And now, for the films I gave ***½ to. Half of them, anyway.
- Harry and Snowman – 77
It’s been a great year for documentaries. This isn’t one of the great ones, but it’s nice enough. It’s the story of Snowman, a plow horse who was bought for $80 by Harry de Leyer, a Dutch immigrant who taught riding at a girls’ school. He went on to win multiple show jumping tournaments and became an international celebrity. It’s a nice story, and de Leyer (still going in his mid 80s) is a cooperative subject, even when the film touches on how focusing on his horses put strain on his family life. A must for horse lovers.
- Kubo and the Two Strings – 77
This is an absolutely gorgeous movie. Even if it were all CGI, it would be beautiful, but knowing that Laika painstakingly created most of what we see in three-dimensional space, it’s truly marvelous. And the voice acting across the board is superb: Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, and Art Parkinson do spectacular work. But the writing brings it down. Way down. The weak one-liners that kill the folkloric tone, the ill-defined themes, and the catastrophically messy third-act – with the antagonist’s fate being almost inexplicably confusing – work against the very real beauty of the rest of it. It’s all so very frustrating.
- The Witch – 77
No question, it’s a solid calling card for Robert Eggers as a director; he creates a pleasurably grim and foreboding tone, and pulls off some harrowing scenes (the exorcism in particular is a tour de force). And he gets very good performances out of the entire cast. But the script (it’s always the script!) is comparatively thin, and the final scene feels insufficiently justified, in addition to being damned silly (though not as silly as the titular witch, whose costume is more cheap romance novel than 17th century). Also, for all the hype, Black Phillip doesn’t do much of anything.
- Ghostbusters – 77
Honestly, I liked this about as much as the original. It’s definitely got problems – chunks of the story seem to have been removed in the editing, and the cameos by the original Busters are a mixed bag (Dan Aykroyd’s is downright painful). But for the most part, I thought it was a lot of fun, thanks to the lavish special effects and mostly delightful cast, most notably Leslie Jones and Chris Hemsworth. Though, I didn’t really get the hype about Kate McKinnon’s performance; she seemed under-directed and not entirely comfortable when she wasn’t the focus of a scene.
- Born to Be Blue – 77
I saw this as a double feature with Miles Ahead; one day, two jazz biopics. This is frankly the better film, with Ethan Hawke turning in a moving performance as the troubled Chet Baker, with Carmen Ejogo doing fine work as the (fictitious) love of his life. Robert Budreau’s direction is stylish (the cinematography, whether in B&W or color, is lovely), and his script is very good as biopic scripts go. And at a time when it feels like so few films truly stick their landings, the quietly devastating final scene of this one is a breath of fresh air.
- Snowden – 78
Since we have CitizenFour (the filming of which provides a framing device), did we need this? Not necessarily, but it’s quite solid, and one of Oliver Stone’s better recent films. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing to a fault as Snowden, nailing his rather droning voice as well as his conflicted emotions about the state of modern surveillance. Stone’s direction is good, and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is frankly some of the best of the year. It does sag in spots, and the appearance of the real Snowden at the end threatens to nudge it over into propaganda, but it’s worth seeing.
- 10 Cloverfield Lane – 79
When the trailer dropped, I began to get excited; this looked a lot better than a March thriller had any right to be. And for a solid 90 minutes, it is: it’s very well-acted (John Goodman is good and creepy, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. are also excellent), well-directed, and sufficiently tense. But then the final movement, where it stops being its own thing and becomes a Cloverfield film, frankly feels like a different and much lesser film. So it’s fundamentally compromised, but going back to it you can just end it when she leaves the bunker.
- The Jungle Book – 79
That this was all filmed on a set in downtown L.A. only makes the scope of its technical accomplishments more impressive; this might win the Visual Effects Oscar, and it would be a worthy choice. (The effects aren’t totally seamless, but no matter.) It’s a pretty good film too, though like Cinderella (and, I fear, Beauty and the Beast), it settles for evoking the original animated film without bringing that much new to the table. It does, however, have very good voice acting, a solid turn from Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and an ambiguous ending unlike the original’s.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople – 79
Taika Waititi makes another film which others loved more than I, but unlike What We Do in the Shadows, this has enough meat on its bones to be a feature. It doesn’t live up to the promise of the trailer, but it’s an enjoyable little adventure, with a great performance from Sam Neill and a nice turn from Julian Dennison as Ricky, the would-be skux. (Waititi himself makes an amusing cameo as an addled priest.) Points also for the song “Trifecta” and the cleverly-executed montages, but it’s all a bit more throwaway than I’d like.
- Elvis & Nixon – 80
Elvis really did meet Nixon (they took an iconic picture together) for the purpose of volunteering his service as a special FBI field agent. The film probably takes a few liberties with the truth, especially in depicting their eventual meeting, but all things considered it plays it straight…perhaps too straight, as it feels just a touch poky at times. But Michael Shannon’s wonderful turn as Elvis, part weary legend, part karate-chopping man-child, would be worth the price of admission alone. The good humor, period detail, and Kevin Spacey’s crotchety Nixon are merely icing on the cake.
- The Love Witch – 80
Anna Biller is a hell of a talent. She wrote, produced, directed, edited, and designed this homage to 60s and 70s horror, and with cinematographer M. David Mullen, nailed the look of the genre (in glorious 35mm, no less). Her sets and costumes are vibrant, colorful, and perfectly executed, and her film is no slouch either. Samantha Robinson, as the titular witch (who’s far from perfect at being one), gives a witty, sensuous performance, and Gian Keys is a perfect square-jawed leading man. It’s overlong and the tone wobbles, but it’s also funny and, in the end, rather haunting.
- A Man Called Ove – 81
I’ve not read the book, but I can tell the film cut a fair amount out; the final 15 minutes in particular feel truncated and unsatisfying. Until then, though, it’s a very likable comedy-drama about an über-curmudgeon (Rolf Lassgård, very good) who softens a bit when he befriends his new neighbors. We also get the story of his early life (there played by Filip Berg) and his budding relationship with his beloved wife (Ida Engvoll, charming). It’s just a warm, funny, sweet, and touching little film, with a rock-solid cast. I can’t imagine anyone truly disliking it.
- The Edge of Seventeen – 81
Between the hilarious trailer and the great reviews, I thought this had a shot at being one of the year’s best. It’s not quite that, but it’s pretty good. It still falls into a few of the high-school-film pitfalls (how often do people really only have one friend?), and the heroine commits an impulsive act that gets brushed off, even though in reality there would’ve been consequences. But Hailee Steinfeld’s delightful Globe-nominated performance, Woody Harrelson’s hilarious un-nominated performance, and the generally sympathetic and witty script make it a general treat.
And you do need to watch out for run-on sentences.
- Certain Women – 82
Kelly Reichardt blew me away with Meek’s Cutoff, and Night Moves was certainly good if not remarkable. This trio of tales set in small-town Montana is one-third great, one-third good, and one-third…not quite there. Laura Dern’s story is good, mostly due to Jared Harris’ poignantly aggravating performance; Michelle Williams’ story never quite develops into anything; and Lily Gladstone’s story (with Kristen Stewart as the object of her awkward affection) is a beautiful little bittersweet slice of life, thanks to Gladstone and Stewart’s touching performances. Reichardt continues to impress as a director, and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography is quietly magnificent.
- Star Trek Beyond – 82
The general response to this was pretty muted, but I really enjoyed it. Yes, the story is underdeveloped, and yes, the villain (Idris Elba, wasted) is given a transparently hasty third-act backstory, but the new cast proves an ever-more comfortable ensemble, the special effects and makeup are absolutely first-rate, and Justin Lin gives the action sequences frankly more life and momentum than I recall J.J. Abrams delivering. One might reasonably long for a new Trek which gives us both good action and thematic depth, but taken on its own terms, I was quite satisfied with this.
The rest of the ***½ films tonight or tomorrow.