of reason to frown, Paddington will replace that with pure delight. Take the whole family to see it once, twice, or more. Spending time with this marmalade-loving bear will start your year at the movies off right.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Insidious: The Last Key

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018)


GOING IN

The INSIDIOUS series has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. I acknowledge that it isn’t the best horror out there, but I very much enjoy the first two films in this franchise, and due to a strong final act I even don’t mind the third chapter. The concept of The Further and exploring a place where spirits roam while trying to attach themselves to the living is certainly an intriguing one. While James Wan has gone on to make much more masterful horror films in THE CONJURING series, his ability to create atmospheric dread made the series one I could stomach more than the blood and gore pictures in this genre. Admittedly, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 was a letdown and Wan’s absence was felt as co-creator Leigh Whannell took over directing duties. Now director Adam Robitel is attached for yet another Lin Shaye led sequel. It’s not unheard for little known horror directors to surprise with a good film, but it is rare that fourth entries in a horror franchise ever live up to their original material. I’m going into this one with pretty low expectations and hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

1 Hour and 43 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

 

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY begins with a flashback to a young Elise (series star Lin Shaye) living in her home on a prison campus. This insight into her childhood family dynamic and living situation immediately sets the stage for what will be her most personal haunting experience yet, when she returns to this childhood home much later in life to face off against a sinister demon. The details behind this particular occurrence are fairly dark in nature and the plot gets even more serious as it progresses. It’s actually somewhat shocking that the film maintains a PG-13 rating with the heavy content, but like other films in the series it does shy away from blood and guts, relying more on jump scares and atmosphere to provide the audience a sense of fear. Those scares are hit or miss, with a few genuine moments of surprise but many more of the telegraphed typical horror film variety. While some scenes may give audiences a quick jolt, the film never creates any lasting feeling of terror.

Returning to pen this entry (as he did the previous three) is series co-creator (and director of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3) Leigh Whannell. Whannell also stars in the film as Specs, part of the sidekick ghost hunting duo that provide technical assistance to Dr. Elise Rainier. You may notice the wording used in that last sentence and find it odd. After all, Specs and Tucker have never been the focus of any previous INSIDIOUS installments, but rather provided important brief moments of levity to give audiences a chance to breathe and have a break from the tension. One of the major problems with INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, though, is that Whannell has taken Specs and Tucker from fringe supporting characters almost all the way to centerpieces. In a trend that began with INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, their screen time has increased and so have the one-liners and goofy actions. Because of their frequency this makes the film feel like almost half comedy. Instead of the jokes being used as levity, they are gags that bring attention to these characters, taking the audience out of the tension built up. It’s almost like two guys from a buddy cop comedy got dropped into this horror movie. It feels very, very weird. Whannell also really gets lost in his story, and as it gets deeper and darker it also becomes more convoluted. There are some really interesting ideas, but he just doesn’t deliver them in narrative form in a crisp understandable manner. The time travel element that takes place in The Further, in particular, has never been explained well and is no different here. Understandably there is some disbelief that must be had to accept the fantastical nature of the spirit world in the INSIDIOUS franchise, but the decisions here just take that further (pun intended) than most viewers are going to be willing to go.

Also disappointing was Robitel’s male gaze as a director. This is something that I have only recently started to notice, but did so multiple times in this film and one particular scene is an egregious example. It’s because of this scene, which focuses the camera up close on a female’s heaving chest for nearly 30 seconds as she lays on the floor gasping for breath, that it became hard to take the two new young female characters very seriously. So little devotion is given to developing their characters and in the end they are simply a plot device and object of desire for Specs and Tucker. Robitel does manage to create solid atmospheric fright at times. His framing of character faces within scenes where action is taking place in the background was something that stuck out as a positive, and the opening section of the film was quite strong as well. Additionally, the demon design and way in which it attacks is unique and scary, even if it does move a bit like The Crooked Man from THE CONJURING 2.

VERDICT

Continuing the downward spiral after a solid first two films, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY deserves to be locked away and forgotten. Whannell’s script puts way too much focus on himself and his comedy sidekick, while also taking a strong opening idea and making it so complicated that its difficult to take seriously. Robitel’s direction isn’t all bad, and the physical atmosphere is appropriately creepy, but the objectification of two younger female characters is hard to ignore. The INSIDIOUS franchise under Wan’s hand was great, but it has now lost the focus it once had and it’s time to use THE LAST KEY to close the door on these ideas for good.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2017)

We live in a world of remakes, reboots, reimaginings and rebrandings. Sequels and franchises dominate the box office. If a studio sees any opportunity to squeeze a dime out of something you loved as a child, chances are it’s already in production. While they’re not all terrible, even the best of them are merely well-produced retreads that lack innovation and imagination. But every once in a while, a sequel or a reboot comes along that surpasses its source material with a fresh take that injects life into the property. This Christmas, we’re lucky enough to have one of those rare diamonds in the rough in Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a standalone sequel to the 1995 hit Jumanji, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt and a young Kirsten Dunst that spawned an animated television series and multiple video games. Boasting cutting edge CGI for its time, the film told the story of four players stuck in the middle of a mystical interactive board game where you win or you die. I’ve been excited for this film for a while due to my fond memories of the original and the casting of Dwayne Johnson in the lead role. Anyone who knows me knows that the easiest way to get me into a theater is to cast The Rock.

The film picks up almost exactly where the original left off in 1996 with the board game being discovered on a beach where it washed up after Robin Williams’ Allan Parrish attempted to bury it in the bottom of a river in 1969. The man who discovered the game gives it to his son Alex who has no interest in board games but is an avid video gamer. The game transforms itself into a video game and after we see some green flashing lights from outside Alex’s window, the film fast forwards to the present day where four high schoolers discover the video game while cleaning out an old storage room and they one by one get sucked into the world of Jumanji. Having been transformed into the bodies of their avatars (Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black), the four students must find a jewel that’s been stolen and return it to its sacred resting place before the perils of the jungle take their lives.

If the plot sounds simple, that’s because it absolutely is. There are a couple of mostly predictable twists and turns along the way, but this film works because of the solid chemistry of its cast. Continuing the on-screen chemistry that was forged in 2016’s surprising comedy Central Intelligence, Johnson and Hart play off of each other well and are the source of a lot of the film’s biggest laughs. Jack Black is as funny as he’s been in years as a self-obsessed teenage girl trapped in the body of a middle-aged man. Karen Gillan is perfectly awkward as an awkward teen suddenly trapped in the body of a stereotypical female video game heroine. The four of them clearly seem to be having a lot of fun together and each character is given their chance to shine.

There are a lot of films out there to see this time of year that will be mentioned come awards season. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is absolutely not one of those films. It’s ridiculous and over the top, but if I were making a list of the most enjoyable movies of the year, it would definitely be in the top five. I enjoyed the action, it made me laugh and there was a surprising emotional punch at the end that I didn’t see coming. If you’re wanting to go out with the family* to have a good time at the movies this holiday season, I have a hard time believing that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle would leave you disappointed.

Rating:

*This is a film with PG-13 humor unlike the original that catered to wider audiences. There is some content that might be objectionable to some with younger children. I’m glad I saw it on my own before taking my children who are all under the age of 12.


 

Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter  to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Ferdinand

FERDINAND (2017)


GOING IN

Someone decided that it was a good idea to take a 1936 short story about a pacifist bull and turn it into a film starring the voice talent of wrestling superstar John Cena. While I know the actor, I didn’t know of the book that Ferdinand is based on. The original story by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson was initially met with a mixture of opinions before becoming so much of a hit in the 1930’s that it was featured on several commercial products. And now here we are in 2017 to see if it can make a comeback and win over family audiences this Christmas. My expectations for this film are extremely low, but I have at least enjoyed the prior films of director Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Rio) and Cena’s casting does make me curious. Just another needless kid’s film, or heartfelt and moving animated story with an important message or meaningful life lesson? Time to step into the arena and find out.

1 Hour and 46 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

Well, hey, it’s another anti-bullying movie. And that’s not a bad thing. Because people shouldn’t bully others, ya know? Poor Ferdinand grows up with plenty of this from his fellow calves, who have trouble accepting a bull who just wants to smell the flowers instead of fight. Tragedy strikes while Ferdinand is still young and he escapes to the country where he takes up residence at a flower farm. Convenient since he loves flowers so much, right? And also convenient that the little girl who befriends him actually knows his name is Ferdinand, too! Yes… if there is one word that I would use to describe Ferdinand it would be “convenient.” Every plot choice works perfectly because it has to, not because it makes any kind of logical sense. By the time the animals are driving a truck during the film’s climax, I was completely checked out.

Along with its message against bullying, the film promotes accepting who you are and loving others for the same. I actually never got the sense that the movie was strictly anti-violence. It (shockingly) shows what the alternative is for bulls who don’t succeed in the arena and could be emotional for young children who pick up on the subtlety. Don’t worry, though, no animated bulls were killed in the making of this movie so they won’t be scarred for life. The irony of John Cena playing a pacifist is somewhat amusing considering his fame comes from a career spent acting out violence for the entertainment of a large ground. Not all that unlike bull fighting, hm?

Characters in the film are hit and miss. Ferdinand himself is well played by Cena. A goofy “calming” goat voiced by Kate McKinnon that plays a large role in the final third of the film has importance as a character but is so annoying that I wanted to plug my ears. The rest of the bulls are unique, have their own strengths and weaknesses, and all play a part at precisely the right time to the surprise of no one. They’re… fine. Oh, and there are also German fancy horses. Who dab.

VERDICT

There are so many better animated films to recommend over Ferdinand. The bar has been raised, and every film has a positive message so that doesn’t set this one apart. It does have some charm and Cena’s voicework is good, but an overly convenient plot that tries to balance heartfelt concern with ridiculous unbelievable antics fails to connect and barely entertains. Possibly worth a rental eventually, but with Coco still in theaters there is no reason to spend money and time on Ferdinand.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)


GOING IN

In the two years since Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, it’s been a bumpy ride for my fandom of this once beloved franchise. I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of this new trilogy, but also found its use of nostalgia to be a bit off-putting. And then came Rogue One, which I did not enjoy much and resulted in me becoming very down on Star Wars and its cinematic future. Thankfully, a recent re-watch of The Force Awakens and the release of the first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi snapped me back to attention and I am now properly excited once more.

So many questions exist that must be answered. How will Rian Johnson fare in the director’s chair and how will the treatment of recently deceased Carrie Fisher be handled? Where is Kylo Ren’s character arc heading and will he evolve into a villain on par with Darth Vader? And who, for the love of all that is holy, are Rey’s parents? The Last Jedi looks amazing, and expectations are sky high. Hopefully not so high that they’re bound to be let down.

2 Hours and 32 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

A few weeks prior to the release of The Last Jedi, Disney announced that director Rian Johnson would be expanding Star Wars further with a new trilogy. This news sort of tipped Disney’s hand as to how they felt about The Last Jedi because they certainly weren’t going to give Johnson more work if they didn’t like what he’d done in Episode VIII. Well, it all makes sense now, and Johnson has proven that the franchise is in good hands.

The Last Jedi follows a similar path to The Empire Strikes Back, with dual storylines following Rey (who we last saw tracking down Luke Skywalker at his secret hiding place) and the rest of the Resistance separately. But if you’re worried about the film being a beat-for-beat remake of the hallowed Episode V, you can rest easy knowing that it does not do so and instead offers many surprises. It is telling that Luke says, “This not going to go the way you think,” because for (mostly) better and (a few times) worse Johnson twists and turns this tale all over the place, which creates the exhilaration that comes with having no idea what is coming next. After its typical over-the-top opening sequence, Johnson’s film does lag a bit, though, and I felt the overall length more-so than I have in other epics. It’s not that the character development and plotting aren’t important, but it is noticeable compared to the high octane pacing of the film in its second half. And in that second half is where things really shine the brightest as everything and anything can and does happen. The final third of The Last Jedi is as emotionally affecting, gorgeous to behold, and fun to experience as any Star Wars film has ever been.

One thing that really stuck out the most in The Last Jedi was Johnson’s ability to challenge the moral choices of characters both “good” and “bad.” Poe Dameron has to actually deal with the repercussions of his Maverick-esque personality and Finn struggles with being considered a hero. Even Chewie deals with moving on after the loss of his best friend, albeit with a pretty adorable outcome. Many characters are faced with dilemmas that seem easy to solve on the surface but prove to be so much more. I’m not even going to address Rey and Kylo Ren’s arcs because those need to be seen firsthand with no prior knowledge, but I will say that I appreciated where the former ended up more than the latter. One of my disappointments with the film was being left with the feeling that Ren still isn’t a villain worth fearing like Darth Vader. That being said, this is a different story with different relationships in play, and there is much I do like about the complex Kylo Ren.

Acting is solid across the board with Hamill standing out the most. His grizzled, regretful Luke feels very real and sincere. We do finally get to see Supreme Leader Snoke up close and Andy Serkis does his typical great motion-capture work, however the voicing of Snoke sounds a little too reminiscent of Gollum at times and that can be distracting. Also, thankfully, Carrie Fisher’s appearance is handled with the utmost care and respect. She’s not just a side character either, but a very integral part of the the entire film’s plot. One final small criticism would be that the characters are sometimes forced to use very modern dialogue, specifically when the film is being humorous. Many laughed, but I found some lines to just be more eye-roll worthy instead. Luckily these moments are few and far between, nothing that derails the cerebral and intriguing plot.

VERDICT

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a wonderful next step in this new trilogy and one of most epic cinematic space operas since The Empire Strikes Back. Its unexpected plot choices will have fans gasping in surprise, and many emotional moments will cause a lump in the throat or tears in the eye. As Star Wars has always told us, the Resistance (and Rebellion) operate on HOPE. The story here is no different, but our HOPE in Rian Johnson has also been pleasantly rewarded. Whether you like every choice or not, it’s impossible not to respect the filmmaker’s talent, ambition, and passion, especially as the film’s momentum builds and races home to its incredible conclusion. The Last Jedi is a must-see for fans and should be taken in at the biggest theater possible for full effect. See it soon to avoid spoilers, and may the force be with you always.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Greatest Showman

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017)


GOING IN

If there were only two genres of film that I could watch for the rest of my life, they would be Science Fiction and Musicals (and if I had a third it very well might be Biopics). The Greatest Showman is the latter two and looks to be shamelessly nostalgic. Its story of P. T. Barnum’s founding of the famous Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus appears full of bombastic dance numbers, bright lights, and big voices. Jackman’s work in the movie adaptation of one of my favorite musicals of all-time, Les Miserables, coupled with his passion for bringing this project to the big screen instill in me the utmost hope. The thing that I love most about musicals is how they can make me feel and that starts with the entire team of creators buying in first. Jackman has said, “A bad musical stinks to high heaven, but when a musical works, there’s nothing like it. It’s everyone coming together and opening their heart.” I couldn’t agree more. My heart is open, too, and I’m ready to receive the spectacle.

1 Hour and 40 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

P. T. Barnum is famously quoted as saying, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” With The Greatest Showman, the Australian duo of director Michael Gracey and star Hugh Jackman fully embrace this sentiment in retelling the birth of show business. From the sensational opening scene, watching the film is a joyful experience. An homage to big musicals of the past, it progresses from start to finish linked together by one grandiose song after another, full of over-the-top production and exciting choreography. The passion poured into the project oozes off the screen in every performance and its multiple positive messages about chasing your dreams, using your imagination, and accepting everyone as they are serve as inspirational lessons for child and adult alike.  Also creating that emotional connectivity are the excellent songs, featuring lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the break-out songwriters of La La Land‘s award-winning “City of Stars.” Expect at least one of The Greatest Showman‘s awesome musical numbers to receive similar recognition at the 2018 Academy Award ceremony.

Jackman as Barnum is perfect. He has the charisma and vocal talent needed to a showman, and he pulls off both Barnum’s overconfidence and feelings of inadequacy equally well. One thing that must always be considered with biopics is whether or not they accurately depict the characters portrayed. In this case, Barnum’s slave ownership is overlooked completely and the film most likely treats him as more of a champion for the marginalized than he may have been. That being said, it does keep him balanced, showing plenty of poor decisions along with the ones that made him such a success. As a movie-goer, my primary desire is to be entertained, though, and whether its historically correct or not, the pleasure it provides is undeniable.

Also standing out are Rebecca Ferguson as “The Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind and Zac Efron as Phillip Carlysle, Barnum’s eventual partner and romantic interest of trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Ferguson is outstanding and has the most touching solo vocal performance of the film. Efron, meanwhile, provides solid work throughout as someone who slowly becomes a sort of grounding figure for Barnum. He also has a standout musical number with Jackman that made me want an entire movie of just those two actors singing to each other while dancing their way through a plot.

The Greatest Showman is not without fault, however. It’s not a perfect script, and like many musicals of old some cheesiness does slip in. It also could have used a little more character development for the circus performers. While there are the briefest of backstories for them, their unique looks or talents would have been fun to explore further. Yet that would have also made the film longer. As is, its tight runtime of just over an hour and a half is a very good thing, allowing the music to stay center stage and never be silent for long.

VERDICT

The Greatest Showman‘s reverence for the musicals of old shines through in every way. Full of impressive songs that form a soundtrack worth listening to on repeat, it is emotionally provocative and will have viewers smiling and humming their way out of the theater. Though its story may not be 100% historically accurate, the inspirational messages are no less meaningful. Likely to end up one of my most frequently re-watched films from 2017, The Greatest Showman continues the revival of the Hollywood musical and is one of the most enjoyable theater experiences of the year. Take the kids to this family friendly spectacle and enjoy the show!

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)


Going In

The truth is, I’m just not that interested in seeing Call Me By Your Name. Might as well get that out of the way right up front. But the thing about film criticism is that a responsible critic doesn’t just watch the movies that they might like. Appreciation for cinematic excellence must exist outside of one’s preferences, and so here I sit, about to take in a story about a sensual romance between a 24-year old man and 17-year old boy. The age gap in this story is a big concern, as is Hollywood’s tendency to label sexual lust and desire as “love,” but I refuse to judge this book (adaptation) by its cover. Many critics have raved and gone so far as to label  Luca Guadagnino’s film “a masterpiece,” and that alone makes it essential viewing, regardless of my resulting opinion.

2 Hours and 12 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

In many ways, Call Me By Your Name earns its place among the best films of the year. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is gorgeous.  Whether it’s the landscapes of the Italian countryside or perfectly angled interiors, every shot captures a feeling of authenticity to the era. Under Guadagnino’s direction, the details are captured everywhere, in a glance here or brush of the hand there, and the beginnings of Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) romance can be noticed ever so subtly if one just pays enough attention. The acting in the film is also to be commended. Chalamet rightfully deserves all praise and award consideration coming his way after turning in one of the best performances of the year. His boyish charm comes through brightly on the screen, and when he hurts it is impossible not to feel that in your soul. Hammer, who never disappoints, plays the older American visitor pitch perfect. The nuance in his hints of romantic interest are delicately balanced against his boisterous personality until the moment he lets go to release a torrent of built up passion.  The chemistry between the two leads is palpable and the growing desire between them practically drips off of the screen like the beads of sweat on their shirtless chests. And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, playing Elio’s father, who is quietly effective for most of the film leading up to one incredibly powerful Oscar-worthy scene in which he must do a thing every parent wishes would never be necessary – comfort a hurting child. 

Call Me By Your Name could have been a moving, romantic coming-of-age tale about first love, if not for its two glaring problems. Why the majority of critics have seemed to overlook these issues is worrisome. Legally, there is nothing wrong with the relationship as it is portrayed. A 17-year old boy in early 1980’s Italy was past the age of consent and could make decisions as an adult. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right. Hammer is a large man and he physically towers over Chalamet, presenting the appearance of an age gap closer to the actual 10-years between the actors than the 7 between the characters. Elio is shown to be young, still living with his parents, following their rules, and laying his head in their laps for nightly book readings. Oliver, in contrast, is in control of every emotion and hides his carnal urges toward Elio for quite some time before ultimately giving in to the younger boy’s increasing persuasions. The relationship feels much more like a dominating one than one of equally experienced adults giving consent. Oliver is a sexually mature world-traveler. Elio is the opposite, inexperienced and unsure of himself and his sexuality. It increasingly feels like Oliver is controlling the situation and feeding his own passion and desire in the moment without any long-term concern for its effect on Elio. Does he care about Elio? Probably, but that’s another fault of the film. Love is shown in action and sacrifice, not just physical interaction, and we see neither of these in the choices made in Call Me By Your Name.

Also concerning is the way in which both Oliver and Elio treat women. Elio is in a relationship with the sweet, same-aged Marzia (played by the stunning Esther Garrel), but as he struggles with his sexuality the result is that she becomes used for his pleasure and nothing more . While the film focuses extensively on the emotional toll his feelings to toward Oliver have on Elio, it merely skims over how horribly treated Marzia is and what the repercussions could be on her own psyche. Oliver, meanwhile, has his own skeletons in the closet that speak to his in appropriate treatment of women. It’s all washed away, seemingly, because the film promotes the boys’ relationship and sexual exploration as positive. Even Elio’s parents support and encourage the relationship between their visiting research assistant and teenage son. It’s as if Guadagnino believes that the feelings of passion Oliver and Elio shared were worth it no matter who got hurt in the process.

I can’t help but wonder just how this movie might play with a 24-year old man and 17-year old girl, instead of two men. Would as many people be overlooking this troublesome relationship? In contrast to the caring, loving actions shown in the relationship between Kevin and Chiron in Moonlight, Oliver and Elio’s summer romance feels like nothing more than a brief sexual fling, and I’m going to need a lot more depth than that if you want me to care for these characters.

Verdict

Despite being a beautifully made film that features fantastic performances, Call Me By Your Name‘s inappropriate romance and resulting treatment of those affected by it make this film impossible to recommend. Sex and lust are not the same thing as love, and though the film captures the feeling of desire, its all made dirty due to the age difference and unequal stature of the two men at its center. The film’s craftsmanship is simply undeniable, but its offenses are equally unforgivable.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Post

THE POST (2017)

GOING IN

True story – my dream career for two decades was newspaper editor. Not an astronaut or a doctor or Major League Baseball player. I grew up with a very strong interest in journalism and political science. Had my life taken a different path, perhaps those two subjects would have resulted in college degrees that eventually led me to that desk job at a major paper.

The Post dramatizes the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government secrets and lies about the Vietnam War. With a cast led by superstars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, and directed by Steven Spielberg, this story of unbiased journalism is extremely relevant and sure to land numerous Oscar nominations. The question is, will it be more All President’s Men or Spotlight? And will it rekindle my dreams or put me at ease about missing out?


COMING OUT

Standing ovation. That’s my initial reaction when the credits start to roll. I simply don’t clap for movies. It feels odd to do so when there is no one present to actually receive the praise being given from said action, but this film was the rare exception that made me want to.

The Post story, I’m ashamed to say, is not one that I was familiar with, but is a piece of history that is vitally important for all Americans to know well. Essentially the Nixon administration and government before him had a pretty bad habit of making decisions based on public perception instead of what might actually be best for the country. There was also a culture of “friendship” between the press and the White House that called into question the bias of reporting. All that was brought into focus, though, when the New York Times first published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. After Nixon fails to persuade the NYT to cease publishing, a federal court does so claiming the papers violate the Espionage Act of 1917 due to their classified nature.

This is where The Washington Post, published by Katharine Graham (Streep) and edited by Ben Bradlee (Hanks) comes in. Hanks portrays Bradlee with a staunch patriotism and determination to do what he feels is right, which is always give the public the truth. “The only way to protect the right to publish, is to publish,” he says more than once, as he pushes his team to locate the Pentagon Papers and convince Graham to publish despite the potential consequences. Graham not only must face the risk of her career and freedom, but must do so in a world that where women were not frequently in positions of power. Streep’s performance is inspiring in the way it captures both the spirited strength of Graham as well as her nervous fears. Hanks is also fantastic and the chemistry between these two star-studded actors in a joy to behold.

Spielberg has also assembled an incredible supporting cast around Hanks and Streep. Bob Odenkirk stands out the most as reporter Ben Bagdikian, the man in charge of locating the Pentagon Papers for The Post. His resolve never waivers once and he is the perfect extension of Bradlee’s mantra that freedom of the press must survive because as he says about the government “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” John Williams’ score is much more minimalist than usual, but equally effective. It accentuates perfectly those heightened moments of drama with Oscar-worthy speeches, breaths collectively being held as decisions are awaited, and once scene where Spielberg shoots the printing press like it was in an action movie.

VERDICT

The Post features Spielberg’s best work in ages and the timeless greatness of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep is on full display. This all-star team-up provides the goods in telling an important story about the place of journalism in society and the necessity of checks and balances for public servants. Emotionally speaking, everything works here and comes together into a rousing picture that champions a right which Americans must cling to more than ever today. See it in a theater. See it with your children. As much a vital history lesson as outstanding entertainment, The Post is one of this year’s best films and should not be missed.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.