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Review: “Chappaquiddick”

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in the 2018 film "Chappaquiddick."The first time we really see Ted Kennedy in John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick” is during a party at one of his family’s Martha’s Vineyard properties. Face ruddy with Scotch, he convenes his carefully curated crowd of babes and stooges, and gives them a lecture on the importance of family. Notably absent: His actual family, including his pregnant wife, away on “doctor’s orders.”

It’s a relevatory moment, one that establishes that we’re looking at a man unburdened by shame or moral duty. “Chappaquiddick” does take a scornful look at one of the most notable figures of 20th century American politics, but it’s something more, an examination of the way powerful men insulate themselves from consequences with the help of others.

The film is perhaps the first Hollywood production to dispense with the Camelot fetishism of the Kennedy family. Made safely after the family’s power in DC has faded to nearly nothing, it’s nonetheless a blistering indictment of not just the family, but those who shrugged at their sins. The degree to which the media and historians have run interference for the Kennedy family is astonishing, and better late than never when it comes to getting the truth out.

Kennedy, as played by Jason Clarke, looks the picture of unearned entitlement. An oafish buffoon, this was a man who cheated his way through Harvard, who pushed open borders while walling himself up in secure compounds, who pushed socialized medicine but only saw the finest physicians capitalism could produce when his own health declined, who supported busing but sent his own children to elite private schools, who touted the virtues of family to his side tail while his lobotomized sister rotted in a mental institution out of the public eye. Say what you will about his legislative achievements, but the man was a nasty, contemptible piece of work by any morally sane measure. The movie doesn’t even touch on most of this, but its appraisal of his behavior during a week in 1969 is blistering.

The film charitably absolves Kennedy of an affair with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), the 28-year-old Kennedy groupie who was Ted’s passenger when he drunkenly drove his luxury Oldsmobile off a bridge. It’s even more charitable in suggesting that Kennedy did make a slight effort to rescue Kopechne from the submerged vehicle, but that’s where the script’s generosity ends.

What follows is a masterclass in narcissistic entitlement. Kennedy, sopping wet and wallowing in self-pity as Kopechne was suffocating nearby, sulks back to his cottage, where he enlists the aid of Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Massachusetts AG Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan). “I’m not going to be President,” he declares, foregoing the pretense of concern for the dead. Soon after, he’s sleeping peacefully in bed, and goes out for brunch before begrudgingly stomping over to the police station to report the accident. By that point, Kopechne’s corpse had been retrieved and the scandal had officially begun.

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Review: “Tag”

Film critic James Frazier reviews "Tag," starring Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, and Jon Hamm.“Tag” is a comedy with a lot on its mind. That is to say, the movie tries to cram in so many subplots and themes that it bursts at the seams, left with only affable performances and some slick direction to patch the holes.

Proudly touting a plot “based on a true story,” “Tag” follows the deliberately childish exploits of a group of forty-something male friends who’ve played the same game of tag during the month of May for decades. This is as silly as it sounds, as the group treats the game with playful glee and schizophrenic ferocity. These guys will jump through church windows, leap off fire escapes, break into private residences, and bash each other with fire extinguishers to avoid being tagged. Afterwards, they’ll cheerfully embrace and reminisce about the good old days, most of which involve playing tag.

The plot sees the group’s players seeking to tag Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who has managed to avoid being tagged even once. Seeing as the entire group treats the game with a level of fanaticism rarely seen in ISIS foot soldiers, this is some achievement, but Jerry’s something else, a tag ninja with cunning to match his physicality. His friends, including ringleader Hogan (Ed Helms), CEO Bob (Jon Hamm), stoner Chilli (Jake Johnson), and token black guy Kevin (Hannibal Buress) figure they have Jerry cornered on the eve of his wedding, and descend upon their hometown to ruin his perfect record.

The movie keeps busy. The jokes, not too dirty, not too tame, land with a pleasing success rate, and are bolstered by elaborate action sequences staged with the gusto of a Hong Kong martial arts extravaganza. One sequence, which finds Jerry stalking his friends through the woods a la “Predator,” is just too violently zany. Others, such as Hogan’s near-success at tagging Jerry through use of a preposterous disguise, evoke a spirit of “all in good fun” that makes them enjoyable.

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Review: “Avengers: Infinity War”

Film critic James Frazier reviews "Avengers: Infinity War."“Avengers: Infinity War” is more a piece of connective tissue than a movie. Featuring an expansive collection of cinematic superheroes united in opposition to an intergalactic, genocidal environmentalist, there are enough characters here for ten movies, and enough plot for half of one.

A decade in the making, the film features dozens of superheroes, precious few of whom had even been heard of by a non-virgin before 2008. In the process of doling out sufficient time for each of these characters to get their quips in, few get the chance to shine, and one appreciates how it’s better to have a few close friends than dozens of acquaintances. Wisely, writer/directors Anthony and Joe Russo reserve the most time for Thor, who Chris Hemsworth plays with a special humorous, sensitive haughtiness that makes his escapades equal parts snarky and meaningful (at least by this film’s standards). But the whole gang is here, and each gets a few moments to themselves, ranging in quality from captivating (Thor) to respectable (Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man) to lame (Chris Pratt’s goofy Star-Lord).

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Streaming Pick: “Marjorie Prime”

Jon Hamm in the 2017 sci-fi drama "Marjorie Prime."In a beautiful beachfront home, an elderly woman talks with her forty-something husband. In his soothing, crisp baritone voice, he tells her the story of the time he proposed to her. She likes this story, and all the other stories he tells.

But the man in front of her isn’t really her husband, or even a man, but a “prime,” a computer simulation of her long-dead spouse.

It’s with that hook of gentle sci-if that “Marjorie Prime,” an intriguing little drama, hangs its narrative. The film is set during a future that looks like our own time, only computers are advanced enough to convincingly mimic humans. They’re not used as killers or friends or digital assistants, but as therapy, reminders of people who have shuffled off this mortal coil. These “primes” mimic people we know because, as a character speculates, we all have things left to say to the dead.

The old movie star Lois Smith is the elderly Marjorie, widow to Walter (Jon Hamm), mother to Tess (Geena Davis), mother-in-law to Jon (Tim Robbins).

Based on a play by Jordan Harrison and directed by Michael Almereyda, the film deftly explores its intriguing premise. It refuses to sentimentalize its characters, organic and otherwise, but it’s not detached. There’s a humility to it, a lack of pretension as it probes the way memories stack on one another and shift shapes, not only defining who we are but changing who we are from day-to-day.

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Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Finn and Captain Phasma duel in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ vision of the “Star Wars” universe, it was nothing if not lovingly nostalgic. Even if that nostalgia meant the story was somewhat recycled, this was done with care, making it an apt celebration of the past as well as a look to the future of a galaxy far far away. Director Rian Johnson can’t be accused of handling the franchise with such concern. “The Last Jedi” features 70 minutes of good-to-excellent material buried under 80 minutes of mediocre-to-execrable junk. Johnson doesn’t seem to be a fan of the material; he treats it with the care of a toddler wielding a toy hammer. One feels the earned joy of the franchise crumple under the pull of a director who doesn’t know what to do with it. 
The overstuffed plot sees a resurgent First Order, led by hideous CGI alien Snoke (Andy Serkis) and apprentice Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver), in pursuit of a faltering Resistance led by Princess/General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher). Elsewhere, fledgling Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) implores with exiled hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach her the ways of the Force. Juggled into the narrative is a near-meaningless side adventure featuring turncoat stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Rebel mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who venture to a casino-resort planet in search of a valuable MacGuffin.
Johnson crams the story with superfluous characters who sole purpose is to sell toys in such a brazen way that the Ewoks look austere by comparison. Newcomers such as the purple-haired Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and criminal hacker DJ (Benecio del Toro) are vestigial to the greater narrative. Johnson places fresh faces where existing characters or none at all would do. He lacks the canny commercialism of pre-1984 George Lucas, who was able to expand his universe in ways that boosted the films’ quality and his wallet.  
Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is now a wizened old hermit, having undergone a shift from earnest hero to sour, reluctant mentor. Hamill has made no secret of his disdain for the film. He has bitterly complained about its treatment of his iconic character. But Luke’s arc it’s one of Johnson’s lesser sins. Despite his objections, Hamill renders his hero with a sympathetic weariness, true to what one might feel after a lifetime of failing to overcome intergalactic evil.

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Review: “Bright”

Film critic James Frazier reviews David Ayer's "Bright," starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, now streaming on Netflix.“Bright” is ostensibly a police thriller set in a world where magic exists, but it comes with a clever thought under its high-concept premise: what does racism mean in a world where sentient creatures are literally of different species? Humans of different skin colors would seem pretty unremarkable to even the most virulent racist when there are literal orcs living a block away.

Featuring a glittery grim aesthetic that smartly marries ghetto gangland Los Angeles and storybook fantasy, “Bright” is splendid start for Netflix’s foray into big-budget, blockbuster-style filmmaking. Scenes depict a contemporary LA populated by humans, an underclass of downtrodden orcs, and an elite ruling class of wealthy elves. Cops armed with Glocks and shotguns occasionally find themselves battling criminals wielding magic wands, which in their world are as dangerous as nuclear weapons and much more difficult to obtain.

Smith plays Daryl Ward, a seasoned LAPD street cop partnered with “affirmative action hire” Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the city’s sole orc police officer. “Are you an orc first or a cop first?” Ward frequently asks, drawing real world parallels that are easy to spot. With this question coming from the mouth of a black actor, the film sneakily allows for an examination of the politics of minority policing without demonizing the superior. Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis don’t subvert expectations so much as exploit them, and to though-provoking effect.

But “Bright” is entertainment, not a political screed, more “Lethal Weapon with Magic” than “Training Day at Hogwarts.” The plot kicks into gear when Ward and Jakoby discover a magic wand, leading to their pursuit by Mexican and orc gangbangers, crooked cops, evil elves, and a federal magic task force. Even as the plot framework hits familiar notes, Landis and Ayer’s reality-bending mythology, along with Smith and Edgerton’s rapport, elevate what is at its core a rote cop thriller to something that offers both familiar and fresh pleasures.

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Danny Baldwin’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Danny Baldwin's Top 10 Films of 2017

This is the sixteenth year I’ve written an annual Top 10 list, which means I’ve been compiling them for over half my life. While the exercise in some way feels more arbitrary than ever, in that I’m now able to look back on those initial lists from more than a decade ago and recognize how irrelevant certain choices seem, it also feels more vital as I’ve moved away from writing regular film criticism.

While I find myself discussing current movies more than ever, the process of composing this list reminds me that there’s something irreplaceable about reflecting on film in writing. Forcing oneself to put one’s thoughts down on paper prompts one to more fully interrogate why we like what we like, rather than to be content with the adjectives and interjections we so casually toss out in verbal reflection. I have to wonder: would this list be much different if I had written about every one of the 125-plus movies I saw in 2017? While I’m not sure my top favorites would change, I have a sneaking suspicion there would be some shuffling – and maybe even the entry of a film or two that I don’t currently think I liked.

As for making judgments on the year in cinema as a whole, I’ve learned to stay away from them. It’s been said before, but every year has its great movies, its good movies, and its bad movies – and maybe you didn’t do a good enough of a job as a viewer in finding the great ones if you felt there weren’t enough. Certainly, there are fewer excuses now in the streaming era, though I also wonder if our capacity for fully engaging with greatness has diminished as cinema-going has increasingly become reserved for a certain kind of “big event” movie and theaters themselves have become progressively indistinguishable from our living rooms.

The common wisdom is that good content has never been more available, but will there be a juncture at which we have taken good content for granted to such an extent that we no longer know what’s good content and what’s bad content? Perhaps the answer lies in curated content, in tastemakers and lists just like this one. But at the same time, nothing will replace the exuberant feeling of cinematic discovery, and the risks of limiting one’s field of view to the recommendations of others seem to be just as stifling as those of blind selection. After all, you’re about to find the critically-derided “The Great Wall” among my Honorable Mentions for the year.

All we can do, I figure, is keep going to the movies, keep talking about the movies, and (when time permits) keep writing about the movies. And now, what you came here for: my list.

Special Mention: It was another strong year for non-fiction, and three documentaries stood out, each thankfully attaining levels of theatrical success uncommon for the Netflix era. “Jane” and “Dawson City: Frozen Time” construct narratives from found-footage in inventive ways that are not only exhilarating to watch, but will undoubtedly become the basis of film studies curricula in the years to come. Meanwhile, “Faces Places” finds 89-year-old Agnès Varda’s essay form as spry as ever, and even revitalized in the company of a new buddy – her shades-donning co-director, the large format photographic artist JR. Continue Reading »

Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Film critic reviews "The Disaster Artist," directed by and starring James Franco.

“The Disaster Artist” is a missed opportunity. It takes the most bizarre, fascinating true story of cult cinema and reduces it down to an oddball, feel-good joke. There’s a story worth telling here, but it feels like director James Franco is giving us Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes.

At its core, the film tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, stars of the 2003 midnight movie sensation “The Room.” Adapted from Sestero’s book of the same name (reviewed here), “The Disaster Artist” spans from Wiseau and Sestero’s first encounter in an acting class up through the premiere of “The Room.”

“The Room” is a melodrama famous for its stunning, unintentional awfulness, which is heightened by the peculiar nature of Wiseau, its star/writer/director/financier. A lanky but muscular middle-aged man with a mess of long black hair and an inscrutable Eastern European accent, he’s a singular cinematic figure, a living, breathing WTF moment.

After meeting at an acting class, Tommy (Franco) and Greg (brother Dave Franco) become fast, albeit oddly matched friends. Wiseau is goofy enigma of a man, one who yearns for fame but won’t divulge his age, birthplace, personal history, or the source of his seemingly staggering wealth. Whereas Sestero’s book split the narrative between before and after “The Room” was filmed, the movie zips to the film’s troubled production, which sees a flummoxed professional cast and crew trying to appease their stupefyingly incompetent director.

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Review: “Justice League”

Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, and Ray Fisher in "Justice League."

“Justice League” is a milestone in American cinema: the flop with a $94 million opening weekend. That’s a lot of money for a flop to earn over a few days, but “Justice League” came with a high price tag ($300 million and change) and even higher expectations. It’s the DC Cinematic Universe’s answer to Disney’s Marvel films, and even though this one even shares a writer/director with “The Avengers,” it’s a half-as-fun movie that made less than half the opening weekend money.

Set shortly after 2016’s “Batman v Superman,” the latest entry sees Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) assembling a superhero squad to fight an invasion by a gigantic alien digital effect. Meanwhile, they yearn for Superman (Henry Cavill), who was killed in the last film but is assured a resurrection here because superhero deaths are about as permanent as a sunset.

A superhero crossover film is only as good as its heroes. As Batman, Affleck looks like he feels out of place. He fared much better in “Batman v Superman,” where his Caped Crusader vibrated with rage, malice, and paranoia. But as the wisecracking leader of a group of godlike heroes, he’s profoundly awkward, not just in the story, but to the viewer. The film makes the best character in comics a chore to watch, which is unforgivable. It’s not hard to see why Affleck is reportedly ready to bail from one of cinema’s most coveted roles.

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Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival

The Oriental Theatre on Farwell Avenue is the main hub for the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo by Jennifer Johnson for Milwaukee Film.

The Oriental Theatre on Farwell Avenue is the main hub for the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo by Jennifer Johnson for Milwaukee Film.

The ninth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 12, hosted a record-breaking 84,000 attendees, 101 sold-out screenings, and nearly 200 filmmakers and guests participating in talkbacks. The conversation continues below, as Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon discuss why “The Blood Is at the Doorstep” deserved its Audience Award for best feature, why too many other documentaries stumbled, and why Haley Lu Richardson’s dancing about architecture was among the festival highlights.

Eric Beltmann: Even though I caught more movies than ever before—my final tally was 50 features and 24 shorts—I still left the Milwaukee Film Festival lamenting what I missed. Chief among my regrets are Nanfu Wang’s “I Am Another You,” John Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” and Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto,” which I know you loved. The fact is that it’s impossible to see everything. There has to be a whittling down, and I always start with the 10 movies that are non-negotiable and then build a schedule around them. My preferences usually steer me first to the Competition section and new works by major international figures, but I try to indulge some hunches, too. If I’ve learned anything after 14 years of covering film festivals, it’s that the “sure thing” often isn’t and the uncharted work often proves to be the little movie that could. Once my plan is printed and taped inside my trusted notebook, every other screening no longer exists—otherwise I might go mad from fear of missing out. Shelly, how do you choose what to see? And do you think you made the right choices this year?

Shelly Sampon: Wow, 50 features and 24 shorts—that’s incredible! I managed 35 features this year, which actually was my highest in the last couple of years. I’ll admit to being a bit behind this year—I’m normally pretty organized and get my schedule together a couple of weeks early but I didn’t get a chance to set my schedule until a few days before the festival began. That’s one blessing with having a press pass—you don’t necessarily have to worry about capacity as long as you’re there with time to spare. Once I did get my stuff together it was business as usual; one of the several program guides I use was littered with post-it notes on every page with the marginalia of a deranged person and a general idea of what’s going to happen for the next two weeks.

You are a lot more intrepid than I am, and I try to avoid chaos as much as possible. I usually stick to theaters like the Fox-Bay, Avalon and Times Cinema (which is about two minutes from my house), so I do miss some of the spotlight and high-profile films that mainly screen at the Oriental and Downer Theatres. But I’m generally okay with that because there’s usually a lot of other films to see, and there’s always Netflix in the future. I had to laugh the other day when I was going through my exhaustive Netflix queue because at least 70% of the films on it were past festival films I either never got around to seeing or want to watch again.

Did I make the right choices this year? I definitely regret missing “Lucky.” That was a film I wanted to see even before the festival slate was announced. I also wish I had seen “I, Daniel Blake,” but I was really slowing down by the time that came around and decided to just watch it after the festival on Amazon. I do try to be a little more well-rounded and see films from each slate, but I only got around to one Cine Sin Fronteras film, “Divinas Divas,” which could just as easily have been in the Documentary Favorites program.

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