Movie Reviews - 2017 postsSaturday December 09, 2017
Movie Review: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
Why is the fifth “Transformers” movie subtitled “The Last Knight“? Besides the obvious attempt to cash in on the Batman franchise?
Glad you asked! You see, back in 484 A.D., King Arthur and his knights were about to lose an epic “Game of Thrones”-inspired battle against the Saxons when the man whom Arthur trusted implicitly, the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci), a comic-relief drunk, stumbles upon a crashed spaceship with a transformer inside. Wait, 12 transformers? That’s what Wiki tells me but god help me if I remember more than one in this scene. Anyway, Merlin’s innate ... comedy? ... somehow convinces the transformers to back his side in the war (no Prime Directive for these fuckers), so they transform themselves into a giant three-head “Game of Thrones”-inspired dragon, give Merlin an alien staff, and warn him that “a great evil” will come for it one day; then off they go to battle and win the thing for Arthur and England.
CUT TO: Present-day, post-Transformers-III-or-IV Chicago, where, in the ruins, four “Stranger Things”-inspired nerd boys are saved by a fierce, Eleven-inspired girl, Izabella (Isabella Moner), and her transformer pals, who are, in turn, saved by our hero from the previous film: failed Texas inventor and all-around good-guy dad Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Cutting loose the nerds, they go off to some safe-ish haven/junkyard to wait out the next step in the inane journey.
Did you spot it? Yes, Yeager is our “last knight.” He’s the guy who will save the day. How? Well, this odd little transformer will attached itself to him, mostly to his arm but also move around his body sometimes, which gives him the opportunity to reveal his tight abs to the Oxbridge-educated but standoffish hottie Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a direct descendant of Merlin. (Wahlberg here is like, say, Margot Robbie in the airport dressing/undressing in “Suicide Squad”: naively unaware of the effect his sexy body has on others.) Then, at a crucial moment, after Yeager and Wembley take a transformer-sub to the bottom of the ocean, and run from/fight the 12 guardian transformers there, not to mention Optimus Prime, who, like a WWE wrestler, has turned from face (hero) to heel (villain), because...
Fuck it. Enough to know that they resurface, there’s a battle, Megatron steals the staff, Optimus realizes the error of his ways because Bumblebee speaks, but he’s about to be executed anyway by the 12 guardian transformers when Cade shouts “NO!” and the odd little transform becomes ... EXCALIBUR! Yes! Arthur’s sword! And Cade stops the mighty blade of the guaridan transformer! And he saves Optimus! And now he’s ready for battle.
And so Cade takes Excalibur and ...
Actually, that’s pretty much it. That’s all he does with it. It doesn’t come into play ever again.
Remember when you were like 9 or 10 and you’d play at “war,” or some kind of imaginary adventure game, and it was basically, “And then this happens, and then this happens,” and “No! Those guys are over there! No! That guy’s dead!” Remember that kind of thing? No logic, no sense of connecting the past with the now, just the hell-bent movement forward? That’s this. That's Michael Bay.
This movie is so bad I kept flashing to that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” season in which Larry David is cast in “The Producers” because Mel Brooks wants it to fail. He’s sick of his creation and wants to destroy it and move on. Is Bay doing the same? Is he sick of his creation and wants to end it? Or is he simply boundary-testing how stupid we are? “Can they take something this dumb? Cuz I’ve about reached my limit. I can't make it any dumber. I canna dumb it down any further, Captain.”
The plot is basically: Optimus and army men chase our heroes, who are on a hellbent journey to find a MacGuffin (alien staff) that could lead to the end of the world, and which only they can gather. Once they find the MacGuffin, and once the bad guys immediately steal it and try to use it to destroy the Earth, Optimus and the military guys join our heroes for the final battle, which takes place, with a nod toward the movie's King Arthur opening, over England’s moun-tains green. And the good guys win.
Plus Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmund Burton, the one who knows the backstory.
Plus Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “VEEP”) as the government scientist apparently in charge of everything who orders generals to use nukes against the Decepticons because ”magic isn’t real."
I kept wondering: In these movies, isn’t there always something that’s been left behind by centuries-ago transformers that today's transformers need to get a hold of to rule the world? Or save it? Shouldn’t someone do a study on this?
[Smaller voice] Oh no, I don’t have to do it, do I?
No, thank god. Or thank Rob Bricken at io9, a better man than I, who has already done it. Read his synopsis. He tears apart the movie, the series, and Michael Bay, with the necessary humor.
Final reminder: This is all about a toy robot that can turn into a car. Have we gone mad?
Movie Review: Snatched (2017)
Based on reviews (37% on Rotten Tomatoes), box office ($45.8 million, a 60% drop from Amy Schumer’s previous film), and word-of-mouth (crickets), not to mention the awful double entendre of the title, I expected “Snatched” to suuuuuuuuck.
It doesn’t. Mind you, it’s not good, but it’s not bottom-of-the-barrel.
It’s good enough, in fact, to make me wonder why it didn’t do better. And I hate myself for the answer I’m about to give: I think it has a little something to do with Goldie Hawn’s face.
It’s not that she looks old; that would be fine. She just looks like she’s had too much plastic surgery.
Murray not Murray
Schumer plays a classic Schumer character, a spoiled, solipsistic American girl named Emily Middleton. We first see her talking endlessly to a retailing clothing clerk about an upcoming trip to Ecuador with her boyfriend—who’s in a rock band. Except the clerk turns out to be the customer, Emily is the clerk, and a second later she’s fired for being, you know, awful. Then her boyfriend (Randall Park, “VEEP”) dumps her for pretty much the same reason. Schumer opens the movie like a classic Bill Murray character—losing everything in the first five minutes—except she’s less funny, and less endearing, doing it. It was always a neat trick how Murray managed it.
Anyway, the plane tickets are nonrefundable, nobody likes her, and that’s why she winds up traveling with her mom, Linda (Hawn), who is in her 60s, lives alone with cats, and assumes all strangers are potential criminals.
I have to admit: This seems like great casting. One era’s kookie blonde giving birth to the next. I just wish Goldie had let herself age as ungracefully as the rest of us. Instead, she went the Hollywood route, and her face has that stretched, vaguely platypus look. They also have her playing against type: instead of dingbatty, wide-eyed and inviting, she’s suspicious and closed off. (Or maybe that’s what happens to the wide-eyed and inviting over time?) Either way, she’s the straight person here.
In Quito, Ecuador’s capital, Emily just wants to drink and meet a cute guy, while Linda assumes the worst. Both get what they want. The cute guy takes them on an excursion and they’re rammed by a white van and kidnapped by Colombians. For ransom? Doesn't anyone know they have no money? But at least it answers the question: Why Ecuador? Initially I thought it was because they’d wind up in the Galapagos.
A few things I liked: In their various attempts to escape the clutches of Hector Morgado (Óscar Jaenada, who played Catinflas in a 2014 Mexican biopic), they accidently kill his henchmen ... who turn out to be 1) his nephew, and 2) his only son. The neophytes who—oops—cause the deepest cuts always makes me laugh. I also like the interplay between Linda’s frenetic, spoiled, stay-at-home son, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz, “The Mindy Project”), and the laconic, career State Dept. official Morgan Russell (Bashir Salahuddin). Oh, and all the various saviors/rescuers that aren’t: Christopher Meloni’s jungle adventurer; the lesbian team-up of Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack, who make the leap but leave Emily hanging.
There are laughs in “Snatched.” I laughed. But not enough.
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 undercut 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.