Tag Archives: Dark Comedy

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

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

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

Product Details

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

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

The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can ifnd it, this is definitely worth your time.

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Thor: Ragnarok

[4 stars]

Thanks in large part to Taika Waititi (BoyWhat We Do in the Shadows), Thor lives somewhere between Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool in tone. It is a delightful, distracting piece of fun whose sole purpose is to bridge us into the next Avengers film. His writers, who came out of the one-shots, Agent Carter, and multiple Marvel animation series had a good handle on the possibilities as well. But if you know Waititi’s work, you see his stamp everywhere.

There are a load of inside jokes and references to previous films, and an amusing guest appearance by Liam Hemsworth (The Dressmaker) and Sam Neil (Mindgamers). Waititi even managed to put a fun role in there for himself. The movie is, of course, full of action as well. Big, world-busting action. And, by the end of the extra scenes, it answers and resolves a number of open threads from the previous cycle of movies.

Waititi tackled the franchise with his usual flare for the silly and absurd, but always anchored with a human heart-beat. It is, I must admit, sometimes an uncomfortable melding of styles.  Much like McFarlane’s Orville, he injects his particular brand of humor onto a known template; it sometimes breaks the flow even while being wildly entertaining.

But the cast is game for both sides of that equation and gives it their all. Over-the-top and yet somehow grounded, these gods and super heroes battle it out with verve and slapstick.

Getting to see Chris Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) and Mark Ruffalo (Now You See Me 2) finally cut loose with humor that has been hinted at for years was a load of fun. Add in Tom Hiddleston (Kong: Skull Island) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) playing into it all and it becomes like a great party. Of all the returning characters, only Idris Elba (The Dark Tower) and Anthony Hopkins (The Dresser) don’t seem to get to get their moments of humor. They do, however, get their moments.

And then there are the new folks. Cate Blanchett (Song to Song) falls so far into her role, and the make-up alters her so subtly, that she is almost unrecognizable but for her incredible voice and command of the screen. In the other main female lead, Tessa Thompson (Creed) brings in a great anti-Wonder Woman sort of flare to accompany her heroics. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon), while no stranger to dry humor, gets to try something new as well…melding his humor to what feels like a refugee from Mad Max. And then there are Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) and Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), in her first truly big film thanks to Waititi’s coattails (having been in almost every one of his other films), as a wonderfully comic couple.

If I had one major gripe it was that the studios gave away the first third of the film, totally zapping a big reveal of its power. It may still be a fun and great moment, but man ‘o man, I wish I hadn’t known and had only the clues (and they are there) and curiosity to go on. But, we’ll never know because there wasn’t even an option to avoid that knowledge.

Go. Have fun. See it on the big screen. 3D is optional for this one, but it deserves a big screen. It also has a great application of Zepplin’s Immigrant Song. What more can you ask for?

Thor: Ragnarok

Tag (Riaru onigokko)

[3 stars]

When Tag kicks off, there is a familiarity to the scene of Japanese girls on a school trip, having a pillow fight, and generally being silly. That is until the blood starts flying. Well, that’s not too unusual in Japanese horror either. At that point you’re sure it is going to be in the vein of Battle Royale. However, it doesn’t quite go there either.

Instead, writer/director Shion Sono creates a surreal world where running and pillow fights become driving symbols in a shifting landscape. Yes there is carnage… massively over-the-top carnage, but there is also emotion. And, more impressively as the story continues, some serious directing chops holding it all together despite the genre and any assumptions that may bring with it.

Tag is a film about not only the human condition, but also about the nature of reality, fate, and life generally. It isn’t a philosophical treatise by any stretch, but neither is it completely empty mayhem. It all builds to a purpose and a point.

Reina Triendl, in particular, gives us a focus and a connection for the story. She draws you in with her innocence and desperation, as well as her strength and determination in the face of overwhelming insanity. Her counterparts, with Sono’s guidance, in Mariko Shinoda and Erina Mano carry that torch well which pulls it all together. Yuki Sakurai, Ami Tomite, and Aki Hiraoka all deliver too. Most of these young women have worked with Sono in the past and their c.v.s are almost entirely unknown to US viewers, but they are worth keeping an eye on. For all of its absurdity, the success of this movie is down to their commitment and interactions.

If you enjoy Japanese horror, this is a bit unusual and worth seeing. I was expecting gooey silliness given its write up, but it really is meatier and more interesting than you might expect.

Tag

Cop Car

[3 stars]

When this movie kicked off, I thought I was in for something like the Kings of Summer, but it quickly became clear that it is going to end up more like Free Fire. What is wonderful about it is how well it navigated that shift and its ability to capture kid-logic. James Freedson-Jackson (Jessica Jones) and Hays Wellford  (Independence Day: Resurgence), who are the catalyst for the plot, are endearing and frustrating, but wholly believable.

But as good as the kids are in this film, once the adults come on scene the focus shifts. Kevin Bacon (Black Mass), Camryn Manheim (Extant), and Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island) take over through sheer presence; particularly the calm and calculated Bacon. The intensity of the movie doesn’t diminish, but it does cause the through-line to get muddled.

Director Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming) does a good job keeping the story evolving and there are some truly terrifying moments, particularly the final scenes, that feel horrifyingly real. He and co-writer, Christopher Ford (Robot and Frank), found the perfect setting and set of events to keep the movie intriguing and believable. And the two managed to balance the humor on a knife edge.

For Bacon’s performance alone, this is worth catching. It isn’t quite what you expect and the ending isn’t quite as crisp as I’d like, but I was definitely on the edge of my couch for a good part of it in between the dark laughs.

Cop Car

Baby Driver

[4 stars]

Edgar Wright is known for his outlandish films. From the Cornetto Trilogy (Worlds’ End, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) to Scott Pilgrim he attacks the worlds of his films with complete commitment. It makes them unique and, often divisive with a reduced audience, but always, to my mind, a fun experience. It has also garnered him a pile of awards and nominations.

Why bring all of that up for what is, arguably, a basic car-chase film styled as a long music video? Because that description, however apt, sell the experience of the movie short by a few leagues. The craft in the construction and look of this wonderful piece of escapism is evident from the opening and carries through to the final frames. It takes a very human response to music, applying the songs we hear to our real lives, and turns that into the focus of a young man’s grip on the world, the life he’s carved out for himself, and the trouble he’s attempting to escape. And, of course, there’s a romantic relationship or two to mix it all up.

Ansel Elgort (Men, Women, Children) drives this film, no pun intended, with a quiet intensity and focus. His performance is very reminiscent of Miles Teller’s in Whiplash…a mono-maniacally focused youth on the cusp of life. He and Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) make a great couple that you could see at the center of any John Mellencamp video. It is the sweet purity and desperation of their attachment that gives the otherwise crazy tale of robbery and mayhem a focus and purpose.

There are a host of great actors around Elgort that kick the story into gear. Kevin Spacey (Nine Lives) as the conductor of it all is a perfectly calm and scary criminal mastermind; a role he always plays well. Jon Hamm (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) and Eiza González (Jem and the Holograms) play a creepy Bonnie and Clyde that dominates the screen nicely when they’re present. Even Jon Bernthal (The Accountant) and Flea make an appearance. Jamie Foxx (Sleepless) quickly rises to the top as the irritant in the smooth workings of the story. He is both believable and a curiosity. Criminals that crazy don’t tend to survive as long as he has…I’d like to have understood a bit more about him, but as a catalyst, he served his purpose well. As a character he left me scratching my head and a little dubious. But, in the structure and intent of the film, I gave the concerns a pass.

From the top of the movie, you know it is all going to go off the rails at some point. You aren’t entirely sure when, how, or where it will end up, but it is clearly an unstable and untenable balancing act. When it all goes south, it goes with intensity and absurdity. It also travels with one of the best soundtracks and driving scenes collected for screen. Think Transporter or Fast & Furious, but with a real script and characters, not just tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience.

There is a reason this was one of the surprise hits of the summer. It is funny, pulse pounding, and jaw dropping in its execution. It is also full of heart and joy. The ending is what it has to be to complete the intent…just go with it. This is ride worth making time for. My dings on its rating are purely for some of the believability gaps that I think could have been filled. They bugged me just enough to keep it out of the five star range, but I really did enjoy the movie regardless.

Baby Driver