Movie Reviews - 2017 postsTuesday December 05, 2017
Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Afterwards, I asked Patricia if she could think of an actor who could play the lead besides Frances McDormand. Because I couldn’t. Allison Janney, maybe? Annette Bening? McDormand is perfect for the part. Chin up, working class, beyond world-weary but tough as nails, with an undercurrent of the maternal that might reveal itself at an odd moment—like when the cancer-ridden sheriff, in the midst of interrogating her, coughs blood into her face, and as she goes for help, she comforts him, calling him baby. It just slips out: that baby. That tenderness.
No surprise that writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) wrote Mildred for her. The punchline? She had to be convinced by husband Joel Coen:
“At the time he gave it to me I was 58 ... I was concerned that women from this socioeconomic strata did not wait until 38 to have their first child. So we went back and forth and we debated that for quite a while, and then finally my husband said, ‘Just shut up and do it.’”
One more thing to thank him for.
Mildred is less Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” than Elaine Miller in “Almost Famous”—berating Russell Hammond, then counseling him, then reminding him of his responsibilities. She’s Olive Kitteridge. She’s McDormand herself winning the Oscar for “Fargo”: that tough stride she took on her way across the stage.
I expected “Three Billboards” to be good but an eat-your-vegetables movie: the kind of dull indie that sacrifices plot for local Midwest detail. It’s not that kind of movie at all.
Burn after reading
No time is wasted getting to the billboards. Opening credits, they’re there in the morning fog, run down and dilapidated, their original messages a checkerboard of illegibility. So: a movie about a small Midwest town struggling to survive in the digital age?
Nope. A freeway was put in, not many drive this two-lane highway anymore, but Mildred, who lives nearby, has an idea. She contracts the local company for all three billboards and puts up this message in the manner of the old Burma Shave ads:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
So: a movie about small-town police corruption and one woman’s battle to bring the truth to light?
That’s how it seems, particularly when we meet Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim, small-town bully known for racial profiling. But then Mildred has a tete-a-tete with Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), he asks her advice, and after each of her suggestions he tells her of the civil rights violations involved. The further the scene progresses, the more you can feel your sympathies shifting away from her and toward him.
The movie keeps doing this; it keeps shifting on us. Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred knows and doesn’t care. Or she doesn’t let caring get in the way of her quest. Her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester By the Sea”), is embarrassed; she doesn’t care. And there’s Willoughby revisiting the scene of the crime, looking for clues. At the same time, the cops use what power they have. Mildred is hauled in, while her friend and coworker, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested to put pressure on her. Don’t forget how good Woody Harrelson is here. The scene after he coughs up blood, when he’s in the hospital room joshing with his wife (Abbie Cornish), and then alone, and the myriad of emotions that cross his face? The fear, mostly, and bone-deep sadness? Damn.
The crowning achievement in the battle with Mildred is his: He commits suicide. He has a perfect day with his wife and kids, and he wants them to hold onto that memory of him—not the one of him slowly wasting away—so out by the stable he puts a bag over his head and shoots himself. Watching, you know everyone will blame Mildred, and he knows it, too. He tells her so in a farewell letter. Plus the mysterious donor who paid for the billboards for another month? Him. So people will continue to blame her. The beauty of this is it’s not really malicious. His tone is amused, and she laughs, reading it. You can tell she already misses him. So do we.
Maybe too much. In the wake of his suicide, either the characters become unmoored or the movie does. The one-upmanship goes a bit over-the-top:
- Dixon throws Red, the local billboard owner (Caleb Landry Jones, “Get Out”), out his second-story window. In full view of everyone.
- Dixon is then fired by the new police chief (Clarke Peters of “The Wire”).
- The billboards are burned down—and Dixon is suspected.
- In retaliation, Mildred throws Molotov cocktails into the police station, but unbeknownst to her Dixon is inside.
Dixon winds up with third-degree burns on his body and face, and in the same hospital room as Red—the man he put there. He doesn’t get away with his crime; Mildred does. As does the murderer/rapist who set everything in motion.
If the second act seems like excess, and it did a bit to me, the movie rights itself. The third act is basically redemption. Dixon’s is the Colin Farrell/“In Bruges” role: the dim man who’s done bad things but whose moral compass is, or becomes, true.
Indeed, for a moment, you think he’s going to be the hero: the one to solve the crime through extreme sacrifice—getting beat up to get DNA. Thankfully, things aren’t so clean in McDonagh’s world. But the act unites Dixon and Mildred, who set out on their own quest. For justice? For further injustice? Who knows? They don’t even know. It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending. The world is rotten, but amidst all that there’s forgiveness. The movie feints toward giving us what we want (justice) only to give us what we need. What we truly, desperately need.
Movie Review: Baywatch (2017)
Is Seth Gordon the worst comedy director in Hollywood? Here are his four feature films with their Rotten Tomatoes scores:
- Four Christmases (2008): 24%
- Horrible Bosses (2011): 69%
- Identity Thief (2013): 19%
- Baywatch (2017): 19%
I actually asked that question back in 2013 when “Identity Thief” topped my list of worst movies of the year. Since then, Seth has been directing TV shows I’ve never seen (“Marry Me,” “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” “Sneaky Pete,” and “The Goldbergs”), but now he’s back in the theater, with this monstrosity, so it's time to ask it again.
We get one good running gag. Mitch (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the can-do lead lifeguard at a vacation resort in Broward County, Fla., who’s saved the life of practically everyone’s mother/aunt/son in the community, and who realizes, as the movie opens, that there’s a drug problem on the beach. Flaca is washing up on shores. Eventually dead bodies, too. So he and his team investigate. The gag is pointing this out.
“Am I the only one who thinks this is clearly a job for the police?” asks Matt Brody (Zac Efron), the two-time Olympic gold-medalist swimming champion.
Oddly, a minute or two later, Matt says virtually the same thing, but the line lands with a thud: “This is the real world, Mitch. Lifeguards can’t do shit.”
Someone needs to send Seth off to study why the first line is funny and the second isn’t.
Too many recent comedy-satires spend their first half mocking the idiotic tropes of the genre and the second half buying into those tropes. (See: “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “21/22 Jump Street.”) How an ordinary guy fits into the Hollywood fantasy is usually funny, because it points out the absuridty of the Hollywood fantasy. But apparently Hollywood can only see a way out by having the ordinary guy suddenly become the Hollywood fantasy. He proves he’s brave, stops the bad guy, gets the girl. We mock our cake and eat it, too.
“Baywatch” is worse because it does this at the same fucking time. Brody is right—drugs and dead bodies washing up on shore isn’t a job for lifeguards. But Mitch is right, too: He’s the one best equipped to save the day. The movie really needs to see Mitch as a self-important douche, but it doesn’t. It sees him as the hero. Right from the beginning.
Maybe that could’ve been the joke? Mitch running along the beach, thinking he’s a hero, saving and helping everyone, while in his wake, everyone complains about what a nosey fucker he is and how his beach is the most dangerous in the country.
The idiot plot: The evil Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is importing drugs to drive down real estate prices in order to buy out everyone. Then she plans to make the beach private.
The idiot relationship subplots:
- The selfish Brody has to learn to become a team player. (He does.)
- He has eyes for another newbie lifeguard, Summer (Alexandra Daddario). Will they get together? (They do.)
- Meanwhile, a third newbie lifeguard, Ronnie (Jon Bass), a schlubby Jewish tech guy, who gets on the team because "he has heart,” suffers a series of embarrassing moments with his not-so-secret crush C.J. (S.I. swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach). These include getting an erection after she performs the Heimlich maneuver on him, then getting that erection caught in the slats of a wood raft he falls on to avoid detection. But will he and C.J. get together in the end? (They will.)
The whole Ronnie thing is just the worst. It’s never commented upon—the absurdity of his being where he is with who he is simply to placate all the schlubby guys in the audience. He’s comic relief, but not comic. I don’t know if Bass is the unfunniest Jewish guy in Hollywood or if Seth Gordon simply drains the funny out of everything he touches, but it's brutal to watch.
Of course we get cameos from the TV stars, including David Hasselhoff as Mitch, Mitch’s mentor, who gives him the “Get back in the game” pep talk; and Pam Anderson, the original C.J., as “Casey Jean,” who’s now a suit-wearing executive, and whose face, 20 years after her heyday, has become a horror show of the work that’s been done on it. Imagine if they'd commented upon that. Instead, they have to pretend she's beautiful. That's brutal, too.
Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)
Come back, Greta Gerwig. All is forgiven.
For most of the decade, Gerwig has been acclaimed for playing characters I found annoying even as other critics, not to mention the movies themselves, seemed to find them loveable. There she was again, in “Lola Versus,” “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” a quirky, solipsistic twentysomething trying to find herself in New York. Yay. By the end of each movie she’d learned a lesson, but the lesson wasn’t deep or meaningful. The movies felt airless. They were about young, privileged people in a spoiled age, and I could give a shit.
Then last year she played Abbie, a cancer survivor/photographer in Mike Mills’ great, underrated coming-of-age movie “20th Century Women,” set in Santa Barbara, California. She’s the punk-rock older sister you always wanted.
But even that didn’t prepare me for this. “Lady Bird,” written and directed by Gerwig, and starring Saoirse Ronan, is a coming-of-age story about a high school senior in Sacramento, California in 2002/03, who acts out and searches for her place even as she prepares to take wing. She rejects everything around her for everything she doesn’t have:
I hate California, I want to go to the east coast. I want to go where culture is. Like New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.
The irony is that once she gets this thing, once she winds up in New York City, she embraces everything she’d previously rejected: her family, her church, California. Even her given name: Christine. She has to fly to let “Lady Bird” go.
Is there a similar irony with Gerwig? She made her name as the kooky girl in New York. She had to come home again, to California, to become great.
I like that we never find out why Lady Bird chooses that name—just that she’s adamant about it. She calls it her given name. “It was given to me by me,” she tells the theater director, Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), before her audition for the school musical, “Merrily, We Roll Along.”
She’s a mix of contradictions. She displays confidence but isn’t. She may audition for the school musical, and run for school president, but she painfully aware that she’s a middle-class girl in a rich Catholic school. She’s authentic but pretends to be from richer homes; she pretends to have money. She drops one true friend for a prettier, more popular one.
Much of the movie is about relationships and reaction shots. It’s about the nothing moment that suddenly means everything. The line in the women’s room is taking forever? OK, me and my friend will barge into the men’s room, giggling, and bang open a stall where ... fuck, there’s my boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester By the Sea”), kissing another boy. Lady Bird is embarrassed, furious and gone, while we (and probably she) relationship-backtrack. Oh, so that’s why she made almost every first move. Oh, so that’s why he didn’t touch her boobs. He wasn’t too Catholic, he was too gay. It also sets up one of the movie’s heartbreaking moments. In the alleyway behind her work, Danny apologizes, says he’s still trying to work through things, then begs her not to tell anyone before collapsing into her stunned and suddenly sympathetic arms.
That’s Boyfriend #1. Boyfriend #2? Kyle (Timothée Chalamat of “Call Me By Your Name)? He’s the supercool rich kid in a rock band who reads Howard Zinn and won’t buy a cellphone because it’s a “government tracking device.” He’s a privileged leftist who takes her for granted in a way Danny never did. There should be a special circle of hell for the supercool.
The key relationship in the movie is with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne”), which is beyond messy and complicated. It’s both seriously fucked up and beautiful. I think of the two clothes-shopping scenes. In the first, at a thrift store, they’re bickering as usual, and just when you expect a blow-up the mother holds up a find:
Lady Bird: Ohhh, it’s perfect.
Mom: Don’t you love it?
And whatever they were arguing about is forgotten. Not in the second scene. It’s the following spring and they’re shopping for a Prom dress. Lady Bird can’t find anything she likes amid the newer, hipper, sleeker stuff. Then she finds what she wants in the traditional: a pink, frilly prom dress. She looks great in it. Mom: “Is it ... too pink?” Lady Bird’s face, her whole body, her whole life, seems to crumple, but Mom won’t let it go. She doesn’t let go. She strives and pushes for perfection. She makes the bed in the motel, can’t abide her daughter’s messy room. She’s a clinical psychologist who’s got low-grade OCD and can’t stop.
“You both has such strong personalities,” says Larry, Lady Bird’s father, played by playwright Tracy Letts.
Larry is the opposite, the nurturer, the “let it be” guy. Lady Bird wants to be dropped off a block from school? That’s fine. He’s a sweetheart who reminds rather than insists. “You going to run to a horn honker?” he asks, almost amused, on prom night, when Kyle can’t be bothered to leave his car. She is, but when Kyle and Jenna (Odeya Rush), the pretty, popular one, decide they’re too cool for school prom, she abandons them for her real best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s younger sister) and then prom. From the first scene, Lady Bird is forever ditching cars.
Whither Father Leviatch?
“Lady Bird” is a year-in-the-life. It’s a character study. It’s a characters study. Everyone is human-sized and complex. Even Father Leviatch is dealing with issues but we don’t learn much more. It’s like he’s on the shoulder of a highway and we keep going but we keep wondering what happened. Shouldn’t we have stopped? Shouldn’t we have found out more? Shouldn’t we have cared more?
We do when the lights go up. It’s that kind of movie. There’s not a false moment. Anyone who had dry eyes after Marion's airport scene isn't paying attention. I’m ready to see it again.
Movie Review: Justice League (2017)
Just when the world is at its darkest, a hero arrives to save the day.
No, not Superman. And not Batman or Wonder Woman, either. I’m talking Joss Whedon.
Last year, Warner Bros. tapped him to salvage one of its most valuable franchises (this one) from the idiotic clutches of Zack Snyder—the director forever putting adolescent style over mindless substance. Snyder favors gloomy pallettes, glowering, near-naked heroes (see: “300,” “Sucker Punch,” and the new Amazonian costumes), and posing. Much posing. Forever with the pose. He seems incapable of creating any kind of logical continuity between scenes. Two of his movies have been my Worst Movie of the Year—“Sucker Punch” in 2011, and “Batman v. Superman” last year—and it’s probably only two because I began such lists several years into his career. He’s the dude who turned Batman into a raging, Fox-News-watching maniac, Superman into a limp noodle, and “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?” into one of the most laughable lines in the long, squalid history of superherodom.
As screenwriter with Chris Terrio (“Argo”), and uncredited reshoot director, Whedon, the man behind “The Avengers," holds Zack’s worst instincts in check. We get humor. We get stabs at creating relationships between characters. Whedon and Terrio gamely try to explain away the idiocies of the previous movies: Batman’s plot to kill Superman; Wonder Woman’s 100-year absence from the scene cuz her boyfriend died.
It’s far from perfect. But I went in expecting the worst and when the lights went up I turned to the dude next to me: “You know, that wasn’t bad.”
When does this begin to suck?
The movie opens with Batman (Ben Affleck) battling a rooftop burglar (Holt McCallany). He swings around chimneys and bat-ropes the dude over the edge, forcing him to face a 30-story drop; and when asked what he wants, Batman growls, “Your fear.” OK, so I thought that line was pretty stupid. But then we discover Batman wants the fear not because he’s a dick but to attract a Parademon, a kind of screeching flying monkey-creature (created by Jack Kirby), which is attracted to, or feeds on, fear. Then they battle, Batman wins, but before he can question the demon it’s gone—poof—leaving a greasy stain on the chimney brick.
“Well, that was good anyway,” I thought.
Then a group of terrorists enter a London building, probably the Old Bailey, proceeding with the usual ruthless efficiency and mayhem. The plot? To blow up the entire neighborhood. But there’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), standing boldly atop Lady Justice. OK, so I thought that was unnecessary posing. Also, how did she know about this terrorist attack? Isn’t she in Paris most of the time? No matter. She makes a great entrance by shattering the door—just obliterating it—kicks serious ass, throws the bomb high in the air (where it explodes harmlessly), then returns to deflect a hail of bullets directed at the hostages.
“Huh,” I thought. “Wonder when this begins to suck?”
I kept wondering. We’re introduced to the Flash (Ezra Miller, a standout), visiting his father, Henry Allen (Billy Cruddup) in prison. For a short scene, it’s fairly emotional. We get a cameo from Marc McClure, Jimmy Olsen from the Chrisopher Reeve Superman movies, then watch Bruce Wayne recruit Barry onto the team. The Flash is the opposite of the usual Zack hero. He’s not cool; he wears his heart on his sleeve. “Can I keep this?” he asks of the batarang thrown at his head.
Recruiting the Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) doesn’t go as well, and those scenes, I would argue, aren’t as good. Maybe because, unlike the Flash—who agrees to join the Justice League before Bruce even finishes the question—neither guy can see past his own self-interest and/or pain to save the world. Which feels not only unheroic but dumb. World dies, you die, idiot. Also, per Zack’s predilection, the Aquaman drinks hard liquor and hangs out in the grayest, coldest of Scandinavian fishing villages. Why not Hawaii, where Momoa is from? Why not Ko Samui? Why so serious? Also, is it a bit racist that the two holdouts are people of color, or is it just racist to bring it up? And what’s with the definite article? The Batman. The Aquaman. The Kryptonian. I get it—it sounds cool—but dial it back a bit, OK?
All of which points to a structural problem with the movie that even Whedon can’t solve: We’re introduced to too many characters at the same time. By the time “The Avengers” was released in 2012, four of the six (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America) had already starred in their own movies/origin stories, while the other two (Black Widow, Hawkeye) had extensive cameos in those films. Here, three of the six are basically introduced for the first time. So the movie has to simultaneously explain who they are while moving the plot forward. The backstories of both Aquaman and Cyborg wind up getting short shrift. Maybe deservedly.
The plot forward is fairly dull business, too. Supernatural badguy with horns and a rock ‘n’ roll name (Steppenwolf: voice and motion capture by Ciarán Hinds), wants to take over the world by ending it. Apparently in ancient times he nearly did this by bringing together three power sources, called “Mother Boxes,” which would create “The Unity,” which would turn Earth into a hellish landscape. (Shades of Zod’s plot in “Man of Steel.”) But Steppy was beaten back by three other power sources: the Amazonians, the Atlanteans and Man. Afterwards, they each hid a Mother Box to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Well, “hid.” The Amazonians kept theirs on display in a temple, and the Atlanteans in a temple under the sea. Only Man buried the mother.
Why is Steppenwolf returning now? Because the Kryptonian was killed in the last movie, creating a power vacuum on Earth. Which explains but doesn’t. In Steppenwolf terms, Superman’s only been here a short while. So why not return in 1848? Or 1492? There’s a suggestion that without Supes, many on Earth are suddenly fearful, and Steppy and his Parademons are attracted to fear. But fear compared with ... World War II? The Cuban Missile Crisis? C’mon.
What’s interesting about the post-Superman world, though, is how similar it is to our own: white racists filled with hatred attacking immigrant shop owners. For a major studio franchise flick, that’s not bad political commentary. What’s the ascendancy of Donald Trump like? It’s like the death of Superman. It’s that fucking sad.
Of course, Superman is brought back to life because the JLers need him to defeat Steppenwolf and the studio needs him to make billions of dollars. Batman, et al., take his undecayed corpose, dip it in some Kryptonian waters, turn on the third Mother Box, and have Flash jolt it with lightning at just the right moment.
It’s alive! It’s alive!
And oh shit, it’s angry! (Love the “Pet Cemetery” reference from the Flash.)
During the subsequent battle at Heroes Park, Supes seems close to killing Batman, but Bats go to Plan B—bringing in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to restore his humanity. Which raises the question: Why wasn’t that Plan A? And seriously? Clark is dead, too? With a gravestone and everything? Someone's gonna have some splainin' to do. Imagine the Smallville conversations: “Hey, isn’t it weird that Clark Kent and Superman died at the same time, and then both came back to life at the same time? That just seems like a pretty weird coincidence to me. Also, isn't Superman’s girlfriend forever hanging out at the Kent house? And don't Clark and Superman kinda look alike except for the glasses? OK, can we just stop this fucking charade already? How dumb do they think we are?”
But even with Lois, it takes a while for Supes to come around. First he has to fly to Smallville, to the Terrence Malicky wheatfields there, and have several conversations with Lois and his mom (Diane Lane). Meanwhile in Russia, the world begins to burn. That’s where Steppenwolf is creating the Unity and a hellish landscape. (Seriously, I long for a good actor in a grounded supervillain role—like Ian McKellan as Magneto or Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Enough with the space operas already.)
I’m glad they didn’t draw out the final battle too much. Once Superman returns, he and Flash vacate the civilians (including that one annoying Russian family that’s supposed to represent all of humanity or something); then he and Cyborg pull apart “the Unity” (we get a humorous line from Supes even if it feels contrary to his entire character since “Man of Steel”); then Supes freezes Steppenwolf’s sword while Wonder Woman slices it to bits. Weapon gone, Steppenwolf grows afraid, and the Parademons sense this and feed on him. Nice little irony—even if you figure Steppy should’ve worked out safety protocols on that centuries ago.
“Justice League” still has problems beyond those already mentioned. How does Batman know about the Parademons? Why are they kidnapping civilians again? How come the Amazonians haven’t progressed past arrows, swords and horses? And the CGI to remove Cavill's moustache during the reshoots just doesn't work. We also get way too much flirty talk with Wonder Woman, which sounds particularly bad post-Weinstein. The whole thing is a mash of Whedon’s light touch and Zack’s heavy hand, so expect unevenness.
Just don’t expect anything nearly as bad as “Batman v. Superman.”
Movie Review: The Little Hours (2017)
A 77% rating, movie critics? Why? Because it’s an indie, written and directed by the guy who did “Life After Beth,” with an assortment of your favorites from “Parks and Rec” (Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman), “Community” (Allison Brie), and “The Big Bang Theory” (Kate Micucci)? Along with indie faves John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen? And Jemima Kirke reprising Jessa from “Girls”? Because you like these people?
It’s a one-joke movie. It’s 14th-century nuns with modern attitudes and vocabulary. They basically swear the fuck out of the thing. It’s funny the first time we hear it, less so the 37th.
In a convent in 14th-century Italy, Fernanda (Plaza, of course) is the main swearer and tormenter of a well-meaning gardener; Ginerva (Micucci) is a tag-along tattletale, while Alessandra (Brie) just wants to get married—but her father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), doesn’t like the dowry that’s being demanded, so there she stays, embroidering.
Into this not-so-sedate world stumbles Massetto (Dave Franco, “21 Jump Street”), his blouse undone, fleeing his previous master, Lord Bruno (Offerman), whom he cuckolded. Father Tommasso (Reilly), knowing nothing of his background but needing a gardener to replace the one Fernanda scared away, tells him to pretend to be a deaf-mute, which, he feels, will placate the nuns. It doesn't. Instead, they take turns seducing him.
The big reveal in the third act is that Fernanda and her friend Marta (Kirke) are part of a coven of witches that meet regularly in the woods. Oh, and that the Father is getting it on with Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).
We get comeuppance from the Bishop (Armisen), but that’s about it. As for the confusing title? Apparently the last word is supposed to begin with a “w.” Hilarious.
According to IMDb, writer-director Jeff Baena based his movie on Pasolini’s “The Decameron” (1971), but he didn't do much actual writing—just an outline. The cast improvised the dialogue. It shows.