Category Archives: Movie Review

Wind River

[3.5 stars]

Earlier this year, Wind River was seen as a hands-down awards winner.  Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, also gets behind the camera for this film. He delivers another intense script of a murder on an Indian reservation.

Jeremy Renner (Arrival) dials back his action-boy push to return back to his Hurt Locker roots. He is focused, quiet, and emotionally primed, but kept in check as he pursues his goals. Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron) also gives a great performance of a young FBI officer, not incompetent, but certainly unseasoned. Gil Birmingham (The Lone Ranger) is the other impactful surprise in the story. As a bereaved father, and mirror for Renner, he swings between strength and devastation in heart-breaking ways.

Wind River did capture a number of earlier festivals. But it has hit some bumps in the road having released so early in the year and with a number of other great films just starting to screen. It also is bucking the trend of naturalism I’ve been seeing on the screen. Wind River is very well crafted, but it feels that way too, especially by the final act. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It has incredible impact, though it does feel like Sheridan lost a little bit of his careful control during the climax of the film. But its competitors are large ideas and impact in smaller packages; more real life than screen life. What makes Wind River swim comfortably with these other films is the quality of its writing, acting, cinematography, and the reality that it is based on the truth. That last bit will leave you feeling hollow and ashamed by the final credits, and it should.

Wind River

What’s happening in awards season, (crafted) naturally

Awards season this year is highlighting an interesting trend. It wasn’t clear to me until recently when I saw Wind River. We appear to be seeing a new version of cinéma vérité, demarked more by the sense of the story than with the more readily identifiable “shaky cam.”

It isn’t about scriptless tales either, another hallmark of some of the old vérité movement and a lot of recent films (another aspect I’ve discussed in the past). Think of it as ‘crafted naturalism,’ if you will. This new trend is about intimacy and truth in the telling. You may argue that those aspects are essential for any film, and you’d be generally right. But these new films, in general, have a smaller, more intimate feel and feel less constructed–more ‘tales told’ than ‘tales built.’

The stories that are capturing the judges and the audiences are also about imperfect people, more gray than black & white in their actions and morals. Plots are not simple and obvious or highly crafted, they follow the natural and unexpected paths of life, leading to comedy, tragedy, and triumph, but rarely only one of those and often without perfect symmetries .

In addition, the stories that are floating to the top are also, almost to a one, about love. Often that is a romantic entanglement or desire, but family love is also represented. It isn’t a surprise that smaller films are dominating; they are the darlings of the early festivals and awards. But all indications are that the wave will carry over to the majors as well.

Successful entertainment is always a reflection of society at the time. It is a mirror that is accepted as truth; to cry out, or to escape. Whatever the reason for the popularity of a movie, it is always in context of the time. Enduring films either find a deep vein of truth that carries over and morphs in resonance with various evolutions of culture, or they are part of a deeper truth that is more stable within the culture. If it is accepted over the long term internationally it likely has hit on what we’d call “a human truth.” But, typically, these wide-ranging films tend to be more action and escapist rather than character driven. The exception to that tends to be sprawling, escapist romances (for example, Doctor Zhivago), but even those tend to fade or tarnish with time.

So what does this new trend tell us about our times? Let’s just look at the films that received multiple SAG nominations, as an example.

These are not big films. They are focused on individuals in the extreme. In the case of Get Out, in very interesting ways. But, on top of that aspect, they aren’t about obvious heroes or villains. There is nothing simple about the choices the characters are making, but the choices are very real (even based on reality in a few cases). They ring true rather than created. These aren’t soaring fantasies of life, they are windows onto it.

Some years we get many dramatizations, but they are often ‘big’ stories, even when focused on individuals. Think about Spotlight, The Big Short, or the upcoming The Post. Perhaps the right word is that they’re ‘slick.’ They don’t ring true so much as ring of a truth we want to believe in. This year, they just feel different to me…or perhaps it is just me and where I am in life that is affecting my experience. In any event, there is some kind of shift going on and it is worth noticing.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

[4 stars]

Awards season is off to a heck of a start, if Lady Bird and this film are any indication. Both are solid depictions of life with incredible casts and great film-making. In this case, writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) delicately balances a challenging story without devolving into melodrama or nihilism. He creates a real world, painted mostly in grays, that doesn’t drown in its own bile; there is humor in the dark and there is truth in the extreme. In fact, it is a story that probably has come out at the right time to find its audience.

The movie is also a brilliant platform for Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!). She delivers an amazing performance in a long career of strong, put-upon women. Despite many of her characters coming from the same bucket, McDormand continues to find unique ways to bring these people to life. And, as is often the case, she dominates the film.

But McDormand is not alone in delivering. There is a solid ensemble around her navigating a complicated set of creations. Woody Harrelson (The Glass Castle) tops that group. In recent years his characters have been getting more nuanced, and Chief Willoughby may top them all. If it weren’t for McDormand’s incredible presence, he might have easily taken over the film himself. Sam Rockwell (Laggies) also delivers one of his career finest. It isn’t perfect, but he manages a journey for the character that is unexpected and, for the most part, earned.

There is also a series of smaller, but essential roles. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Abbie Cornish (Robocop), Zeljko Ivanek (Madam Secretary), and Peter Dinklage (Rememory) each bring colors to the story. Every one of them gets at least a moment to shine and something new for their reels without detracting from the main story. And then there is Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) who is having a really great couple of years in terms of projects and who keeps growing as an actor.

Three Billboards is a challenging story, no matter how you slice it. It forces you to considerable unanswerable questions and unthinkable acts. But whether you appreciate the bones of the story or not, it is worth seeing it for the performances alone. It is, in fact, only the end and a little (a very little) of Rockwell’s performance that has me knocking a bit off my rating. Because of these aspects, the film isn’t quite perfect but, damn, it is visually stunning, emotionally powerful, and at a level of intelligence that is usually avoided.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Unlocked

[3 stars]

Unlocked is a solid, but standard, espionage and betrayal tale with few surprises, but some fun action. Unfortunately, also completely without heart. There are no personal stakes here other than Noomi Rapace’s (Child 44) individual struggle with her past…death, even of friends, is far too cheap to get us to engage with the story. What should have been Rapace’s version of Salt ended up more a forgettable drama with some nice moments and a strong female lead.

Toni Collette (Japanese Story) delivers her own solid performance as well, and even gets to have a couple brilliantly fun moments. Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Michael Douglas (Last Vegas) and John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire) fill out the known cast and each provide what was required. None however exceed that requirement in memorable ways. At least Bloom is playing a kind of character we’ve not really seen of him before, and he does it well. No one is bad in their role, they’re just victims of the movie itself.

The root problem of this film is in the inaugural movie script by Peter O’Brien. Michael Apted’s (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) direction was nicely contained and naturalistic, keeping it all within the realm of the believable amid the craziness, but it couldn’t solve the problems of predictability and uninspired mystery. The film isn’t boring, but it just isn’t surprising. We’ve seen all this before.

Unlocked

Logan Lucky

[3 stars]

Logan is a character-driven, Southern heist film that isn’t nearly as clever as it wants to be, but clever enough to entertain. The real problem is the pacing rather than the caper. It is slow. Very slow. Not at all what you’d expect from the director that brought us the slick Ocean’s 11/12/13 series. It is steeped in the sensibilities of its region both in attitude and energy.  That makes it both quirky and, well, at the lower end of the energy scale despite being set against the biggest NASCAR race of the year.

While there are no bad performances bringing this to life, there aren’t any brilliant ones either. There are, admittedly, a couple surprising ones. Seth MacFarlane (The Orville) is practically unrecognizable in his role.  It isn’t a great performance in that it is a little broad, but it serves its purpose. Adam Driver (Justice League) transforms as well, exchanging his typical frenetic energy for a less-educated, Southern twist on his Paterson role. While Channing Tatum (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) slows himself down and drives the story from a family angle in a laconic way, it isn’t something entirely new for him, just more extreme. And, while certainly not a female driven film, Riley Keough (It Comes at Night) provides at least one strong woman in the cast. Katie Holmes (Touched with Fire) isn’t weak, but she is very much in the background; the young  Farrah Mackenzie, as her and Tatum’s daughter, is a more impactful influence.

Director Steven Soderbergh directs Rebecca Blunt’s (which is likely a currently unbroken pseudonym) first script about as well as could be expected. It really is a family drama with a caper veneered over the top. The two aspects live in an unhappy balance through most of the film. You get a glimpse of what it wanted to be in the final moments, but not really much before that.

There are some fun and funny moments in this escape, but it isn’t going to end up on your top 10. Save it for an evening that needs filling and trust it as you watch…it will get to where it is going, just not as quickly as you probably would like.

Logan Lucky

A Ghost Story

[3 stars]

I truly admire what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) wants to do with his latest film. It is a devastating look at love and loss, and a musing on the fabric of existence. Very heady stuff for a small indie film that focuses on a single relationship. OK, yes, and a little Sophomoric too. However, it rises mostly above that due to the performances and quality of the execution. Rooney Mara (Song to Song) and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) create a very believable pair whose lives are slowly exposed over the course of the tale. Both performances are quietly intense and subtle.

Frustratingly, far too much of the movie is too close to reality. It is easily 20 minutes longer than it need be to make its points. Frankly, you can only hold a shot so long before the value of the moment is gone and it begins to feel forced or more like a theatre “happening” rather than a specific moment in life intended to evoke empathy. We live in real life, we know the moment to moment is often boring and, sometimes, interminable. You can achieve that experience without adding explosions, quick cuts, or making an audience sit through all of it. In fact, we watch movies to avoid the bulk of the boring parts, so if you’re going to use those moments to make a point, you need to do it carefully.

The pacing issue is mostly through the first 2/3 of the film. And Lowery does find some very clever editing to overcome that criticism at points; even more so in the final third. After a long setup, this is where the film moves on to the meat of his vision and point (including one rather disturbing and long nihilistic diatribe by Jonny Mars in case you weren’t going to get there on your own).

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very different portrayal of a haunting. The cinematography is impressive, with some truly breath-taking shots. Though, personally, I found the forced 4:3 frame distracting. I think it was intended to elicit nostalgia, but it was too self-conscious for my taste, and already an out-moded frame of reference (if you will).

All that said, A Ghost Story is worth your time, but it isn’t quite the impactful and amazing movie I had been led to expect from the festival buzz it generated this past summer. You also shouldn’t start watching it if you’re tired or just looking for distraction. The film does eventually pay off and it is definitely something a little different from most of the offerings out there. Just be prepared to be a participant rather than just be an observer.

A Ghost Story

Lady Bird

[4.5 stars]

Coming of age stories have been around since, well, people were coming of age. Often they are fraught with hyperbole, grandiose dreams, heightened emotions, heroes and villains, and often triumph or tragedy on a large scale.

Lady Bird bucks all of that. There are no villains. It is quietly wonderful. Beautiful and painfully realistic. It is an unvarnished mother-daughter relationship told honestly from the their points of view, but with the maturity of an unbiased eye with the distance to see the truth.

Soairse Ronan (Brooklyn) holds this film up from its shocking beginning to its reflective end. She is utterly compelling and completely believable as a California teen in the early aughts; an era that is more different and distant now than you might realize till you see it recreated.

As her parents, Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) and Tracy Letts (The Lovers) are brilliant centers of love and stress for the teen. There is nothing simple about this family and no one pretends otherwise. But no one is really wrong or right either. There is a deep connection between these characters, however strained it may get. Must like life.

Ronan, as high schoolers are wont to do, has a couple of relationship interests. For this movie they take the shape of two very different, but very believable young men, Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timotheé Chalamet (Love the Coopers). Hedges, in particular, gets to create yet another character boiling inside with secrets and desires.

There are also the girl friends, in two very different flavors. Odeya Rush (The Giver) and, probably the least known in the cast, Beanie Feldstein are great foils and supports for Ronan’s Lady Bird. Feldstein will certainly be getting more after this performance.

There are a couple smaller roles worth calling out as well, for both their humor and humanity. Bob Stephenson (Jericho), Stephen Henderson (Fences), and Lois Smith (The Nice Guys) are all great character actors and really bring it for this movie. They add texture to the tapestry that is Lady Bird’s life and humor in very unexpected ways.

Lady Bird is a brilliant sophomore outing directing for Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women) and continues her sharp writing career. She has a wicked eye and sure hand to bring out the truth of the characters lives and the world around them while keeping it all interesting and well-paced. It has earned huge respect by critics and audiences alike, despite it being a very small and quiet tale. It will certainly be nominated for many of the big awards, and has already gathered some festival fame (and an unheard of 100% on Rotten Tomtoes with 185 reviews in to date). Whether it can walk away with any of them is still an open question but Gerwig will unquestionably get more opportunities in future. Her characters have been igniting audiences for years now. That she has brought those same qualities and ability to bear from behind the camera is an unusual and welcome feat.

So, yes, it is as good as you’ve heard. Go, relax, and fall into Lady Bird’s life and world. It isn’t an explosion filled adrenaline ride, but I laughed out loud many times (I mean really loud) and connected with this film on many levels. You may be wondering, given all the praise I’ve heaped, why I haven’t given it a perfect score myself? The simple answer is that the quality of the photography knocked it down a notch for me. The framing and editing were both well done, but the stock or the projection I saw was grainy and a tad soft in a way that I found slightly distracting. I don’t know if it was purposeful on Gerwig’s part to elicit a sense of nostalgia or if it was simply my theater, but either way it had me taking it just a shade off perfect.

Lady Bird

Justice League

[3 stars]

Let’s start with the short version: Yes, it is better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Yes, it is a big-screen movie. Yes, it has some good (if flawed) entertainment value.

Now for the longer version: Little was going to completely rescue this movie. It was coming out of a long history and vision which had set the tone and approach. It was very much in the can before Joss Whedon (Avengers) was brought on to finish it after Zack Snyder’s family tragedy. Whedon brought some bright spots in dialogue and character, but the main structure of the story was set and there wasn’t going to be a massive rework.

One of the big draws for this installment was the return of Wonder Woman. Mind you, she is far from the focus of the story. In fact, no one is really the focus of this film, which is part of its flaw. It also suffers from a slightly different angle on the issue that Thor: Ragnarok has. Thor has a big “surprise” a third of the way in that we all knew because of the adverts. It didn’t ruin the movie, but it diminished the impact. Justice League is structured solely to get Superman back so the League can exist. Despite that, more than half the movie passes before we get to that goal and intent and, instead, we wallow for ages with guilt and battling a villain we don’t really care about (and whose CG was appallingly bad and whose character resolution was head-scratching, though that may be because I didn’t know the Darkseid background).

Despite those issues, there are lots of good moments that help buoy the weight of the plot. Whedon’s dialogue is primary there…mostly in the guise of Adam Driver’s (Silence) Flash and interchanges between the characters. If you want to see all the bits and pieces that Whedon changed, here is a near exhaustive, and spoiler-rich list. Definitely insightful and with only a few surprises in ownership.

Justice League serves as a bridge away from the Zack Snyder era and into whatever is next for DC. For the moment that looks like it will be Joss Whedon influenced, which could be the best thing to happen to them since Christopher Nolan. I would actually argue that is better that Nolan because Whedon is a much more entertaining storyteller overall, but that isn’t the discussion for today.

Snyder, for all his faults as a writer and director, has a singularity of vision and was in the forefront of defining how Hollywood brought to life a true sense of comic books. It was an unrelentingly, navel-gazing, and ultimately ill-conceived view, but it was undeniably well-intentioned on his part. Most movie-goers aren’t sorry to see him leave the fold at this point, but we shouldn’t begrudge him the props he is owed for getting us here nor deny that he may return again triumphant when he is ready to take up his seats again behind the camera.

As to Justice League… yeah, go see it. It isn’t the train wreck you fear, even if it isn’t the glory you’d wish for. It is an important stepping stone to whatever is to come and it really does deserve a big screen the first time you see it.

Justice League

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

Ryan Reynolds (Life) and Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) are two of the smartest mouths currently in the biz and, together in this film, join the best of buddy match-ups, like Rush Hour or Lethal Weapon. Reynolds and Jackson get to use all their signature moves of comedy and all their impact as tough-ass fighters.

As their counterparts, Elodie Yung (Daredevil) and Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner) are solid action characters as well. And Hayek is particularly fun and surprising from the first moment we meet her on screen.

Of course, no action/comedy is complete without a big bad to fight against. Gary Oldman (The Space Between Us) is a cold as nails criminal. Terrifyingly so. Oldman’s Dukhovich is incredibly disturbing and worthy of the horror and anger his character elicits from the world around him. His character alone is almost worth watching the movie for, even if he has very little screen time.

The weakness of this movie is that, in many ways, it relies only on the leads well-known moves. We don’t really see anything new from them, just a lot of their greatest hits; I don’t think the film would have worked without them. It creates a hollow feeling in the film. Even with some truly great moments, particularly Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting scene, it just feels like there is something missing.

And yet, even with that gap, it’s a great ride and a lot of fun. However, despite hints at something better, it is only that, not the classic it aspired to be (and almost reached), even with the chemistry of Reynolds and Jackson. The set up of O’Connor’s script is a bit of a stretch in terms of the practical aspects of the conflict, even if Hughes direction of it keeps you moving too fast and with tons of fantastic stunts to examine it too closely. I really want to see what they come up with next; there is some serious potential there given how early it is in both their careers.

Give this an evening with a bowl of popcorn and someone you like. You will laugh and enjoy it together.  Whether you come back to it again over time, I’m not as sure.

The Hitman