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Tribeca 2018: What’s Up? Docs!

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I never thought I’d become one of those people who say they prefer documentaries to scripted movies (they’re close cousins to those obnoxious twits who claim they only watch PBS), but most of the best films I’ve seen so far in 2017 have been non-fiction. That includes a pair of HBO specials — Judd Apatow’s profoundly moving tribute to his comedic mentor, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, and Thom Zimny and Alan Light’s eye-opening Elvis Presley: The Searcher — as well as Alison Chernick’s lovely Itzhak, a note-perfect profile of the great violinist and mensch Itzhak Perlman.

I’ve been attending the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and most of the docs I’ve seen have been better than the fictional features so far. And it’s no coincidence all of these documentaries deal with pop culture, since that’s my lifelong obsession.

The opening-night film, Love, Gilda, paints a heartfelt portrait of the late Saturday Night Live great Gilda Radner. Executive-produced by her close friends Alan and Robin Zweibel, who also appear on camera (including at their wedding, where Gilda sang), director Lisa D’Apolito’s film effectively uses the legend’s own words to tell her story as much as possible. Her life was often more tragic than comic — she struggled with bulimia and succumbed to ovarian cancer at 42 in 1989 — but Love, Gilda radiates with hope and joy, just as she did all the way through her final TV appearance, on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which was also Alan Zweibel’s show), where she joked about her illness and got the last laugh.

Eerily, Garry Shandling also appears in Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, during a scene from the ’80s-set cult favorite in which ubergeek Haverchuck (Martin Starr) watches the comic’s stand-up act on The Dinah Shore Show and nearly chokes on his grilled cheese with laughter.

That was an autobiographical moment for exec producer Judd Apatow, who joins creator Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and cast members including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini to reminisce warmly about the high-school dramedy that launched their careers. Produced by my journalistic alma mater Entertainment Weekly for A&E’s upcoming Culture Shock anthology, director Brent Hodge’s ebullient 75-minute film chronicles F&G‘s too-brief life and amazing afterlife.

Sadly, that description also applies to Howard Ashman, the lyricist of The Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid. He died of complications due to AIDS at 40 in 1991, the same year he posthumously won an Oscar for Beauty and the Beast. Now that film’s producer, Don Hahn, has brought Ashman lovingly back to life with Howard.

The film features affecting new interviews with his loved ones, including his professional partner, Alan Menken, as well as his life partner, Bill Lauch, laid over archival footage. The most remarkable sequence shows Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording “Be Our Guest” in a studio with a full orchestra.

Another tragic casualty of the AIDS crisis gets the biopic treatment with Mapplethorpe, starring former Doctor Who and current The Crown king Matt Smith as the controversial titular photographer. Smith delivers an impressive performance, but the script’s episodic structure never really allows viewers to get too far under Robert Mapplethorpe’s skin. What drove him to create images that still have the power to create shock and awe three decades after his death at 42 in 1989? (Spookily, that’s the same year Gilda Radner died at the same age.) We’re left with more questions than answers, but like his character’s photos, Smith’s work continues to haunt me.

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The same can’t be said for The Party’s Just Beginning, the directorial debut of another ex-Doctor Who star, Karen Gillan. Set in her native Inverness, Scotland and inspired by the city’s startlingly high suicide rate, the downbeat drama casts Gillan as a supermarket deli-counter employee who engages in risky sexual behavior, gorges on fish and chips, and drinks and drugs to excess, all set to a headache-inducing EDM soundtrack. Call it Light Railspotting.

Gillan’s good — and it’s nice to hear the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle star’s brogue for a change — but the movie has no real narrative thread, just a string of subplots about her character’s alcoholic mother, would-be-transgender best friend, anonymous sex partners, etc. In short, this Party never really gets started.

Last (night} but far from least, I caught the world premiere of director Sophie Huber’s jazz doc Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, and it’s as propulsive and impressionistic as the seminal label’s music and album covers.

Rather than taking a traditional approach to telling the company’s story, Huber utilizes an aptly improvisational style. She follows tangents and weaves plotlines together to convey the sense of freedom created by Blue Note’s founders, Holocaust refugees Alfred Lion and Frances Wolff. That spirit continues to this day under the supervision of Don Was, who oversees a recording session with young lions like Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott alongside living legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an exhilarating ride — and more dramatic than any scripted flick I’ve seen since Black Panther. And that’s no fiction.

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The Fretts on Film Interview: Bruce Willis Uncut!

Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis? Not much as it turns out. Maybe Bruce Willis wasn’t having a good day when I interviewed him about A Good Day to Die Hard for today’s New York Daily News. Or maybe he’s just a Hard case. You can judge for yourself by reading this unedited transcript of our tense 20-minute talk.

Why did the time feel right to come back to Die Hard now?

Oh, it didn’t feel right at all. It was just someone came up with the idea of the script and it took two years to get it together, and so it only seems right now to people that didn’t hear that backstory—it took two years to get this done.

Do you think this is the last one? It seems like in a way you’re kind of passing on the torch to your son in the movie.

No, Bruce. I don’t think that at all [laughing]. I’m not a predictor and I never wanted to be. I don’t know, I’m sure there are going to be more. If they make money off this film, they are going to try to keep it going as long as they can.

Do you see it as a franchise where someone else could play the character at some point or do you think it’s so closely identified with you that you’re the one and only?

I understand the question, but probably until I’m too old to run or too old to move or I’m dead, I’ll still keep doing these pictures.

What do you think sets this one apart? Do you think it’s primarily the Moscow location?

I’m not sure anything sets it apart, Bruce. I think there is a certain amount of goodwill that gets extended to this film based on the fact that there is—people love, ‘Oh god, look it’s back, and it’s so wonderful that it’s back’ or something that has to do with something you’re familiar with. You don’t have to try to figure out Die Hard. You just want to go and see it and hope that we’ve done a good job.

Why did you shoot it in Budapest? Is it because the portrayal of Russia isn’t necessarily the most flattering? Or was it the most economically…

It was a studio financial decision, and how much it would have cost in Europe to get locations.

Do you see the film as 80’s nostalgia in anyway, in the sense that the Russians are the bad guys again?

No. not at all. It’s good though. Are you writing these questions yourself, Bruce?

Yes, I wrote the questions myself. Why?

No, no nostalgia of the 80’s. It’s a modern-day thing that has to do with—you saw the film, right?

Yes.

Yeah, you saw it. It’s a modern-day thing about a father who goes to see if his son is in jail or not. Very little to do about Russia or where it is. It just happens to be where my son is.

You did start the series in the 80’s—25 years ago. Did you think you would still be playing John McClane at this point?

[Laughing]. Bruce, what were you doing 25 years ago?

I was in college, actually.

Did you think you’d be having this conversation today?

I did not.

Right. No one predicts the future. No one tries to. No one ever thinks about what the hell is going to happen 25 years from now. I understand the question, but I don’t have an answer for you.

Do you find yourself identifying with the character any more over time?

Only in the same ways I always have. Similar sensibilities. Similar mentality. He kind of thinks that he knows everything, but he really doesn’t know everything. Fish out of water, you know, he has no idea what life is like or should be like in Moscow, and he’s just not like the first film, he’s in LA. I don’t think anybody ever understands Los Angeles, really.

You’ve had ups and downs in your career—and you’ve always managed to come back. Do you identify with the character on that level in any way?

I’m glad you brought that up. I never think about the downs.

No?

Well, only when I get asked during these interviews. Did you have any tough times in your career?

What’s that?

I’m asking you the same question—do you ever think about the ups and down in your career?

Sure, I have.

Do you really?

Yeah!

Willis: When was the last time you thought about it?

[Laughing]. I think about it all the time.

Come on, let’s be honest.

I think about it all the time.

You’re not being interviewed—I’m just asking.

No, I’m telling the truth.

When was the last time you had like a big down?

It’s been about 10 years.

10 years? It’s probably fading in your memory now.

Do you find these movies any easier or harder to do now than in the past?

I still get a big kick out of it. I don’t really have to do any of the hard work. Just trying to be funny, try to keep it lifelike. Stunts and all the big hard things are done by very special group called the special effects department.

The rest of the cast in this movie is not very well known. Does that put more pressure on you that you don’t have a big costar along with you?

I don’t think so. I don’t ever really think about what pressure is on me, whether it’s a lot of pressure, whether it’s a little pressure. It’s a really good cast and they all do a great job in the film.

Do you look at these movies as enabling you in some ways to do other types of films like Looper or Moonrise Kingdom? Or do you not look at your career in that way?

What do you think?

I think it probably does. I think it probably makes you more viable to do a big action movie like this. But I’m curious if that’s the way you think about approaching your career.

Well, I think that show-business is still a very big business—based upon business, based upon commerce and very little is based upon performance. You’re the entertainment guy over at your newspaper, right?

I write about film.

You write about films, so you get it.

421285922You’ve done a couple of ensemble action films lately—The Expendables and the Red movies. Do you think there’s anything to be said about strength in numbers in that type of approach? We’ve seen Arnold and Sylvester Stalone put out movies solo that haven’t done as well. Does that concern you?

No, not a concern. Not a concern.

Do you feel like the Die Hard franchise is strong enough to carry itself?

The Die Hard franchise is just one of the big, bright shining stars of my work. I get to work in all kinds of films. I work for free, I work for a lot of money, and I get to do whatever I want. I don’t worry about much these days.

That’s good. Do you have any feelings about putting out the film now when there’s all this discussion about violence in media and guns?

I just find it amazing that you would even ask that . What are your thoughts on it? Your personal thoughts—that’s what I’m asking you

I tend to think that people place to0 much emphasis on violence in the media. I think that people understand the difference between reality and the movies, but there is a lot of discussion about it so I’m just curious what your opinion is.

There is the world of discussion and there is the world of reality. I’ve been asked the last few days the same thing, and I just find it to be a banal question to ask, when you already know the answer to—that you’re pretty clear on the answer to this question.

I’m clear on my opinion. I’m curious about yours though. People have different opinions.

Mine’s pretty much the same as yours. I’ve been asked for a long time. But if you think anyone goes out and commits crimes because of some daffy film that they’ve seen, then I question your judgment. So you already knew the answer—it’s just something to say right?

No, I didn’t know what your answer would be. I wanted to know what you thought.

I want you to get back to me, Bruce, 6 months from now, and I want you to ask someone every day. Ask every day. Just do that test. And just see is there anyone that really thinks crime happens because of something they saw in a film. You already know the answer, right? You know that answer, you know the answer! It’s just something to say. These are the problems that I have with interviews. If you want to ask me interesting questions with something to actually ask with some reality in the world—but that was just something to ask.

Well, it’s something that people are talking about so I felt like it was relevant, but I can move onto other things. The last film was a PG-13 film. This film is back to the R rating. Is there a reason why?

I’m not sure. I haven’t been told what the reason why is.

Do you feel that these movies should be rated R?

Oh, I don’t know. Again, I’m the wrong person to ask. It’s just business. If you let more people in because it’s R rated, you’re going to make more money. I don’t make more money, but the studio does so that’s a consideration. It’s just a business.

Do you have any thoughts about it being released on Valentines Day? I know that’s a marketing decision, too.

It’s a marketing decision outside of my realm of knowledge. I think it’s because there are 5 or 6 days off that the kids don’t go to school so they get more people in the theaters at that time that they would some other time. It’s horrible to talk about these despicable aspects of money, but that’s really what the conversation is, isn’t it?

die-hard-best-christmas-movieI saw a quote from you—I don’t know if it’s accurate or not. But it’s that a lot of movies are trying to be as good as the first Die Hard movie, and you didn’t know if anything would ever be as good. Do you feel like that’s the case with this film?

It’s a good goal to reach for and to try to be as good as the first film. It’s difficult to make anything as good as the first time you see something, in any film—the first Harry Potter, the first anything—and then to go on and make sequels.

They’re doing a marathon of all the Die Hards in some theaters leading up to the premiere of the new one. Is that something that you would ever do yourself?

No. But I think it’s a very nice thing to give to the audience because you don’t always get to see the first film or the second film or the third film in a theater—you see it on TV or a little screen.

When you look back on your career, are there certain films that you consider pivotal to your development as an actor?

I don’t know. I think that all the work that I’ve done has affected me one way or another or helped me. Even then worst film I ever did has helped me get better as an actor and as a chooser of the films that I choose to make.

I read another quote from you when you said that you always thought that the best work you would do would be between the ages of 40 and 60. Do you think that’s true?

I haven’t thought about that. I said that a long time ago. I think I was just trying to evade another question at the time that I said that. I don’t know. I don’t know if any of it is really good. The audience is really the ultimate answer to that. do they go? Do they like it? Do they like thing? I know what I like about my work, and it doesn’t always line up with what the audience likes.

Do you feel like your at that stage of your life where you’re reflecting or do you not tend to look back?

No, I just think about little moments that I like in films that satisfy me that are not necessarily always commented on—little wins for myself.

Are there a few things you can isolate? A few moments you would like to see in a clip reel of your career?

I can’t think of one. I just know that there are things that I like that satisfy me that aren’t really about what the film is about.

I want to ask you about fatherhood. I heard it was your idea to do a father/son story. Is that true?

Well, yeah. It was mine and my brother David’s idea, and it’s a pretty kind of knee-jerk reaction. It was all based on that photo that was behind the desk in the very first film. There are two little kids in there and somewhere along the line, one of us said, yeah, we should get that girl in the film. And we should get my little son in the film. And that guy turned out to be Jai Courtney. So it’s just a way to extend the genre.

Bruce+Willis+wife+Emma+Heming+take+stroll+X_sgVofiunplYour older daughters are all grown now, and now you’re starting with a new baby girl. How does that feel?

It feels great. That’s all I want to do is hang around these girls.

Do you have any feelings about not having had a son?

No, I never think about it. I would have 5 more girls tomorrow.

What was the best advice your parents ever gave you?

Don’t drink and drive. I don’t know. My parents gave me very little advice. I just made that one up—it’s probably good advice. Tell your audience to not drink and drive. Bruce, you have a great amount of patience, and who likes talking to actors anyway?

I enjoy it. I do!

I know.

I appreciate your taking the time to do this.

Thank you. Some day we’ll have a real interview and a real conversation that isn’t about these bullet points of cinema.

Well, I’ve only got 20 minutes. I’m just trying to hit as many…

You did great, you did great.

Are we out of time or can I ask you another question?

Go ahead. Give me your best question. What do you got?

Well I just wanted to talk to you about the other films you have coming up—G.I. Joe, the Red sequel, Sin City. These are all sequels—is that a coincidence?

I just have some things that pop up from time to time somewhere, and will be done in the late part of 2012. But I have high hopes for Sin City and I’m trying to get a film going—what’s the name? The little boy whose elbow exploded. Have you heard about this picture?

No, I haven’t heard about that one.

Yeah, I’m having a hard time getting it off the ground.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the story?

No, I can’t. it’s shrouded in secrecy right now.

Well, good luck. I hope you get it made.

The next conversation, we’ll be talking about that one. You’re very patient. You’re very patient.

What do you think? Was it me, or was it him? Post a comment!

Phantom Thread to The Post: 2017’s Best Movies

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Ok, I’ve given out my Frettsies for the year’s best performances and picked 2017’s 10 Worst Movies, so you know what that means. It’s time for my Top 10 list! Click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

10. Dean I’d say writer-director-star Demetri Martin’s sardonic comedy was the year’s most overlooked movie, if not for the next two films on the list. It’s a sweet, smart love story between a father (Kevin Kline, note perfect) and his son (Martin) made with the singular tone and style of a born storyteller.

9. Mr. Roosevelt I’d say writer-director-star Nöel Wells’ sardonic comedy was the year’s most overlooked movie, if not for the next film on the list. It’s a sweet, smart love story between a comedian (Wells) and her titular dead cat, made with the singular tone and style of a born storyteller.

8. Patti Cake$ I’d say writer-director Geremy Jasper’s sardonic comedy is the year’s most overlooked movie… because it is. I don’t know why it didn’t bring in more $, but I didn’t  have a more viscerally exciting experience this year than watching and listening to Danielle McDonald’s Durty Jurzy rapper take lyrical flight.

OK, now on to the movies that have gotten the respect they deserved…

7. I, Tonya Margot Robbie and Allison Janney delivered the year’s most potent one-two punch as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding and her disgraceful yet somehow lovable mother. I, Bruce, found this movie gut-bustingly funny and strangely moving.

6. Get Out Jordan Peele’s social satire-slash-thriller is so scary-funny, it’s funny-scary. Also, I’ll never look at someone stirring their tea with a spoon the same way again.

5. The Post The only flaw in Steven Spielberg’s de facto prequel to All the President’s Men is its title. It was briefly called The Papers, which worked on at least two levels — as a reference to The Pentagon Papers, but also to The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which played key roles in breaking the story. (And I’m not just saying this because I freelance for The Times.) As Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep establish a crackling, Tracy-and-Hepburn-esque chemistry, and Spielberg is in the same classic, good old-fashioned movie mode that made Bridge of Spies and Lincoln so satisfying.

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4. The Florida Project A child’s-eye perspective on poverty that makes a motel on the outskirts of Disney World look like both the happiest and the saddest place on Earth, Sean Baker’s bracingly unsentimental drama features revelatory turns from Willem Dafoe as a flawed father figure and young Brooklynn Prince in one of the most natural performances ever given by a child on screen. And it ends with an artistic flourish that is nothing less than exhilarating.

3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  Frances McDormand is a national treasure. Martin McDonagh’s deep, dark comedy gives her the role of her life as a grieving mother who pursues the truth about her daughter’s death with a destructive fury, and she’s surrounded by an equally formidable ensemble: Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Caleb Landry Jones, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Nick Searcy. What an embarrassment of acting riches.

2. Phantom Thread The breathtaking symbiosis between writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis reaches its apotheosis with this fictional film that seems profoundly autobiographical for both of them. It’s the story of a man (in this case, a 1950s British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock) who’s so single-minded in his quest for perfection that he almost can’t function. The fact that this is allegedly Day-Lewis’ final film only adds pathos to the plot, which takes several unexpected turns I will not spoil after Woodcock becomes fixated on a new muse (the remarkable Vicky Krieps). Every detail, from Lesley Manville’s dry, subtle humor as Woodcock’s co-dependent sister Cyril to Jonny Greenwood’s sweeping score, is perfect, as Phantom Thread explores the mystery of love in a completely mesmerizing fashion. Fittingly, I’m not quite sure why I love it so, but I do.

And the year’s No. 1 movie is…

The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro’s masterwork manages the seemingly impossible feat of evoking classic monster movies, musicals and romances while simultaneously creating something wholly original that could only come from his brilliant, idiosyncratic vision. It’s a fish-out-of-water story crossed with a fish story, pureed in a Bass-o-matic. Oh, and that cast — Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, the always-wonderful Richard Jenkins, the marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg, and yes, Nick Searcy  — they slip into their roles as seamlessly as Doug Jones dons his scale-tight suit. You can’t put your hands around The Shape of Water, but if you can’t feel it in your heart, you must be an amphibian.

 

Oh, mother! Oh, Baby Driver! 2017’s Worst Films

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It might not be a coincidence that two of my Top 3 most-read blog posts of 2017 were 5 Reasons Why Baby Driver Sucks and 5 Reasons Why mother! Sucks. Coming in between them was NY Asian Film Fest: Serial Killers, Porno & More! which probably reflects the popularity of the word “porno” in Google searches more than a deep interest among my readers in Asian cinema. One could theorize that “sucks” is an equally SEO-friendly word, but I’d like to think it’s because so many readers agree with me about these self-indulgent cinematic atrocities. Yet Baby and mother! were far from the only creative crimes perpetrated at our nation’s multiplexes this year. So here’s my Bottom 10 list. (Click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.)

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10. Murder on the Orient Express I’d call Kenneth Branagh’s punishingly slow we-know-whodunit the year’s most needless remake, but there’s an even worse one coming up on this list.

9. Wonder Wheel Woody Allen at his worst. And I saw Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

8. Fifty Shades Darker Anybody excited for the upcoming conclusion of the trashy trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, after enduring this flaccid sequel is a true masochist.

7. Table 19 Is it a formulaic rom-com? Or an mumblecore squirm-com? Neither — it’s more like being stuck at a really bad wedding.

6. Justice League It fell between the portentiousness of Zach Snyder and the snarkiness of Joss Whedon (who took over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy), and the profoundly mediocre result was anything but super.

5. Beauty and the Beast See needless remakes, above.

4. Baywatch And you thought Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was going to be Dwayne Johnson’s lamest pop-culture retread of 2017? Not even close.

3. mother! Can Jennifer Lawrence sue Darren Aronofsky for subjecting her to this brutally awful experience? Better yet, can I?

2. Baby Driver It wasn’t Kevin Spacey’s most egregious offense of 2017. But it was close. (I’m talking about his toupee! What did you think I meant?)

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And yes, there was a worse movie this year than mother! and Baby Driver

The Snowman! And yet my post, 5 Reasons Why the Snowman Blows, didn’t generate much traffic. Are people not interested in Michael Fassbender movies? (The evidence is mounting.) Or is “sucks” just a better headline word than “blows”?

Correction: The Snowman both sucks and blows.

The Frettsies: My 2017 Movie Awards

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Most people I know are ready for 2017 to be over, but to my mind, it was a particularly good year for movies, which made the selection of my quasi-annual Frettsies for the big screen’s best performances especially challenging. Maybe that’s why I have cited so many performers for more than one film. (Hey, they’re my awards, I can make my own rules.) Click on the highlighted links for fuller reviews of the films. Without further adieu, here are the nominees… and winners.

Best Supporting Female Actor

Hong Chau, Downsizing

Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird

Cathy Moriarty, Patti Cake$

Lois Smith, Lady Bird and Marjorie Prime

And the Frettsie goes to… Lois Smith, for her lovely turn as a sympathetic nun in Lady Bird and her shattering work as a woman losing her memory (and a reanimated version of the same character) in Marjorie Prime. At 87 — and more than 60 years after her film debut opposite James Dean in East of Eden — Ms. Smith is at the top of her game, as she proved in this SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&A I moderated with her.

Best Supporting Male Actor

Bill Camp, Hostiles, The Killing of a Sacred Deer & Molly’s Game

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water

Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World and The Man Who Invented Christmas

Nick Searcy, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Landline  (the one I was in, not the one with Edie Falco)

And the Frettsie goes to… Christopher Plummer, for masterfully playing two variations on the same theme, miserliness, as Money‘s J. Paul Getty (replacing Kevin Spacey and no doubt giving a much less hammy and prosthetics-free performance) and Christmas‘ Ebenezer Scrooge. Oh, and he’s even older than Lois Smith, at 88.

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Best Lead Female Actor

Stephanie Beatriz, Light of the Moon

Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game and The Zookeeper’s Wife

Sally Hawkins, Maudie and The Shape of Water

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

And the Frettsie goes to… Sally Hawkins, for her heartbreakingly beautiful portraits of two disabled women who communicate deep emotions, Maudie‘s arthritic artist and The Shape of Water‘s mute cleaning woman. A close second goes to Jessica Chastain, for her dazzlingly diverse roles as a poker shark in Molly’s Game and the leonine title character in the criminally underrated WWII drama The Zookeeper’s Wife.

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Best Male Lead Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

Sam Elliott, The Hero

Ethan Hawke, Maudie

Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

As tempted as I am to give the Frettsie posthumously to Harry Dean Stanton, who died at 91, shortly before his bittersweet swan song Lucky was released, it goes to… Sam Elliott, a relative youngster at 73. Still, he brought a lifetime of experience to his tailor-made role as a mustachioed, gravel-voiced movie cowboy facing a showdown with his own mortality.

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Come back soon for my lists of the year’s 10 best and worst movies!

 

Does the New Jumanji Sequel Suck?

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True confession: Even though I recently wrote an oral history of the original Jumanji for The New York Times, I’m not a huge fan of the movie. I was too old when it came out in 1995 to care about a kiddie comedy starring Robin Williams and a bunch of computer-generated monkeys. More than 20 years later, my expectations were even lower for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a sequel of sorts reteaming Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart from Central Intelligence, a movie that looked so stupid I didn’t even see it.

Well, surprise, surprise: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t suck. It’s not exactly good, but it goes down painlessly enough. It bears almost no relationship to the original, except that it’s about a game (this time, it’s a video game) and the characters sometimes speak in rhymes. There’s a passing reference to Alan Parrish, the late Williams’ character, but it’s more of an inside joke than a plot point.

In fact, the film has more in common with The Breakfast Club than Jumanji. A group of disparate high-schoolers — a nerd, a jock, an outcast, and a princess — gets thrown together into detention. (Wait, where’s the rebel, you ask? He shows up later.) They’re magically sucked into the titular game, but instead of jungle creatures like elephants and rhinos storming through their small town, as in the original, they’re transported to an exotic locale where they must complete a mission to return a jewel to a jaguar-shaped rock formation’s eye.

Okay, it sounds lame, but the screenplay finds amusing variations on the idea that each of the teens has chosen an avatar very different from their own personalities: the geek is The Rock; the jock is little Kevin Hart; the outcast is bad-ass babe Karen Gillan; and the princess is Jack Black. Johnson shows new range and vulnerability, and Hart proves once again, as he does in his stand-up act, that he can make unfunny material sound funny through the sheer force of his delivery. Gillan is a smart and sexy revelation (perhaps because I’m not a big Doctor Who guy, and I’ve never seen the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, so I had no idea who she was). And Black gives his most gut-busting performance since the criminally underrated Nacho Libre.

The versatile Bobby Cannavale is wasted as the token villain, and Nick Jonas doesn’t bring much to the table as the fifth member of the Breakfast/Jumanji club, who joins the story in mid-stream. But director Jake Kasdan (reuniting with Black and Colin Hanks, who has a key cameo near the end, from another lost classic, Orange County) keeps the story moving along swiftly and doesn’t let the action overwhelm the comedy.

Will Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle change your life? No. Is it a decent way to kill two hours? Yes. Plus, it gives you a reason not to talk to your relatives over the holidays. That’s a whole different kind of jungle.

Is Romance Dead at the Movies?

Call-Me-By-Your-Name-Movie

Maybe this is why I’m still so single, but the most romantic movie I’ve seen in 2017 is The Shape of Water, a love story between a mute woman and a fish-man. In an attempt to remedy that situation, I saw two new films touted as great romances, Call Me By Your Name and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Unfortunately, both felt even longer than their complete-sentence titles.

That’s because I didn’t buy the central relationship of either story. Sexual chemistry, both on-screen and off, is a highly subjective business. I was swept away by the lighter-than-air dynamic between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in last year’s La La Land, but my fellow Cranky Guy Bret Watson thought they struck zero sparks.  (He also found The Shape of Water “soggy.” Remind me why we’re friends again?)

So despite all its critics’ group awards and Golden Globe nominations, I call bullshit on Call Me By Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic mega-turd A Bigger Splash was my least favorite film of 2016, and while this is an improvement, it’s mostly because of two actors — and they’re not the love interests. As a 17-year-old American spending the summer of 1983 in Italy with his family, Timothée Chalamet builds on the promise of his performance in Lady Bird; he’s a young actor of rare sensitivity. And as his professor father, Michael Stuhlbarg (who’s also great in The Shape of Water — have I mentioned how much I love that movie?) proves he can render even the most ludicrous dialogue believable. Not only does he have to give a speech about the etymology of the word “apricot,” but he tells his boy, who has a fling with a grad student (Armie Hammer) staying at their villa, “Feel something you certainly did.” Who is this guy, Yoda? Oy.

We’re supposed to believe that the bond between Chalamet and Hammer is one for the ages. Why, because we see them riding bikes and swimming endlessly? Sure, it looks like fun, and Chalamet captures the exquisite pain of first love, but Hammer is as bland and colorless as baking soda. (Full disclosure: I may have disliked him so much in this movie because he reminded me of Todd, my roommate on a class trip to Mexico I took in 1983, when I was the same age as Chalamet’s character. Todd never took off his Walkman, and when you asked him what he was listening to, he’d always say, “Yaz, of course” in the most obnoxious way imaginable.)

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I have no problem with gay movies. I was in a gay movie. Admit it, that’s an even more convincing argument than “Some of my best friends are gay.” Which they are, by the way. My issue with Call Me By Your Name is that it’s sooo sloooow and boring and pretentious. The guys don’t even get it on until an hour and a half into this 132-minute slog. Then Chalamet has sex with a nectarine, which Hammer later fingers. I try to be an open-minded guy — I had no problem with the butter lube in Last Tango in Paris or the pastry-shtupping in American Pie — but this is a peach too far. (Did I mention I was in a gay movie? Okay, good.)

That leads me, somehow, to Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which runs only 106 minutes but feels twice as long. Annette Bening and Jamie Bell do technically solid work as Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winning actress from 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and Peter Turner, a much younger actor who fell for her in the late ’70s. Sadly, this movie is more bad than beautiful, as director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) lets the pace lag and lingers on far too many close-ups of Bening’s face. (“Ooh, look at all those lines!” we’re meant to say. “How brave! Give her an Oscar!”) And again, it’s subjective, but I felt more sexual heat between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude than I did between Bell and Bening.

Maybe that’s why I’m still so single.