They didn’t make my Five Fave Films of 2017 so far, nor are they all the Boston area Film Critics choices, but here’s another batch of films, like cookies for the holidays– yummy & crummy; some to be savored, some to be consumed guiltily in the dark, and some to be tossed.
Savor “STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI.” Episode VIII in George Lucas’s epic/iconic cinematic sci-fi opera once again takes place “A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away” and re-gnited my excitement for this franchise. If you barely remember the details of each installment, don’t worry; the opening crawl tells you what you need to know to climb on board and have the time of your life! It’s the rag tag Resistance against the Republic, the Jedi against the First Order led by the crepey Snoke (Andy Serkis) and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), young warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley) under the greying guidance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doing battle with Kylo Ren (Adam driver) for the soul of the galaxy mirrored by “The Force.”
Listen, this stuff actually feels potent here! The screenplay directed and co-written by Rian Johnson and George Lucas resurrects its venerable characters especially Carrie Fisher’s dear Princess Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO, while freshening the myth with a crew of charismatic new young heroes (John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran). Delightful new critters (frosty little crystal foxes, wide-eyed, long-eared space horses called Fathiers, and puffin-like Keane-eyed Porgs) as well as a hint of veganism, several dollops of feminism (Laura Dern is an admirable Admiral Holdo), a dose of meditation and a dash of Benicio del Toro as a “cracked” code breaker– make this a family action adventure with humor and heart. LOVED IT.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN stars Tony award-winning song and dance man/Wolverine Hugh Jackman as impresario and showman P.T. Barnum. Like Barnum’s traveling circus of human curiosities, the movie is a curious hybrid itself–half theatrical, half cinematic– a musical full of contemporary pop Broadway-esque tunes but set in the mid 19th century and sitting uncomfortably astride the big screen. Plot points are merely a way to swing from one big musical number to another, with little emotional juice to pump it up. It’s spectacular but stagey and superficial. Michelle Williams looks uncomfortable as Barnum’s happy go lucky wife. “Gambling our life savings again Phineas? No problem! Let’s take another spin around the roof!”
I do have a soft spot for Mr. Barnum who was once mayor of my hometown Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a champion of liberal causes, so the film’s theme of inclusion is not off the mark. The menagerie of outsiders he gathered under one tent, the acrobats, tattooed jugglers, bearded ladies, giants, little people, and “siamese” twins– found themselves accepted and celebrated in the show biz home Barnum’s circus provided. The interracial romance between Zac Efron’s and Zendaya’s (both terrific here) characters was shocking for the time and endearing onscreen. One dazzlingly edited production number has them falling in love as they fly through the air 40 feet up!
Another high point–when the gorgeous Rebecca Ferguson enters the picture as acclaimed Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and Barnum goes off with her to present a blockbuster series of concerts across America. But she has an English accent, and is dubbed by The Voice contestant Loren Allred who sounds great but not how I imagine an angelically-gifted “Swedish Nightingale.” So verisimilitude is not the point–but I’m not sure what is; all that surface razzle dazzle evaporated almost as quickly as it hit the screen and left me cold. Empty show.
Then there’s THE SHAPE OF WATER director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro’s paranoiac Cold War fable starring the brilliant Sally Hawkins alongside Octavia Spencer as a pair of cleaning ladies mopping up secrets in a government research facility where a strange amphibious creature has been brought in for experimentation. Michael Shannon plays the sadist in charge, a sexually harassing, macho creep who likes his monsters tame, and his women mute. Sally Hawkins’s character, silent since birth, delivers a full body performance that speaks volumes. “The Shape of Water” once again arches its back against the military/industrial complex that threatens our humanity. Del Toro’s shadows and light create a dream world, familiar and strange, where we confront our deepest fears and longings, reconnect with our animal selves, and anything is possible. The film doesn’t emit the transformative, surreal terror and release that del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” did, though it holds water just the same.
WONDER WHEEL: Woody Allen’s latest is an incoherent conception, and finds a failed actress Ginny (Kate Winslet) and her husband Humpty (a surprisingly excellent Jim Belushi) making a living off fish under the bright lights of a big Coney Island Ferris Wheel. A love triangle/quadrangle ensues when Ginny falls for a lifeguard/wannabe playwright (Justin Timberlake) who in turn falls for Humpty’s daughter (Juno Temple) who’s on the lam with the mafia on her tail. Chaos, over-ripe dialogue, and weird acting ensue, with Vittorio Storaro apparently shooting the entire film through a kaleidoscope. Yikes. Woody Allen’s obsessions have escaped and are running wild. Be afraid. Be very afraid.