Tag Archives: Director

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

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

Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.

The Beguiled

[3 stars]

Told from the reverse angle of the original film, this version of Beguiled looks at the arrival of a Union soldier from the women’s lives he invades. Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) brings her strong sense of visual design and female strength to the screen and script, but I think falls a bit short in selling the intent despite a solid cast.

Colin Farrell (A Home at the End of the World), Nicole Kidman (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Kirsten Dunst (Hidden Figures) make a mighty trinity on the screen, at least individually. The interaction is a little stilted, in part due to the nature of the period.

The younger women are a bevy of talent that few directors outside of Coppola could have pulled together. Among them, Angourie Rice (Spider-Man: Homecoming,The Nice Guys) and Oona Laurence (Pete’s Dragon) stood out nicely. On the other hand, Elle Fanning (3 Generations) while magnetic as ever, is still seeking the role that will make her a star. She is always interesting to watch, but rarely feels completely natural to me. Fanning has an otherworldly aspect, a detachment, to her performances that is haunting, but odd. And it is particularly off in period pieces such as this film.

But performances aren’t where this film feels weak to me, it is the directing and script choices. While Kidman and Dunst have some quiet moments of desire, and Fanning is pretty clear about what she wants, the conflict of jealousy is either too subtle for my blunt brain or it was just not strong enough to bring about the resolution. The women just never connect, either with each other or Farrell. Each is an island of desperation. Perhaps that was Coppola’s intention, but it made for a very distancing sensibility. I didn’t care for these women, didn’t worry for them, didn’t weep for their losses, nor enjoy their small triumphs. And the ending just sort of laid flat emotionally, though hauntingly beautiful in its presentation. That, to me, indicates the movie didn’t work or was, at most, a mixed success.

The Beguiled

The Glass Castle

[3 stars]

Watching Glass Castle, I couldn’t help but view it as a dark reflection of Captain Fantastic. Both tackle similar kinds of family, but Glass Castle is less simple and more realistic, which shouldn’t be a surprise as it is based on Jeannette Wall’s real life.

Some excellent performances make this film solid. Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Brie Larson (Free Fire) and Ella Anderson (Mother’s Day), as Larson’s younger self, are the real standouts. Naomi Watts (3 Generations) has some moments, but her character is mutable and not easy to understand which diminished the performance for me.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) tackled the story as director and co-writer in a clever way. He used a lot of flashback; not because it was easy but because it removed a host of expectations about where the story would go. Told in order, you’d be expecting tragedy over and over. It isn’t an easy story of growing up, but if you believe the people telling the tale, tragedy isn’t the point nor the outcome. And that is the issue for me, performances and flimmaking aside.

The end implies a forgiveness I’m not sure the people earned, even though the post-film footage makes it clear that it is what occurred. So this is either a testament to the strength of people, and children in particular, or is suggestion that anything can be and should be forgiven. I don’t know if I can get behind that sentiment. You certainly need to get past aspects of life, but that doesn’t mean you forgive or stay involved with those that created the bad situation. To Cretton ‘s credit, you want to buy into that choice, making this a challenging tale from a good filmmaker. For that, and the performances, it is worth the time. And it is certainly a fascinating look into humanity and our own individual choices.

The Glass Castle

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

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

The Magic Flute (2006)

[2.5 stars]

There is a reason Magic Flute has survived 100s of years; the music is glorious. But when Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) and Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus) collaborated to reimagine the opera as a tale from the battlefields of WWI, the shift is not really successful and no amount of great music can heal the issues. Generally, Flute is seen as a comic opera with a bit of adventure, but this version drops us into trench warfare and mustard gas as backdrop to the kinds of silliness and romance that drives the story. Frankly, it makes war and sacrifice feel cheap. And the new lyrics and plot don’t really come together into a complete story. Even done traditionally, Flute sort of skips ahead from song to song with the thinnest veneer of story to contain it.

Story aside, the design and production values are very good all around. The singers are excellent, even if the looping is imperfect. There is also an odd effect where some things are done with high realistic value, but others, like Papageno’s playing of his flute, look as fake as they do on stage. It was as if Branagh couldn’t decide if he was making a movie or filming a stage presentation. A commitment to one direction or the other would have made it all a little sharper.

Honestly, if you’re looking for an interesting take on this story that works better, seek out Julie Taymor’s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) 2004 production (which was also remounted in 2006). It captures more of the fantasy aspect but doesn’t lose the menace and has an equally clever English libretto. There is a DVD, though I don’t know the quality, and you can read more about it and see images on the net. But as to this production…as a curio it is interesting. As part of the Branagh’s opus, it was good to seek out. As a piece of film: not something I’d recommend.

The Magic Flute

The Magnificent Ambersons

[3 stars]

Going back to find classics you missed can be exciting and enlightening. Sometimes it is just surprising. Ambersons is truly an odd fish from Orson Wells. While based on Tarkington’s book of the same title, I think it would have been better expressed as The Comical Tragedy of the Ambersons, but perhaps the irony is built into the original title, it just wasn’t quite there for me.

This tale of the rise of Industrialized America crossed with the extreme universal tale of the spoiled child, is somehow weirdly timeless and utterly appropriate for today. And despite that, it is also dated and arch, making it as much a piece of fragile glass as a moving picture; the tale is purposefully broad in its telling. It is, however, full of Wells’s trademark camerawork and his dry sense of humor.

Constant Wells colleague Joseph Cotten is very much at the center of the movie, though he is technically on the side of the plot and focus. Tim Holt as Dolores Costello’s spoiled son is a frustratingly selfish SOB that it is hard to want to watch, but fortunately he is supposed to be so. And Agnes Moorehead, as his spinster Aunt, is so over-the-top as to be absurd at times, and tragic at others. The best showing, however is by Anne Baxter in one of her earliest roles. She is charismatic and alive in an otherwise rather stodgy framework of people around her.

Ambersons isn’t a great film. As a story it is hard to digest and the characters beg to be slapped silly until they see sense. But there is something compelling about how it is told. Wells never lost sight of the humor, dark as it got, even if he didn’t quite manage to pay off the final act. Regardless, as a piece of film and Hollywood history, it is a nice piece to slot in when you have an afternoon or evening.

The Magnificent Ambersons