Review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

After taking out a First Order dreadnaught with heavy Resistance forces losses, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is demoted by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) for failing to follow orders. Finn (John Boyega) finally wakes up after nearly dying from his encounter with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the Starkiller base. His first words are to ask about Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the planet Ahch-To where he’s been in self-imposed exile since Ben Solo turned to the dark side of the Force and took the name Kylo Ren. Luke fears his failure with Ben will be repeated with Rey once he feels just how strong she is with the Force and he refuses to teach her the ways of the Jedi. When the Resistance lead ship drops out of hyperspace the First Order cruiser is right behind. The First Order has figured out how to track them in hyperspace and with their ship low on fuel making another jump is impossible. The First Order attacks and Leia is injured and unconscious. Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes command of the Resistance but Poe is unsatisfied with her seemingly cautious strategy. A young maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn come up with a plan to disable the First Order’s tracking of the Resistance in hyperspace but have to do it from onboard their lead ship and they need an expert code hacker. Contacting Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), she tells them to go to the casino on the planet Canto Bight and look for the man with the red flower pin on his chest. Meanwhile Luke relents and begins teaching Rey the ways of the Force. Rey starts having long distance chats via the Force with Kylo Ren. She believes he can be turned from the dark side and help the resistance win but Luke is dubious.

As I sit at my keyboard I mimic a scene from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” where Luke encourages Rey to reach out with her feelings. I try to do the same when it comes to how I feel about this movie. It’s a mishmash of joy, sadness and yearning for the next two years to hurry up and go by so I can see how the sequel trilogy ends. There is also a scene in the film where a character is encouraged to pay attention to what’s happening now and not look ahead to the future. So I am going to focus on what I feel from what I saw in the two and a half hours of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and share it with you here. The short version can be summed up in one word: Wow!

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a brave bit of filmmaking. It takes a beloved franchise and turns it on its head with character choices and character deaths that come out of nowhere while still feeling grounded in the universe in which many of us have invested decades of fandom. Director and writer Rian Johnson has essentially given the franchise a clean slate from which to create whole new stories that don’t rely on Luke, Han and Leia while also giving the long-time fans plenty of nostalgia to soothe any fears that history will be set aside for the newer characters.

While Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac get the majority of screen time, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are likely to be the most remembered performances of this film. While only sharing the screen once, Hamill and Fisher bring it alive whenever they are shown. Hamill is an angry and disillusioned Skywalker, hiding on an island that houses an ancient Jedi temple while refusing Rey’s pleadings to return to join and lead the new Rebellion. Skywalker is something we haven’t seen much of in any “Star Wars” film: Truly afraid. Hamill gives Luke a brief glimmer of the boyish enthusiasm of old while also showing us a mature and more measured man. Hamill is able, despite Luke’s reluctance, to show there is still some of the old fighter left in the Jedi master.

Despite what happens in the story we know this is the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. Media reports from not long after her death state Disney and Lucasfilm won’t use old, repurposed footage of Fisher nor will they digitally recreate her as was done in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” That makes her performance in this film all the more powerful. Fisher is mesmerizing as Leia. Her regal yet down-to-Earth countenance makes Leia a born leader and her leadership is desperately needed if the Rebellion is to survive the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Fisher’s ability to be both tough and motherly is what makes her an appealing character as Leia. It makes me wish for the ability to turn back time and take whatever precautions are necessary so she survives the heart attack that took her away too soon. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is dedicated to her memory.

I enjoyed all the twists and turns of the film immensely; however, there are a few things that with more time to reflect stand out to me as issues. There are primarily three underdeveloped story threads through both this and “The Force Awakens” that seem to be unimportant to Lucasfilm and Disney. First, who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Where did he come from and who trained him in the ways of the Force? How did he accumulate the resources to establish the First Order? While secondary characters in the “Star Wars” universe have been largely unexplored (i.e. Jabba, the Sand People, Jawas, Boba Fett and others) none has been as major a player as Snoke. He’s responsible for blowing up most of the New Republic and that kind of power and influence attracts attention. Why is so little known about him? Second, what/who are the Knights of Ren? Other than Kylo we know of no other members of this mysterious order. Sith Lords from the original and prequel films aren’t as well regulated a group as the Jedi Knights but they do have some known history and a reason for being so what’s the story with the Knights of Ren? Third, who is Captain Phasma? While her chrome armor makes her stand out from the rest of the Storm Troopers we don’t know anything else about her. Before only a patch that was a different color designated any kind of rank but Phasma looks like she must spend hours keeping her armor shiny. She’s also a woman in an organization whose members had been exclusively male. There must be a reason for this and it must be somewhat interesting so why hasn’t it ever been mentioned? I would prefer to not have to read every extended universe novel and comic book to find out some backstory on these aspects of the story. It doesn’t have to be extensive, just a couple of lines of dialog between characters to flesh out people that are apparently very important to the events in these films.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. People are shot by blasters and stabbed by light sabers. One character is cut in half while another is stabbed through the head. Two characters are threatened with beheading. The Force is used to torture a character while they float in midair. Other characters are picked up and thrown around by the Force. There is only the mildest foul language.

There is some complaining on the Internet (imagine that) about the film. How some characters are used or underused and that it tries to copy “The Empire Strikes Back” (didn’t see that at all) along with other complaints. It may be a tad too long, sending characters off on side missions that don’t make a great deal of sense and ignoring the backstories of several important players, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” also gives a needed creative boost to the franchise and wipes the slate clean for the characters introduced in “The Force Awakens.” And it cannot be argued against that there are moments in the film that are jaw-dropping. There are an infinite number of directions the story can take and I for one look forward to going along on the ride.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” gets five supernova stars.

This week your choices include getting small, chasing after a wayward dad and hitting a high note one more aca-time. I’ll see and review one of the following:

Downsizing—

Father Figures—

Pitch Perfect 3—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available wherever you get your podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Disaster Artist”

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is struggling in his acting class in San Francisco. He cannot drop his fear of being laughed at and embarrassed to express himself freely. He then sees another student in the class perform a raw and unapologetically emotional scene. That actor is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). After class Greg approaches Tommy about doing a scene together. The pair goes to a local restaurant and Tommy begins performing and encourages Greg to let go, talk loud and give his all to the scene. Despite drawing stares and laughter from the other patrons Greg is excited about what they did and about working with Tommy. After hanging around together Tommy suggests they head to Los Angeles and be roommates. Tommy has an apartment in L.A. and says Greg can live with him. Greg is surprised Tommy has an apartment in both San Francisco and L.A. and also drives a very nice Mercedes. He has never talked about his past other than claiming to be from New Orleans despite sporting an accent that sounds Eastern European. Greg also suspects Tommy is far older than he claims. Despite this, the two new friends move to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of being famous actors; but no matter how hard they try, neither gets any work. Frustrated, Tommy is on the verge of giving up when Greg makes an off-handed comment saying he wished they could make their own movie. Tommy gets excited and begins writing a script for a film in which he and Greg will be the main stars. It will be about love, betrayal, awkward sex scenes, inappropriately laughing at tragic stories and above all else incoherent storytelling. In other words, it will be one of the worst movies ever made: The Room.

James Franco, with the help of writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, has turned an unbelievable book into a painfully believable film called “The Disaster Artist.” There is a great deal of humor to be found in watching someone as utterly inept as Tommy Wiseau, as played by Franco, plowing through the process of making a movie while having no real understanding of how it should be done. There is also a great deal of pain in seeing this strange man with jet-black dyed hair and odd fashion choices trying to make his dream come true by the sheer force of his will. It becomes clear that Wiseau is really only making the movie in order to keep his one and only friend Greg around. The story isn’t so much about someone untalented trying to be a star in Hollywood as it is an expression of love by Tommy for Greg. In that way “The Disaster Artist” is beautiful. In another way, it is infuriating.

Wiseau represents to me the kind of person I have run into on occasion in my life: The clinging, parasitic acquaintance that seems to suck all the energy out of the room when he/she appears. This is the person that doesn’t know when to shut up, can’t take a hint and doesn’t know when they aren’t wanted. He/she is the person that causes many an eye to roll when they enter a room. Franco’s Wiseau is a brilliant personification of this emotional leach. Whenever someone begins attracting Dave Franco’s Greg’s attention, Tommy gets jealous and at one point sabotages Greg’s opportunity to do a guest spot on a sit-com. He’s angered by Greg moving in with his girlfriend Amber (played by Allison Brie) as he sees this as a betrayal. You could gather from these and other possessive reactions that Tommy is gay but I disagree with that assessment. Tommy is lonely and isolated. He sees his friendship with Greg as a unique and special thing since he apparently hasn’t had many friends before. He is overly protective of this friendship so he reacts with jealousy and vindictiveness if he feels it threatened. Tommy is a child in an adult’s body.

Franco disappears into the role of Tommy Wiseau. It is a brilliant portrayal of a man that seems like he is a character from a bad novel. Franco mimics Wiseau’s accent perfectly as is shown by a post-credits scene with Wiseau wearing a short wig, fake mustache and glasses meeting Franco’s Wiseau at a party. The odd speech pattern and mangling of certain words is the most cartoonish of the character’s traits but there is a deadness in the eyes that Franco carries off through the entire film that may be the most disturbing. With a few exceptions during very emotional scenes, Franco is dead from the nose up. He has the look of someone that is in the midst of some sort of mind-altering drug trip. If he wasn’t playing a real person I’d say he wasn’t giving a very good performance; but this may be one of Franco’s best in his career.

Dave Franco gives Greg Sestero a nice bit of character development over the course of the film. Starting off like a puppy that’s looking for an older dog to play with, Dave Franco grows and matures as Greg is exposed to the realities of Hollywood and the eccentricities of Tommy. He either ignores or makes excuses for Tommy’s odd behavior at first; but as time goes on Greg sees Tommy is odd and doesn’t interact with the world the way most everyone else does. It is a well-rounded performance by Dave Franco that is a nice counterpoint to his brother’s peculiar character.

While the Francos dominate the screen time there are numerous other stars in smaller and even cameo roles that do an amazing job of rounding out this slightly off-kilter universe. Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer play members of the film crew and do so in both comedic and dramatic fashion. While both are better known for their humorous turns both their characters make an effort to ground Tommy’s loftier filmmaking efforts with little success. Zac Efron, Jacki Weaver, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson and Nathan Fielder have small roles as actors in the film. Each gets a moment to shine but Graynor probably had the most unpleasant role in the film as she has an uncomfortable sex scene with Franco’s Wiseau. As they are starting the scene Wiseau is fully nude except for what looks like a paper bag hiding his junk. He tells her she looks ugly because of some blemishes on her shoulders and wants makeup to come in and hide them. It is an especially painful scene given the #metoo movement. There are numerous other cameos in the film that could make a fun game on repeat viewings.

“The Disaster Artist” is rated R for some sexuality/nudity and language throughout. James Franco is fully nude except for something covering his genitals. His backside is on full display on a couple of occasions. There is also a simulated sex scene that is played more for humor. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Earlier I said “The Disaster Artist” is infuriating. It isn’t the film but the subject that annoys me. Tommy Wiseau made a movie that has been described as the worst ever filmed. Despite this he has backed into fame which was a part of his goal in the first place. Tommy Wiseau is right up there with the Kardashians for being famous without any real talent. It doesn’t set the best example for those wanting to get into the entertainment business when someone produces a film that is universally recognized as garbage but still manages to make money from his trash. Wiseau, Sestero and other cast members often do Q & A’s before midnight showings of the film that are usually sold out. “The Room” has become a cult classic with audiences donning Wiseau-like wigs and reciting dialog with the characters. While it only made $1,800.00 from its opening weekend, “The Room” is becoming a bona fide money maker and Wiseau is basking in the glory of not only his creation but that of “The Disaster Artist.” James Franco deserves the majority of the praise for his direction and portrayal of the enigmatic artist known as Tommy Wiseau and Franco actually has talent and deserves all the praise he gets for this film.

“The Disaster Artist” gets five stars.

This week a flower-loving bull and the Last Jedi hit screens in your neighborhood. I’ll be seeing and reviewing at least one of the following (Who am I kidding? I’ll see Star Wars):

Ferdinand—

Star Wars: The Last Jedi—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast wherever you download your podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is struggling with grief and anger after her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and burned to death less than a mile from her home. Dissatisfied with the lack of progress in her daughter’s case after nearly a year, Mildred approaches the owner of the local outside advertising company Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) about buying three billboards on the road where her daughter’s body was found with the following message: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Naturally, the billboards create quite a stink around Ebbing, Missouri. Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) visits Mildred and explains there are no witnesses and the DNA found at the scene doesn’t match anyone in the national database. Unsatisfied with that answer, Mildred intends on keeping the billboards up for a year despite Willoughby’s revealing he has terminal cancer. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is also upset by the billboards but he plans on taking a more direct approach: Harassing anyone associated with Mildred including Red and Mildred’s employer. Undaunted, Mildred intends on continuing her advertising campaign despite the public pressure as well as the complaints of her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes).

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a deceptively complex film. There are various layers of story that must be peeled back to reveal the core of the narrative. It is a movie that requires patience as it reveals itself to be something other than the status quo. It isn’t strictly a black comedy, a whodunit, a domestic drama or a thriller. It is a combination of all those genres with a little something extra thrown in that’s difficult to identify until you realize the obvious: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is life.

Director and writer Martin McDonagh has crafted a rare and beautiful thing: A script that plays with convention and turns the obvious into the enemy. There is nothing in the movie that makes you think, “Seen that before.” It takes no easy way out; the characters make painful and challenging decisions and still manage to seem real.

McDonagh has a history of making unique movies as he’s the writer and director of “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges.” He is also a very successful playwright, referred to in a New York Times article as the most important living Irish playwright with some of his plays running on Broadway and receiving Tony nominations. It isn’t a surprise that someone so successful at bringing characters to life in live theatre would also be able to create stunningly unique and vibrant characters for the screen. The fact McDonagh also has a handle on the visual aspects of cinema is the real surprise; crafting shots that are simple yet cinematic and tell a story all on their own.

McDonagh also gets spectacular performances from a stellar cast. Frances McDormand is a force of nature as Mildred. Always ready to defend herself and her beliefs with a quick curse or a long story, Mildred is not to be trifled with. She doesn’t take well to physical attacks either as a dentist finds out. Mildred is pushed into carrying out these actions by feelings of grief and guilt that are always just under the surface. If her daughter hadn’t been so brutally murdered she might only be an angry ex-wife with two mouthy kids and a humdrum life; but with Angela’s death Mildred has an all-consuming cause to occupy her mind and as she proves that can be a dangerous thing. McDormand gives a fiery performance and never shows one moment of weakness. It is a riveting portrayal of a woman that feels as if there is nothing she can’t do and with nothing left to lose despite having a teenage son left at home. Mildred is a flawed and broken woman and McDormand gives a flawless performance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

Sam Rockwell also burns up the screen as racist drunk cop Jason Dixon. Rockwell is a chameleon, able to disappear into a role so completely you assume he is the character in life. Rockwell portrays a sad man that is realizing his dreams may be out of reach and that make him angry. He takes that anger out on the suspects brought in, especially those that are people of color. He makes no apologies for his beliefs that we later on learn are not as tightly held as we might think. Rockwell creates a despicable character that you still have some sympathy for. He’s broken but redeemable. This is also a performance that could get some award season attention.

Also on the list is Woody Harrelson as Police Chief Bill Willoughby. While not in the film as much as McDormand and Rockwell, Harrelson’s Willoughby is in a way the heart of the film. Both Mildred and Jason are on the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as their beliefs and action while Bill is firmly in the middle. As can be seen in his interactions with both of them, Willoughby is attempting to be a calming force on both of them. It takes an extreme action by the chief to get both their attentions. Harrelson is fantastic and in a way steals the movie every time he’s on screen. It is a measured and calm performance that belies the depth of the character’s impact. I don’t want to give too much away but there are moments in Harrelson’s performance that will break your heart. He too may need to rent a tuxedo for the Academy Awards.

The secondary characters are also expertly performed and written. Peter Dinklage has a small (no pun intended) role as a local car dealer with a crush on Mildred. Their one and only date proves to be disastrous. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie like a coiled snake always ready to pounce. Robbie Hayes is the depressed son of Mildred and Charlie and shows the perfect amount of teen disdain for his parents while also backing off when he realizes he has crossed a line. Samara Weaving has only two scenes in the film as Charlie’s 19-year old girlfriend but makes the most of it with a couple of perfectly timed comedic performances. The entire cast is perfect and makes for a wonderful movie-going experience.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references. We see a couple of characters violently beaten in two different scenes. One is thrown out a second-story window onto the street below. There is also a suicide shown where a character is shot in the head. The sexual references are mostly mild but the context of one reference is extremely disturbing. Foul language is common throughout the film.

It isn’t often that a film can take what could have been a simple and boring story and throw in enough twists and unusual choices to turn it into a fascinating movie that demands your attention. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is just that film. With a multi-layered story, three fascinating primary characters and a cast that combines to deliver several amazing performances, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” gets five guitars.

Two new movies are opening this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Just Getting Started—

The Disaster Artist—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available at WIMZ.com and wherever you download podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Coco”

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is part of a family that has made shoes for four generations; however, becoming cobblers wasn’t a choice. Great-great grandmother Imelda (voiced by Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician that left her and young daughter Coco (Miguel’s great grandmother that lives with the family) to chase stardom. So angered by his leaving Imelda learned how to make shoes to support herself and Coco and forbid music to be anywhere in her life. Both the shoemaking and the banning of music had been carried on through Miguel’s family. His grandmother Elena (voiced by Renee Victor) continues to enforce the ban, sometimes with mild violence. Miguel has developed a love of music in secret, even making a shrine to his favorite musician Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) who hails from the same village. Cruz was the most popular singer and actor in Mexico until his untimely death when a massive bell fell on him. Miguel wants to be just like Cruz but knows his family will do anything to stop him. Miguel tries to sneak off to perform in a talent show in the town square but Elena catches him and destroys his homemade guitar. Angered, Miguel runs off to the square anyway. Needing a guitar, Miguel remembers there is one in the tomb of Ernesto de la Cruz. He breaks in and takes the guitar off the wall, strumming a chord but something odd happens: Miguel can no longer interact with living people, only the spirits of the dead that are walking across a bridge made of flower petals from the land of the dead to receive offerings left by their relatives. It is the Day of the Dead where pictures of deceased relatives are displayed in shrines in the home and offerings of food and wine are left at their graves. Several relatives of Miguel’s have crossed over but his Mama Imelda cannot as Miguel has her picture in his pocket. Miguel can be sent back to the land of the living if he receives a blessing from a family member. Imelda offers to give a blessing but only on one condition: Miguel must give up music forever. Not wanting to give up his passion, Miguel runs away hoping to find another relative that might give him a blessing with fewer strings attached. That’s when he runs into Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), something of a conman that claims to know Ernesto de la Cruz and can introduce Miguel to his deceased idol. Meanwhile, Miguel needs to get that family blessing by sunrise or he’ll be stuck in the land of the dead forever.

I was unfamiliar with the Day of the Dead as I’m sure most audiences will be. It is a day when families put up photos of their deceased relatives and set out offering of their relative’s favorite foods and drinks. It is done in the home as well as at the cemetery where families sometimes leave possessions of the deceased at the grave. They pray for and remember their dead relatives in an effort to help them on their spiritual journey. It draws families together and strengthens the memories of those that have passed on. “Coco” uses this Mexican holiday as a backdrop for a story of a young boy that wants to break out of his family’s restrictions and follow his own path. It sends him on a journey that no one to my knowledge has ever returned from and gives him the insight to realize that family is everything. It’s a lesson that is beautifully realized by the thousands of artists at Pixar with colors, songs, dances and a great, emotional story. All families should see “Coco.”

The imagery of “Coco” is at times stunning. The Land of the Dead is both familiar and otherworldly. The buildings are stacked on top of one another and seem to stretch on forever. It is connected by a suspended trolley system to move the riders from one level to another. The city, if you can call it that, has areas that appear to be run down as well as opulent. Even in death there are class divisions. I guess we can never fully shed the concept of the “haves” and the “have-nots” even in the afterlife. The people that populate the land of the dead are also cleverly and beautifully designed. Everyone, except for Miguel, is a skeleton. The eyes are sunken and surrounded by blackness. There are colorful but subtle designs in the skulls of all the dead characters. What these designs mean isn’t explained but they are so delicate it doesn’t cause you to lose focus on what they are saying. The skeleton characters can disassemble when necessary leading to some comedic moments. The other creatures in the Land of the Dead are the animals that act as spirit guides. They are not skeletons and they are covered in neon-bright colors and patterns. There are very few moments when your eye won’t be drawn or dazzled by the look of “Coco.” However, all that beauty would be wasted if it weren’t for a compelling story and excellent voice acting. Fortunately, “Coco” has both.

Being a movie aimed primarily at children, “Coco” has a fairly simple story; but there are elements that are complex and intriguing. For instance, a character’s true motivation and nature are revealed in a twist that is well-hidden and ultimately a huge surprise. This twist adds a level of complexity, as well as danger, to the story that amps up the appeal for adults. Pixar is great at creating stories that work for both children and their parents (with the “Cars” films being the possible exception) and “Coco” has that dual appeal.

The voice cast is a combination of well-known and unknown actors and they all do amazing work. Young Anthony Gonzalez gives Miguel a youthful energy without making him annoying. Even when Miguel argues with his family (both living and dead) he never comes across as a brat. Gael Garcia Bernal as Hector gives the character both the light comic touch and the deeply serious delivery the part calls for. He makes Hector both likable and unlikable depending on what the story calls for and he ultimately wins your heart. Alanna Ubach and Renee Victor as Imelda and Elena respectively provide the emotional base to the story with their anger at a long dead relative that drives the narrative along. Benjamin Bratt is a smooth operator as Ernesto de la Cruz. There are moments when you may swoon as Cruz (most of his singing is done by Antonio Sol) belts out one romantic tune after another then delivers a passionate speech about chasing your dreams. Bratt has a soothing baritone speaking voice that is put to good use in the film. There are numerous other voice actors in smaller roles but there isn’t one that sticks out as not working or being too obvious. Even John Ratzenberger, considered by Pixar to be their lucky charm and given small roles in all their movies, is able to fit in despite his distinctive voice.

“Coco” is rated PG for thematic elements. As a majority of the story concerns people that have died it may lead to difficult questions from younger viewers. There is also a murder shown but it is not graphic.

“Coco” is above all else a sweet story of family. It may get a bit bogged down in the rules of the dead including the dead dying a second time but this is a minor quibble. What most people will get from “Coco” is a warm feeling and a lump in the throat as the love of a family is strengthened and connections to the past are rediscovered. It is also gorgeous to look at with that Pixar eye for detail and some strong color choices. Don’t let the walking and talking skeletons lead you to believe this is more of a Halloween-themed film as once the main story gets going you’ll forget these characters are not fleshed out (see what I did there?).

“Coco” gets five stars.

There are no new films out in wide release this week but there are some arthouse films that have struck my interest. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Lady Bird—

Last Flag Flying—

The Man Who Invented Christmas—

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast for the latest movie news, follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Justice League”

The world continues to mourn the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) along with those that knew and loved him: His mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) has lost the family farm and has moved to an apartment in Metropolis. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is only working on puff pieces for the Daily Planet newspaper. Batman (Ben Affleck) is troubled by his role in Superman’s death. He is also troubled by the appearance of winged creatures showing up in Gotham City. When he traps one against a wall it explodes leaving behind a pattern of three box shapes burned into the wall. Similar images show up in drawings made by convicted criminal and billionaire businessman Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) seized from him in prison. On Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, a box that’s been dormant for thousands of years begins humming and shaking. A tube of energy appears above it and through that tube comes Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), an alien destroyer of worlds. After a brief battle led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Steppenwolf seizes the box and along with his army of flying parademons leaves by another tube of energy. When Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), learns of the attack she seeks out Batman to tell him the history of Steppenwolf and how he tried to take over the Earth before but was beaten back by the Amazons, a sea-dwelling civilization called the Atlanteans, humans and the gods themselves. Diana and Bruce decide to look for other people with special abilities and form a team to defeat Steppenwolf and his parademons. They know of Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who is endowed with incredible speed that has earned him the nickname The Flash. There’s the water-dweller that aides a coastal village with food when their harbor is iced closed named Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) also called Aquaman. Finally, there’s the son of the head scientist at Star Labs that was thought to have been killed in an accident but has been merged with technology giving him the ability to hack into any computer system and more. He’s Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) but some call him Cyborg. Together this league of justice must overcome their differences and fears to work as a team to defeat Steppenwolf; but it may not be enough so a risky plan is put into place to add one final member.

If you haven’t heard about “Justice League” it must be because you’ve made an active effort to not hear any of the news this film generated. It wasn’t always good news: Director Zack Snyder left the film during post-production after the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon came in to do some sizable reshoots and the editing. While industry experts suggest Whedon’s reshoots account for about 20 percent of the film, the difference in style and tone make for a film that is inconsistent and could have used a bit more time spent with the newer characters to give them a better fleshed out reason to exist.

It’s ironic that “Justice League” could have been longer since one of the biggest criticisms of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was that it was far too long. This time I think Snyder and Whedon could have improved the film by showing us more about Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. While we get small nuggets about each it all feels like we are being pushed through an open house by a realtor that has somewhere else to be. We see bits and pieces but the rest goes by in a blur.

There are clear efforts to lighten the tone of “Justice League” over its DC predecessors. There are jokes approximately every three and a half minutes. While I don’t know that to be absolutely true, I get the feeling there were a great deal of focus groups and test audiences in the production of this film that guided the effort to put more laughs in the script. Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen is the source of a number of these laughs but even the usually dour Batman provides a bit of levity from time to time. The Caped Crusader even delivers one of the film’s biggest laughs while connecting a scene from “BvS” to “Justice League.” You can see there was an effort but I appreciated it.

With a cast this large and a story that moves almost as fast as the Flash, there isn’t much of an opportunity for any actor to really stick out and despite some brief moments, no one does in “Justice League.” Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa shine brightest in their fleeting time. Momoa has a very entertaining scene where he gives his true feelings about what they are facing when it is shown why he’s being so honest. Miller is quirky as the Flash. Barry Allen is insecure about his place on the team and in the world, unsure of what he adds. Batman gives him so good advice that guides him in the right direction but that uneasiness with being a hero persists. While Miller and Momoa don’t have a great deal of screen time they do the best with what they are given. Ray Fisher is given very little to do other than look sullen. His character is not dealing well with becoming part man and part machine and only begins to grow into something interesting once he takes on the mantle of hero. Fisher’s Cyborg is underutilized and is difficult to fit into these other superheroes since his is the least known of the group. Perhaps there’s a better storyline in the future for Cyborg but his appearance in “Justice League” is poorly thought out.

The leaders of the group are clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. The pair takes turns being the grownup of the league. The fight against their foe together, bicker, nearly come to blows then realize they can never beat Steppenwolf if they don’t work together. There are no real surprises as it concerns the way the story flows or how Affleck’s and Gadot’s characters rise to the challenge of leading a team of strangers into a life and death battle. What is a surprise is how bored Affleck looks. Rumors have swirled for months that he wants out of playing Batman despite his protestations to the contrary. That talk has flared again just at the movie was released with Jake Gyllenhaal being the most mentioned name to replace Affleck. If Affleck’s performance in “Justice League” is any indication of his enthusiasm for the role then Gyllenhaal should show up for a bat suit fitting ASAP.

The story races through the fairly standard arc of the good guys being unable to defeat the bad guy on a couple of occasions, nearly coming apart due to some internal struggle then rallying to face the bad guy one more time. It is about as predictable as the return of Superman although how he’s brought back from the dead left me scratching my head. While I won’t give away any of the details, the scene at the end of “BvS” where the dirt on his casket is floating can be ignored. It’s like screenwriter Chris Terrio read the comic books where Superman returned after being killed by Doomsday and said, “You think that’s silly? Hold my beer.” The numerous moving parts of Superman’s revival are so Rube Goldberg-like in their complexity (not to mention dealing with alien technology and the physiology of an alien that’s been dead for quite some time) that even in the anything-goes world of super heroes it stretches credibility.

The weakest aspect of “Justice League” has to be the villain Steppenwolf. The issue isn’t just because he’s a CG character but that he isn’t terribly interesting. His mission is to destroy the world and we’ve seen that a million times and in better movies (*cough – The Avengers – cough*). Steppenwolf is nothing much more than a bully…granted he’s about nine feet tall, carries a glowing axe and commands an army of flying soldiers but still, he’s kind of dull as big bads go. Considering all the villains in the DC library of bad guys Steppenwolf is a dud.

“Justice League” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action. There are numerous battles with beings both human and non-human. There is no blood except for some green parademon blood. There is scattered mild foul language.

I really wanted to love “Justice League” as I was a DC Comics reader and subscriber in my youth. I was seriously invested in the lives of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and whoever else made up the rest of the league in the 1970’s. It was an escape from my humdrum life as a kid in school that desperately wanted to be a super powered hero. There’s still a little of that desire running through me despite my grown up knowledge that I’m not from Krypton, I’m not a billionaire, that getting struck by lightning won’t give me super speed, that I’m not the son of the Atlantean king, that cybernetic parts won’t let me hack into any computer system and that I’m not an Amazon princess (that last one really stings). Since I can’t be a superhero I want to be able to enjoy movies about them. “Justice League” isn’t awful but it isn’t the rapturous experience I wanted and that hurts me a little bit.

“Justice League” gets three stars out of five.

This holiday week sees two new movies arriving at theatres. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Coco—

Roman J. Israel, Esq.—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast on all the podcast platforms. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “My Friend Dahmer”

Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a quiet high school student. He’s considered odd by his classmates because of his interest in collecting road kill and dissolving the flesh with acid he gets from his chemical engineer father Lionel (Dallas Roberts) to collect the bones. His mother Joyce (Anne Heche) frequently argues with Lionel and she has a history of mental illness including a hospitalization. At school a boy nicknamed Derf (Alex Wolff) notices Dahmer makes a classroom full of students laugh by mocking a man with palsy. Derf and his friends decide to start the Dahmer Fan Club and encourage Dahmer to make a spectacle of himself by faking a seizure and making squawking noises in classes and hallways. Despite how humiliating his antics are Dahmer goes along with the requests to “pull a Dahmer” as the boys call it because he feels like this group is his friends. Things at home are only getting worse as Lionel and Joyce are arguing more and his mother’s mental state is deteriorating. Dahmer also is becoming more obsessed with a jogger that runs past his house that turns out to be Dr. Matthews (Vincent Kartheiser), the physician for one of his new friends. Soon Dahmer is showing up to class drunk and dissecting dead animals in the woods behind his house. A couple of his friends notice his odd behavior but keep their fears to themselves. Dahmer begins to spin completely out of control when his parents’ divorce, his father moves in with his girlfriend and his mother leaves with Dahmer’s younger brother to live with her mother. Jeffrey is all alone in the house with only his dark thoughts and desires.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name written by one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school classmates, “My Friend Dahmer” is a heartbreaking and fascinating look at the infamous serial killer before he took his first victim. While no one at the time could have had any idea of the future held, the audience knows just how far Dahmer would go and it makes everything in the film that much more devastating.

If you’re looking for a gore-filled orgy of violence you won’t find it in “My Friend Dahmer.” The film is like a musical prelude that introduces the themes of the symphony. We see the withdrawn and awkward Dahmer as the foundation of his psychosis is laid and the first inklings of the horrors he would inflict on his victims begin to peek out of the shadows of his damaged mind. It is the kind of movie that may disappoint some looking for Dahmer to be portrayed as a monster, gnashing his teeth and drooling in anticipation of his first kill. What we see is a character that isn’t that different than any other high school student: He lacks confidence. He seeks positive attention that he isn’t getting at home. His sexual identity is presenting itself but he isn’t sure how to act on it. It is a calm and thorough look at the making of a serial killer without being exploitive or pandering to the lowest common denominator.

“My Friend Dahmer” would be nothing without a great performance in the title role and Ross Lynch is amazing as Jeffrey Dahmer. Ross channels all of his emotional energy into playing a character that has no energy at all. Dahmer doesn’t even bother to swing his arms when he walks. It’s like Lynch is trying to be as small as possible in an effort to disappear from the world. Playing a low-energy character might seem like an easy thing to do; but to maintain that minimal level would be exhausting over long shooting days. Lynch is in nearly every shot of the movie and must have been wrung out by the end of filming.

If you don’t know who Ross Lynch is then you probably don’t have any tween girls at home as he is the star of a Disney Channel show called Austin & Ally. He’s had a few bit parts in other TV shows and a few movies but this is certainly his biggest role to date and judging by his performance he will likely be a very in demand actor in the near future.

Anne Heche is also fantastic as Joyce Dahmer. Where Jeffrey is low energy, Joyce is constantly manic and usually angry. Heche flies around the screen like a whirling dervish, bouncing from topic to topic and ready to spew venom in everyone’s direction. Joyce Dahmer lacks a filter likely due to her mental illness that’s briefly discussed in the film. Heche has had her own emotional struggles as she was hospitalized after exhibiting erratic behavior in August of 2000. This likely informed her portrayal and that experience makes Joyce Dahmer a puzzling and sometimes frightening character that Heche performs with zeal and honesty.

The story takes its time to build only giving us glimpses of the darkness in Dahmer’s mind: His interest in the bones of animals and the growing obsession with the jogging doctor. It is a story that’s hard to watch sometimes as Dahmer humiliates himself for the amusement of his friends. They aren’t as cruel as they sound, including Dahmer in their group and doing things with him; but his inclusion is dependent on performing at their command. There are brief flashes of Dahmer trying to break free from his role as freak. On a school trip to Washington D.C., Dahmer manages to get him and his friends in to meet the assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale then they actually get to meet him. He manages to get a prom date but that doesn’t go as well. The audience knows Dahmer is going to turn into a necrophilic and cannibalistic serial killer but there are brief moments when we hope things turn out differently because we kind of like Dahmer. Despite his weirdness there is something endearing about Dahmer and we wish something had intervened and allowed him to be “normal.” The script by director Marc Meyers and graphic novel writer John Backderf passes no judgements and offers no opinions. It merely presents the facts (most of what’s in the movie actually happened) and lets the audience form their own view. Most films aren’t brave enough to trust the audience to make a decision for themselves but “My Friend Dahmer” is confident those seeing the film will understand.

“My Friend Dahmer” is rated R for disturbing images, brief nudity, teen drug use, drinking, language and sexual content. We see Dahmer pick up road kill, handle bones from animals he’s dissected and cut up a fish in a frenzy after catching in from a pond. A character intentionally cuts himself with a knife then sucks on the wound. A game of Russian roulette is played. Pot is shown being smoked on a couple of occasions. Characters are shown drinking beer and hard liquor. A centerfold is briefly shown. There are typical crude teenage discussions of sex. Foul language is scattered.

Jeffrey Dahmer killed, dismembered, partially ate and had sex with 17 men and boys over a period of 13 years from 1978 to 1991. He was sentenced to multiple life terms and was beaten to death in prison by another inmate in 1994. Dahmer didn’t grow up abused. He wasn’t a creation of the foster care system. As far as we know he didn’t suffer any head trauma that is frequently reported with serial killers. It’s unclear what made Jeffrey Dahmer a predator that stalked his prey then tried to turn them into zombies that would never leave him. Thinking of him only as his crimes makes him something other than human; but looking before his first murder makes the audience question what separates the Dahmers of the world from the Average Joes. The difference between us is frighteningly thin.

“My Friend Dahmer” gets five stars.

Super powers, a holiday tale and family drama all are coming to a theatre near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Justice League—

The Star—

Wonder—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast where ever you download podcasts, follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Thor: Ragnarok”

Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) finally returns to Asgard after his quest to make sense of his dreams of Ragnarok, or the destruction of everything. When he arrives he sees Odin (Anthony Hopkins) but knows instantly it is actually Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Loki takes Thor to Earth where he left him but the retirement home has been torn down. Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) guides Thor and Loki to Norway where Odin is standing on a cliff looking over the ocean. He tells the two he is weak and can no longer hold back Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death. When she returns to Asgard she will become more powerful than even Thor. Hela appears and Thor tries to defeat her with his hammer but she catches and destroys it. Loki calls for the Bifrost Bridge but Hela also hops on and is able to knock both Thor and Loki out of the transport beam. Thor lands on a planet called Sakaar, is captured by Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and is brought to meet the leader named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). The Grandmaster runs gladiator fights to keep the masses entertained and the only way Thor can leave the planet is to fight and defeat the champion: It’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). His quinjet crashed on Sakaar two years earlier and he’s been in the Hulk form the whole time. When they meet in the arena the fight ends in a tie. Thor tries to convince Hulk to join him, find a way off Sakaar and return to Asgard to take on Hela. During his time on the planet, Thor learns that Scrapper 142 is the last surviving Valkyrie; a group of female warriors that fought for Odin in his war against Hela. Back on Asgard, Hela has made Skurge (Karl Urban) her executioner but he’s having second thoughts about working with the new queen. Heimdall (Idris Elba) has stolen the sword that opens the Bifrost Bridge and is trying to hide as many Asgardians as possible to keep them safe. Things are looking dark for the God of Thunder and the citizens of Asgard.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is a much more light-hearted and funny film than any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It never takes itself terribly seriously even though the events within the comic book story universe are very life and death. It makes for a film that is both funny and exciting in equal measure. It’s a rare feat for a movie to have laughs and action with one or the other not getting shortchanged in the process.

According to an interview director Taika Waititi did with MTV at Comic Con, about 80 percent of the dialog in the movie was improvised on set. This usually makes for a film that is choppy and disjointed with lots of quick edits so the best lines, along with the ones that move the story in the proper direction, wind up in the final cut. “Thor: Ragnarok” doesn’t have that feel. The director and stars must have been very comfortable with the story and confident in their improvisation abilities to come up with a funny movie and coherent narrative.

With a cast this large it’s difficult for a secondary character to stand out; but Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster certainly makes an impression. Charming, quirky and evil, the Grandmaster is a hedonistic dictator looking to be entertained at all times. He enjoys the blood sport that brings crowds to his arena and loves being the larger-than-life holographic ringmaster projected in the center of the ring, towering over his subjects. Goldblum’s non sequiturs often go unresolved and those that do are preceded by a fair bit of yammering. Those familiar with Goldblum and have seen his recent interviews will notice a similarity between his speaking style and that of the Grandmaster. It appears to be the perfect actor in the perfect role.

Cate Blanchett seems to be having the most fun in her role of Hela. Blanchett is at times smoldering, sarcastic, pitiful and vengeful. All of it makes sense and all of it is played with just the right intensity. She never chews the scenery so much for it to become camp despite gnawing on a few sets from time to time. Blanchett is measured in her excess and it makes for a particularly delicious villain.

The most of the rest of the cast turns in energetic and entertaining performances. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is finally given a chance to do more than just be a hissing, snotty bad guy. Idris Elba’s Heimdall is allowed to be a proper hero. Tessa Thompson is an entertaining and worthy addition to the under-staffed stable of Marvel female heroes. If I have to take points off for any performance it is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Ruffalo’s Banner acts like a meth addict that needs a hit. While we only see the human version of the Hulk for a relatively brief amount of time, Banner is twitchy and frankly annoying. He complains about being freaked out and whines to Thor about being on an alien planet. It’s the one performance that feels like it was a decision made on set at the time of shooting and it was the wrong choice.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material, action and intense sci-fi violence. The only thing suggestive I remember is a reference to an orgy on board one of the Grandmaster’s spaceships. There are numerous fights with scenes of soldiers and others stabbed and impaled by swords. There is very little blood. One character loses an eye. A giant wolf attacks and bites Hulk causing green blood to come out. Foul language is scattered and mild.

With films of this type the majority of the time everyone on screen is CGI. If you see a character thrown 100 feet through the air and crash into and through a brick wall you can be certain no actors or stunt people were harmed in the making of that scene. Much of “Thor: Ragnarok” has been created in the processors of computers. That makes the achievement of the film that much more impressive. Despite all the special effects, costumes, makeup and other worldly locales, “Thor: Ragnarok” still manages to be a superhero movie with a great deal of heart and humor that is dependent on the performances of very real and talented actors. Director Taika Waititi has pulled off a minor miracle and made a funny and entertaining film involving Thor. I wasn’t sure that could be done.

“Thor: Ragnarok” gets five stars.

This week there are a comedy sequel and a train of death coming to a movie screen near you. I’ll be seeing at least one of the following:

Daddy’s Home 2—

Murder on the Orient Express—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast for the latest movie news and more, follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.