Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino; 2017)

It’s Italy in 1983.  Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a highly regarded American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture who summers with his wife Anella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at their home in Northern Italy.  It’s a tradition that every summer the family invites one of Professor Perlman’s grad students to spend the summer with them, and this year the student of choice is Oliver (Armie Hammer).  The film opens with Oliver’s arrival and the story is of the events that take place over this particular summer focusing on the relationship between Elio and Oliver.

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Call Me By Your Name is an unusual film in that there is no conflict in the film outside of some short-lived inner turmoil.  Rather than conflict, Call Me By Your Name uses some nostalgia and some wish fulfillment to keep the audience’s attention.  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a mirror image of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.  Instead of an urban Florida setting in which a young black man comes to terms with his sexuality while also struggling with his life of poverty and absentee parents, Call Me By Your Name gives us an idyllic rural European setting in which a rich white young man with an incredibly intelligent and supportive family has to come to terms with his.  Where in Moonlight we were transported to a rather dark world and experienced tragedy after tragedy in Chiron’s life until he finally found a way to escape through hardening himself and becoming a man he didn’t really want to be, Call Me By Your Name shows Elio in a world in which his biggest trouble is disappointing the girl who has fallen in love with him and wondering about the appropriateness of his feelings toward Oliver.

The scenery of the Northern Italy village is shot beautifully.  Every single scene takes place either in a setting of small ancient buildings of spectacular architecture or a natural setting so empty of the trappings of society you could believe that no person had been in that locale for years.  The director of cinematography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes his time with his camerawork using the slow pacing of the film’s story to allow himself time to revel in the beauty of his surroundings just as the characters in the film do.

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The writing in Call Me By Your Name is borderline pretentious, and I have no doubt there are those who will say it crosses that line, with characters who are capable of gleefully discussing off the cuff the etymology of the word apricot, the reasoning behind decisions made by ancient Greek sculptors, and how a particular song would sound had it been composed by Bach vs Liszt.  But, past just demonstrating how intelligent the characters in the film are, there is nothing about the dialogue in the film that is meant to be showy nor judgemental.  Once we establish that these people are highly intelligent and sensitive, we really don’t get any more intellectual displays as once the intelligence of our characters is established the screenplay leaves those elements behind for the most part and focuses on the relationships between these people.   These relationships are genuine if also idealized and it’s this factor that keeps me from calling this film pretentious and just an honest look at a very intelligent, very well to do group of people.

This honest portrayal obviously could not happen without strong performances, and Call Me By Your Name does give us those.  I wouldn’t call any of the performances on display spectacular, but they are earnest and well thought out.  I have to wonder that Armie Hammer isn’t a larger star than he is, as I have yet to see a performance from him that isn’t at least charismatic, and he is most certainly easy on the eyes where the camera is concerned, and the performance here is good enough that it could lead to the bigger and better things down the road he seems destined for.  The rest of the cast is also captivating and in particular, the intensely vulnerable performances given by the younger cast members Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel as Elio’s best friend and maybe more Marzia make me hope we will see more from them in the future, as well.

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Final verdictCall Me By Your Name is one of the sweetest coming of age films I’ve seen.  Its total lack of nearly any conflict works in this case due to its embrace of nostalgia, authenticity, and a true love for its characters and their experiences.  Call Me By Your Name is not a film for everyone, as I believe it will be immensely boring for those not interested in romance nor coming of age films, but for those who don’t need tension in their drama every time Call Me By Your Name will plaster a huge smile on your face while simultaneously putting a lump in your throat with its entirely genuine, familiar, and yet still very personal tale of young love, friendship, and family.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (Branagh; 2017)

Agatha Christie’s classic story “Murder on the Orient Express” has been filmed for either the cinema or television screen five times since 1974 including this latest version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.  While there is a reason classics have attained the status they have, there is also a downside to being a classic which is that the book, or movie, or song, or piece of art will forever after be copied and imitated until the very thing which made a work a classic has been so overdone that people are inured to it.  When you tell someone the camera techniques in Citizen Kane were revolutionary at the time you can still very much respect it, but since those techniques have been copied by cinematographers for going on 80 years now audiences simply cannot have the same reaction to it as when the film was new.  Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express fortunately does not try to overly modernize Christie’s story, but unfortunately, this makes the film’s story overly familiar even to those who have never read the novel nor seen any of its adaptations.

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Murder on the Orient Express has one hell of an impressive cast.  Kenneth Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous Belgian OCD-ridden detective, and he works alongside Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, and Willem DaFoe.  Every single one of these performers throws themself into their role, and while most of the characters give the actors little to work with, they show to a person why they have been sought after by studios as the ensemble definitely elevates the very one-dimensional roles they have been given through their charisma, charm, and passion.

It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, though its visuals were inconsistent.  The art direction and costuming are top notch, to the level of possible award-winning especially for the costumes, and the CGI is also excellent, but so stylized it seems as if it comes from a different film. specifically The Polar Express.  It’s understandable that you’d want to show the train moving from an outside perspective in a film about a murder on a long train ride, but when those scenes are shown using CGI rather than actual footage of a train and that CGI is either very dated or very stylized it calls attention to itself in a bad way.

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The writing is also a bit on the inconsistent side.  It captures the story and the era Agatha Christie originally penned perfectly.  Thus, the movie has a nostalgic flavor to it more reminiscent of a stage play than a movie.  It gives the fun of a mystery which doesn’t overly rely on cheap tricks and hidden information to keep the audience from solving it, but since it is made in an older stagey style it relies on characters which have no real personality outside of what the mystery needs so they can be living clues, and the mystery is quite easy to solve.  I had never seen nor read any version of “Murder on the Orient Express” before this one and I had the mystery solved while there was a good half an hour to forty-five minutes to go before the film revealed the answer.

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Final verdict:  Murder on the Orient Express is a well-made movie.  Every actor obviously had fun with their performance and put their hearts and souls into their part.  The visuals are also detailed and lovely with only the mismatched style of the CGI being the only poor decision here.  But, it’s a story we’ve seen so many times before it’s more than just familiar, it’s dated.  If you don’t care about actually solving the mystery and just want to see a turn of the last century style murder mystery for pure nostalgia’s sake, then Murder on the Orient Express will definitely fit that bill.  But, with paper-thin characters and a mystery which lacks any kind of an actual mystery to modern audiences, most will probably leave the theater not necessarily hating the movie, but definitely feeling a bit disappointed.

The Snowman (Alfredson; 2017)

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian crime novellist known the world over for revolutionizing modern crime fiction and has won a great many awards in addition to his popularity.  Tomas Alfredson is a Swedish film director known in the United States primarily for the Academy Award nominated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well as the horror classic Let the Right One In.  You would think that putting these two gentlemen together along with the phenomenal acting talent of Michael Fassbender would guarantee a quality film just awaiting critical acclaim and the attention of the film awards circuit.  That, however, is not to be the fate of The Snowman, a film which despite the pedigree of its acting, writing, and directing talents went horribly wrong.

The film opens with a series of camera shots you would expect in a Bourne film fight scene with a series of quick close ups and zoom outs cut together so quickly you barely have a moment to make out what you are seeing on screen.  But, this isn’t an action scene.  It’s just following a man entering a house then sitting at a table.  It’s an interesting choice that the most mundane action possible is filmed via frantic camerawork, but this is only done once.  Shortly after this we have a strange zoom through the windshield of a car which is reminiscent of an effect someone would use to show a space ship going into faster than light travel in a science fiction film, but it’s used for someone who is just pulling out of their garage normally.  One shot of this drive uses a very obvious CGI close up of the back of the car so out of date it looks like it was created in 1992, but none of the rest of the drive uses CGI at all, and again, it’s for the most part just a normal drive through a snowy landscape.  No high speed chase, no stunt work.  Again, nothing like this is shown again in the movie.  It’s just a strange choice for no obvious reason.

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The acting choices made throughout the film are also odd, so odd that there were times if I wondered if anyone in the movie had ever actually met another human being before.  Two characters will stare meaningfully at one another as if they were sharing some dark secret silently that only they know, or perhaps one is warning the other that they know what the other is up to only to find in the very next scene seconds later that the two have never met and are now being introduced.  Fassbender’s Harry Hole at one point attacks a person doing repair work on his apartment, and chases the repair person into the street, and we never know why nor hear from the character of the repair person again.  In fact, stares, awkward silences, and two people seemingly having completely different conversations as they speak past one another seems more common in this film than normal, recognizable human interaction.

I think these strange choices all have a reason which was found out near the film’s end, but that reason is in itself so bizarre if I am correct that it just adds yet another strange choice to the myriad of others rather than clarify anything.  Without spoiling anything, one of the characters has a trait that is a major influence on the actions of another, and all this monkeying around with strange interactions and camera work seems to be a hint to the audience about this character trait.  The trouble is that not only could this trait have been far more easily shown in mere seconds than by hinting for an entire movie, but there also seems no reason whatsoever to keep that trait a secret from the audience.

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There are some gorgeous shots of the Norwegian landscape in The Snowman, as well as some excellent framing of the city of Oslo, though I have to wonder does every house in Norway have windows on the inside so people can see into living rooms and bedrooms and the like?  Even the film being set in Norway is odd since every character speaks in English, American English, for the entire film with no establishing that they are actually speaking in Norwegian but are being broadcast in English for the sake of ease.  In the end, there is no reason to have the film set in Norway over anywhere else in the world, so why not just relocate the film to a cold climate in the United States if they are speaking American English?  This is a nitpick more than a major complaint, but when added to everything else in the film, it is just one more strange, pointless decision added to the pile.

Add all these factors together, and the crime thriller element of The Snowman just does not work partially because you are so distracted by the amateurism on display and partially because you are too busy laughing and scratching your head to be engaged in the plot.  Michael Fassbender was once an actor who would get my excited for his next project, and was good enough that I was willing to give what seemed bad choices the benefit of the doubt, but with his last few films including X-Men: Apocalypse, Assassin’s Creed, Alien: Covenant, and now The Snowman I have to now label him as an excellent actor who makes horrible decisions as to which roles to play.

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Final verdict:  The Snowman is not quite so incompetently made as to be so bad it’s entertaining, but many of its scenes are and film as a whole only barely misses that mark.  Incomprehensible writing, acting, and directorial decisions add up to make a film which leaves the audience more concerned with the ineptitude of the film makers than with the actual story.  Unless a handful of good shots of snowy landscapes are enough to pique your interest, there is nothing of value in The Snowman to recommend.  While the story itself does make sense, nothing about the way that story is put together does.

 

 

The Foreigner (Campbell; 2017)

To say that Jackie Chan has a specific signature style is an understatement.  At age 63 now, though, he can’t do the death defying seemingly superhuman stunts he was once capable.  He is still in remarkable shape, but a lifetime of stretching your physical capabilities to the limit, punishing your body, and just simple age mean that he has to change the way he approaches his roles.  In The Foreigner he does just that, and while there are still quite a few action scenes Chan does nearly a 180 degree turn from his usual frantic, comic, action based performance and attempts something more serious and thoughtful.

An IRA bombing of a bank kills 58 people and injures 21 in the opening scene of The Foreigner, and among the dead is Fan (Katie Leung) the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh.  Since she was the last family Quan had left in the world, he is struck particularly hard and also is able to leave everything else in the world behind as he seeks justice and revenge.  His search leads him to Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan) a former member of the IRA who is now reformed and is a prominent Irish politician.  Quan is convinced Hennessey knows who performed the bombing and the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two as Quan does whatever he feels is necessary to get the names from Hennessey, and Hennessey in return seeks to stop Quan in order to protect both his career and his family.

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The screenplay for The Foreigner is based on a book called “The Chinaman”.  I have never read the book, so I can’t give a comparison, but I can say the story of The Foreigner is an intelligent and intricate one, but the characters are so thin as to be more plot devices than actual people.   It makes for a somewhat irritating experience because you can truly get swept up in the story, and be honestly surprised as well as impressed by its thoughtfulness and realism, but despite that not a single character in the film has a single character trait beyond events that happen to them.  No one is funny, or gullible, or dour, instead they are a man who has lost his family, a mysterious politician, a nephew with military experience, a wife who doesn’t like her husband, and so on.  What this does is make for a film which can be appreciated, but not enjoyed as you never empathize with anyone on screen.  It’s hard to even say there are protagonists or antagonists in the film, let alone heroes and villains, just a bunch of people whose actions weave together to form a story.

That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not this turn of Jackie Chan’s is a good one.  He shows here that he is still capable of some fun action scenes, damn he is still in great shape, and that he can frown and squeeze out a tear here and there instead of constant smiling and laughter, but with no real personality traits to express we just get a Chan who is much more calm than we are used to rather than a true performance.   The same can be said of every performance in the film, though Chan’s is the only one most are paying close attention to since his is the only great departure from his usual style, there is nothing particularly wrong with the acting, it’s just that there is no character given to the actors to portray.

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The camerawork in The Foreigner never reaches artistic nor impressive levels, but is still very solidly pulled off.  The film has a lot of moving pieces which have to followed, and at no point does it ever become difficult for the audience to do so, though on a handful of occasions it does become a bit awkward to do so with some quick editing which is necessary but comes out of nowhere and could almost certainly have been handled in a better fashion.  Aside from those handful, and they really are rare which is probably why they are so jarring, we get a film that is easy enough to watch that you can forget you are watching things through someone else’s eye, and if you aren’t trying for a visual art piece, that is one of the best things to accomplish in a film’s cinematography.

The pacing of the film is on the slower side.  There is a lot of talk about the past, or about what people should do, or about plans, but there is very little direct action taken by the characters for the vast majority of the film.  This makes for a movie that seems far longer than it actually is, and while the realistic constant twisting of the story is enough to get you to stay until film’s end since you just have to know what’s really going on and you need that sense of closure, you will also find yourself wishing to yourself that they could just move things along already for quite a bit of the running time.

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Final verdict:  The Foreigner is a very mediocre film which also happens to have fantastic plotting.   If political thrillers or revenge stories are really your thing then I would say to give The Foreigner a look, thought not necessarily in the theater.  If characterization is important to you, though, expect to be disappointed, and if you are looking for an over-the-top hilarious action packed Jackie Chan flick then avoid The Foreigner at all costs, or at least seriously reconfigure your expectations to the near exact opposite.  The Foreigner had a lot of potential, but poor character writing kills it for this critic, making it difficult to sit through despite its wonderful story.

 

American Assassin (Cuesta; 2017)

1987 called, it wants its movie back.  I suppose I could have also said that about last week’s It, but in the case of American Assassin its even more true.  Whereas It at least had modern sensibilities where its cinematography, special effects, and treatment of the subject matter are concerned American Assassin feels in nearly every way like a 30 year-old movie in which Michael Keaton has somehow aged and they forgot to write in the corny one liners.  This is a movie in which every American but one is a no questions asked good guy and every one who isn’t an American except one is a no questions asked bad guy.  America – yay!  Not American – Boo.

The premise behind American Assassin is that a guy who hates terrorists (Mitch played by Dylan O’Brien) is recruited by the CIA to kill said terrorists, but one guy who used to have the same job the guy who hates terrorists (“Ghost” played by Taylor Kitsch) now has has gone bad for reasons and is helping the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, because all Iranians really want to do is blow stuff up despite treaties they entered into.  The strokes painted here are so broad as to be downright insulting to anyone with enough reason to see the world in anything other than absolutes.  Add in the old trainer who is so much better than anyone else that you wonder why they don’t just send him in to do the job in the first place (Stan Hurley played by Michael Keaton) and an undercover operative whose main skill is being pretty (Annika played by Shiva Negar) and you have nearly every offensive stereotype in the book pretty well covered.  At least the Deputy Director of the CIA is a black woman, I guess (Irene Kennedy played by Sanaa Lathan), but in this movie its the equivalent of someone saying “I have a black friend”.

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Okay, so cliches are rampant and offensive, but how is the plot?  There was not a single beat or motivation in this entire film that was not both telegraphed and, again, cliche.  Even if you’ve never seen a movie before I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t see every single bit coming in this movie long before it actually happens.  Add to that the fact that the writers didn’t even attempt to come up with plausible bits of action for our characters – for instance, the bad guy who is the world’s greatest bad ass secret agent gets caught showing his face on security camera easily and immediately for no good reason (it’s not part of some ploy) but apparently that’s okay because the Deputy Director of the CIA doesn’t even think to check security footage – and you have writing that is both inept and broadcast.

The best thing that can be said about American Assassin is that at least the acting and camerawork aren’t as bad as the script.  The actors aren’t given anything to truly work with, and they never manage to rise above the material – even Keaton who seems to be in “doing it for a paycheck” mode – but, they at least show that they may have some promise if they are ever given a decent script and director.    As for the cinematography, the opening is probably the worst bit as its meant to be the main character filming on his phone, but even I who have made the claim that I have never taken a decent photograph could do a better job.  After that, though, the camerawork becomes serviceable, if never in any way, shape, nor form artistic.

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You would think a film in this style would at least be over the top with American nationalism, but we don’t even get that.  There’s no American flags to be seen, no cries for God and country (though, there is one call to prayer), no speeches about American superiority, nor worship of the military.  It’s a film based entirely on terrorists being bad, foreigners being terrorists or at least in league with them, and these facts give Americans an excuse to beat them up and kill them.  That’s the gist.

Final verdict:  The only reason I don’t call American Assassin the worst movie of the year is because the plot was at least mostly coherent, if still nonsensical in its own way.  The script is horrible, the action basic and dull, the characters offensive stereotypes, and even the special effects look like they come straight out of the ’80s.  The only reason to see American Assassin is as a bet with someone you dislike to see who can hold out the longest, either disgust or sleepiness will almost certainly overtake anyone before the movie’s end.