Movie review: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“I want Frances McDormund to be real,” I blurted out after seeing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a dark character drama centering on the tense standoff between a grieving mother (McDormund) and her local police department in the aftermath of her daughter’s rape and murder. Immediately after making my wish, I reached the same conclusion you did when you got to the end of that previous sentence, and I had to backtrack. “Wait. I mean, I don’t want her to be real, no mother should have to go through that, and obviously I’m glad that wasn’t a documented rape-murder-arson case outside Ebbing, although there are also plenty of those—”

Here, mercifully, my companion stopped me. “Babe, I get it. She was a total badass.”

And what a badass. McDormund plays Mildred as a nails-hard prairie mother of the old school—in another era, she would have looked at ease castrating a dozen hogs before cooking enough breakfast to feed a logging camp. Unfortunately, Mildred is stuck living in 2017, selling knickknacks to tourists whilst wearing a dumpy jumpsuit. It’s as if William Wallace, transplanted, were forced to don a Taco Bell polo. A bit of ancient brutality has followed Mildred to modern times, however; her daughter’s unsolved murder dogs her with vicious, unflagging persistence. Mildred is going to make sure the local police feel its bite. Draining her resources, she pays for three vivid red billboards, strung along the road like a dark Burma-Shave sign and addressed very personally to the local police: ‘Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?’ Seeing the signs, her son yelps “Jesus Christ, mom!” But Mildred is just getting started. Her quest for justice brings her into loggerheads with the dying Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his dimmer, meaner deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell, the astonishing Swiss Army actor who has never quite become a household name, perhaps because he dissolves so completely into each role that most people can only remember him as “that guy, you know”, with much finger-snapping and “oooh, it’s on the tip of my tongue”ing and references to his other movies). McDormund, Harrelson and Rockwell go into the rock tumbler of the plot together, and Martin McDonagh’s taut, merciless script brings each character’s softest parts up against each other’s roughest edges, to results as brilliant as they are funny—the movie never goes for the easy bloodbath, preferring instead to show people restrained by slightly glitchy moral codes. In one of the finest scenes, Mildred decides to commit arson, but conscientiously rings the phone inside the building three times—just to make sure everyone inside is rousted before the first Molotov cocktail is thrown. It’s a kind, complex gesture, that pays off in complex ways, and I can’t wait to revisit the scene and pick up the microexpressions I missed the first time around. Mildred might not be real, but Frances McDormund is, and that, in 2017, is as close as we get to a miracle.

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Movie review: “Justice League”

A long time ago, in an America far, far away, there was a movie adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s jewel-like novel, “Practical Magic”. Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman were wisely chosen to play witch siblings Sally and Gillian; Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, the sisters’ maiden aunts. The actresses got drunk as hell for the scenes requiring them to get drunk as hell. Every detail, from the Harry Belafonte song on the soundtrack to the blossoms on the trees (custom-sewn from silk), was painstakingly calibrated to match the tone and spirit of the book. The movie looked and sounded perfect. It was completely soulless. Something elemental had gone missing between book and script; while Hoffman had used magical realism to intensify the colors of a recognizable world, the movie used magic to distance the audience, reminding them at every turn that this was not their world; that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

 

I was fifteen when “Practical Magic” broke my heart; today, “Justice League” reminded me exactly how it felt.

 

With a tool chest of $300 million dollars; with a capable cast of charming and talented actors; with unfettered access to some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century, “Justice League” manages only to give us a frustrating, tantalizing taste of the better movie that could have been. That better movie comes through in glimpses: the delightful, motor-mouthed Flash (Ezra Miller) realizing that Superman (Henry Cavill) can track him at full speed, surprise nearly knocking the younger superhero ass-over-teakettle. A brief, hurtful conversation between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) where you can see both characters realize—and regret—the moment they’ve gone too far. A recurring joke about brunch. Unfortunately, these gems are buried in a script that feels as if several different screenplays were shuffled, deck-of-cards style, to create it. Conversations frequently feel as though the characters aren’t responding to each other, the disjointed dialogue a hallmark of Zack Snyder’s work. Consider the following exchange between Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman:

“Of course, you took us back here.”

“It’s home.”

“You smell good.”

Are these two even in the same room? Even clunkier exchanges await you, but Snyder’s Mad-Libs approach to dialogue means that many of the worst lines will erase themselves from your memory ere the second you’ve heard them. (This should be regarded as a mercy: the only comparably awful dialogue in modern cinema, Anakin Skywalker’s love scenes with Queen Amidala, cannot be remembered without sustaining brain damage.) To their credit, the actors soldier bravely forward; Jeremy Irons, who deserves better, reminisces about exploding wind-up penguins with only the faintest whiff of a smirk, but even he can’t save us from an exchange like this:

Alfred: “I don’t recognize this world anymore.”

Batman: “I don’t have to recognize this world. I just have to save it.”

Well, bully for Batman, but us poor mortals in the theater seats do need to recognize the world of a movie, especially if we’re supposed to give a damn about it. Unfortunately, this movie’s villain is a generic, greyish CGI goat-goblin with a backstory of “Bwahaha” and a motive of “Mwahaha”, and the climactic battle is set in a barren, reddish, vaguely Russian desert scattered with an afterthought’s worth of unnamed civilians. Who are they? We couldn’t care less, because this movie doesn’t care at all: the civilian characters are there solely to insulate the franchise from the criticism leveled at “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—that Batman and Superman were acting more like villains than heroes, brawling through cities without regard for human life. In “Justice League”, there is a moment in which Superman, caught on cell-phone video as a group of excited children fire questions at him, is asked what his favorite thing is about our planet. Henry Cavill squints off into the distance, chuckles awkwardly, then falls silent. As written, the scene could be an elegant and evocative little grace note. Siegel and Schuster would have had a lot of trouble writing the next line—because their kind-hearted Superman would’ve had difficulty choosing just one favorite thing about Earth. Snyder’s stilted Man of Steel, though, has a different reason for his silence: he can’t think of anything. This is what DC’s come to. I don’t recognize this world anymore.

Movie review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

I am so mad at Taika Waititi right now. I am up late at night, with a staggering head cold, long after I intended to be asleep, having written and deleted over ten different starts to this review. Because as it turns out, reviewing a nearly flawless movie? Is a real bitch.

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so good it barely even registers as a movie—you shuffle in, sit down, and are so thoroughly entertained, and at such breakneck pace, that the two hours feel more like two minutes. There is no chance to reach the bottom of your popcorn, much less murmur to a companion; forget using the bathroom. You will not move until the end, and then you will beg for more. This merciless ride comes courtesy of Taika Waititi, New Zealander, writer/director of (among other things) “What We Do in the Shadows”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, and “Eagle vs Shark”, and my new nemesis. He is the reason I may never sleep again, because now I have to convince you that a movie about the end of the world should be as colorful as an Orlando candy shop; that you can feel emotions about a hammer; that there is an undiscovered application of Jeff Goldblum’s shtick.

 

The tragedy is that “Thor: Ragnarok” has arrived so late in the progression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that those not steeped from the beginning in the studio’s closed ecosystem of interconnected movies will likely pass this movie by, thus missing out on the giddy delight of a fully-matured blockbuster director finally getting his hands on a $180-million-dollar toy chest. Think Spielberg, going from battling a malfunctioning fiberglass shark to getting the remote control for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Waititi has wisely charted a course just a little left of expectations, setting up familiar dilemmas (estranged siblings; a city besieged by dark supernatural forces; what the hell to do with Karl Urban) but solving for consistently unexpected values. The dialogue crackles along like microwave popcorn at the precise moment that everything goes apeshit in the bag—laugh too loud at one punchline, and you’ll miss the next four. But this isn’t a Whedon or a Sorkin or a McFarlane joint; you never get the self-congratulatory reference bingo that bogs down many clever screenwriters. For every joke, there’s a corresponding visual subtlety, a moment of pathos or panic that doesn’t get verbalized, creating a visual story as rich as the dialogue itself, of which a stunning eighty percent was improvised. Perhaps that freedom accounts for the sheer oddness of some of the movie’s conceits: in one setup, a rock-monster with a Kiwi accent carries around a dead slug pal because he “doesn’t have the heart to set him down”. That’s a joke setup. Nothing like that has ever survived a focus group before, but now that “Thor: Ragnorok” has arrived, maybe some more of it will. Welcome, weirdness. Welcome, Taika Waititi. Now please leave. I need to sleep.

Movie review: “Blade Runner 2049”

I almost didn’t see “Blade Runner 2049”, because my sister told me it was nearly three hours long, and, at 34, three solid hours of entertainment isn’t entertaining. I have back problems, a daily to-do list that spans several pages, and a cranky yet persistent belief that if filmmakers are really genius auteurs, they can figure out how to edit their auteur-ness down into a brisk two hours. “Blade Runner 2049” has proven me wrong. From the moment the darkness envelops you to the moment the house lights return, you remain transfixed, hanging in a suspension of equal parts enchantment and horror, until the movie sees fit to release you.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner who makes his living “retiring” (killing) older models of replicant. He performs his job with an air of calm detachment, which he’d need: K is himself a replicant, kept in the job because of his human commanders’ belief that new replicants are incapable of disobedience. Because “Blade Runner 2049” is not fucking around, K is a cop, the growing moral schism between his identity and his brutal occupation instantly recognizable as a commentary on policing in 2017 America. As he did in “Drive”, Gosling gives the impression of projecting two completely different faces at once: the impassive facade his character must maintain, and the mounting interior panic that only we in the audience can see. Gosling’s control over his microexpressions is so startlingly effective that watching him feels like being granted psychic powers—we understand K perfectly, but we don’t know how we understand, and couldn’t explain it if we tried. The moviemakers, wisely, allow his performance to do the bulk of the exposition: through K’s eyes, we slowly absorb the social hierarchy of 2049 Los Angeles, in which humans are king, some replicants are more human than others, and even replicants may own a virtual house slave, a holographic girlfriend to cook your dinner and switch off obediently when you want some peace and quiet, or when a phone call comes through from your boss. With all the vegetation and most of the animals blasted away by radiation, man and replicant alike have no choice but to consume synthetic nutrition and eke enjoyment out of synthetic relationships: K brings presents to his holographic girlfriend, even though his hands sink right through her; just as K’s human supervisor Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) tries for a collegial drink, but can’t ask K a question without phrasing it as an order. The dystopia’s blasted and lifeless landscapes are creepy, but the disturbance is nothing compared to the chill that passes over you when you realize that you’re looking at an ideal American workforce / consumer base.

Presiding over the monopoly on replicant manufacture, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) plays a futuristic CEO as a nightmare Steve Jobs who casually guts protoypes that don’t live up to his inscrutable specs. As Wallace pulls the strings behind K’s investigation of a missing replicant, we sense the plot closing around us, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s hypnotic score and director Denis Villeneuve’s haunting use of fog lulls us into a pleasant stupor—the ending is inevitable, but still surprises. It’s a hell of a Venus flytrap, and the strangest thing about it is how badly I want to be caught again.

Movie trailer review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

OK so the trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. I can’t even tell you how excited I am for this movie. Let me count the ways:

First and foremost, Kylo Ren. I don’t think there’s been a more beautifully balanced anti-villain in my lifetime. I want so desperately to see this murderous little shit redeemed—I want to see him redeemed despite that he killed literally my favorite fictional character of all time, I want to see him redeemed SO HARD, AGAINST A WALL… wait, where was I? Right, Kylo Ren and how masterfully these folks have managed to put us both in sympathy with, and in terror of, this complete and raging asshole. It starts with the very first scene, a contemplative and quiet moment as Kylo Ren looks out a window. It’s so peaceful and pretty that your brain almost doesn’t register that the shower which he’s watching out the window isn’t rain, but sparks from assembling weaponry. We’re meant to draw a parallel between Kylo and the weapons outside—both he, and the At-Ats and other insensible war machines, are just tools for Snoke to manipulate, as the voiceover makes clear: “When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power… and beyond that, something truly special.”

The trailer cleverly uses this as the pivot point to Rey, who is presented as Kylo’s opposite in every way: dressed in homespun tones of dust and cream, sharing an island with Luke that is as green and verdant as every space occupied by the First Order isn’t. Rey, upon realizing that the Force is active and coursing within her, is looking for help learning to control it, and the voiceover makes it sound like she’s asking Luke for that help. “Something inside me has always been there, but now it’s awake and I need help.” I’m going to go ahead and guess that this snippet of dialogue is actually from her encounter with Kylo Ren at the end of the trailer (“I need someone to show me my place in all this.”), which encounter I’m furthermore going to guess takes place in the flaming wreckage that Luke’s eventually going to crawl out from under. That makes sense as a story arc, right? Hermit!Luke trains Rey, behaves like kind of a dick to her because he’s Luke and it’s been lonely on the island, and when the full extent of her powers reveal themselves he gets spooked and refuses to train her further. We don’t get to see him change his mind because Kylo Ren picks that exact moment to show up and burn shit to the ground; Rey, still stung by Luke’s rejection, decides that Kylo is the only other mentor who can possibly understand her and goes off with him, leaving Luke, who knows what kind of danger she’s in, to dig himself out from under the flaming drywall and follow them—with C3PO as his erstwhile sidekick. Finn, too, is surrounded by enemies—he’s back in his First Order uniform, embedded with the enemy on a mission of subterfuge. Poe is the only one of the trio who seems to be free of the First Order and running loose around the galaxy; my guess is that he’ll take the wild-card/Han role in the new trio of friends, providing rescues and sex appeal as needed.

Beyond speculation, this trailer offers tantalizing glimpses of two new creatures—a Porg, which, we learn, has a battle yelp like the beginning of “Immigrant Song” as sung by a Furby, and a crystal fox, which looks like a coyote designed by Swarovski. We’re going to need some interesting animals around to distract us from the knowledge that we’re watching Carrie Fisher’s last performance. Even if Kylo Ren doesn’t kill her, 2016 did, and seeing Leia in a situation of terrible peril with the knowledge that she’s gone feels strange and obscene, especially from the vantage point of 2017, when we are all in terrible peril. The Aboriginal people of Australia refuse to see any movie that may contain images of a dead person. I’m beginning to understand why. “The Last Jedi” promises us an ever-darkening world, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” did. I only hope we all live long enough to see the return of the Jedi.

Movie review: “The LEGO Ninjago Movie”

We now have three installments of the least creatively titled franchise ever, and a pattern is emerging: the LEGO movies center on isolated and friendless boys who long for the bonds of family, particularly their fathers, but who can relate to others only through the medium of plastic brick assembly. The first LEGO movie revealed its stakes in an unforgettable last-minute twist, and this is a problem for the subsequent LEGO movies: unforgettable twists can’t be reused. “The LEGO Batman Movie” tried to hit the same note by giving Batman a found family of Joker, Robin and Barbara Jordan, but without a single relationship as a focal point, the movie floundered. “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” tries the same trick, but with eight relationships instead of three. One feels the creators have not fully reflected. Nevertheless, onward to Ninjago, a colorful, vaguely Asian city with one glaring problem: a volcano-inhabiting supervillain named Garmadon who attacks the city so regularly that the local TV news features a Garmadon forecast. Opposing him are a group of teenaged ninjas representing the natural elements: earth, fire, lightning, water, ice… and green. Green is Lloyd. He’s Garmadon’s son. If the movie had left the stakes this simple—the son of a supervillain struggles to define himself—it would have made for a better film. Unfortunately, the movie tries for multiple epiphanies, and doesn’t quite stick the landing on any of them. However, I bet you won’t mind: Ninjago is so lively, so inventively jammed that it feels like a fully realized world, with potential for stories and lives well beyond the borders of the movie. Which, since you can purchase every brick and minifig used to build that world, means that the creators of “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” did stick one important landing. Gentlemen, start your Christmas lists.

Movie review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Matthew Vaughn can stretch your suspension of disbelief farther than most directors, but even he has a limit. Oddly, that limit isn’t “an ancient society of weavers who are also assassins” (“Wanted”), or “a mutant Holocaust survivor orchestrates the Cuban missile crisis” (“X-Men: First Class”) or even “Brad Pitt as an Irish Traveller” (“Snatch”). The moment Matthew Vaughan lost his grip on me was the moment he turned his charming protagonist, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) into a rapist, and expected me to cheer.

 

Let’s back up a bit: the “Kingsman” franchise has always been founded on the bedrock of Bond, in the same sense that “Family Guy” is founded on decades of accreted formula sitcoms: it’s not a satire on the format so much as an envelope-pushing exaggeration. So everything wrong with Bond—the ludicrous gadgets, the windy villains, the misogyny—is present and accounted for in the “Kingsman” movies. But where Bond is frequently gritty and dour, “Kingsman” is bright and poppy, with a spray-paint sensibility and a buoyant soundtrack. You see Colin Firth cartwheeling ass-over-bulletproof-umbrella to “Free Bird” and think, Oh, this is supposed to be fun!

 

For the most part, it is fun: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” continues in the same vein as “Kingsman: The Secret Service” did, with gleefully cartoonish bloodshed (a henchman is fed into a meat grinder fully clothed, a perfect hamburger patty emerging on the other end), a jubilant soundtrack (this one features both Prince and Elton John, the latter of whom cameos, delightfully), and plenty of pleasingly garish fashion courtesy of the immensely talented Arianne Phillips (Taron Egerton wears an orange velvet tuxedo jacket that deserves immediate enshrinement in the Met’s costume collection). And there is a new toybox of American characters to unpack: the British Kingsmen, who operate their unsanctioned spy agency out of a tailor’s shop, discover a parallel group of Yanks, whose home base is disguised as a whiskey distillery. Here is where the questionable decisions begin: Vaughan introduces Tequila (Channing Tatum), only to place him on literal ice for the majority of the movie—a criminal waste of charm. The Kingsmen must carry on with Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), who was dashing as Oberon Martell in “Game of Thrones”, but who gives a strangled, uncomfortable-seeming performance here as a bullwhip-toting cowboy. Halle Berry, too, seems ill-at-ease with her character, Ginger Ale, who’s given a glass ceiling to bump up against, but no lines or scenes with which to break it. Finally, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) reappears… with retrograde amnesia. (Halle Berry, never one to conceal her contempt for a silly plot device, all but rolls her eyes as she delivers the diagnosis.)

 

Other flaws emerge: two characters share the codename Whiskey, which other characters rightly observe is confusing. No plot development or punchline rests on this state of affairs; it just exists, and is confusing. Taron Egerton’s character is called “Eggsy” one minute, “Eggy” the next—well, which is it? But chief among all problems is the stomach-turning scene at Glastonbury, in which Eggsy/Eggy must meet, and seduce, Clara (Poppy Delevingne). His goal is not to inspire voluntary disclosure of secrets, which would be a bit icky but within the established bounds of Bond-ian spycraft, but to clandestinely insert a miniaturized tracking device in Clara’s vagina without her knowledge. This is sexual assault. What’s particularly odd is that I think the filmmakers know it; Eggsy first registers alarm, then disgust as he’s told the device must be applied to a mucous membrane—before reality dawns, Eggsy asks if he’s supposed to jam his finger up Clara’s nose. In a panic, he locks himself in a bathroom and calls his girlfriend, Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) for permission to carry on with the mission; we hope for a dousing of good sense, but Tilde’s the wrong girl for that. The price of her blessing is an engagement ring—just in case we’d forgotten the jarring, transactional note at the end of the first movie, when Tilde offered Eggsy access to her rectum as a literal reward for a job well done. Deal made, Eggsy returns to Clara and slides the tiny tracker into her panties—incredibly, the camera follows his hand to invade her vagina, here represented by a CGI-pink landscape swirling with blood vessels, where the tracker spins off like a satellite into space. Later on, just in case any young girls in the audience had any lingering doubts as to how very much the filmmakers hate them, Clara will be murdered by her boyfriend for having cheated.

 

After this, I didn’t know how to feel. The Glastonbury scene is so ugly in tone and spirit that it jarred me completely out of my cocoon of enjoyment, and I struggled to return. Even a silly, up-tempo fight sequence to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”—a pairing of song and scene I’ve wanted for ages—couldn’t completely erase the pall, and I left the theater feeling degraded and more than a little dirty. I had, after all, paid to see the movie. Did I ask for this?