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by Robert Horton

Contributor

Review: Downsizing

Alexander Payne has become known for directing bittersweet comedies rooted in recognizable—you might say warts and all—humanity. Movies like NebraskaAbout Schmidt, and Sideways are not always easy on their characters, but they sometimes crackle with lightning bolts of insight. Payne’s latest, written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, adds a sci-fi framing device to his work. But ultimately Downsizing looks a lot like his previous films—and I think that’s a good thing.

The gimmick here is that Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink people, a breakthrough that will lead to enormous environmental and financial benefits for the planet.

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Review: Call Me by Your Name

Since it premiered at film festivals earlier this year, Call Me by Your Name has inspired reviews that sound as though they were written in mid-swoon. Frankly, the movie itself encourages this: It’s a lush wallow at an Italian villa, a coming-of-age story that presents sensual adventure and a warm portrait of a functional family. Everything’s ideal, even the angst. It also features sex with a piece of fruit, although this is rendered cute and endearing; nothing too weird disturbs this movie’s handsome surface.

If I sound a little skeptical, I am—but the film is certainly pleasant to be seduced by.

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The Movies That Mattered in 2017

The new Star Wars movie opened a few days ago. It will make a mint. But within hours of its opening, it also made waves.

Before the end credits had finished rolling, an army of devoted Star Wars faithful had taken to their devices to declare that The Last Jedi was a disgrace to the memory of the doctrinal faith. One online commenter called it the “assassination of the entire star wars universe,” which sounds really serious. The new film’s alleged sins include over-jokiness, a reluctance to answer every plot question raised by the previous chapter, and, well, just being different. Being different is the worst offense of all.

Perhaps because I do not worship at the House of Skywalker, I found The Last Jedi to be perfectly delightful, and probably the best Star Wars picture since the first one. If that doesn’t get me excommunicated, I don’t know what will. But I bring up the issue because while the films of 2017 offered plenty of worthwhile titles, it marked a downturn in how we talk about movies.

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Review: On the Beach at Night Alone

One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.

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Review: Wonder Wheel

There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.

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Review: Thelma

There’s a fine line between paying homage to classic horror-movie conventions and outright theft. Let’s take a checklist to Joachim Trier’s Thelma, a kind of Carrie re-imagined through a Scandinavian lens. Bird flying fatally into a window? Check. Dream about a snake slithering through the grass? Check. Spooky old photographs of weird people? You bet. These devices can work like crazy (I’m a sucker for the creepy-old-photo routine), but the chilly efficiency with which Trier deploys them in Thelma feels a little by-the-numbers. This movie—Norway’s official submission in the foreign-language Oscar sweepstakes—is expertly made, but only intermittently moving.

The title character is a teenager (played by Eilie Harboe), off to college in Oslo and away from home for the first time. A lonely soul, she experiences seizures that can’t be medically explained. Also, strange things happen around her.

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Review: Jane

If it seems as though Jane Goodall has always been out there, doing her thing with chimpanzees, she pretty much has: Since 1960, she has been either in Africa studying apes or traveling the world talking about them. She’s like a lighthouse that’s constantly on, even if you’re not always thinking about it. Famous for most of that time, she doesn’t need another documentary about her, but Jane (2017 Best Documentary winner from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is a fascinating treat. It re-purposes a batch of 1960s footage long considered lost, and looks back from Goodall’s current perspective at age 83.

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Review: The Breadwinner

When The Secret of Kells opened in 2010 it garnered respectful-to-gushing reviews and snagged an Oscar nomination in the animated feature category—a neat trick for a film from a small Irish production company, Cartoon Saloon. I liked the film too, and applauded its ambitious visual design. Still, one thing nagged a little: the suspicion, present in every minute of the movie, that it was supposed to be good for you. When Cartoon Saloon brought forth Song of the Sea in 2014, another Oscar nomination followed, and once again I couldn’t shake the feeling that with all the glittering imagery on display, the point of it was to lecture us, not least on the subject of the sacred art of storytelling. The longer this kind of thing goes on the more I start wishing the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote would make an appearance.

Cartoon Saloon has a new one, The Breadwinner, which is about a little girl in Afghanistan who must shirk the misogyny of the Taliban and bravely find her way through a war-torn world.

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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Great movie dialogue is at its funniest when you can quote a line that brings down the house but won’t mean a thing out of context. For instance, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Peter Dinklage utters these words in the middle of a dinner conversation: “Penelope said ‘begets’?” Not funny out of context, but in the movie it is preceded by certain other lines, and delivered with a certain throwaway intonation, and seen from a certain camera angle, and followed by certain reactions. It is glorious. This is because writer-director Martin McDonagh is a craftsman who places each word with wicked precision, a talent he has previously displayed in his career as a playwright, and in two films: the great In Bruges, and the rather sour Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh is so besotted with language that a large portion of the dialogue actually concerns itself with how people use words, or misuse them.

Three Billboards finds the Irish filmmaker conjuring up a fictional American town in the Midwest.

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Review: The Square

I once interviewed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on stage in front of an audience that included one person who occasionally made canine barking sounds that resounded through the hall. This was only mildly distracting, and if it were a person with Tourette’s Syndrome or something, I’m glad he came and took in the event. It did make me wonder, sitting there on stage, what I should do if things got actually disruptive.

Things get disruptive under similar circumstances in The Square, and—typically for this wicked film—nobody’s reactions help anything.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh brandishes an improbable mustache and suspicious accent in Murder on the Orient Express, but I have no interest in mockery. Surely one reason—not the most exalted reason, maybe, but a reason—to go to the movies is to relish the spectacle of an actor battling outlandish tricks of the trade and making them fun. Branagh understands that kind of make-believe, and he hits it on the button here.

He plays the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, and also directs the film. Poirot boards the deluxe Orient Express in Istanbul, little suspecting a passenger will die in the night and an avalanche will strand the train just long enough for the murder to be solved.

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Review: Thor: Ragnarok

In every sense, Thor needed a haircut. The Marvel movie universe—which, like the real universe, is pitiless and has no end—featured this character to passable effect in its Avengers movies and with lesser results in Thor’s starring vehicles. Something had to change, especially since a very funny actor, Chris Hemsworth, was visibly hamstrung by the Nordic gloom of his character.

A haircut—literally and figuratively—is exactly what Thor gets in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel thing. And like Samson in reverse, Thor thrives when his 1970s thrash-rock locks are shorn, finding new life as a comic character

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Review: God’s Own Country

You’ve got to hand it to a movie that introduces its main character as aggressively unpleasant right from the start. We might suspect that redemption will come, but the prospect of spending a lot of time with an obnoxious protagonist can be dispiriting when you’re just sitting down to a night at the movies.

Such is the case with God’s Own Country, or at least it was for me. My spirits sank a little when it became clear that Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who works long days at his family’s small, grubby Yorkshire farm, would be the hero of this tale.

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Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Over the years the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh have been acquired by Disney, so the muscle of the world’s savviest media corporation stands behind the winsome cartoon bear. If that doesn’t already seem like a mismatch, it will after you see Goodbye Christopher Robin, a British film about the origins of Pooh. This gentle movie examines what happens when a cartoon character becomes a media phenomenon.

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Review: Human Flow

Human Flow is not a documentary by a journalist, or a traditional activist. If it were, it might be 25 hours long, with abundant background on the history of the world’s current refugee disasters and a guidebook on how these terrible problems—the worst since the end of World War II, with 65 million people displaced—can be addressed. Instead, Human Flow is a film by an artist, albeit one famous for his dissidence against his country’s government. This is Ai Weiwei, whose art-world celebrity has only been enhanced by his battles with Chinese officials (he’s now based in Berlin). With Human Flow, Ai does something that has recently ignited debate in documentary circles: He takes a terrible subject and makes it beautiful.

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