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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson's Holiday Season Review

Harlan Jacobson
David Tallacksen for WBGO

It’s been a good December at the movies.

Major titles that are out there to see include James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, which finds fun and meaning in the worst movie of all time, The Room, made in 2003 by a couple of strange actors; Guillermo del Toro’s, The Shape of Water, a sugar water addition to his fantasy canon, with Sally Hawkins courting a best actress nomination as cleaning crew in a top-secret military research facility who is in the tank for an alien merman.

Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope is another in this Finnish director’s world of offbeat characters who make you glad to be alive at the movies. 

And of course, Star Wars, the Last Jedi, the 8th installment in the series, has charmed some critics and predictably made some fanboys mad for doing some deep sixes and 180s on major characters in a buzz-buzz-blam world that demands an Imax screen. In a nation in which the 99% could be reduced to eating cat food by the time it arrives, Star Wars Episode IX is on its way in 2019 in the hands of JJ Abrams, who did The Force Awakens two years ago. Load, spin, repeat.

This week adds The Last Showman, with Wolverine Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum.  Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, a science-fantasy comedy with Matt Damon growing smaller in stature – that’s in the film not just in the MeToo typhoon battering the coasts – to make a few larger sociological points. Worth a look but ummm, small. German director of Amour, Michael Haneke, returns with Isabelle Huppert and Jean Louis Trintignant in Happy End, a family drama set in Calais that is darkly funny in Haneke’s darkly German depressive way, a film I loved when I saw it in Cannes but which left the corps of critics unpersuaded. If for nothing other than Huppert’s sidelong glance at the ever present iPhonecam as she runs out of the party to the sea, the film worked for me.

Scott Black Mass and Crazy Heart Cooper is back with Hostiles, an old-school end of the West Western, set in 1892, with Scott Shepherd as the last of the Army’s Indian fighters ordered to safeguard passage of an Indian chief he knows firsthand the savagery of, and his family, through hostile white man territory to a northern reservation. Deeply engrossing, Hostiles is a great relief almost just for its wide-open spaces with cavalry, Indians, and angry bruised people on a forced march of redemption starting under a hot sun and ending in white snow. It’s a great ride.

I revisited Molly’s Game, which I also first saw in Toronto, with Jessica Chastain as poker madam Molly Bloom—no, not that Molly Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which the script cleverly stops to deal with. Chastain’s Molly Bloom deals straight up poker to a circle of Trumpian brats—including Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, and Bill Camp -- who make you wish the Indians had won in Hostiles to spare us everything to come in the current casino. Much as I like Molly’s Game, it just doesn’t play big screen all that well.

Aaron Sorkin has written and directed from the real poker madam Molly Bloom’s memoir about her journey from an Olympic skier literally tripped up at Salt Lake in 2002, to rogue woman entrepreneur. The script leans on a lot of voice-over, but it’s not alone in that this year. And it cuts to the chase about men mostly being kids with dynamite strapped to their chests. The only men who deal straight up in Molly’s Game are on different ends of her journey: her dad--Kevin Costner, a doctor and her ski coach, who comes to her in trouble in a moving night scene in Central Park, and as in Hidden Figures, is able to cut through the clutter. And her defense attorney, played by Idris Elba.

It’s not lost on Sorkin that it’s a black man, Elba’s lawyer, who’s able to use the empathy he learned at home before law school to break through to federal prosecutors looking to break her back, again. This Molly Bloom has a spine of steel, as she says No, No, No in NY as passionately as her non-namesake Molly Bloom said “Yes, yes, yes, she said” in Joyce’s Dublin. Between Molly’s Game, Frances McDormand’s angry mom in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, a Fargo-lite story, the consistently blossoming Annette Benning in Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, as 50’s Hollywood siren and crackup, Gloria Grahame, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which tells the Tonya Harding story her way with Margot Robbie as Tonya and Alison Janney as her Trump-base mom in a film that turns figure skating into the NHL, and in her own very sweet way, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the end of 2017 is a flotilla of Bad Girl cinema that is the most engaging, revealing and fun work onscreen. You could and should see all of them to round out the larger picture of women circa now, who’s mad, where they come from, how very different they are, and how each comes to batter the 100-foot wall.

Coming in time for New Years are two more, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Phantom Thread, and All the Money in the World. That’s the Ridley Scott film that until literally last month was all finished with Kevin Spacey as J Paul Getty refusing to pay ransom for his 16-year-old grandson famously kidnapped in Rome in 1973.

In a piece of breathtaking sociology, never mind cinema, Scott erased Spacey -- caught up in the sex abuse scandals of ’17 -- from the film and inserted his original choice for the part, Christopher Plummer, in 22 quick shot green-screen scenes. The film’s distributor is now campaigning for Plummer to receive an Oscar nomination, even as it exposed the uncomfortable truth that underlies all the movie junket crapola you ever read: there’s no onscreen chemistry, there’s only digital life and a cloud. No wonder Hollywood producers, directors and actors think life is anyway they shoot it, cut it and recut it again: Up, down, back and forth, in, out, here, there, gone. Truth is a green screen.

Finally, Anderson’s Phantom Thread arrives on the 27th and is a last possible minute entry in the awards year. Set in 1950s London, with Daniel Day Lewis as a dressmaker to the royals and German actress Vicky Krieps as his young wife, it’s period, it’s brilliant, and it does what all the British salon room dramas do best: shows you the state of the dead empire and makes you give a damn.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.