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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 29, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 52
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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2017 Film Recap: A year of wonders and delights comes to conclusion
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I've watched just over 200 films that were released in 2017, and that's still only a small smidgen of the countless motion pictures from around the globe that received some sort of theatrical exhibition. As such, I'm always reticent to label any list the 'Best' of a given year. Just doesn't feel right. Even so, I'm still fine coming up with a list of my favorites from the year, all of which I feel pushed the cinematic envelope and are worthy of applause.

In regards to 2017, there was certainly plenty to love. From the sight of Diana of Themyscira making the decision to walk into the middle of No Man's Land alone in Wonder Woman, to four best friends rediscovering their bonds of familial sisterhood in Girls Trip, to a father sitting quietly with his despondent teenage son speaking to him with a level of empathetic understanding that helps ease the pain in Call Me by Your Name, to a little girl facing down a gigantic figure dressed in black riding a gigantic stallion in the middle of an isolated corn field in American Fable, the volume of memorable moments is simply off the charts.

Two men sitting in the snow grieving together over unimaginable loss in Wind River, a mother sharing a song with her triumphant daughter in Patti Cake$, the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW standing triumphant and proud in Step, a frightened everyman descending into The Sunken Place in Get Out, a daughter singing her father's favorite song as he proudly looking on with a face full of tears in Logan Lucky, a lonely warrior caressing the face of a sister he hasn't seen in decades before wandering out onto a desolate battlefield alone in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a distraught husband and wife realizing they communicate best when standing on a stage singing songs they composed based on the highs and lows of their relationship in Band Aid; the list is endless. I could likely go on forever just pointing out moments just like these that made me ecstatic to be sitting in the theatre watching these respective stories play themselves out.

As said, 2017 has been quite a year. With that in mind, here are my picks for the top ten motion pictures I happened to be lucky enough to get a look at along with a handful of others I feel are almost equally deserving of being singled out for praise. Enjoy!

TOP TEN (in alphabetic order)

Battle of the Sexes (d. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris)
It's a shame Battle of the Sexes wasn't a bigger hit, because this movie chronicling the 1973 match between superstar and women's sports pioneer Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former tennis legend Bobby Riggs is so sensationally entertaining, and so culturally relevant for this exact moment in history, watching it proves to be a continuous joy even if viewers know exactly how the pair's story comes to an end. Featuring rich, intelligently complex performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell and a dynamic, magnetically intimate script from Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy, Dayton and Faris's latest wins in straight sets, proving in the end to be one of 2017's most impressive achievements.

Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan)
Noan's kinetic, unrelentingly tense WWII epic of survival, sacrifice, retreat and resilience is an ode to heroism on a massive scale. It's depiction of the events at Dunkirk focuses on the minutia, using the varying battles in the air, on the sea and on the ground to show the horror of the situation and what it took to get nearly 400,000 soldiers off of a French beach and back to Britain before it was too late. Stunning.

The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker)
It's hard to imagine I won't be treasuring Sean Baker's The Florida Project for decades to come. This marvelous story of a six-year-old girl spending her summer messing around with her friends in the shadow of Disney World never fully comprehending how tenuous the situation is for both her and her twenty-something single mother, this film treats its characters with such empathetic understanding and nonjudgmental grace the inherent emotional power fueling things ends up being monumental. Featuring Willem Dafoe in one of his all-time best roles and breakout performances from child actor Brooklynn Prince and young newcomer Bria Vinaite this movie might very well be a masterpiece. Ask me again in a couple of years and I'll likely proclaim it to be one.

Frantz (d. François Ozon)
Leave it to Ozon to take a relatively forgotten Ernst Lubitsch comedy classic (1932's Broken Lullaby) and transform it into something heartfelt, introspective and timeless, Frantz such a stunning achievement I get choked up just thinking about it again while writing this tiny little capsule. The story of a German family making the acquaintance of a French soldier just after the close of WWI who knew and befriended their son before his untimely death, this is another movie that refuses to pander to its audience, offering up an emotional scenario with the frank empathetic simplicity it so richly deserves. At the center of it all is Paula Beer as Anna, the young fiancée of the deceased soldier, her ability to see the bigger picture yet still understand sometimes a sincere fiction is better than a merciless truth the key element around which everything else revolves.

Lady Bird (d. Greta Gerwig)
I knew I was absolutely head over heels in love with Gerwig's solo directorial debut Lady Bird barely a third of the way into the movie. A priceless coming of age saga overflowing in life, energy and exuberance, there's just way too much about this marvelous little gem of a dramatic comedy to adore. Saoirse Ronan is an absolute delight as the title character, while a varied supporting cast, which includes the likes Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Beanie Feldstein and Timothée Chalamet, hits it continually out of the park. But it is veteran character actress Laurie Metcalf who makes the biggest impression, her lived-in, fearlessly unsentimental performance breaking my heart in two with its authentic, lovingly multifaceted authority.

Logan (d. James Mangold)
One of the great comic book movies ever made and arguably the best one involving any of the X-Men (although X2: X-Men United deserves to be in the conversation), Hugh Jackman's final go as Wolverine is a surprisingly simple, straight-forward modern Western about heroism, aging, friendship and family that strikes quite the emotional chord. With an award-worthy performance by Patrick Stewart as an aging Professor X struggling to control his mental powers as his body deteriorates around him and a breakout turn by young Dafne Keen as a mysterious child whose connection to the title mutant hero is as violent and as uncompromising as one might expect it to be. Mangold directs with efficient kinetic virtuosity, building things slowly but surely to a final confrontation that hits all the themes inherent in this narrative throwback to John Ford and John Sturges films of old rather splendidly. As haunting a final scene as any 2017 had to offer.

mother! (d. Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky's biblical whirligig is a motion picture I haven't been able to get out of my head ever since I first laid eyes on it back in early September. Twisting and turning like a snake intent on biting its own tail, this homebound Garden of Eden becomes a metaphorical playing ground for all sorts of unsettling mischief and mayhem. It's humanity under a microscope, with pitch-perfect star Jennifer Lawrence as the earthy figurehead whose only seeming care is to maintain the environment that surrounds her beloved companion (a terrifyingly divine Javier Bardem) while it is under direct assault from a variety of pesky intruders, including a squabbling married couple (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer), the latter of whom would love to get a bite of their host's inspirational apple. So much to unpack, this movie is so dangerously elegant in its brazen deconstruction of religion's inherent contradictions, making sense of them after only a single viewing is pretty much impossible.

Polina (d. Valérie Müller, Angelin Preljocaj)
Acclaimed filmmaker Müller and renowned choreographer Preljocaj join forces for a balletic marvel of a drama that held me spellbound for each step of its bravura dance of discovery. The story of a ballet student who dreams of stardom, and while her technical brilliance is readily apparent to all her work with her, the young woman's inability to attach herself emotionally to the music or to the movements she's being asked to perform keeps her from achieving greatness. Featuring a sublime, albeit brief, supporting role for Juliette Binoche, the film's breakout sensation is dancer Anastasia Shevtsova, the actress connecting with the material so seamlessly the line between her performance and the character as written in the script vanishes into invisibility almost immediately. The final dance sequence held me spellbound in constant awe, Müller and Preljocaj staging it magnificently. Make no mistake; I loved this movie.

The Post (d. Steven Spielberg)
It's hard to imagine any other 2017 release being more essential than this one is. A ticking clock procedural following The Washington Post executive editor Bill Bradlee (a sensational Tom Hanks) and the paper's owner and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, giving a spellbinding performance that might just be up there with her all-time best, which considering her filmography is saying something, I know) as the former pursues a story the Nixon administration would rather see silenced and the latter has to make the decision whether or not to allow him to publish it, breaking all that's happening inside this magnificent motion picture into a handful of simplistic talking points isn't particularly easy. But with gender equality in the workplace front and center as it never has been before and with the First Amendment and the freedom of the press under political assault in way that is both terrifying and despicable, Spielberg's opus is a master class in taking recent history and drawing parallels to the here and now in ways both thought-provoking and inspired. Thankfully, it also turns out to be incredibly entertaining, too.

Their Finest (d. Lone Scherfig)
Without a doubt, Scherfig's Their Finest is the one undiscovered marvel of 2017, and it totally upsets me that audiences failed to turn out for it in a substantial way. A beguiling love story. An inspirational marvel of an intelligent young woman coming into her own as an artist. A vibrantly alive history lesson. A portrait of wartime resilience and togetherness on the home front as bombs drop from the sky and victory is still something of a doubt. An examination of the manner in which propaganda is created and utilized in order to achieve its desired effect. Their Finest is all of this and more, Scherfig's direction as strong and as focused as it has ever been, while star Gemma Arterton turns in what is to my mind the best performance of her still relatively short career. Make no mistake, this might be my favorite film of 2017, and one I guarantee each time I watch I'll have a smile plastered so big across my face some will start to wonder if I've had it surgically implanted there.

A SECOND TWENTY (because I can)
After the Storm, B.P.M. (Beats Per Minute), Band Aid, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Call Me by Your Name, Detroit, The Devil's Candy, In This Corner of the World, Last Flag Flying, Logan Lucky, The Lost City of Z, Graduation, Only the Brave, Personal Shopper, Phantom Thread, Raw, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman, Wonderstruck

HONORABLE MENTIONS (also because I can)
American Fable, Colossal, A Cure for Wellness, A Dark Song, The Disaster Artist, First They Killed My Father, Free Fire, Get Out, A Ghost Story, Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Greatest Showman, Hostiles, John Wick: Chapter 2, Lady Macbeth, The Lovers, Okja, Patti Cake$, The Shape of Water, The Survivalist, Wind River, The Zookeeper's Wife

FIVE FAV DOCUMENTARIES
City of Ghosts, Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Faces Places, Kedi, Step

FAV 2017 FILMS INEXPLICABLY HITTING THEATRES IN 2018
A Fantastic Woman, The Final Year, Foxtrot, Freak Show, Loveless

TEN DISAPPOINTMENTS
I'm honestly not in the mood to do a list of the worst films I saw last year. Instead, I thought I'd do something a little different and highlight ten films I felt were 2017's most disappointing. Obviously, most of these are pretty bad. They're just not Transformers: The Last Knight or Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, not that this is much in the way of a compliment. Without further ado (and still in alphabetic order):

All I See Is You (d. Marc Forster)
For a movie I initially had no desire to watch, the first half of Forster's blindness drama starring Blake Lively is downright tremendous, all of which makes the self-important, uncomfortably ugly and assaultive second half all the more obnoxiously annoying. Watching this one fall apart frankly made me angry.

American Assassin (d. Michael Cuesta)
Other than one brief moment of co-star Michael Keaton in all his crazed, lunatic, wide-eyes glory, American Assassin turns out to be as unrelentingly second-rate a spy-versus-spy espionage thriller as any this side of the direct-to-DVD market, wasting great source material from author Vince Flynn in the process.

Baywatch (d. Seth Gordon)
Is it a surprise that Baywatch is bad? No. Not really. Is it a surprise it ends up being as obnoxiously unfunny as it eventually proves to be? Yes, actually, because a comedy featuring the likes of Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario and Priyanka Chopra has no business being quite this terrible. None. At All.

Beauty and the Beast (d. Bill Condon)
Unrelentingly pedestrian cash grab where Disney remakes another one of their animated classics only does so by creating a carbon copy of the original that's content to pander to an audience's most basic desires with absolutely no wish to make a case for existing in its own right. Be our guest? Be our prisoner to mediocrity is more like it.

The Dark Tower (d. Nikolaj Arcel)
The Man in Black and The Gunslinger, the immortal Roland Deschain, face off in this adaptation of Stephen King's best-selling fantasy/sci-fi/horror/western series, acclaimed director Arcel failing to find a way to make any of this supernatural nonsense make a lick of sense while wasting the talents of perfectly cast stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the process.

Ghost in the Shell (d. Rupert Sanders)
So, remaking a classic anime with a Caucasian lead who actually turns out to be a resurrected Japanese young woman planted into Scarlett Johansson 's body with a grief-stricken mother living alone in a middle class Neo Tokyo neighborhood turns out to be a bad, not to mention unbelievably racist, idea? Yeah. Didn't see that coming. Let me hide my disbelief.

The Glass House (d. Destin Daniel Cretton)
Cretton reteams with his Short Term 12 star Brie Larson for an adaptation of Jeannette Walls's best-selling memoir and the results are sadly less than stellar. Meandering, melodramatic and facile, the film is only made endurable thanks to the performances of its stellar cast, especially the one given by Larson's fully invested co-star Woody Harrelson.

The Mountain Between Us (d. Hany Abu-Ass)
The moment when this exhilarating, undeniably tense survival drama suddenly turns into a syrupy romance drowning in treacle was one of the worst theatrical experiences I had the misfortune to experience in 2017. For a movie revolving around two plane crash survivors traipsing through snow covered mountains in order to survive, probably not a good idea to take the cliché of 'falling off a cliff' so gosh darn literal where it came to the story's more supercilious narrative constructs.

The Mummy (d. Alex Kurtzman)
May the potential of Universal Pictures' planned 'Dark Universe' rest in peace, the resurrection of classic movie monsters like Frankenstein's Creature, The Wolf Man, The Creature for the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man completely destroyed all thanks to this unfocused, idiotically incoherent Tom Cruse vehicle.

Queen of the Desert (d. Werner Herzog)
An intimate biography of pioneering British archaeologist, cartographer, writer, photographer, spy and explorer Gertrude Bell? Directed by Herzog? Starring Nicole Kidman? This movie just has to be marvelous, right? Sadly, no, it does not, this whole movie stranded in a narrative desert it simply cannot seem to escape from.

The Snowman (d. Tomas Alfredson)
Dear Mr. Filmmaker, I gave you terrific source material, a stellar cast and an award-winning creative team. How again did you end up making a movie this astonishingly unwatchable?

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS
The Assignment, The Axe Murders of Villisca, The Boss Baby, Below Her Mouth, The Bye Bye Man, The Crucifixion, Daddy's Home 2, Darkness Rising, Diary of Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, Downsizing, Everything Everything, Father Figures, Fifty Shades Darker, Flatliners, Friend Request, Gold, The Great Wall, Kidnap, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Lycan, Message from the King, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Promise, Rings, Sleepless, The Space Between Us, Transformers: The Last Knight, Wish Upon, Wolves


Scott's Money a mesmerizing procedural
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
Now playing


On July 10, 1973, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), 'Paola' to his Italian friends, is kidnapped. His captors, led by the charismatic Cinquanta (Romain Duris), are asking for $17 million in ransom for the teenager's safe return, money his single mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) does not have. But his grandfather John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the chairman of Getty Oil and the richest man in the world at that moment in history, certainly does, and it is from him these violent men believe they are going to be paid.

Not so fast. This titan of industry isn't so quick to give up even a single dollar of his vast fortune. In fact, he'd rather not deal with Gail at all, the curmudgeonly old man still upset at his former daughter-in-law for divorcing his ne'er-do-well son (Andrew Buchan) and taking his grandchildren away from him almost a decade prior. Instead, he dispatches his most trusted fixer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former C.I.A. analyst who specializes in high-level secret negotiations, to assist with the investigation into the kidnapping. But Gail only wants one thing, and that's the return of her son, and she's willing to do whatever it takes to ensure he's brought home safe and sound.

Inspired by events that shocked the world, based on the best-selling book by John Pearson and working from a script written by David Scarpa (The Last Castle), director Ridley Scott's visceral thriller All the Money in the World hasn't exactly been flying under the radar. Originally starring Kevin Spacey as John Paul Getty, once set to premier at a star-studded screening during AFI Fest in early November, once news of the actor's history of abuse and misconduct went viral it became clear the film wouldn't be financially viable, maybe not even releasable, in what was at that moment its finished form. In an unprecedented move, Scott convinced Sony Pictures to allow him to recast Plummer in the role of Getty and reshoot all of the scenes involving Spacey, assuring the producers and the various powers that be he could do this skillfully and fast enough to still meet the picture's original late December release date.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the esteemed filmmaker behind movies as diverse as The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven and The Martian was able to pull something like this off. Maybe I shouldn't be as impressed with the accomplishment as I am. The reality is that All the Money in the World, while hardly flawless, is sensationally entertaining. Featuring a performance from Williams that is as beautifully nuanced and overflowing in naturalistic intensity as any she's previously given, Scott's latest is an absorbing procedural that is marinated in uncomfortably authentic tension, events building to an explosive conclusion that left me happily gobsmacked.

There are three elements I was fundamentally impressed with, the most obvious one pertaining to any scene or moment centering on Plummer. While it's hard to say his performance as Getty was much a stretch for the Oscar-winning legend, he still adds a layer of menacing gravitas that's delectable. It's obvious that the other actors are energized whenever they are in his presence, and whether that is because they understood the stakes of having to be involved with these reshoots or because they feel forced to bring their collective 'A' game when they are around him we'll likely never know. Nonetheless, these scenes are consistently outstanding, watching Plummer devour every syllable of dialogue with such devilish relish a constant joy.

Then there are the scenes between Paulo and his kidnappers, most notably the emotionally conflicted Cinquanta, nicely portrayed by French superstar Duris. An actor of dynamic range, making noteworthy impressions in films like The Beat My Heart Skipped, Molière, L'auberge espagnole, Paris and Populaire, he brings an anxiously parental quality to the supposedly heartless kidnapper I found unexpected. I could feel the conflict burning inside the character, all of the scenes featuring Duris capturing my attentions so fully I was a little worried that the sections of the film without him would pale in comparison.

I shouldn't have worried, because Williams, so luminous in the musical The Greatest Showman, so divine in her brief appearance in Todd Hayne's spellbinding Wonderstruck, delivers a performance that is a thing of absolute beauty. Her tortured, grief-stricken Gail isn't a timid wallflower. She does not want to be shepherded into a corner. She won't stand to sit and listen as she's mansplained what the 'facts' of the situation are by people who clearly think they know more than they do and that her opinions are invalid. Gail will claw. She will fight. She will not go quietly into the good night. As such, Williams brings so much to the table, the physicality of her movements having a frazzled nervous quality that only helps conceal the hidden tigress within, this woman's power, her ability to overcome her apparent powerlessness by showcasing a determined resolve that refuses to believe 'impossible' or 'no' are words that should exist in this particular situation. But she does so with a quiet dignity that broke my heart, this performance building in intensity and power as events progressed.

There are some issues, most of them minor. Pacing isn't always as strong as one expects it to be where it comes to a Ridley Scott production, and the actual kidnapping itself is depicted with such a humdrum matter-of-fact simplicity that a moment that was supposed to introduce immediate tension into the narrative instead only drew from me a mildly disinterested yawn. The bigger problem is Wahlberg, not because he gives a bad performance, he doesn't, but more because he gives the kind of motor-mouthed, high-energy turn that's more at home in a film like The Departed, Ted, Lone Survivor or The Other Guys than it is in a down-to-earth procedural such as this. There's nothing about Fletcher that fits the time or place in which the story is set. The actor stands out like a sore thumb, and other than one extraordinary, intensely magnetic scene with Plummer late in the narrative, Wahlberg is the weak link that sadly keeps things from soaring to the heights the movie might otherwise have been able to ascend to.

Not that it matters. Scott has pulled off something glorious here, his technical expertise as strong as ever. Featuring camerawork from Dariusz Wolski (The Walk) that's downright stunning and crackerjack editing by Oscar-winner Claire Simpson (Platoon) that's bristling in vigorous intensity, Scott orchestrates it all with pinpoint precision, the final moments hurtling to the edge of my theatre seat with unexpected ease. Best of all might just be Daniel Pemberton's (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) magnificent score, each note a flawless accompaniment to the action it's augmenting, the marriage of image, sound design, performance and music a sublime aria of sacrifice and anxiety that's incredible. All the Money in the World works, the celebrated filmmaker showing just why he is one of the most justifiably lauded directors of his generation, his latest movie well worth the ticket price of theatrical admission.


Oddly ambitious Father Figures a melodramatic mess
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FATHER FIGURES
Now playing


At the wedding of their mother Helen (Glenn Close) to kindly gentleman Gene (Harry Shearer), fraternal twin brothers Peter (Ed Helms), a surgeon who focuses on colon cancer, and Kyle (Owen Wilson), an easygoing slacker who lives in Hawaii with his pregnant girlfriend Kaylani (Jessica Gomes), inadvertently discover they've been told a lie their entire lives. Turns out, their dad didn't die of cancer before they were born. Even worse, as far as Helen knows the man still might be alive. Truth of the matter is that she isn't exactly sure who their father is, and the only thing she'll tell them about her past is that she was dating none other than Pittsburgh Steelers great Terry Bradshaw around the time the pair were conceived.

With his life in a rut, Peter is determined to head to Florida, track down Bradshaw and learn whether or not the Hall of Fame football player is in fact his dad. Eager to support his brother, Kyle decides to join him, the two hitting the road eager to learn the truth. But things take one incredible turn after another, and soon the pair are traversing the country tracking down a variety of likely suspects including a former investment banker (J.K. Simmons), a retired undercover police detective (Jack Mcgee) and a kindly small town veterinarian (Christopher Walken), all of whom might be their long-lost father. Along the way Peter and Kyle will discover why they've grown apart over the years as well as encounter a number of intriguing potential new friends, including an oddly depressed woman drinking away her sorrows in a bar (Katie Aselton) and a perceptively inquisitive hitchhiker (Katt Williams) claiming to be trying to get home to his wife and children, learning answers to a number of universal questions while out on the road.

Father Figures is an oddly ambitious road trip comedy. While the trailers have gone out of their way to make this movie look like a cheap gross-out comedy of errors, missed opportunity and mistaken identity, this actually ends up being something an intriguingly self-reflective story of family, brotherhood and regret that's kind of fascinating. There are a number of good ideas hiding inside Justin Malen's (Office Christmas Party) screenplay, The Hangover cinematographer turned director Lawrence Sher handling things with a level of honest emotional directness that's hugely surprising.

If only all of that would have actually made the movie good. Sadly, as hard as everyone involved tries, as solid as the efforts of the cast and crew might be, this overlong dramatic comedy is frustrating in the extreme, making sitting through things all the way to the end annoying difficult. Malen's script undercuts almost all of its best ideas with moments of cheerless cruelty and half-baked melodramatic schmaltz that grows increasingly tiresome as things progress. For every good scene there's a subsequent three or four that follow it that are almost impossible to watch without squirming, the entire subplot featuring Williams, who is admittedly terrific, so off-putting and racially insensitive one would almost think the moment was taking place in 1967 and not 2017.

But the real problem is that, other than a few random moments here and there, this comedy just isn't funny. While Helms and Wilson make an engaging twosome (even if they're not exactly believable as twins, even fraternal ones), and even though Close has one killer scene near the end where the truth is revealed. There's so much dead air here it doesn't matter that Malen and Sher are reaching for more than what the basic synopsis hints at or that they've populated their films with a number of incredible character actors and intriguing personalities. Things just don't hold together, the slapdash quality to each of the vignettes Peter and Kyle find themselves involved with oftentimes feeling completely disassociated from any of the ones that preceded it. The subplot concerning Simmons is particularly loathsome, the great June Squibb left completely out to dry portraying a character who's frustratingly never allowed to make the sort of mark I kept hoping she would.

I'm not kidding when I say I honestly respect Father Figures for what it is attempting to do, subverting convention and expectation as it brings this pair of squabbling twins full circle in their pursuit to learn that family is what you make it and that home truly is where the heart is. Malen and Sher want their film to be more than the sum of its parts, allowing Helms and Wilson a great deal of freedom as they attempt to make these characters their own and infuse things with a down to earth emotionalism the audience might hopefully respond to. But it's all for naught, none of the pieces comfortably fitting with any of the ones alongside them. Worse, it just didn't make me laugh, and for a holiday comedy this just might be the most unfortunate misstep of them all.


Chastain's magnificence helps Sorkin's Game bluff its way to a winning hand
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MOLLY'S GAME
Now playing


After her Olympic dreams are shattered by an accident during a qualifying run, world-class skier Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has to rethink what she wants to do with her life. Not feeling like she wants to go straight into law school as originally planned, she instead heads to Las Vegas and finds herself assisting in the production of a high-end underground poker game. Discovering she's got a knack for this sort of operation, she moves the action to New York and goes into business for herself, in the process catching the eye of the FBI.

Fast-forward a few years and Molly finds herself under indictment, the U.S. government particularly interested in whether or not the games she set up involved the Russian mafia. Turning to straight-laced defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) for assistance, the incredibly intelligent woman, dubbed the 'Poker Queen' by the news media, is determined to prove she's done nothing wrong. But with the massive amounts of money she's made coupled with the underground nature of her business, few believe Molly has done nothing wrong. Still, make no mistake, while her Olympic dreams might have been shattered, this woman has the heart of a champion, proving others wrong a mission she's demonstrated time and time and again to be exceptionally good at.

Based on Bloom's own best-selling memoir, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) makes his directorial debut with the fast-paced, intellectually curious drama Molly's Game. As a showcase for two-time Oscar-nominee Chastain, this motion picture is pretty much perfect. As an in-depth examination of hubris run amuck, it's almost equally as successful. But as a cohesive story that works start to finish? Sadly, Sorkin's effort comes up just a tiny bit short, the last third something of a minor, obvious and moderately didactic conversation that spells things out much too clearly and in a way I didn't feel worked.

Until then, though? Wow, is this film terrific. Sorkin's dialogue crackles with the electricity one expects from the celebrated screenwriter, and it's obvious both Chastain and Elba relish being given the opportunity to devour each and every syllable. Even better, he crafts a marvelously complex character for the actress to portray, all of her dexterous talents on sparkling, effervescent display. Chastain brings an athletic physicality that's entirely appropriate considering Molly's Olympic-level background. Better, she doesn't skimp on the woman's obvious intellectual agility, either, the confidence she saunters into the room with both a positive and negative she spends the entire story learning to utilize to her advantage. It's mesmerizing stuff, and if Chastain were to sneak her way into an Academy Award nomination I wouldn't even remotely complain.

Elba is almost equally as good, and I love the way that Sorkin refuses to treat his character as an afterthought. The way in which Jaffey's preconceptions are smashed are valid in their minutia. His becoming a champion interested in fighting for her innocence doesn't happen right away and it isn't easy to come by. I adored how he examined every facet of his potential client's personality, allowing her vocal defense of her actions as a poker impresario to meld with how she interacts with his own daughter Stella (Whitney Peak) as well as the decisions she makes outside of the case to all influence his opinion. Elba's piercing gaze doesn't miss anything, which allows his passionate climactic monologue to pack the type of emotional wallop that was both startlingly unexpected as well as indisputably deserved.

There are also a number of winning supporting performances, the most essential coming from Michael Cera. Portraying an unnamed movie star and referred to as 'Player X,' he's the key component that allows Molly's poker game to flourish. He's also the one whose own cynically selfish aggressiveness leads to its downfall. Cera goes for broke, and it's clear there's something going on with this guy that's not above board. But his crookedly confident magnetism is undeniable, as is the way he just seems to let events, not matter what they are, fall off his back as if they're nothing to worry about. It's a devilish balancing act, and the way in which Cera twists the knife at just the moment when it will do the most damage had me dumbfounded in awe.

All of which had me convinced I was going to love Molly's Game in a way I have for few other 2017 releases. Even at well over two hours in length, the film's frenetic pace and energetic vitality had me sitting on the edge of my seat in rapt fascination. But then, right as things are hurtling toward their conclusion, at the exact moment when I don't need things spelled out for me or explained in condescending, moralistic detail, Sorkin stages a moment where Molly's estranged father Larry (a charismatic Kevin Costner) sits there and tells his daughter everything that's gone wrong in her life and why. It's supposed to be this moment of understanding and forgiveness between the two. Instead, it feels horrifically patronizing, and if any person didn't need some man to walk along and tell her what is going on and why it is it's undeniably Molly.

Nonetheless, Sorkin's debut behind the camera is still impressive. He utilizes his crack ensemble cast flawlessly while at the same time remembering to leave plenty of room for his star to stand at the center of the room and shine. More importantly, he never underestimates the intelligence of the audience, refusing to dumb things down, consistently assuming everyone watching can keep up without falling behind. If Molly's Game doesn't quite have what would typically be considered a winning hand, it bluffs just well enough to still take the pot, proving that a pleasant smirk and a little underhanded double-dealing isn't always as terrible a thing as it should be. Heck, sometimes it might even be construed as charming.


Imaginative Downsizing a messy disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DOWNSIZING
Now playing


In order to combat overpopulation and climate change, Norwegian scientists come up with what they feel is a breakthrough that might help stop this escalating crisis in its tracks. They've discovered a way to shrink humans to a new height of five-inches tall, proposing a 200-year transition for the entire population of the world that, if put into effect, would allow the Earth to recover from the ills done to it by humanity over the centuries. Nicknamed 'Downsizing,' it's an ambitious plan, and like all new ideas ravenous corporations have gone out of their way to monetize and commercialize the process for their own selfish gains.

For those in the lower and upper middle class, the idea of Downsizing is an appealing one. At five-inches tall, $100,000 in assets could suddenly transform into millions of dollars when your global footprint no longer makes much of a mark. As such, occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) make the decision to undergo the irreversible process. But she changes her mind before Downsizing commences, leaving her husband in an unexpected diminutive pickle. Suddenly divorced and not having near the assets he originally thought he was going to have, instead of retiring in comfort Paul finds himself working once again in a dead-end job in order to make ends meet, only now he's doing it alone.

From the mind of imaginative filmmaker Alexander Payne (Election, The Descendents) is born Downsizing, a supposedly wild and wacky comedy of size and scale that's nowhere near as wild and definitely not even close to being as wacky as the crazy, energetic trailers for the film have painted it to be. Working once again with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, this story is way more drama than comedy, and while there are certainly laughs to be found there is also a vivid weightiness to the proceedings that grows in density and nuance as events progress to their conclusion. As soon as Audrey makes her surprising decision to not join her husband in the world of five-inch tall human beings, things take a sudden turn towards the serious that's honestly jarring, things only becoming more socially satirical and emotionally grim from that point forward.

The film introduces a blossoming friendship between Paul and a political dissident named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) who was downsized against her will. She selflessly gives her time and energy to assist others who have either met with a similar fate or were shrunken down in order to invisibly prop up this seemingly perfect society by doing all the menial jobs all of the freshly wealthy citizens would now rather not do themselves. Payne and Taylor also add another subplot concerning entrepreneur Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a pint-sized titan of industry who discovered you can make tons of money selling luxuries to these same citizens, extravagances they could never have afforded back when they were full size.

If only the film's quality matched its ambitions. Sadly, as terrific a filmmaker as Payne has proven himself to be, his latest piece of social humanistic commentary is a mess. It's a series of escalating subplots that bring to light a variety of issues which include economic disparity, white privilege, closet racism, global warming and political malfeasance and does so with all the subtly of a snow shovel smacking the viewer upside the head.

What's weird is that, for as solid as the staging is, as strong as the supporting cast undeniably proves to be (an internationally star-studded list that includes the likes of Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Niecy Nash, Mary Kay Place, Pepe Serna, Joaquim de Almeida and Margo Martindale) and for as intriguing as the concept might be, there's precious little here that ends up making any lasting impact. As things grow more and more serious, as the film starts twisting itself into knots in order for its themes and ideas to have an increasing impact, it all starts to feel more like a preachy professorial debate than it does an entertaining examination of these various characters attempting to deal with this new world they now find themselves living in. When things take something of a Melancholia meets Seeking a Friend for the End of the World twist, the foundation Payne and Taylor have built their structure upon begins to crumble into irrelevance, the heart and humanity integral to making any of this work losing its cynically satirical edge and in the process becomes nothing short of mawkishly self-important in its melodramatic excess.

Then there is Tran. It's not really my place to say, especially because I get what Payne and Taylor are trying to say, the varying points they're making important, valid and well worth listening to. But the character hits so many cliché, stereotypical benchmarks she comes very close to being racially insensitive, and if not for Chau's magnificent performance it's likely this could have turned out to be 2017's most revoltingly conceived character. But the Inherent Vice and 'Big Little Lies' actress is extraordinary, somehow walking an unbelievable fine line as she goes out of her way to invest Tran with oceans of emotional gravitas, in the process giving her multifaceted interior gradations that I'm not certain would have existed if not for her monumental efforts.

But that's Downsizing in a nutshell. So many talented people are doing some of their absolute best work, Stefania Cella's (The Great Beauty) inspired production design almost enough in and of itself to warrant the price of a matinee ticket. Yet it's consistently all for naught, the filmmaker's vision never materializing in a way I found even moderately compelling. This movie's many issues outweigh its attributes so significantly I can't help but feel like this will go down as one of the year's most frustrating disappointments; and for a director as undeniably talented as Payne there's nothing small about just how upsetting I find making a statement like that one to be.


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Gratified for today's ruling
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2017 Film Recap: A year of wonders and delights comes to conclusion
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Scott's Money a mesmerizing procedural
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Oddly ambitious Father Figures a melodramatic mess
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Chastain's magnificence helps Sorkin's Game bluff its way to a winning hand
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