Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Disaster Artist: You Are Tearing Me Apart, Franco!

It was about six or seven years ago when I first discovered The Room with my college roommates in our imitation frat house. I don't know how we came into possession of the movie. I don't know how we'd even heard about the movie. But, I do know that we watched it... several times... quoted it often, and added it to our list of "must own" bad movies right along with films purchased at the 99 Cent Store and the entire Sean Donahue filmography (that's an even longer story). Any time I hear a reference to The Room or catch a scene or even just someone gross walking by who resembles (and probably is) Tommy Wiseau, I'm taken back to my early college days of a bunch of unshowered, beer-soaked college students laughing their asses off at one of the best/worst movies ever made.

I feel like there's two ways The Disaster Artist could've gone when trying to tell a story relating to The Room. It could've done what it did and crafted an intimate look at the two men responsible for bringing The Room to life and given us a behind the scenes look at the batshit craziness that went on during the production of the film. OR it could've just been a shot-for-shot remake of the movie The Room with actual actors in it portraying the characters from the film. Either way would've been fine with me. Thankfully, we get a lot of both. James Franco brings Tommy Wiseau's story to life not just portraying the character, but also pulling a Wiseau and writing and directing the movie about his life. Wiseau is a [somewhere European] man with a bunch of money (no one knows why or how) who dreams of being famous and taken seriously as an actor. His fearlessness on stage is what draws Greg (Dave Franco) to Tommy. Together, the two of them move to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of acting. After years of rejection for both of them, the two decide to make their own movie. This sets Tommy off on his journey of writing The Room.

Speculated to be autobiographical, Wiseau writes a story about a guy named Johnny who is "great, All-American man". He has a love in his life, Lisa (Ari Graynor), and his best friend Mark, (played by Greg... played by Dave Franco). However, through some very strange and unintelligible circumstances, Lisa cheats on Johnny with Mark. Johnny finds out about the betrayal and kills himself as his last piece of revenge on Lisa. It's truly a remarkable movie to watch. Through The Disaster Artist we get to see how this actual disaster was made and it's nothing short of what-the-actual-fuck-mesmerising. Throughout the filming process (of which Tommy literally has zero knowledge), his coterie of actors and crew (ranging from Seth Rogen to Jacki Weaver to Zac Efron to Josh Hutcherson to Paul Scheer) begin to realize he may have zero idea about what he's actually doing and that they may, in fact, be making the worst movie of all time... at least he's paying them. In a brief, but very touching moment with Jacki Weaver, she's asked why she's taking part in such a shit show and she comes back with-- we're actors. It's what we do. Even the worst day on a film set is better than the best day anywhere else.  Sometimes it's not about the quality of the product, but the beauty of making something creative.

But, here's what's really interesting about The Disaster Artist... it's clearly a movie showcasing what an actual nut Tommy Wiseau really is. And this movie does poke fun of him and his choices... but somehow, and I'm still not even sure how, the movie honors him. Seriously. It would've been a very easy choice to make a movie roasting a millionare nut job who thought he was making the greatest American movie of all time. But that's not how Franco and co. approached the film. They humanize Wiseau to the point that not only do you sympathize with him, but you may find yourself understanding him. Wiseau the actual person has always been shrouded in secrecy. The dude has an untracable accent and has always claimed to be from New Orleans. He spent over six million dollars of his OWN money making The Room and no one knows where it comes from. And no one seems to know how old the man is. So, when we watch Wiseau make strange and petty choices we have to assume that these choices are coming from a deep, emotional place of hurt and loss from his past, but we'll never know.

Wiseau is a weirdo, but he's very loyal to his friends. He sees a spark in Greg and the two of them become best friends. However, whenever Greg talks to women or has his girlfriend over, or anything like that, Wiseau turns into a petulant child acting as though Greg has betrayed him and plunged a dagger into his heart. This is where a lot of the "emotion" from The Room comes from. But, Franco doesn't create some fictional narrative to explain this. He presents it in his portrayal of Wiseau in such an honest way that we understand it comes from a dark moment or moments in his past, but we're never going to get all the facts. And that's what the audience can connect with. We all have something emotionally shitty in our past that can rear its ugly head in unwanted situations that drive our actions. Are we going to lash out as childishly as Wiseau does? No probably not. But we can understand where that lashing out stems from. Franco does a wonderful job showcasing Wiseau as an actual human being we can understand, which lends to the understanding of how The Room actually came to be. It's actually a very touching and poignant movie-- something I didn't think was possible to do in a movie about a bad movie.

The cast is great. It's clear they're all maturing as actors as well as comedians. There aren't long Seth Rogen-y diatribes purely to get laughs, but the movie is very funny. The story itself is so unbelievable and weird that nothing new needed to be added. It's one of those "truth is stranger funnier than fiction" type of stories. And Franco does a fantastic job as Wiseau. His portrayal is so authentic, after about twenty minutes into the film you don't notice him doing the Wiseau-accent. He doesn't over-play the role or ham it up in scenes just to get a cheap laugh. You can tell Franco has a weird sort of respect for the man and wanted to do him justice by giving him the most accurate portrayal possible. Franco's real life brother Dave Franco is also very good and has a great rapport with his brother (though he still does that annoying Dave Franco thing where he stutter-steps the first few words of every sentence he speaks-- "you.. you sure about that?" "I don-- I don't know if I can..." etc. Dude has always done this and it bugs the hell outta me.)

There are a lot of familiar faces and cameos in the film and they're all here to honor a film that, even though it's TERRIBLE, has been remembered longer than most Best Picture Oscar winners. They're here to add their thank you to a movie that garners more sold out screenings (even today) than movies that won them all the awards in the world. It's a very good movie that could've easily bullied a vulnerable man who has taken several Hollywood beatings in his time, but instead showcased his humanity and his vulnerabilities and, in turn, made us re-think our preconceived notions of the man named Tommy Wiseau. According to Wiseau, the movie is 99.9% accurate. After seeing The Room... and now The Disaster Artist... I actually believe that.

P.S. - You don't have to see The Room to appreciate The Disaster Artist, but I would recommend it if you can. Oh, and make sure you stay until after the credits are over.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: Hot Damn I Love Denzel Washington

There are only a handful of actors who we're willing to watch nearly everything they put out just because we know the type of actors they are and the quality of the movies they give us. We see Daniel-Day Lewis movies because we know how picky he is with his roles and if he's waded through hundreds of scrips and selected this very one, then most likely it's going to be worth it for us (I still think his upcoming film Phantom Thread looks boring as hell, but I'm seeing it regardless). We know actors like Leo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks (though, even I couldn't get myself to watch Cloud Atlas), and Denzel Washington choose roles that are exceptional and we have faith that even if the movies as a whole aren't spectacular, their performances will be. I feel spoiled because I've had a pretty exceptional week at the movies. I've gotten to watch 100% ORIGINAL FILMS, not based on any source material, or comic book, or sequel or anything like that. I've had the pleasure of watching complex characters in unique stories from talented writers and directors and it has been nothing short of a goddamn treat. Coco, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (seriously, see that one), and now Roman J. Israel give me hope as a writer that there are still producers in power out there willing to produce films for audiences to enjoy truly original works.

Dan Gilroy is a marvel. He's not a household name yet, but be on the lookout for his name attached to many works to come. In fact, he's such a good writer/director I'm certain Marvel or Lucasfilms will pick him up to churn out an Avengers or Star Wars film. I wouldn't necessarily be too upset about this, but it would keep us from getting more of his original content. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is only his second directorial work (though he's written many others like Kong: Skull Island and The Bourne Legacy). His first feature was a film called Nightcrawler which is vastly underrated. In it, he crafted a character portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal that we'd never seen in film before. He runs his movies like a character study where the flawed protagonist is the sole focus and the story just kind of happens around him. He also happens to set most of his movies, at least the ones he directs, in Los Angeles and somehow makes his intricate look at the city feel like its own character. This is where the character of Roman Israel is inspired. Gilroy has delivered yet another interesting character to focus on with an actor capable of delivering the goods.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a lawyer working at a small-time attorney's office. He's the guy who puts together the cases. He's the guy who does all the grunt work like doing research and writing briefs and investigating clients, etc. However, the namesake of the office and Israel's partner of 35 years has a heart attack and Roman is out of a job. In comes George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a high-priced defense attorney to swoop Roman up. Roman doesn't fit in with the new firm. He lives in a run-down apartment, he's worked forever for a mere $500/week, he's bad with people due to him being somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum, but he's a genius. Roman, who never asked for anything his entire life other than a job, starts to see what can happen when one begins to care about money. His life has been spent trying criminal cases in order to fund his passion, which is social activism litigation. Yet, even Roman knows it's a thankless job. After accepting the job at the new film, Roman experiences an inner crisis of self-doubt when he starts to wonder if being privileged in life has more perks than the one he's been living for years.

The story kind of meanders all over the place, but that's because Gilroy isn't necessarily concerned with the plot (much like Nightcrawler). Roman is the focus. He's an interesting character to watch unfold because he's unlike most characters we get to see regularly. A lot of this is thanks to Denzel for another magnificent performance. He brings much life and nuance to the character. The subtle ticks like the constant adjusting of his glasses or the way Roman decides to wear his hair that day accentuate an already elaborate character. He's blunt, but not an asshole. He's kind, but selfish. He makes calculated decisions, even if they're not the right one. When Roman begins to change from selfless activist to selfish "corporate guy", it's a struggle to watch. We know he's lived his entire life with next to nothing and it's nice to see him get his for a change. But we also know the actions he's taking go against every fiber of his moral code and integrity. It's fascinating to watch unfold.

There's also the fact that Denzel is still getting better and better. That's the beauty of watching one of the best actors to ever grace the screen is they are still working to improve and challenge themselves as actors. With every new character Denzel portrays, we are given a look into the life of someone who we've never seen him play before. He versatile in that he can play the action star, he can play the asshole, he can play an ex-activist lawyer on the spectrum. He's such a joy to watch and a marvel on the screen. However, I fear much like Nightcrawler, and Denzel's previous role in Fences, he's going to get overlooked once again in the Best Actor category. There's also the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis is already on the radar for the Oscar after announcing Phantom Thread will be his final film. I have this feeling Denzel is going to be robbed just like Gyllenhaal was robbed (though I do think Denzel will get a nomination... something ol' Jake didn't even get). However, Gilroy is going to have a very memorable and successful career if he keeps crafting characters like he has and getting the best actors in the world to lend their voices to the roles.

Yes, narratively and structurally, the film does feel somewhat like it's kind of all over the place and there's a bit of a tonal shift toward the end of the film that may strain a bit of credulity, but that's not the point. We're here to watch Denzel Washington give his all to a character that can teach us, through unique (and oversized) lenses about a different perspective in the world. The movie is highly enjoyable and I'm looking forward to any further characters Dan Gilroy can expose and bring to life. And, hey, if he decides to work with Denzel again on another project-- even better.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Lady Bird: Coming Of Age Done Right

I don't know what it is, but I really love coming of age movies. We've all had "rough childhoods" even though most of them have been Downy soft. But, there's something about watching an angsty child or teen go through an emotional reboot that comforts us in our lives. Movies like Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, The Graduate, The Way Way Back, The Edge of Seventeen, Say Anything really know how to do coming of age right, even if most of them are somewhat formulaic. Lady Bird joins the ranks of one of the best coming of age movies. It reaches new heights as well for flipping the script on formula and structure to give us something new and great. Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is nothing short of fantastic.

Saoirse Ronan is Christine, but has self-dubbed herself "Lady Bird". She's a senior at a Catholic school (even though she's got zero faith in a God) her mother (Laurie Metcalf) sent her to because her brother "saw someone knifed at the public school". Most of the students come from upper class families, while Lady Bird's parents are struggling to make ends meet. Lady Bird spends her days like the typical teenage girl-- struggling more with her social life than her academic one. She crushes on guys like Danny (Lucas Hedges), joins activities with her friend Julie to meet said guys, and squabbles with her mom who, like her, has a flair for the dramatic.

The thing that I really like about Gerwig's crafting of Lady Bird is that she's not this unique flower. She's not the manic pixie dream girl wildcard character whose unique individuality is the core of her being.  She's like every basic high school student who hasn't really found her true self yet. She doesn't love anything because it's a part of her core interests... she loves things because other people she looks up to loves them. She joins the play because the guy she's interested in is in the play. She desecrates a nun's car in order to gain the attention of a more popular girl. She claims to know obvious pop culture references in fear of looking lesser than to the person dishing them out. She also has unrealistic expectations for herself, even though they're quite self-evident. She's upset when a guidance counselor laughs at her for wanting to get into Yale, even though her grades are sub par. Lady Bird conforms to whatever others around her love, thus crafting her counterfeit personality.

Gerwig knows that teenagers are amorphous blobs that rarely carry around a uniqueness to them. They are told by others what to like, what to watch, what to listen to, and what is cool and uncool. That's what makes the movie feel so real. Lady Bird is all of us when we were teenagers. We were overly dramatic (though I'm sure most of us didn't roll out of a moving car in the midst of an argument with our mom) and mischevious little shits who thought we knew everything and, in reality, knew nothing. It's not until we took a good hard look at who we were as individuals did we start to shape the people we were to become. Gerwig crafts such a wonderful narrative around the truth of youth that this movie will speak to anyone, no matter what the age.

Ronan does an amazing job as Lady Bird. Assuming she's drawing partly from her own childhood, her portrayal is very real. Her performance is the most authentic thing about Christine. The other aspect of the film that's terrific is her relationship with her parents. Her father is the "friendly" parent, always putting on a smile and never causing a rift with his daughter-- even though there is a lot of inner pain going on with him that he's perfected shielding his kids from. Her mother is the over-worked nurse who wears her emotions on her sleeve, always stressed, and never afraid to pass off some harsh judgment on anything she doesn't see eye to eye on. This continuously causes a rift between her and her daughter, which in turn, causes Lady Bird and her father to get closer. The problem with Lady Bird is that she's very much like her mother (like we all know we truly are deep down) and this causes tantrum-inducing conflict. The way Gerwig has written these characters is like she truly knows all of us.

Finally, Gerwig's storytelling is remarkable. She comes from a line of indie movies (and Noah Baumbach films), so she's picked up a few tricks about messing with the conventions of storytelling and film narratives. Gerwig spoon-feeds her audience absolutely nothing. She gives the viewer the benefit of the doubt that they have a brain. When Lady Bird is opening letters from colleges she's applied to, there's no long focus on the letter or narrator telling us whether she got in or not. She relies on her actress to provide the emotions. Lady Bird has a Mexican brother, Miguel. There isn't some unnecessary explanatory moment where we're told Miguel was adopted or abandoned by his family or anything like that. Lady Bird calls him brother. Her parents call him son. We don't need the intricacies of how a non-white dude ended up in a white family. To them-- he's family and his origin story is unimportant. I loved that about the film.

Lady Bird currently sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 161 reviews counted. This is no easy feat, but it is certainly earned. I can't recall the last 100% fresh rated theatrically released film. It's not playing everywhere, but if you are able to find it somewhere near you (or can make a trip to LA), I highly urge you to see this movie. It's an enjoyable and refreshing trip to the cinema, and I'm willing to bet somehow it will speak to every one of you.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Coco: A Wonderful Film For Everyone... But Make Sure To Show Up 20 Minutes Late

Normally I begin my reviews with some amusing anecdote about one of the writers of the film or something correlating with the genre of film or how I feel about these types of films in general... in the case of Coco I'm going to forego this in favor of a stern lecture. Instead of writing about how Pixar is the best in family entertainment (because this is obvious... seriously, if you can't tell the difference between the quality of a movie like Inside Out to the quality of a movie like The Boss Baby, then you need to stop going to movies), I am going to take a second to talk to the parents out there... or the soon-to-be-parents, or people, in general, who may, one day, be in a theater with a child. TELL YOUR KIDS TO SHUT THE HELL UP. Look, I get it. Kids don't understand social etiquette. They get to yell and scream and sing along and jump and dance and puke all over themselves when they watch movies at home. Train your kids to leave this shit in the living room and keep quiet at the movies. I know this is an impossible task. And I'm not asking for perfection. Keeping a child still in a theater seat for 90+ minutes is no easy feat. They're going to get excited and they're going to want to lend their kids-say-the-darndest-things commentary to the film... if it happens every once in awhile... it's endearing. When they do it throughout the entire goddamn movie... it literally ruins the movie experience for EVERYONE else. Not just the people around them. If your kid gets a little loud, a courtesy "hey Joshua, be quiet, buddy" is perfectly acceptable. Letting your kid provide a spectator's commentary, using their outside-voice is NOT. If you know that this is your kid-- don't bring them to a movie. A theater experience isn't cheap anymore and it makes that ticket even less worthwhile when some shitty little four year old (who doesn't know any better) isn't getting any guidance (*cough* discipline) from his grown-ass should-seriously-know-better adult parents. If you can't keep your kid mostly quiet and respectful for the movie... please... leave them at home so you don't ruin the experience for the rest of us. 

And now back to our regularly scheduled program. 

Coco is a wonderful film. It's a film that when it's over (and you're done bawling your eyes out), makes you realize how good Pixar is when they're making original material and not sequels. I get it. They're a business like any production company and you want that money rolling in, but here's the thing. You don't actually have to pull the sequel routine like most production companies. The Pixar brand name alone will put many, many asses in seats. You don't have to give us THREE CARS MOVIES if you can keep giving us movies like Up and Inside Out and now Coco. The film takes place in Mexico on Dia de Muertos. Little Miguel dreams of being a musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz. However, due to a little family drama from his past involving a musician great grand-father abandoning his family in favor of seeking a musical dream... his family has completely outlawed any music. Miguel sneaks out of his house to participate in a musical talent contest during a Dia de Muertos festival, sneaks into the masoleum of de la Cruz to steal his guitar and is somehow transported to the Land of the Dead. He must now locate his dead ancestors to help him get back to the Land of the Living before sunrise or he will remain on "the other side" forever. 

Now, for anyone who has actually seen the movie, I've totally bastardized the plot summary here. Yes, I realize this. However, I did do intentionally because the less someone knows about the movie going into it-- the better. I'd only seen one preview for the movie and I assumed, like many others, it was about a kid who died, was dealing with this fact in the Land of the Dead alongside his quirky, yet also dead, dog pal. This was thankfully not the case (my significant other cannot handle dog death in films... as many of you DECENT HUMAN BEINGS can't either-- am I using the caps lock too often in this review? Also, no dogs die in this movie. I feel like this is a necessary disclaimer). What emerges from the film, however, is a perfect and poignant look at life, death, family and tradition. It's told very maturely (like most Pixar films) that magically ostracizes neither child nor adult. What we get is the Pixar staple - an adventure involving some dark-ish themes through the eyes of an innocent. 

I loved every second of Coco. I loved the vibrant colors. I loved the characters. I loved the animation and the music and the exploration into a culture different from my own. The movie doesn't just use Mexico and Mexican culture as a backdrop to a story in order to fit the whole Day-of-the-Dead narrative, it's a love letter to Mexico and its people and its traditions and its art and its music and its culture. And, holy crap you guys, they didn't cast a bunch of white actors doing their best Mexican accents! What I also loved too is that Coco doesn't stick to the typical story structure of film. There isn't a big main antagonist. Everything isn't going wrong one minute after the next. Good things happen to our hero. Supporting characters do want to help him get back. Through most of the film, Miguel's worst enemy is himself. Yes, there is a lot of conflict and moments of tension, but it's weaved through a fun story that gives us more moments of joy than fear. And the case of this film, it really works. 

The other thing you're probably wondering (or just assume if you're well versed in Pixar) is just how much ugly crying is going to happen to you-- my guess is a decent amount. But, like most Pixar fare, it's not a sad cry. It's a happy cry. It's an endearing cry. Pixar has this unique and magical quality of being able to tell a fun and unique storyline, but one that every viewer can relate to themselves and their own lives somehow. You're not crying at the story, you're crying with the story. And they're not tears of sadness, they're tears of everything. Coco is the movie you should be watching with your entire family. It's legitimately the perfect film to see on or around Thanksgiving (that actually has nothing to do with the holiday of Thanksgiving -- that honor goes to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) because Coco, at its core, is about family. As much as I seriously urge all of you out there to go seek out Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri... if you want to catch a quick film with your entire family who has begrudgingly come out to eat massive quantities of food with you, then Coco is the perfect choice. I have no complaints about this movie one bit. 

I do however, have a bone to pick with Pixar. One of the best things about catching a Pixar flick in theaters is that you're also going to get the animated short before the movie. Pixar is notorious, not just for the high quality of their feature films, but for the phenomenal shorts they tack on in front of the films. This time, though... don't expect this. What you get this time is a heinously long (21 minutes) Frozen short called Olaf's Frozen Adventure. It's annoyingly bad. I liked Frozen, but by minute two of this short film I was painfully waiting for it to be over. It sticks to Coco like a sore thumb. Here's a movie, that rare movie that explores the traditions of Mexican culture and art... and you got a bunch of white people from a very white-people movie singing for 21 minutes before the film you've paid to see starts. When the film premiered in Mexico, moviegoers were so upset (and rightfully so) at the short, that a lot of major theater chains had to stop showing it. Pixar shat the bed hard with that one. Coco wasn't the movie to attach this episode of Frozen: Elsa's Emo-ness Continues to. They had to have tried to fit at least ten different songs into this "short" (as it felt feature film length by the end). Kids familiar with Forozen will probably love it... you'll drift off trying to imagine all of the ways you could kill yourself using only your Buncha Crunch box. Coco was fantastic... Frozen 2.0 was garbage.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Brilliant, Hopeful, Cynicism

My rule for being able to declare a director as one of my all-time "favorites" is-- three films. Three is the perfect number to decide whether or not a director has the chops or not. Three brilliant films is no easy feat either. Steven Spielberg is widely known as one of the greatest directors of all time, but look at his filmography for the last thirteen years (The BFG, Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Munich, War of the Worlds, The Terminal). There aren't even three great movies among them. But he IS one of the greatest of all time because he's made at least three iconic, brilliant films in his career. One of my favorite directors is Edgar Wright. I could tell you that this is based solely on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but two movies isn't a big enough sample size. After these two films came Scott Pilgrim, which was decent... not great. However, after The World's End, and this year's Baby Driver, I am able to say that Wright has made three great movies and can fit nicely on my list. A director I'm sure most of you aren't familiar with by name, Martin McDonagh, has been encroaching that "favorite director" label of mine for awhile now, but only had two movies to his name: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. I was just waiting for that third movie so that I can share with the world the brilliance of this man. Thankfully, not only is his latest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a great film, it's probably his best film to date.

McDonagh, who also writes all of his own original films, is like the long-lost British Coen brother. He's bending genres as well as, if not better than Joel and Ethan do. All three of his films have been the perfect balance of drama/action and comedy. His movies feature in depth looks at some very uncomfortable and serious themes, yet he's able to keep us laughing all the way through. In Bruges was about a hitman struggling to deal with the fact that his first hit went wrong because he accidentally killed a kid. He's depressed, even to the point of suicidal-- and yet, it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Seven Psychopaths deals with actual psychotic killers, race issues, over-the-top bloody violence, and yet... had a hilarious charm to it as well. Three Billboards is no different. It may be McDonagh's most "serious" movie to date, but it's still very funny (and smart, and poignant, and heartfelt, etc.) all the way through to the end.

The brilliant, wonderful, and incredibly talented Frances McDormand plays Mildred. She lives in a house just outside of Ebbing, Missouri, next to three worn-down billboards that haven't been used for advertising in decades. She decides to purchase the three billboards in order to call out the local law enforcement for the standstill of solving her daughter's rape and murder. She names Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) personally on the billboard, which causes a stir within the community, the local news outlet, and Willoughby's deputy- Dixon (Sam Rockwell). While the entire town begins to wage war against Mildred (even though they "understand what she's going through"), she remains steadfast and unyielding, accepting the fact that any press is good press. Amid her story, we get insight into the rest of the very flawed characters of Ebbing. Mildred's abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) who is shacked up with his new 19-year-old girlfriend. Mildred's son (Manchester By The Sea's Lucas Hedges) still dealing with the loss of his sister, and now his newfound (unwanted) attention gained from his mother's billboards. Dixon's sad existence of inner anguish that comes out as moments of irrational violence-- stemming from the fact that's he's a drunk who still lives with his mother. And finally, Chief Willoughby's attempts to calm down Mildred, track down her daughter's killer, and maintain a normal life in the midst of his own battle with cancer.

Now, I realize that none of this sounds all that humorous. The situations themselves are quite heartbreaking, but the depth and quirkiness of the characters bring out the humor amid the dark. McDonagh is such an ingenious writer that he's able to give us these unhappy, flawed characters and showcase their humanity. Mildred, especially, is a broken woman who's only holding it together through sheer anger and hard-headedness. She doesn't let anyone give her any shit, and acts out of pure instinct, but that doesn't mean her instinct isn't calculated. He random outbursts of violent revenge (like drilling a small hole in the thumb of an ornery dentist, or kicking a couple of dickhead high schoolers in the crotch) are never acted upon without full awareness of the consequences she may face. Willoughby is just as hard-nosed as Mildred, which is why they butt heads so often, but have respect for one another. Dixon is an irritable simpleton who is essentially the opposite of Mildred. He's racist, sexist, homophobic, and his acts of violence are instinctual as well, though there isn't much else brainwave-wise rumbling around his head. Yet, deep down there is a hint of good in him-- that only Willoughby can see. These are very complexly written characters that we don't get to see in most movies these days.

However, it doesn't matter how exceptional the writing and the directing is... without this cast it wouldn't hit nearly as hard as it does. To be able to find actors like McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell who are skilled in balancing dramatic acting with humor, inner turmoil with outward sarcasm and wit-- it's just not an easy thing to do. Everyone in the movie holds their own, but even beyond that, bring an original script with a tragic story to life and really make you, the viewer, FEEL THINGS. You'll feel just as angry as Mildred, but you'll laugh along with her and cheer her on as she puts nearly everyone in their place. It takes a special kind of movie to kick you in the gut several times, and make you cry real tears of both pain and laughter. And Three Billboards is that movie. It's as close to a perfect movie as you can get.

Really, the only complaint I had about the movie is the casting of Abbie Cornish as Harrelson's wife. In a midwest town full of colorful and dysfunctional characters, she kinda sticks out like a sore thumb. She's very obviously younger than him. Her acting is very blah. And her British accent amid the twang of everyone else's dialect is jarring. She's been in McDonagh films before, so he must be impressed by something she gives to a performance... I've just never seen it. Other than that, you'll be hard-pressed to find a film, that's wholly original, not based on any previous source material, that gives you this great of a time at the theater. Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri deals with some serious dark themes, and it's vulgar as hell, but it's a movie that will stay with you for a good, long while. There's so much more I can say about this movie (like how Hollywood should take a good, hard look at the brilliance of this film and take more risks with original works), but it's best I just let you see the film in all its glory for yourself. It's been a long time since I've seen a black comedy this gut-wrenchingly emotional, this exultantly funny, this deeply moving and so very, very smart.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Justice League: Learned Lessons And Bastardizing Batman

--Written by Guest Reviewer Matthew Martin-Hall

I’m tempted to simply give Justice League an A+ and say, “It was the best film I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction!” Since, in agreeing to do this review (read: begging a somewhat apathetically appreciative Ryan to let me do it.), Ryan said that if I come at you all with my typical “Batman can do no wrong”/must defend the superior DC Universe bravado, he’d have to go see it himself and provide a balance to my bias. A bias so strong that I actually and whole-heartedly defended the Batman V. Superman film, which predicates the much needed successful recovery of the entire franchise with this film. And I think it is such a recovery despite what that broken Rotten Tomatoes system you all worship like scripture, says. So, Ryan, stop reading right here and go see Justice League.

On that same note: if it’s at all quelling (in regards to the intensity of my aforementioned bias) I will say this directly; if for no other reason than to give those I may know the courage to continue this review, those whom are very aware of my religious belief in Batman’s infallibility, Batman was the Absolute. Worst. Part. Of. This. Film. This Batfleck/Snyder bastardization and perversion of a poorly executed homage to one of the most iconic renderings of the Dark Knight should retire their mantle and find a way to get someone else into it quick. This isn’t Miller’s Batman. This isn’t the cat herding leader (and three time destroyer) of the Justice League. This is another case of trying to be too much with much too little (see: Batman V. Superman).  

I digress.

Please take the time now to return your jaws to the upright and locked position and settle your eyes back into their sockets. Structurally, the film is sound. They hit all of the necessary beats whilst juggling all of the complex narratives and arcs (Only two of which have been told in solo films) rather elegantly, with only a few moderate and passable clunks. Clunks, might I add, that are hard to catch because so much of what’s going on onscreen is the 100% pure fruit juice of badassery (not from concentrate). I’ll admit, the reviews I'd heard coming into this film painted for me a dismal return to form in terms of this slow burn formula that has marred this franchise-- a franchise that tends to risk too much cinematically for it’s consistently lackluster return. If what this film gives us is indicative of the direction they’ve decided to take, DC truly has learned their lesson when it comes to lengthy and elaborate expositions and near surrealistic story structure (see: Suicide Squad and Batman V. Superman). This was comforting to witness. 

In Whedon’s name, we say thank you.

Now, one doesn’t cut a full hour out of a film and not make some strategic sacrifices. Suffice it to say some of the dialogue was a bit “on-the-nose”, but those lines came and went relatively unnoticeably. Jokes landed flush, breaking up the brooding darkness of the tone expertly, all typically being followed by moments of intense and well choreographed action. Each scene left me feeling satisfied as if this film were a plate of desired elements that satiated my cravings as both a filmmaker and consumer with every nicely proportioned bite.

The villain, Steppenwolf, was vague and cliché most of the time. This didn’t bother me much either as Steppenwolf is a pretty vague and cliché villain anyhow. The way I see it, if you didn’t have a problem with the villains in the original Independence Day, you shouldn’t have a problem with him. Let’s be honest here, this film is less about struggling against an overwhelming power and more about getting the band together. An easily explained villain allows this to be accomplished seamlessly without succumbing to the latter stated travesty of over-explaining things to the detriment of the film's flow. He didn’t bother me. I believed in the existential threat he provided that catalyzed the necessity and subsequent formation of The Justice League. I believed the Justice League (with a furious exception to Batman.). All boxes were checked. 

All-in-all, I was impressed with this film in the way that one is impressed with an Olympic gymnast whom recovers well on the balance beam. I also believe that this “judging on recovery” approach is the best lens through which we should view this film.  Batman V. Superman was a messy piece of cinematic risk that all but flattened this entire franchise's chance in the market. Batman V. Superman created the scope of justifiably dismal expectation that predicated this film. Honestly, it inspired me to have a drink beforehand and buy two more at the theater. But I had a moment with Justice League about half an hour in. See this well: 

My hand shaking with cautious optimism as I raise a second saison to my lips.

We’re on Themiscyra. Hippolyta and the Amazons confront our freshly revealed villain in an epic display of resistance and courage. At the very moment that Hippolyta releases a signal arrow, my eyes well up and I nearly shed a tear. My cautious optimism receded into a kind of faithful knowing. For the first time in this DC Universe, I was able to let go, lean in, and enjoy the film. I didn’t have to worry about the excuses I would surely have to make later to sorely misguided Marvel fans; nor did I have to concern myself with justifying the choices made by some fucker named Snyder. Though I’ve said so much already, I don’t think this one really needs my words. It stands on it’s own.  

What I wanted more of: A Batman I could care about that I could believe would lead The Justice League. Better dialogue choices (or no dialogue at all). The notorious flirtmance between Diana and Bruce. Commissioner Gordon. Aquaman and Amazonians (in their armor circa Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman)… Yes, I honestly wanted more Aquaman. And Patty Jenkins.

What I wanted less of: A Batman I couldn’t care about nor believe could lead The Justice League. Batman using a fucking gun. Batman forgetting he’s a ninja and the greatest detective in the universe. Batman… If you’re going to fuck up Batman, make it quick. Some of us need to believe that his persona is salvageable from the mired depths of your grotesquely obvious lack of canonical knowledge concerning such a legendary hero. Affleck. Snyder. 

Finally, three things to note:

1. DO NOT EVER fucking give Batman a gun and have him say that his super power is “being rich”… EVER!
2. If you are going to clap and cheer for Lanterns, but not do the same for Wizards, y’all need to brush up on your comic knowledge. 
3. Stay after the credits. All my 70's Super Friends Cartoon loving friends are going to nerdgasm all over that theater. Yes, it is that good. 


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express: A Literary Whodunnit

I love me a good murder mystery. What can I say? I'm a sucker for them. They're probably one of my top guilty pleasure movies along with courtroom movies (*cough* John Grisham adaptations) and prison movies. Nice thing is, the genre produces a lot of decent movies (Zodiac, Seven, Memento, Mystic River, Silence of the Lambs, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and, of course, a few piles of trash (Um... yeah... The Snowman). So, naturally, when I saw Kenneth Branagh was adapting Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, as well as portraying literary lead detective Hercule Poirot, I was more than in. Well, that, and the fact that shitty Hollywood has only released Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MI in limited theaters... this was the film of the week. And while it was definitely a pretty good whodunnit... I'm not sure if it was that exceptional of a movie.

MotOE tells the story of, well... a murder that occurs... on the Orient Express. Self-proclaimed "greatest detective in the world" Hercule Poirot is catching a ride on the train, trying to escape a life of detecting for just a few days. He'd prefer to relax, close his mind, and read a good book in solitude. However, a man, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin and everyone on the train becomes a suspect. What follows is Poirot using his keen detective skills and very astute attention to detail to narrow down suspects until he finds the killer. The characters on the train are led by an all star cast who include, but are not limited to Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe (all of whom Branagh was able to procure for the movie as they have all worked with him in the past).

The problem with the adaptation of the novel (which, admittedly I have not read) is we have such a diverse cast of characters, each with their own integral story to the plot, that we hardly get enough time with each of them. The only character we get plenty of is Poirot, and needless to say, he's a very fun character. Poirot is like the French step-cousin to Sherlock Holmes. He's got his quirks and eccentricities (like brutal honesty and a sharp wit), but when it comes to solving cases, there's no one better. A simple smudge of a footprint can tell him a story no one else sees. He's a fun character to follow and stay with... but that's about it. The rest of the characters don't really get a chance to shine. And because we don't get in depth discoveries of each one, it's a piece of the film that is seriously lacking.

Here's the other thing about the film-- it's not very exciting. I don't mean that I didn't enjoy it because there weren't action sequences and chases and dismembered limbs. That's not the kind of "exciting" I'm referring to. The train gets trapped in snow and the case unfolds while they wait for help to dig them out. It's the only real set piece of the film and because we're trapped in the small train compartment, the excitement is left up to Poirot questioning the patrons one-by-one. The tension doesn't exactly get amped up... really until the end. It's the part of the novel (I assume) that just doesn't translate into film. I can see this book being a very exciting book because not only do we get to spend more time with each character and Poirot delving into their inner psyche, but the interrogations are going to be much more in depth and extended. Watching a man sit at a table twelve different times with twelve different people asking them questions turns a decent whodunnit into a morbid job interview. Reading it is different than watching someone do it. I think some of the excitement of the book (and I could be wrong) is lost in the translation to film.

Now, the actors are great. With what little screen time they're all presented, they do handle their jobs well. Each one appears to be innocent as well as guilty. Every time Poirot interviews them you're nearly sure that they're the murderer or completely innocent... and then your guess filpflops. Branagh shines as Poirot, delivering his French-accented acerbic wit with the precision of a seasoned actor. And I can tell you this, dear reader, the end reveal is very satisfying. When it comes to whodunnits, we've already seen nearly all of them. First, it was the character who seemed to be the most innocent. Then it turned into characters who are put almost in the background. Then it's the character who was "killed" early on, but is revealed to have been alive the whole time. It takes a lot to "get you" with the reveal these days, and MotOE does not fail to deliver. Not only is the reveal somewhat surprising, the motive actually makes sense and (forgive the pun) cuts deep.

So, while I don't think MotOE succeeds as well as a movie, I do believe that (if a lot hasn't been changed-- and knowing Branagh's history as a director who loves to adapt Shakespeare, he stays true to source material) it has got to be a much more exciting book. The actors made me enjoy the characters so much that I craved more from each one and in a movie with twelve stars, a couple of minutes with each one just doesn't cut it. It looks like I may have to add just one more book to my reading list.