Tag Archives: grrrls

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

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

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 Librarians (series 3)

[4 stars]

The Librarian movies weren’t brilliant pieces of fantasy adventure, but there was something wonderful about the concept and the characters in the franchise. The first movie, in particular, struck a chord. Then it began a long slide into silliness and, frankly, weaker and weaker writing. Entertaining, but not memorable.

When it was reimagined into a series, it carried that sensibility with it and, through sheer energy, overcame the overly simplistic, Nickelodeon-style approach to the tales. Nothing brilliant, but some fun distraction that I certainly took part in, being the geeky book collector and lover of genre that I am.

With season three, the show found its footing again. The story plots are full of short-cuts on the order of Scooby Doo, but the subject matter is, at its core, stuff adults can appreciate too. It has fun while being entirely self-conscious of its intentions. Much like a good library, the goal is to pull in younger viewers and excite them to learn more about all the stories and history. I don’t really classify this as educational TV, but it certainly plants seeds and introduces those who are curious to ideas and facts that could take root later.

The cast have always worked well together but, like their characters, they’re cooperative energy has gelled in their third season. Christian Kane (Leverage), Lindy Booth (Kick-Ass 2), and John Harlan Kim are more a cohesive unit and Rebecca Romijn (X-Men: First Class) more of the leader she needed to become as Noah Wyle (Falling Skies) has stepped further away from being the overriding authority. And, of course, John Larroquette (Me, Myself, & I) always brings a fun energy and delivery. Each season has its particular arc, and this one brings in Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) to provide the friction. She provides a nicely myopic antagonist and walks a good line for younger and older viewers alike.

The writing and directing are less bombastic this season, which has helped its sensibility. Sure there are prat falls, but far fewer. And the scenery is only mildly chewed upon by the cast, and only on occasion. It is a fun run and suggests a stronger season to follow if they can stick to their creative guns and direction.

The Librarians

Strike

[3 stars]

The Robert Galbraith (better known as JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike detective series has enjoyed a good deal of notice in the UK, though less so in the US. It is an engaging series with likeable characters who have interesting quirks; just what you’d love in a BBC/HBO mystery.  And this adaptation is definitely worth some time investment thanks to some clever writing and even cleverer hand waving to avoid issues.

Led by Tom Burke (Musketeers) in the lead role with Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) as his second, the stories are complicated and entertaining all at once thanks to their interactions. There is also a nice path to grow both of their stories separately and together.

The series is launched with two tales, The three-part Cuckoo’s Calling, and the two-part The Silkworm. A third story, Career of Evil, has yet to be scheduled or released anywhere, but I am looking forward to see where the characters go. The initial mystery is nicely twisty and fun to follow as is the relationship of Strike and Robin. The second installment is an interesting concept but, frankly, very hard to follow. Compressing the complicated mystery with so many characters into two episodes did it no favors. However, it is really about the solidifying of the detective agency dynamic, and that takes the fore.

Police procedurals are always tempting to write, but a bear to get correct. Anything that is off in terms of evidence gathering, interviewing, court room process, or even jailhouse interaction can blow the credibility out of the water. Making the lead a PI rather than a cop (though he is an ex-cop, and ex-military) was a smart move by Rowling and provides a lot more leeway in action and story. Strike is entertaining and reasonably credible with characters you’ll want to learn more about and root for.

Strike Poster

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

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