Oscar time, and time to place your bets?

3--lavona-golden-allison-janney-and-her-pet-bird-in-i-tonya-courtesy-of-neonIf you really REALLY believe that old Oscar truism, “Best Directors direct Best Pictures,” this might be a good time to put your money where that belief is.

Because even though writer-director Martin McDonagh was ROBBED and not nominated as best director for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the early SMART Money odds say that this awards season favorite will continue its march toward winning the big prize Oscar night.

 Sportsbettingdime.com is giving 2-1 odds on “Billboards” collecting Best Picture, with “The Shape of Water,” which collected the most nominations (13) Tuesday, just a 3-1 favorite to win.

That smells like money in the bank, movie-bettors. Maybe you feel like a long shot. That would be “Phantom Thread,” the longest shot of all (300-1) as Best Picture. Paul Thomas Anderson is a nominated director (49-1, don’t be a sucker), so take that into your “best director/best picture” figuring.

I think “Dunkirk” was the best and certainly the best DIRECTED picture of 2017. But Guillermo del Toro has cleaned up in the pre-Oscar awards and seems like a lock (A pity, as the movie ain’t all that). GDT has 9/11 odds of winning, according to sportsbettingdime’s Trevor Dueck. Nolan? He can only get 3/1, with “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig a 23/2 bet.

Frances McDormand (1/3) is the best actress fave, with Gary Oldman (3/7) best actor favorite. Both have won lots of pre-Oscar awards for their “Three Billboards” and “Darkest Hour” performances, respectively.

willAllison Janney (1/1) and Laurie Metcalf (2/1) would be the safest bets for best supporting actress. Sam Rockwell (3/2) and Willem Dafoe (2/1) make best supporting actor another gambling crap shoot.

Everybody’s got an opinion about who should win, who WILL win, when the Oscars are handed out. Some of us are willing to put those opinions in writing. The next logical step? Put your money where your mouth is!

We won’t know who cashed in until the night of March 4, when the 90th Academy Awards are telecast on ABC.

 

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Movie Review: “The Misguided” stumble through their college years in Perth, Australia

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One thing that poker, the stock market and fiction share in common is “the buy in.” In movies, that’s the mental leap we make when we accept dramatic situations and scripted characters as real.

“The Misguided” is a not-quite-gritty West Australian drama that didn’t get me to ante up. A tale of sibling rivalry and sibling bonding in the drug trade, and an unlikely whirlwind romance, I appreciated the characters and the up-to-date Aussie slang more than I believed the setting, those characters or how they got to be here.

Levi (Caleb Galati) is a college drop-out drug low-rung-on-the-ladder drug dealer whose girlfriend just dumped him. No worries, mate. He’ll crash with his half-brother Wendell (Steven J. Mohaljevich), a somewhat higher-up-the-ladder dealer, a heavy crack user and an all-around jerk.

Wendell just broke up with Sanja (Jasmine Nibali). Only he didn’t return the BMW he borrowed from her weeks and weeks ago. And she wants it back. Dragging her eye-rolling sister (Katherine Langford) along, she gets Levi to agree that it’s her car. He’s so smitten he even cleans it up and returns it, the beginning of a long, romantic evening with the apparently easily-impressed Sanja.

Only thing is, he doesn’t clear any of this with big half-brother. But again, “No worries,” as in “You’re welcome to her.” But about that car…

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That hook-up is so casual and head-snapping that even meeting Sanja’s hothead dad (Athan Bellos, scary) and seeing her somewhat coddled life of affluence doesn’t explain the attraction. She has literally just told her sister, “Lesson learned. Don’t try to help people,” after breaking up with a junkie-dealer who planned on keeping her car, and she’s tumbling for his broke dealer brother?

Levi  is so into her he quotes Woody Allen…or is it Selena Gomez? Emily Dickinson! “The heart wants what it wants” is what he says, by way of explanation. He and Sanja are dying to flee Perth. If only his brother didn’t owe money. If only her parents approved. If only he could get a job, etc.

Writer-director Shannon Alexander shot this in palm tree lined neighborhoods, in a striking beach view apartment (Wendell’s) and a garden courtyard designer house (Sanya’s). They look suspiciously like locations that a well-off filmmaker or film student could round up. Everybody seems casual about money, even when they owe it. There’s ready cash at hand.

And what’s that rob one and all of? Desperation. Wendell’s living awfully well for a guy smoking up all his profits. He’s awfully attractive to a succession of women he treats like garbage, and we’re given no hint that they’re users the way he is, so apparently they’re not with him for the drugs.

Levi? He’s got a stoner’s way with the language — “Even you couldn’t have used that amount’s worth.” Or is that just the screenplay, which, like the affluent settings, has a certain disconnection from the gritty world and gritty characters it purports to present.

The drawn-out and dull conversations (Drug dealers aren’t great wits, at least that’s accurate.) deflate what little dramatic tension Alexander creates. We kind of dread what might be coming, size up sizable Wendell (Mihaljevich makes a compelling, colorful villain) and figure he’s capable of something awful.

But Alexander would rather trip up expectations, make us create worse scenarios in our head than the ones he conjures up for the screen. Dangerous seeming people and fraught situations fail to pay off.

Which is why not buying in is the smart bet on “The Misguided.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Caleb Galati, Jasmine Jibali, Steven J. Mihaljevich, Katherine Langford, Anna Philip, Athan Bellos

Credits:Written and directed by Shannon Alexander. An Indie Rights release.

Running time: 1:28

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Movie Review: Heather Graham directs a Heather Graham sex comedy, “Half Magic”

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As an actress, Heather Graham’s career has been marked by just a couple of moves.

She can go wide-eyed, delivering perky banter at an acceptably blinding speed, rolling those wide eyes here and there for effect.  She can go vertical, with her rising skirts and descending necklines, and she can go horizontal. From the very start of her career (“Bowfinger”) and ever after, if Heather’s in it, all too often, her perkiness has been played up as foreplay.

Sex scenes, nude scenes, and every night is “Boogie Nights” for Ms. Graham.

Which may explain how she got “Half Magic,” a movie she scripted, directed and stars in, made. It’s got Heather rolling her wider-than-wide eyes, Heather sex scenes, Heather more or less nude, Heather masturbating. I mean, this movie sells itself, right?

She’s embracing the pigeon-hole she’s (mostly) been shoved into and making fun of it.

It’s a hit-and-miss Hollywood comedy that sends up Hollywood and American culture’s treatment of women, packaged into the “magical thinking” that America has embraced, thanks — some say — to Oprah. 

Candy (Graham) is stuck in a development job with a grating action/horror star (Chris D’Elia, arrogantly half-amusing) with whom she has joyless intercourse, at his behest. It’s OK, because, you know, she’s a woman. Her ideas are worth less in script meetings. And she’s not supposed to enjoy sex. Flashbacks to the sermons of her childhood preacher (Johnny Knoxville, a hoot) and her conservative dad taught her that.

“You could go to hell for those urges!”
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She’d really like to get her “The Year of My Yoni” (google it) produced. But boss/lover/jerk Peter is just looking for his next “Ultra Violent” or “Captain Kill’s Bloodbath.” You know, movies where “sluts” get stabbed or shot.

Candy may be “sick of watching women get stabbed in movies…I like sluts. Why do they all have to die?” But she’s outvoted.

Then she goes to a “Pleasure Revolution” female empowerment meeting, where a sea of “pussy hats” listen to gurus (Molly Shannon is one) chanting “I love my breasts, SAY it with me!” and “Your bodacious tatas honor me and they honor you!”

She and her new friends, fashion designer Eva (Angela Kinsey, good) and New Agey/candle-selling “Hope-ologist” Honey (Stephanie Beatriz, funny) embark on romantic personal journeys that make each of them learn to stand up for themselves, brush off a failed marriage to a whiner (Thomas Lennon) who blames Eva and her clinginess for his infidelity or a faithless lover who blames Honey for his refusal to commit.

Graham has her characters sort through romantic comedy cliches — a rebound “artist” named “Freedom” (Luke Arnold, hilarious) and half-mocks the “Practical Magic” of lighting and candle and making a wish for a worthy love to the universe.

“Half Magic” works best at its broadest, ridiculing LA flakes being LA Flaky – diving into whatever trend makes the narcissistic feel better about themselves at this moment.

The “sexual awakening” of these women is fairly conventional, and Graham treating us to scenes where she learns how to “Make love to yourself” — long, and unfunny scenes — adds nothing to the picture. still, she sets us up for the tried and true “solution” to bad love with cliched indulgent lovers (Freedom, first and foremost) and then punctures those trial balloons with skill.

The picture lacks for nothing but big laughs. They don’t quite show up for the Men Make Movies Badly scenes, the wacky courtships (a hint of domination doesn’t pay off) or comical copulation.

Graham’s made a movie sending up the sorts of movies she’s been “forced” to make, and it’s no funnier or more interesting than the other recent half-hearted titles of her filmography.

 

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MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and drug use

Cast: Heather Graham, Stephanie Beatriz, Angela Kinsey, Johnny Knoxville, Luke Arnold, Thomas Lennon, Rhea Perlman, Molly Shannon

Credits: Written and directed by Heather Graham. An eOne release.

Running time: 1:40

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A “Just Deserts” Oscars? Almost…

oscIt’s too common to talk about “Oscar snubs,” as if Academy Award nominations are some sort of entitlement.

No talk, then, of “one last nomination” for Judi Dench (“Victoria & Abdul”).

Let’s forget about Hugh Jackman, who could have pulled a best actor nod for either of two movies, or the late Harry Dean Stanton, who could have collected a sort of honorary nomination for “Lucky,” a brilliant, sharply-observed curtain call on a great character actor’s career. And Josh Brolin, deserving for the quiet, manly competence of “Only the Brave.”

So, sure. “Snubs.” Call them that if you want.

If you were going to burn an Oscar nomination on a film nobody saw and a performance worth recognizing, those three were far more deserving than Denzel’s inconsistent, off-key “on the spectrum” turn in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”   

roman2Denzel Washington and Daniel Day Lewis, like Meryl Streep, are worth noting in everything they do, however.

And anything to avoid another year of #Oscarsowhite.

disaster1Speaking of political correctness, did you notice that “The Disaster Artist” got wiped off the map? A fun picture, good enough to merit maybe a nomination or three, but you treat women like dirt, you’re done. James Franco and Kevin Spacey and the pictures of Harvey Weinstein (“Wind River” was a top ten picture) learned that lesson.

Kate Winslet and the rest of Hollywood may finally learn the “Working for Woody Allen Won’t Ever Pay Off Again” lesson.

Somehow, the inappropriate sexual relationship at the heart of the tin-eared “Call Me By Your Name” got a pass. Apparently.

“Get Out” got more notice from the Academy than from the likes of the Hollywood Foreign Press, which is a good thing. Great direction, tight script. I’d argue with nominating Daniel Kaluuya, a best actor nomination in a fun, furious and eye-opening picture that stuck with me, though his performance did not.

“Blade Runner 2049” earned the technical nominations it landed. Nothing beyond those, also deserved.

“The Big Sick,” an indie phenom of the summer, was nominated for exactly the stand-out characteristic the film could rightly claim — script. Same with “Logan,” which could have landed Jackman an acting nomination. An adapted screenplay nod will have to do.

 

bill1   “Best directors direct best pictures,” so “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” may be a longer shot at best picture than you’d think. Nobody is calling “Call Me By Your Name” or “The Post” or “Darkest Hour” top dogs in the Oscar handicapping race. Leaving Spielberg out of this list suggests how much heat “The Post” has. None.

“Phantom Thread” feels like another odd-man out, getting best picture AND best director nominations. Martin McDonagh should have copped that director nomination. Dammit.

“The Florida Project” deserved a best picture nomination, but it’ll have to get by with a deserved Willem Dafoe honor, and that came because he’s an always-compelling supporting player and has worked forever. Indie Spirit Awards should be kinder to this one. 

“Detroit” is nowhere to be found, a great chance to give another woman director the honor of a nomination. No, Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) and Ava Duvernay (“Mudbound”) didn’t get robbed. Those were grossly over-rated pictures. “Mudbound” in particular should inspire a “SERIOUSLY?” in any argument you get in. It looks like its title, and wallows along — a Netflix movie in every sense, and Mary J. Blige should count her blessings for a weak supporting actress selection (as usual, unfortunately). The cinematography nomination for this one seems laughable, but I guess “through the lens darkly” paid off.

“The Greatest Showman” could easily have been the tenth best picture nominee. No, it’s not a top ten movie, but neither is “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name” or the presumed favorite, “The Shape of Water.” “Only the Brave” could have earned a nomination in a less #Timesup year.

  “The Shape of Water” leads all nominees, with 13. Hate to see it. Kind of a “Meh” picture for me, but that happens every Oscar nomination Tuesday. Not much blowback on this one, though the extra acting nominations seem an exercise in futility.

“Dunkirk” cleaned up in directing, editing, sound, score, etc. categories, but has no real traction from earlier awards, so Mr. Nolan’s film is set up to be a big loser on March 4.

That’s all right. They gave best picture to “Crash,” “The Artist,” “Moonlight” and “The English Patient.” We’re not exactly watching those movies, in awe or at all, a year or five years later, are we? That’s the real criterion worth weighing. Will it endure?  By that token, I’d say “Dunkirk,” “Three Billboards,” “Get Out” and “I, Tonya” stand tallest in this group.

And yeah, “The Boss Baby” deserved an animation nomination, just not more than “Captain Underpants.”

The full list of nominees is below.

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Movie Review: “Maze Runner” finally finds an ending — “The Death Cure”

 

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They pulled out all the stops for the finale to the lightly-regarded “Maze Runner” trilogy, a young adult action series devolved on the “Hunger Games/Divergent/Mortal Instruments/Giver” model.

The action beats, stunts and effects of “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” are impressive. Equally impressive is the way this series has morphed from a “Lord of the Flies,” kids trapped in a deadly maze opening into something with “Star Wars” ambitions and looks.

It’s all chases, firefights, explosions and exposition — yeah, they’re still explaining explaining explaining this saga three movies in — for those who like that sort of thing. They’re considerably clumsier re-introducing the plot, the forgettable-between-“Maze Runner installment”-characters, re-setting their relationships, remembering who has died in the previous installments though in these sorts of movies, the deaths are often “soap opera/Lord of the Rings” death  — not necessarily permanent.

And wrapping it all up seems like the hardest thing the production team had to wrestle with. The damned thing hits climax after anti-climax, and ENDlessly goes on and on and on. For the love of mercy, start the credits!

Still, it begins with a bang, an over-the-top ambush of a trainload of “uninfected” prisoners by the band of free uninfected sort of led by Maze-survivor Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his peers, even though the grizzled Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito, on point as always) and Vince (Barry Pepper) are the adults in the room.

Or in this case, in the Road Warrior Jeeps, chasing down that slow-moving, heavily-armed train. It’s comforting to know that after The Flare plague infects humanity and turns one almost everyone into The Walking Dead, those reliable 1990s Jeep Cherokees will still be getting the job done.

Thomas is hell-bent on rescuing the captured Minho (Ki Hong Lee), because…well, he knows the movie’ll do better in China with him in it. Not rescuing him from the train means he and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) and the irrepressible Brenda (Rosa Salazar) will have to track him down wherever WCKD (“Wicked,” a trifle “on the nose, right?) has taken him.

“There’s no guarantee we make it back from this!”

“This” being the last refuge of organized science and government, a walled city where Patricia Clarkson rules, Aiden Gillen is her ruthless security chief and the Great Love of Thomas’s young life, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) has become “one of them.” She’s “turned,” a “traitor.”

Because…she’s racing with the last vestiges of organized society to find a cure. That’s why they keep kidnapping and forcing phlebotomies upon the uninfected. They’re trying to track down, with the technology they still have available, what keeps Thomas and his ilk virus free. Sure, they’re desperate to save their own skins. But it’s the human race “the bad guys” are buying time for.

I like villains with a rational point of view, a legitimate motivation for their villainy. They’re enslaving the young and disease-free for science!

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There’s an hour and a half of breaking into that fortress city (always too easy) and introducing the soon-to-be-infected lower classes, rioting and locked outside their walls (Walton Goggins of “Vice Principals” is a half-gone guru to that lot). During this time, we’re reminded how Brenda’s unrequited crush on Thomas drives her actions, about the others who died before them, not all of them wholly dead (apparently).

It’s a bit much, first and foremost. Tedious. One cliffhanger after another, one dramatic “cavalry rides to the rescue” moment after another — they’re just wearying after a while.

The video-game style gunplay is endless and disquieting. Storm Troopers (not really) are mowed down, good guys hit in the shoulder, leg or maybe the gut (for a touching bit of near-bleeding out). Is Russian money to the NRA behind all this “Recruit the Next Generation of Gun Nuts” propaganda?

Esposito and the two leading ladies have the only “moments” that stick with you. Salazar, in particular, brings empathy and heart to the movie with a longing you just know the hero won’t acknowledge. Gillen is a one dimensional villain, and Clarkson, in the obligatory White Woman Villain in Charge role, makes one wish she was getting better offers.

Effects guru turned director Wes Ball got great production design and some splendid combat set pieces out of this, and amps up the tension with a nervous, jumpy camera and tight editing.

But really, the most impressive thing about this Young Adult franchise is what it was able to do that so many “Giver,” “Mortal Instruments,” “City of Ember” and “Divergent” series were unable to manage. They get it across the finish line.

Eventually.

 

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements

Cast:Dylan O’Brien, Rose Salazar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Walton Goggins

Credits:Directed by Wes Ball, script by T.S. Nowlin, based on the James Dashner novel. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 2:22

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Box Office: “12 Strong” and “Den of Thieves” open neck and neck…behind “Jumanji”

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New openings “12 Strong” — “Chickenhawk” producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest military outing, and “Den of Thieves,” a lower-budget cops vs robbers Gerard Butler thriller, are arriving in the $13-14 (“Thieves”) and $15 (“Strong”) range on their first weekends at the box office.

“Forever My Girl” cracked the top ten, smart counter programming by Roadside, weak picture. 

It’s the last weekend before Oscar nominations are announced, and the last of what appear to be this year’s major contenders, “Phantom Thread,” has opened wide enough to crack the top ten, not popular enough ($3.5 million or so) to crack that top ten.

“The Greatest Showman,” which got a little notice from the Golden Globes, has dashed past $113 million. Not sure it’s an Oscar contender, but sticking around like that should have merited voting attention. Maybe Hugh Jackman? Some day, they’re going to have to give him a special Oscar if they don’t nominate him for “Logan” or “Showman.” The musical’s at least as good as a few of the other supposed contenders, the most over-rated among them, anyway.

The delightful “Paddington 2” is holding audience share, but didn’t open wide enough to make it a hit.

But the real story continues to be “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” If there had been no “Last Jedi,” which made a boatload of cash in two weeks, Universal’s board game action comedy reboot (video game, now) would be the phenomenon of the winter. It’s still holding audience (another $20 million this weekend), still on top of the box office even as “Jedi” fades into the sunset.

Holding onto your audience share, weekend to weekend, is the mark of a movie that’s connecting with people. “Jedi” opened huge, fell of a cliff, and week to week since, has had steep drop offs. “Jumanji” loses about 20% of last weekend’s take every new weekend. It’s made over $300 million doing that. “Jedi” opened a week before it and has dropped low in the top ten, out of it next weekend, Valentine’s Day at the latest.

“Proud Mary” opened poorly and plunged its second weekend. Out of the top ten. Not sure if all this Screen Gems “They didn’t support Taraji’s movie!” bashing is called for. They knew it was a dog. It wasn’t so much released as “allowed to escape.”

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Movie Review: The Exquisite Chill of “Phantom Thread”

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  Daniel Day Lewis announcing his retirement has overshadowed, somewhat, his “final” film for his “There Will Be Blood” collaborator, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.

   “Phantom Thread” is a dry, chilly and occasionally droll tale of unconventional love in 1950s British haute couture. But whatever this cryptic, slow and dramatically thin character study lacks, Lewis lovingly paints over with one last meticulously detailed, compact and sharply-observed performance.

He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fey 50something designer with a long-established client list made up of the wealthy and scattered pockets of European nobility. He’s a workaholic wholly enabled by “my old so and so,” his flinty, indulgent sister, protector and partner Cyril (Lesley Manville at her villainous best). He sketches designs, chooses fabrics with care and leads a legion of lady seamstresses who silently hand-stitch ballgowns and wedding dresses.

And when work is done, he has his martini, delivered by his attentive, somewhat intimidated household staff, drives his Bristol 405 recklessly fast and scribbles away in the presence of whatever female muse he enlists, seduces and then ignores.

That’s the attribute played up here, his utter devotion to the work and callous treatment of his lovers. Let them age a bit, put on weight, get depressed at being kept around as some sort of faded adornment. He unloads them. Gutlessly so.

“I simply don’t have time for confrontations.”

He’s weekending in the country when he stumbles across his next muse. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a little ungainly, not overtly elegant, with hesitant English and a Continental working class accent. She’s a waitress impressed enough by Reynolds’ presence, his savoir fair, his confident “Will you have dinner with me?” She’s smitten.

Reyholds? He’s a self-described “confirmed bachelor.” He’s distant. His darkly funny topper to their “date” is to dress her and then, when his creepy sister gets home, measure Alma for future couture.

Gay? Maybe. This sort of marriage/relationship of convenience wasn’t unheard of in the days when “the love that dare not speak its name” was illegal in the UK. Lewis and Anderson introduce Reynolds as he dresses, fastidiously donning his smart, loose-fitting suits, tying his bow tie and pulling on each day’s pair of rose-colored socks. Yeah. Maybe.

He speaks of his wedding dress clients as superstitious, then reveals his own fears — a Mama’s Boy whose first designed and sewn dress was his mother’s last wedding gown, a man who to this day sews little messages, prayers and talismans into seams “for good luck.”

Anderson sets up a rather limply enacted war of wills, “the spoiled little baby” who cannot abide any “surprise,” trapped in his routine, almost instantly-regretting his connection to a willful, gauche (in his eyes) woman half his age. Alma is the very model of patience in refusing to slap his face. She has her own ways of getting her own. Reynolds is almost laugh-out-loud ridiculous in his rudeness, utterly immersed in his dresses — no matter how stupid and rich some of his clients are. ‘

Lewis is perfection itself in the part, prim and proper, the very model of repressed English “reserve.” Cross him and you hear his firm grasp of the f-bomb. Look at his cracked, calloused fingers as he sews and you see the one part of his appearance he dare not let himself be so fastidious about.

Watch how he silently plays this stubborn, spoiled stick-in-the-mud wrestling with the news that Alma has decided to go to a New Year’s Eve Party without him. There’s doubt, quiet fury, fear and resignation in just his stance, his eyes as they dart from mirror to floor.

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Krieps, of “The Colony” and “Hanna,” has just enough spark to suggest the steel beneath Alma’s compliant exterior. There’s a hint of the “Rebecca” of Du Maurier and Hitchcock in the struggles between Cyril and the interloper, Alma. Things could and will get ugly.

And I’m not just talking about his designs. If these bulky, busy, noisy costumes were the state of the British art in couture of the ’50s, it’s no wonder Chanel, the French and Italians ate them for lunch.

A quiet, slow and contemplative drama like this encourages the mind to wander back over other Anderson films — from “Magnolia” and “Punch Drunk Love” to “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” and “There Will Be Blood.” Most of them have the self-seriousness, arch, limited characters and acute attention to design and detail of “Phantom Thread,” and a kind of disposable gravitas.

They’re not movies most of us would really care to watch again. And if that matters (it does) it simply underlines the frosty heartlessness of the whole sumptuous exercise, even if has its darkly comic moments, even if Daniel Day Lewis is indeed “retiring” like Sean Connery, and not like Cher or Kiss.

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MPAA Rating: R for language

Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Credits:Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A Focus/Annapurna release.

Running time: 2:10

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Movie Review: Butler goes Bad for “Den of Thieves”

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Gerard Butler has never been more detestable on screen than he is in “Den of Thieves.” He goes full “Training Day” — OK, half “Training Day” — for a heist thriller about ruthless cops hounding after murderous bank robbers.

It’s not just an homage to Denzel’s dirty cop classic, but an overreach for Michael Mann’s cops/bank robbers classic “Heat.” Hey, if you’re going to knock off genre pictures, go for the best.

“Den” is an overlong, slow-footed, bloody-minded and eye-rollingly “intricate” thriller that follows two rival “gangs,” a “crew” led by Merriman (Pablo Schreiber, half-brother of Liev, star of “Orange is the New Black” and “13 Hours”), and “The Regulators,” a half-dozen LA Sheriff’s Dept. “Major Crimes Unit” specialists who bend the rules and break the law to solve crimes in “the bank robbery capital of the world,” Los Angeles.

The Regulators are led by Big Nick, an “original gangsta cop” played by Butler. He’s a glib brute, the sort of guy who wanders into a crime scene, cracks “That looks like it hurt” to a corpse, eats donuts dropped by a shooting victim (Evidence?) and bullies the wife he cheats on, suspects and the FBI agent he swaps insults with.

“You pausing for dramatic effect?”

Nick and his team finger the recently-released ex-con Merriman as their guy, and immediately taser and kidnap a known associate (O’Shea Jackson of “Straight Outta Compton”).

The threats Nick makes to him are explicit.

“Do we look like the type who’ll arrest you? We just shoot you…less paperwork!”

Donnie (Jackson) is “just the driver,” he insists. But in a flash, he’s caught between two ruthless gangs that could kill him and get away with it. He’ll provide tips about what his robbing crew are up to, and the cops will let him keep his freedom.

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“London Has Fallen” screenwriter turned writer-director Christian Gudegast opens with a bloody armored car robbery where guards and one gangster are gunned down and tops that with a few nicely constructed parallel structure sequences. The crooks case their “big” job as the cops try to second-guess their next move and reason-out their behavior.

A clever twist — the crew is ex-military, comfortable with weapons, savvy to the jargon of “tac up” (put on your tactical gear), “deploy” to set up “suppressing fire.” That too-neatly matches up with a police force that’s been similarly militarized.

Another twist, left undeveloped? Merriman’s connection to LA’s Samoan (big, burly Islanders) underworld.

It’s the kind of picture that doesn’t have an easy time finding somebody for the audience to root for. There are plot twists that are too far-fetched for the script to organically justify, and heist picture cliches (air ducts, open sewers, hostages, red herrings). Scenes that don’t advance the plot but do develop character abound — Nick bullying his soon-to-be-ex’s new beau, one of the crew (50 Cent) playing an alarming joke on his daughter’s prom date. Pacing is a serious problem with what should be a “ticking clock thriller.”

Butler and Schreiber have a couple of scenes together, not quite in the DeNiro/Pacino “Heat” league, but novel and played with movie moxie. The cop stalks his quarry to his favorite firing range, where the two gun nuts compete to show off who’s the best shot. If you thought “Proud Mary” fetishized firearms, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The women here are mostly strippers, hookers and the wife (Dawn Oliveri) Nick is probably cheating on. If #Timesup wants to look for productions where women are mistreated, exploited and worse, start with thrillers peopled with nameless prostitute characters and the obligatory strip club scene.

And you have to wonder if pictures like this, depicting armed and body-armored crack-shot criminals with all manner of weapons, intelligence and limitless technological support, aren’t a part of why America’s police are increasingly militarized and alarmingly trigger happy. “Den of Thieves” is a war movie — complete with epic combat-style shootouts, endless titles pinpointing the scores of locations — “San Pedro, Wilmington, Torrance, Monterrey Park” — but with cash as the ultimate objective.

I can’t say it wasn’t interesting to sit through, slow-moving as it is, but “Thieves” never rises above a seriously long-winded B-movie, a shoot-em-up in which no matter how graphic the violence that the characters mete out and witness, nobody ever lets you forget they’re playing cops and robbers.

The bravado gives away that one and all know nobody gets hurt here. The blood and bullet holes created by a blizzard of spent shell casings aren’t real. You’d swagger and wise-crack too, if you knew at the end of the day all you had to worry about was where to spend the movie’s money after you’ve wiped the fake-blood off.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality/nudity

Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Evan Jones

Credits: Written and directed by Christian Gudegast . An STX release.

Running time: 2:20

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Movie Review: Slow, corny “Forever My Girl” seems to go on…

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“Forever My Girl” is a Nicholas Sparks romance without Sparks or sparks, without the beach; a small-town, broken people finding each other, a genial, low-heat courtship and lots and lots of talk. It’s as slow as a July 4 tractor parade and as corny as a Louisiana drawl, drawn-out for effect.

It could have been sold as a faith-based romance, as it has a preacher, a prodigal son, a funeral and small-town church services and a done-wrong woman who keeps the faith.

And for a film about a guy who leaves his fiance at altar, a child born out of wedlock and the dissolute, hard-drinking, one-night-standing country music superstar who doesn’t know she’s his, it’s oddly bereft of anything anyone would call “edgy.” If you’re a lip reader, you can see what little profanity was in an earlier cut was dubbed out for release.

But there’s probably an audience for it, because you can’t find romances this old fashioned anywhere but The Hallmark Channel.

Jessica Rothe (“Happy Death Day,” “La La Land”) is Josie, the young woman we meet on what is supposed to be her wedding day. The hubbub over the ceremony, the breathless dressing and preparations, have a soundtrack. Her intended’s got his first hit song on country music radio, and every Boudreaux and Thibideuax in tiny Saint Augustine, Louisiana is buzzing over it.

Until, that is, Liam Page is a no-show. The heel leaves Josie, his family and the town bereft. Liam (Brit Alex Roe of “The Fifth Wave”) goes off to find fame and fortune on the radio and on tour, singing big ol’country music lies about “My heart don’t have a home without you in it.”

But it’s an empty life of groupies, vodka and pricey hotel rooms.

It takes the death of a high school pal some eight years later to wake him out of his stupor. He heads back to “Saint,” fleeing his tour, his responsibilities and his manager (Pete Cambor) to figure out what he gave up.

Josie, who slugs Liam in the stomach first chance he gets, is part of that. So’s the preacher/father (John Benjamin Hickey) he hasn’t seen since leaving, either.

And so is Josie’s just-the-right-age daughter, Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson). Could she be…?

Of course she is, and it’s to writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf’s credit that this “mystery” isn’t treated as such. Working from a Heidi McLaughlin romance novel, the focus is on forgiveness, rekindling old flames and accepting grownup responsibilities.

Or it would be, if the kid wasn’t such a cute-mouthed spitfire.

“I said I wanted to meet him,” she says of her mother about her father. “I didn’t say I was gonna be EASY on him!”
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But she is. The town may have its gripes about this lout who forgot where he came from and pretty much everybody who made him who he is. Her mom and uncle (Tyler Riggs) remember the hell he put her through. But the kid is charmed. Will he, she and two of them together win mom over?

Wolf gets some background color into all this, from the primly-annoyed locals who mutter “Idiot!” to Liam’s face at every opportunity, to the talented honky-tonk singer who never left the local honky tonk (Travis Tritt). A nice detail — Liam clings to his battered, vintage flip phone, held together by duct tape, because it has Josie’s last voice mail on it.

But the heart-melting moments don’t have that tug, the laughs aren’t much more than chuckles. And every character introduction, every incident, every scene unfolds in slow motion. “Sleepy time down South” never felt so boring.

That spreads to Liam’s “other” life, too. There’s no pop to the high-powered country-pop machine (publicists, reporters, his adoring public) that Liam leaves behind. There should be some edge, some testy-comic anger at the meal ticket who’s gone AWOL. There isn’t.

Roe does his own singing, but lacks much in the way of stage presence. Rothe cannot help but upstage him in their shared scenes any more than young Miss Fortson can.

The overarching problem is pacing and dramatic tension. Wolf, who made her name directing well-received short films like “Don’s Plum,” should know that watering down the conflicts robs her film of a villain, that there’s no drama without conflict, and that landing the right cute kid does not a finished movie make. It’s just a promising starting point.

1half-star

MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including drinking, and for language

Cast: Alex Roe, Jessica Roth, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder FortsonTravis Tritt

Credits: Written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, based on the Heidi McLaughlin novel . A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:44

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Preview: Van Sant’s latest is a True Piece of Portland History — “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

Long before “Portlandia,” Gus Van Sant was the chronicler of quirky Hipsville’s underbelly, and his latest takes him back there for the true story of a quadreplegic/alcoholic cartoonist. Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, drunk and trapped in a wheelchair, who finds sobriety and purpose thanks to a support network that includes Jonah Hill (almost unrecognizable), Jack Black and girlfriend Rooney Mara.

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is an Amazon Studios release and opens in May.

 

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