Thursday, December 28, 2017


“SKumm’s Thoughts”

Every year I pinpoint a few performances that, in my humble and slightly informed opinion, deserve Oscars.  Usually, according to the Academy, I am wrong.

Like, so wrong that if you went back and counted how many times I have been wrong, you’d probably stop reading my reviews.  (So, don’t count, because I think I’m up to eighteen regular readers, and my ego couldn’t handle losing any of you.)  This year, I’ve already gushed about performances in WIND RIVER, WONDER WOMAN, LOGAN, and BLADE RUNNER 2049—some of them for acting, some for directing or cinematography.

But THREE BILLBOARDS is kind of a game changer.  Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a mother grieving over the loss of her daughter, who rents billboards calling out the town sheriff and the police department’s inability to solve her daughter’s murder.  While there is a whole lot of talk about her performance—and it is well deserved, as she is heartbreakingly convincing in her anger and grief—there is one other that slow boils in reverse that makes you wonder at the artistry which is acting.  Again, McDormand is great; she captures an emotional place that no parent ever wants to have to deal with.  Hers is a brave portrayal of a heartbroken and angry single mother.

And then there is Sam Rockwell.  He is best described as a “transformer”—no, not the lifeless, metal encased CGI structures that Michael Bay has sold his soul to.  Rockwell is a true artist, one who becomes unlike anything you have ever witnessed.  He is, quite frankly, the greatest character actor of my generation, and what he does in BILLBOARDS is nothing short of amazing.  He sets aside his typical smarmy humor and becomes a bad cop already on the edge of an explosive breakdown.  But he breathes life into a character which, in other hands, would not have been quite as fascinating to behold.  From the set of his eyes to the stalwart sense of nobility he attempts to carry throughout, even when he is so obviously in the wrong, Rockwell’s “Dixon” is a man crying out for redemption—or, at least, for a singular purpose other than as a bully.

There really are no weak performances in this film; credit director Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS—both films you need to watch, if you haven’t already) for getting exactly what he needed from each actor to capture the lives he created.  Even Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is notable, if not for his stoic turn as a cop juggling his family, an illness, and the case of Mildred’s murdered daughter.  No single person turns in a wooden or romanticized performance, and it makes for a slice of life which feels real.  At times daunting and sublimely violent, other times brutal and devastatingly honest.

So, yeah…I’m calling out at least five Oscars nods for this one (the cinematography of Ben Davis lends a symmetrical beauty to the proceedings, keeping us honest while the story unfolds before us, not allowing you to look away or think beyond what you are witnessing).  If I’m wrong YET AGAIN, there is something inherently broken with the system in Hollywood.  You don’t get a movie this damn good with bad acting or shoddy storytelling, and there isn’t an ounce of either on display here.  Seriously, you couldn’t ask for a better example of the true meaning of filmmaking.

Grade: A

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, December 21, 2017

“SKumm’s Thoughts” - STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

“SKumm’s Thoughts”

Way back in 1980, George Lucas and writer Lawrence Kasdan redefined the sequel.  With THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, they gave the bad guys their moment to shine, kicking the heroes of STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE right in the teeth and sending them reeling.  Luke was left without a hand, Han was turned into a concrete ornament, and the rebels were sent scurrying for cover.  It was a formula that only the best of sequels manage to capture, and one which provided the best story of the original trilogy.

So, when JJ Abrams breathed new life into the slowly dying body which was STAR WARS, he went back to the roots of the series and kicked things up a notch.  It should come as no surprise that writer/director Rian Johnson (who previously provided the cinematic world with the astounding debut BRICK, and followed it up with one of the better films about time travel, LOOPER) attempts to pull off an EMPIRE of his own.  Following up Abrams’ shiny THE FORCE AWAKENS seems a daunting task, and the only way to try and up the ante is to once again go back to the roots of STAR WARS.       

And oh boy, does he pull it off.

This modern EMPIRE not only cranks up the ‘Emotion Meter’, but it gives Lucas’s universe a much needed dose of steroids and an endorphin boost which launches this latest planned trilogy into hyper drive.  The Resistance (this era’s version of Rebels) are on the run, albeit slowly, and without much fuel in their tanks—literally.  The First Order has them scrambling for cover, and what seems like a basic premise (a space chase between a few big-ass turtles and a few tiny ones) becomes quite complicated as the story unfolds.  Don’t go looking for many surprise revelations in this one; whereas EMPIRE was all about crippling truths, JEDI concerns the roles people play in our lives, and what makes them tick.

The best new character on display is humor; Abrams hinted at it a few times with FORCE, but Johnson allows it to run freely here, and it makes for a faster, more entertaining ride.  Don’t get me wrong, this is no comedy—but there are enough laughs in the first five minutes to make you wonder at the possibility.  Also, the sheer power of the Jedi; after watching JEDI, you get the feeling their abilities were merely hinted at in previous films.  Remember how Darth Vader throwing crates at Luke Skywalker in EMPIRE seemed like the ultimate Jedi weapon?  Prepare for Jedi’s with mystical abilities. The force isn’t just for stacking rocks anymore, and Johnson amps up the power to tremendous and unexpected levels.

The biggest gripe I have comes once again with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  He still has temper tantrums, and still feels more like a jilted child than he does an outright villain.  More of a bully than he is a misunderstood juvenile, his menace is still not fully conceived here, despite the brief backstory provided.

Yet this may be the strongest STAR WARS film to date.  I need to see it a second time (this one begs for multiple viewings, as there is a heckuva lot of story presented) before committing to my initial viewpoint—which, controversially enough, was that JEDI is the best of the series.  It most certainly is the best Luke Skywalker tale, and that opinion I will hold solidly to.  Abrams is set to direct the final installment in this core thread of the Star Wars Universe, and it will be interesting to see how he follows up Johnson’s installment.  May the Force be with him…

Grade: A

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - BIRTH OF THE DRAGON

‘Blu-ray or Bust’
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON (2016, R, 95 minutes, Groundswell Productions / Kylin Pictures)

I’m going to make this one quick… quicker than Bruce Lee’s corpse rolling over in his grave.

The premise has so much potential for a good story but fails in the most typical ways.  The acting is flawed to an almost crappy-campy extent.  Philip Ng as Bruce Lee is pushed to an over-cocky, aggressive level with a very contrasting thoughtful and restrained Yu Xia, as Wong Jack Man, making things awkward scene-to-scene.  To put this in temporal perspective, set in 1965, after Bruce studied under Ip Man and moved to San Francisco, Wong Jack Man, a well-known shaolin monk, heads to the US looking to center himself after a humbling defeat in a traditional challenge.  Lee fears Man is there to observe his teachings and to eventually push him out.  You must understand, Lee has done the unthinkable, started teaching outsiders Kung Fu, something the homeland masters find shameful. 

Director George Nolfi is more known for his script writing, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, THE BORNE ULTIMATUM, SPECTRAL.  He should have known better than this.  Which, after doing some research after my viewing, may have been the case.  After the initial research, audiences did not like that fact the original story was centered on an American student instead.  Thanks to fans wanting more fighting and kung fu wisdom, the pressure twisted up the plot and editing. 

If you want to make the time, the fighting is thrilling and skillful.  I am a sucker for Chinese traditional martial arts, even if it has plenty of Wing Chun on display.  You could see the tributes to Lee’s career mixed in but does little to share what really transpired and what you would want after so much great cinema in the martial arts world as of late.  After this though, I will not be so hopeful with a new Bruce Lee movie.

Film Grade: C-
Special Features: Didn’t bother
Blu-ray Necessary: Pass

-- James S. Austin