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Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops and his “A Christmas Carol” is a must-win.  We spend the film watching Dickens cobble his daily observances into the book, and soon, he is followed by all of its characters, who inspire him to write more, or mock his writer’s block (most of the mocking is by way of Scrooge, played with a sly bite by Christopher Plummer).  The end of the book tortures Dickens, but much like Scrooge himself, addressing his personal demons brings the author to resolution and redemption.  This is great fun, very well-done and will take a post on my ten “must see” list of Christmas films next December.  Here are the other nine:

A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version)

About a Boy

Die Hard

It’s a Wonderful Life

Arthur Christmas

A Christmas Story

Elf

Bad Santa

The Nightmare Before Christmas

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This is what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Consistently clever, mainly for young people but with crossover to adults, and devoid of all the dreary seriousness of Gotham city and world politics and ethical dilemmas for people dressed up for Mardis Gras. Add the fact that the characters are almost impossible not to enjoy, the CGI is nifty rather than a blaring assault, and there are some really funny bits. And the finale is a blast (rather than a dark, dull, crashing snorefest ala’ Wonder Woman). The film also has a proper villain, the sleek, sultry, campy goddess of death Cate Blanchett.

Quintessential popcorn flick.

 

Logan Lucky [DVD] [2017]Steven Soderbergh is a more-than competent director with some solid films (Contagion, Traffic, King of the Hill, two of the three Oceans movies), some overpraised ones (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich), a few minor masterpieces (The Limey, Out of Sight)  and some super duds (The UnderneathSolaris, The InformantThe Good German).  A few years back, he announced his retirement, leaving as his last directorial effort the minor, pedestrian Behind the Candelabra, the definitive Liberace movie literally no one was waiting for.  Soderbergh had concluded, “I just don’t think movies matter as much any more, culturally”, and it showed.

I presume Soderbergh recognized that he didn’t want to go out on a pop fly, and that his exit was a little whiny (“The worst development in film-making – particularly in the last five years – is how badly directors are treated” he huffed), so he’s gotten back into the game, directing a few TV series, and, returning to the big screen with Logan Lucky.

Unfortunately, if there was ever a movie that didn’t matter, culturally or otherwise, Logan Lucky is it, a limp re-make of Soderbergh’s Oceans flicks, sans the charm of Clooney, Pitt and gang. It also lacks the fun plotting of the casino heists and the Vegas glitz.  Instead, we get Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig playing at Boss Hog accents; a big score (at the Charlotte Speedway) that is plodding and lazy; and dull West Virginia and Charlotte standing in for the Bellagio fountains.

Instantly forgettable and in at least one way (using Seth McFarlane as a Brit with a worse accent than Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies) unforgivable.

 

 

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s picture is assured, ingenious, and alternatively, hilarious and moving. A coming-of-age story that touches on the themes of leaving home and the mother-daughter relationship is not exactly original, but in Gerwig’s hands, it is fresh. Lady Bird (Saiorse Ronan of last year’s beautiful Brooklyn) is a Catholic school senior in Sacramento navigating her college choices, academic ennui, sexual inexperience, insecurity, and her family’s economic frailty, all while negotiating an increasingly strained relationship with her passive-aggressive (and sometimes, aggressive-aggressive) mother (Laurie Metcalf).

Gerwig stitches a narrative together with brisk and evocative vignettes, and her characters carry the nuance and surprise of real people. Lady Bird’s reach for popularity and desire for something beyond what she deems the stodgy and suffocating Sacramento might normally make her empathetic, but she is of her age, which means selfish and even cruel, in her ambition. This harsh light prevents the film from becoming maudlin. She’s a real girl and her world feels authentic. I watched the film with my wife and daughter, and their knowing glances and nonverbal communication throughout certified the truth of its nature.

I was reminded of different films at different times while watching Lady Bird. Gerwig’s command of pace and sharp timing evokes Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, shorn of his mannered style. Her strong portrayal of the bond of family and place also brought to mind last years’ incredibly under appreciated 20th Century Women. Finally, the mother-daughter dynamic on the eve of separation made me think of Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said.

I don’t mean to convey that Gerwig’s picture is derivative, only exceedingly accomplished. These are great pictures for purposes of comparison.

This is one of the best of the year, and I expect nominations for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. At a time when Hollywood may very well want to go with films that are smaller and more pure, keep this one in mind when filling out your Oscar ballot.

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A charming, surprisingly thoughtful film, anchored by co- writer Kumail Nanjiani’s (Silicon Valley) substantial performance and deft support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.  Nanjiani is a stand-up comic (a staple in a Judd Apatow produced film) and Uber driver who falls for student Zoe Kazan, a gentle heckler at one of his shows.  The hitch is his family and his cultural background – he is a Muslim from Pakistan and while he is decidedly “American” in most respects, his parents will not countenance his marrying a non-Muslim and per custom, are in the process of arranging his nuptials.  To that end, he is enlisted for ritual family dinners with prospective suitable brides, none of whom do it for him.  But he is both dishonest and weak, keeping his cultural constraints secret from Kazan while feigning devotion to his parents even as he blows off prayers and tantalizes them with the possibility of law school.  When Kazan confronts him, he wilts and does not choose her.

And then she gets sick.  So sick, she is placed in a medically-induced coma, necessitating his attention, not only towards her but her parents (Hunter and Romano).  The experience forces him to reevaluate his station, his choices and his own cowardice.

This could have been played mainly for laughs and it would have worked very well.  And the film is very funny,  Nanjiani has an understated humor, at once self-deprecating and subtle.  Some of the best moments are when he makes a joke to people who are a little slow on the uptake, only to immediately apologize at the moment the jest dawns on them.  Nanjiani is, naturally, surrounded by comedians who relentlessly attack each other, also providing solid humor.

But what elevates the film is Nanjiani’s impressive expression in dealing not only with the culture tug of his family, but with the depth of emotion at the near-death of who he comes to realize is the woman he loves.  And in his support for her parents (Hunter and Romano), from whom he gets both caution and encouragement, he grows.  The movie works on multiple levels, you invest in these people, and the result is a really tight, funny, bittersweet picture.

It has been an atrocious year for films, but this would stand out in a solid one.

As close to a musical as you can get without anyone actually singing, Edgar Wright’s (The Cornetto Trilogy) crime joyride is a mixed bag, but what is good is very good. Baby, (Ansel Elgort) a virtuoso wheelman who appears to be just under the drinking age, owes his respectable but lethal crime boss (Kevin Spacey) services for a prior boost of Spacey’s merchandise.  There is a semi father-son relationship going on here, but Spacey is a harsh father, forcing Baby to drive with increasingly erratic and dangerous robbers (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales, Jon Bernthal, and, inevitably, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers).  Baby, of course, just wants out, and his desires increase when he meets just the most adorable diner waitress you’ll ever come across (Lily James).  Things, however, go terribly wrong.

Did I say musical?  Baby suffers from tinnitus, which is tempered by his ear buds, which are always inserted, providing him  – and the audience –the soundtrack to his life.  For the most part, this gambit works, and is particularly effective during the driving scenes.  Other times, it’s overstretched.  Baby is a bit of a cipher, and it adds little to his meager backstory to have him Astaire his way to get coffee.

This is mostly a crisp, canny flick, but it still falls a little short, and after the initial euphoria of viewing, it dropped from a 4.5, settling in at this score. Wright has abandoned his comic glee for a foray into Tarantino Land, and he produced a pretty good facsimile.  Still, I miss the unbridled fun of the Cornetto Trilogy.

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Wow.  Somebody remade the goddawful Sisters.  But instead of unfunny sisters, it is unfunny moms.  A lot of slo-mo partying, over use of the words “tits” and “vagina” by women – FOR WOMEN- some celebs (JJ Watt, Martha Stewart), and a weird veering between cartoonish and melodramatic.  In the midst of this asinine film, we get real tears from Mila Kunis’ daughter and an alt-something duet as defeated Mom Kunis breaks down JUST BEFORE THE BIG PTA VOTE!  But don’t worry.  She gives a big speech to all the other moms and . . .  well, I won’t spoil it.  But one word: uplifting.