Review of “Den of Thieves”

Los Angeles is the capital of bank robberies. On this day, it isn’t a bank but an armored car that is the target. A team of robbers led by Ray Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) hits the truck with a precise strike meant to get the group in and out in a short period of time. Unfortunately one of the security guards goes for his gun leading to a shootout that kills all the guards, several cops and one of the robbers; however, the crew gets away with the truck that had no money on board. Investigating the crime is LA Sheriff’s department detective Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and his team from the major crimes squad. His work leads to Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr) as possibly having a connection to the robbers so Nick knocks him out and brings him to a house filled with his squad and some very attractive and scantily-clad women. Sending the women out, Nick questions Donnie, letting him know if they don’t like the answers he will be killed and dumped in the middle of nowhere. Donnie says Merrimen doesn’t tell him much and only uses him as a getaway driver. Nick tells Donnie to keep in touch and tell him what Merrimen is planning next. The cop and the bank robber begin a cat-and-mouse game with millions of dollars at stake and possibly their lives.

“Den of Thieves” is a gritty crime thriller that takes itself very seriously. It is packed with a cast of Alpha Males that strut, grunt and menace their way through a 140 minute movie, jumping from gunfights, robberies and domestic drama with little to no thought about how it will affect the flow of the story. It also has a complicated heist that acts as an anchor to keep everyone involved in roughly the same place even though the cops know the robbers are up to something and robbers know the cops know they’re up to something and it all becomes an intricate ballet that runs on booze and cigarettes. It is also maddeningly stupid.

I love a good crime drama. They work best when they are kept down to earth and focus on the broken characters on both sides of the law with the crime itself being something of an afterthought. “Den of Thieves” tries real hard to break the characters in a way that justifies their actions but only adds to the silliness of the whole film. The most interesting part of the film is the planning and carrying out of the robbery of the Los Angeles Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. It is a massively guarded facility with seemingly impenetrable security and with safeguards in place to keep you from spending any money you might actually get away with. It is a plan that, naturally, requires careful preparation and split-second timing. It is also incredibly dumb and unmanageable in about 100 different ways. Still, it is the best part of the film.

The worst part is Gerard Butler. I felt sorry for him and his portrayal of Nick Flanagan as a hard-drinking, hard-living detective that is so buried in his work he rarely sees his wife and two kids. His acting in this is best described as frantic. He’s constantly angry, agitated and aggravated and all apparently at the same time. He has a couple of scenes where he acts like a human being with emotions and stuff but those are few and far between. Most of the time he’s either sucking on a cigarette and chugging down a beer or beating up a suspect to get him to talk. It’s the kind of performance that is supposed to make the audience feel the character is running on a razor’s edge and could crack at any moment. It actually makes us laugh at the idea anyone would put this lunatic in charge of a law enforcement team. Butler’s performance is so exaggerated and over the top you’ll be rooting for the bank robbers.

Pablo Schreiber is actually very good as Merrimen, the leader of the bank robbers. Perhaps his more controlled performance looks great when compared to Butler’s whirling dervish but I found Schreiber to be a fascinating bad guy and a character that had some real potential. I also enjoyed the performance of O’Shea Jackson as Donnie. He’s caught between two worlds and knows either side will kill him if he slips up. He’s over his head and looks like he’s hoping to just survive long enough to escape his situation. Jackson plays the underdog role for all its worth and you can’t help but hope his character somehow survives and makes a better life for himself.

The story takes a huge twist at the very end with an explanation about how everyone involved has been played for a fool. I appreciated the effort to turn a film that is something of a mess into a surprising mindbender. Sadly, even the twist is something that isn’t handled that well and still requires such a suspension of disbelief that everything has to play out even more perfectly than you initially thought. While it does offer something of a better ending it still doesn’t make up for all the shenanigans that have gone on before.

“Den of Thieves” is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity. There are some bloody shootings and beatings. There is a scene in a stripper bar and we briefly see some topless women along with bare backsides. Foul language is common throughout.

While it isn’t quite bad enough to be a guilty pleasure, there are a few things in “Den of Thieves” that are enjoyable. While implausible, the heist is pretty fun especially as it is being pulled off. The performances of Pablo Schreiber and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. are highlights. And if you want to see a clinic on what not to do during a leading acting role then watch Gerard Butler. Otherwise this film is utterly forgettable.

“Den of Thieves” gets two stars out of five.

This week the only new movie in wide release is Maze Runner: The Death Cure.

I will be on a trip this week so there will be no review.

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

Review of “I, Tonya”

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has been figure skating since she was three years old. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is a cold-hearted woman that is emotionally and, at times, physically abusive over Tonya’s childhood. Following her parent’s divorce, LaVona pulls Tonya out of school so she can train full time with her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). When Tonya is 15 she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). What starts out as a sweet romance turns into a rocky and sometimes violent marriage. Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) is a self-proclaimed bodyguard and counter terrorism specialist. As the 1994 Winter Olympics approach, Jeff concocts a plan to frighten Tonya’s main competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) by sending threatening letters with the hopes that it improves Tonya’s chances of winning the national championship and being named to the Olympic team. Shawn contacts a couple of guys, one of them being Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), to travel to Massachusetts and mail the letters; but something goes wrong and Shawn begins improvising leading to one of the biggest scandals of the 1990’s: The clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.

“I, Tonya” takes a look back at a 20-plus year old controversy with a mildly jaundiced eye but manages to freshen up the subject with snappy writing, great performances and a dash of social commentary. It also makes Tonya Harding sympathetic while not letting her off the hook. It’s a masterful balancing act that is funny while being honest about what a bunch of idiots everyone is.

While all the performances are great in “I, Tonya” there are two that really stand out: Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser. Despite playing an evil and heartless woman, it is impossible to not be entertained by Janney’s performance. Janney makes LaVona mesmerizing the way a good villain should be. LaVona doesn’t care what you think about her or what you think in general. She’s the boss no matter what situation she happens to be in. Try to correct her and you will face the wrath of a very cranky god. How much of LaVona’s actions (or any characters’ actions) in the movie are factual is open to debate. What can’t be debated is Tonya Harding had an unconventional and abusive childhood that led to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and that all starts with LaVona. Janney maintains the cold detachment of someone operating on autopilot. She has a set series of tasks and she goes through them clinically and without emotion. While she does flare up into anger on occasion, LaVona is usually in absolutely control. Janney makes that control terrifying and soul-sucking. She deserves all the awards that are headed her way with this performance.

Paul Walter Hauser is amazing as Shawn Eckhardt. Dimwitted would be an understatement when it comes to Eckhardt. He has read enough to know how to throw around a few words and phrases about security and counterterrorism but has no real experience and frequently lies about his travels to other countries and jobs in the field. Hauser plays Eckhardt like he’s just woken up from a nap. He seems to be in a daze and only perks up when the conversation involves something he’s interested in. Eckhardt is an annoying character that everyone involved would be better off without. Looking back I’m sure the real Tonya and Jeff Gillooly wish they had never met him. Hauser has terrific comic timing and turns a repulsive character into one that lights up the screen with just how dim he is.

The story of “I, Tonya” isn’t just about the life of Tonya Harding and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan: It also looks at the social disparity in figure skating. While it isn’t so much the case now, Olympic-level figure skaters are looked at like ballerinas. They are the artistic swans compared to the rest of the sports world’s ugly ducklings. There is a certain expectation about how competitors should look and behave and Tonya Harding didn’t fit into their preconceived notions. In a scene that I’m sure never happened in reality, Tonya approaches a judge after a competition and asks why she is scored lower than other skaters. He tells her it has more to do with her lifestyle than her performance on the ice. The judge is telling her if she doesn’t have a happy family and access to a six-figure income she should just move on and let the rich kids have the ice. It is a sad scene on a couple of levels as Tonya has her suspicions confirmed while also feeling like she has to try and create the façade of a happy and traditional family. She reunites with Gillooly and approaches her mother in an effort to repair a relationship that was broken from birth. Naturally it ends in failure. That is the true heartbreak for Tonya and all the characters in the film: They simply aren’t good enough. It is a revelation that is obvious from the start with some characters but only becomes apparent later on for others.

“I, Tonya” is rated R for violence, some sexual content/nudity and pervasive language. We witness the domestic violence that occurs between Tonya and Jeff as well as Tonya’s mother beating her as a child. There are a couple of scenes at a strip club with one dancer visible in the background. Tonya and Jeff are briefly shown having sex once. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

The fourth wall is broken in “I, Tonya” as the characters speak directly to the audience throughout the film. These occur as both recreated interviews and also when the characters talk to the audience during scenes. It’s a refreshing way to involve the audience in the story in a more direct way but it doesn’t always work. In “I, Tonya” it does. The movie also provides some updates on what the characters are doing now. In Tonya’s update it says she is married, has a young child and notes that she insists the update include that she’s a good mother. She certainly learned what not to do so I hope she is. The life of Tonya Harding shouldn’t be interesting fodder for a movie and without the attack on Nancy Kerrigan it probably wouldn’t be. With an amazing script from Steven Rogers and spot-on performances from the cast, “I, Tonya” is a fascinating look back at a tabloid story from before the age of Facebook and Twitter that still managed to mesmerize the public for months. It will also keep you entertained for another two hours in a theatre.

“I, Tonya” gets five stars.

There are several new movies this week. I’ll be review “12 Strong” for WIMZ.

I’ll review one of the following for this webpage:

Den of Thieves—

Forever My Girl—

Hostiles—

Phantom Thread—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Listen to The Fractured Frame wherever you listen to podcasts. Send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Insidious: The Last Key”

Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) is having nightmares about her childhood. Her father Gerald Rainier (Josh Stewart) punished her severely whenever she talked about seeing ghosts. Her mother Audrey (Tessa Ferrer) was killed when a spirit wrapped an electric wire around her neck and hung her. Elise gets a call from Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo) who lives in a haunted house and wants her to come investigate. When she hears the address she recognizes it as her childhood home. Initially reluctant to take the job, Elise decides she needs to face her demons. Elise and her two tech assistants Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell) hit the road for Five Keys, New Mexico for an investigation that will take her into The Further once again. It is also a reunion of sorts for Elise and her brother Christian (Bruce Davison) whom she hasn’t seen since she ran away from her father’s abuse when she was 16. Elise also meets for the first time her nieces Imogen and Melissa (Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke).

Actress Lin Shaye became a big star in the horror genre with her performance in “Insidious.” (Spoiler alert) I think the filmmakers realized killing off her character in the first film was a huge mistake as she’s been the focus, in one way or another, for all four movies. With “Insidious: The Last Key” Shaye delivers another great performance as the medium with a soft spot for spirits in need; but maybe it’s time to let The Further stay far away and bring this series to an end.

Shaye is the main reason to see “Insidious: The Last Key.” Her performance is warm and sweet with just the right amount of anger when needed. She is motherly but not in a creepy or overbearing way. Elise does her best to keep Tucker and Specs in line and on mission as they are easily distracted by technological gadgets or a pretty face. Perhaps it’s her age that makes Shaye so appealing as the feisty paranormal investigator. Seeing a grandmotherly type willingly walk into the afterlife to battle spirits and demons instantly makes the audience want to root for her to succeed. Shaye is also a very good actress that has nearly 200 credits on IMDB with about 10 of them listed in pre-production, filming and in post-production. She’s now an in-demand actress thanks largely to her performance in the “Insidious” series.

The main problem with “Insidious: The Last Key” is we’ve seen all this before. While the main demon looks different than the others from the past three movies, the story points are all very similar to the other films. There also isn’t much in the way of dramatic tension as we know Elise will still be around at the end of the film as this all takes place prior to the original “Insidious.” While a few curveballs are thrown our way with the introduction of some evil characters that are very much alive and the two nieces unwittingly drawn into the weirdness, these are quickly dispatched or cleanly managed by the end of the movie.

“Insidious: The Last Key” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language. There are scenes of beatings, some abusive, some deadly. One character is shown hung by the neck from an electrical cord. One character is thrown violently into a wall then a demon inserts skeleton keys into the character’s flesh. We are shown skulls that are supposed to be of murder victims. We see a demon impaled in the face on a sharp stick. There are numerous scares especially early in the film. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild with the exception of on F-bomb.

“Insidious: The Last Key” is the fourth chapter in the franchise and takes us chronologically back to the beginning of not only Elise’s story but of the movie series. While the first film offered fresh and truly terrifying visuals and characters, the shock value has worn off and now we are just seeing more of the same. While there are a few jump scares that are certainly effective, the focus now seems to be on the story and it simply isn’t that interesting to justify more films. Perhaps it’s best if The Further was just left behind.

“Insidious: The Last Key” gets three stars out of five.

Four new films hit your local multiplex this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Commuter—

Paddington 2—

The Post—

Proud Mary—

Listen to, subscribe, rate and review The Fractured Frame available wherever you download podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Reviews of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “The Shape of Water”

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Four high school students are sentenced to detention for various infractions. Their punishment includes cleaning out an old storage room. There they find an old video game system with one cartridge of a game called Jumanji. The four plug in the game and select their characters. When they push start the game begins to glow and the students are sucked inside. When they arrive they find themselves in the bodies of their avatars: Dr. Xander Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen). Each has a unique set of skills, strengths and weaknesses and each has three lives. A non-playable character named Nigel (Rhys Darby) tells the players about how the land of Jumanji is under a terrible curse after an explorer named Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) stole the Jaguar’s Eye from a statue giving him control of all the animals in the land. The players must put the Eye back where it belongs in order to win the game and exit. They must also do so without losing all three of their lives otherwise they will really die.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a perfectly decent action/fantasy/comedy. Its appealing cast delivers high-octane performances in a video game scenario with plenty of stunts and special effects to keep the story, if you want to call it that, moving. The two hour run time of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” goes by quickly and the film has little in the way of slow spots. So why don’t I care more about the characters or the outcome of the film? Maybe because I know there’s going to be a happy ending with no surprises (there is and there aren’t). Perhaps it has something to do with cynically slapping “Jumanji” on a movie that has very little to do with the original film. Whatever the reason, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a perfectly fine diversion from life but it doesn’t really have a reason to exist.

I suppose it could be argued the movie does encourage the viewer to accept one’s self, including your strengths and your flaws, and live life without fear and regret. It’s a simplistic message but one that younger viewers should hear; but it seems unlikely they will pick up on this message when the movie is much more focused on the wish fulfillment of its primary character going from weak nerd to super buff hero. He does still have the fears and lack of confidence of his real world counterpart but that falls to the wayside as he gains more experience in the game.

All the avatars retain their real world personalities; but the big and strong high school football star and the pretty and popular girl both become weaker and less attractive characters while the nerd and the social outcast gain strengths and abilities they lack. The weak become the strong and the leaders become followers. The transition is difficult for them all but through living life on the other side of the physical and emotional equation all the characters learn how to accept others for what they are. With a bit more focus on the characters and their journey the film might have had a bit more impact. With the spotlight on the action and the humor the movie packs less of a punch.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is rated PG-13 for some language, adventure action and suggestive content. Various faceless minions are killed in numerous ways including exploding boomerangs, beaten to death and being kicked off motorcycles. The main characters die from being eaten by a hippopotamus, run over by a herd of rhinoceroses, pushed off a cliff, bitten by a snake, eating a piece of cake, shot in the chest and attacked by a jaguar. One character is killed when a scorpion crawls out of the mouth of the bad guy and stings him. The suggestive content is limited to a brief reference to touching a woman’s breast and an attempt to distract some guards with sexy dancing. Foul language is limited and mid.

I didn’t hate “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” despite what it might sound like. The movie has some funny moments and a cast that puts their all into their roles. Younger viewers will probably like it just as the young kids behind me seemed to. They were verbally reacting to the events on screen and one youngster was kicking the back of my seat during the more stressful moments (not so much that I had to ask him to stop, but occasionally). The film clearly has an audience and it is well made. It suffers in my eyes for being so utterly vapid.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” gets four unenthusiastic stars.

The Shape of Water

It’s 1962 and the Cold War is at its peak. Eliza and Zelda (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer) work in a government research facility as part of the maintenance crew. Eliza is mute. She has scars on both sides of her neck and was found as a child on the banks of a river and raised in an orphanage. Eliza speaks via sign language and Zelda is her interpreter at work. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) also speaks sign language. He is a graphic artist and works from home. A new project begins at the lab lead by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) involving an amphibian creature referred to as the Asset (Doug Jones). Strickland considers the Asset to be an abomination and treats it cruelly. Eliza sneaks into the lab when no one else is around and visits with the creature, feeding him hard boiled eggs and playing him music. Eliza even teaches the Asset a few words of sign language. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the lead scientist on the project but he is also a Russian agent. Strickland and the government want to see if they can figure out the Asset’s anatomy by dissecting it and somehow apply that to helping astronauts breathe. Hoffstetler’s Soviet handlers instruct him to kill the creature and dispose of it to prevent the Americans from getting an upper hand in the space race. Eliza knows of the Asset’s impending death at the hands of the Americans and hatches a plan to break him out of the facility with the help of Giles.

“The Shape of Water” is filled with little moments. Some are important to the story while others are like spackle: They fill in the holes and provide a full and complete canvas for director and co-writer (with Vanessa Taylor) Guillermo del Toro to create a beautiful piece of art. That is what “The Shape of Water” is: A moving portrait of moments that tell a compelling story with a unique visual style.

The little moments that build “The Shape of Water” are both beautiful and ugly: Moments of poetry and pornography. Visions of music, dance and love along with racism, sexism and homophobia, all combining to create a stew of sweet and sour that becomes a satisfying meal of beauty and emotion. It is amazing that a movie about a mythical creature living in the rivers of South America and dragged into the dingy world of the Cold War United States can evoke such powerful emotions and be presented so beautifully. It is an amazing piece of filmmaking by a director hitting his prime right before our eyes.

The performances in “The Shape of Water” are equally beautiful. Sally Hawkins is mesmerizing as Eliza. She is able to convey more with a look than most actors can with pages of monologue. Some might consider playing a mute to be confining but Hawkins is able to express more emotion and thought with an expression than you might think possible. Her use of sign language is subtle and beautiful until she becomes emotional; then her movements become emphatic and almost violent. Hawkins expresses her feelings and thoughts through movement in a kind of ballet that holds the eye and demands the viewer pay attention. It is an amazing performance.

Equally amazing is the work of Doug Jones as the Asset. Encased in a full-body latex suit and head gear, the only way Jones can perform is with his body and movements. He, like Hawkins, is able to express a great deal with just a slight nod or the way he breathes. Jones has been the go-to creature guy for del Toro in several of his films including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and both “Hellboy” movies. Seeing his performance in “The Shape of Water” makes clear why Jones is so popular with del Toro and other directors looking for the perfect actor to bury under tons of makeup and prosthetics. According to his Wikipedia page, Jones has studied mime and is a contortionist with both of those skill sets coming in handy in his creature career. It’s a tribute to just how good Jones’ performance is that at a certain point you no longer consider the Asset a creature. Jones is able to show you he is more of a child lost in a world he cannot understand. That is the mark of a great performance.

There are so many wonderful actors doing amazing work in “The Shape of Water” it is difficult to give them all their due credit. Michael Shannon is a scary but sympathetic villain. Richard Jenkins will break your heart with the more we learn about him and how he is just looking for love and a place to fit in. Octavia Spencer is the best friend struggling with a difficult marriage and having to deal with the prejudice of 1960’s America. Michael Stuhlbarg is the enemy but is more of a hero than anyone working for the government. There are more great performances in this movie than you usually find in three films.

“The Shape of Water” is rated R for language, graphic nudity, sexual content and violence. We see Eliza nude on a couple of occasions. We also see her masturbating a couple of times. A character has two fingers bitten off by the Asset and there is a great deal of blood. We also see a couple of characters shot, one is shot in the face and another in the head. We see one of those shot characters tortured for information. Foul language is fairly common but not overwhelming.

I couldn’t stop thinking of “The Shape of Water” for hours after I saw it. A song used in the film, “You’ll Never Know,” would play in my head and I would be close to tears as memories of what I’d just seen would flash in my mind. I can think of no movie that has affected me so profoundly in my entire life. It may sound silly but I thing “The Shape of Water” has made me a better person. See it and allow the film to make a change in you as well.

“The Shape of Water” gets five stars.

It’s the end of the year and the release schedule is a bit thin so I’ll be seeing and reviewing at least one of the following films that are in limited release:

Darkest Hour—

Molly’s Game—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast for the latest movie and streaming news. Our next episode will be available on January 8, 2018. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

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.