Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird

LADY BIRD (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Strong-willed high school senior Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has a good idea of what she wants and is willing to pursue it tenaciously in the coming of age comedy LADY BIRD. Christine decides she would rather be known as Lady Bird and insists upon being called by the name she gives herself. When a boy captures her attention, be it sweet fellow thespian Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) or budding anarchist Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), she focuses on him like a sniper. While she has a deep connection with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), that relationship is susceptible to Lady Bird’s self-interested choices causing a rift.

Inevitably Lady Bird’s biggest conflicts are with her loving but equally resolute mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is quick to call her out for real and perceived shortcomings. Lady Bird’s dad Larry (Tracy Letts) is a soft touch, so Marion’s demanding nature helps to balance the parental qualities their daughter needs as she moves toward independence, self-sufficiency, and, if Lady Bird has her wish, far away from Sacramento.

Greta Gerwig is already established as a talented actress with a flair for comedy. She co-wrote and starred in the exquisite FRANCES HA, and with LADY BIRD she expands upon her gifts in character creation as the writer and director. This sharply observed film understands the hair trigger emotional state of adolescence, particularly in that transitional period from high school to college and youth to young adulthood. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower. Lady Bird’s first kiss with Danny brings her the kind of overwhelming joy she can’t contain, but she plummets in an instant from that peak moment to the bottom of the valley when her mother chastises her for not putting away her clothes. Walking home alone after the kiss Ronan shows how Lady Bird is so happy she screams, covers her mouth, and doubles over, as if it’s only polite not to beam too much. That her unaware mother won’t let the feeling linger only increases the injury.

The loving tension in families, specifically between mothers and daughters, is central to LADY BIRD. The film opens with Lady Bird and Marion sleeping face to face in the same hotel bed and then bonding while listening to THE GRAPES OF WRATH on tape on the long drive home from college visits. They have a tight connection, yet that also means they can expertly press one another’s buttons and obliterate the peace that existed one second earlier. Lady Bird and Marion exchange cutting remarks while shopping for a dress in a thrift shop, but when Marion pulls the perfect one off the rack, they both light up like the noon sun.

Coming of age films are inclined to empathize more with the person growing up, but in LADY BIRD Gerwig fairly distributes the sense of who’s right and who’s wrong. Lady Bird can be an outspoken, self-centered brat, and Ronan leans in very humorously to the character’s attitude. She’s also more vulnerable than her exterior tends to reveal. Marion is tough, probably in an overcompensatory manner, but Gerwig’s screenplay and Metcalf’s performance detail how her sternness with Lady Bird comes from a good place and can be necessary.

LADY BIRD is a very funny movie with its witty dialogue and retroactively embarrassed observations of high school. The theater rehearsal scenes are the sort of thing that students would find fun in the moment and be mortified by in retrospect, especially if anyone not involved saw. The film also has a big heart for the complexity and challenges in being a teen and a parent, even if sometimes you can’t see the bigger picture until it’s in the past.

Grade: A


MUDBOUND (Dee Rees, 2017)

In MUDBOUND two families in the Mississippi delta farm the land, often with a great deal of difficulty, but while there is much they have in common in post-World War II America, their races make profound differences in how their lives unfold. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters, and his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), from Memphis flush with the expectations of what being a landowner will bring. They soon are faced with the hard reality that the grueling labor and stark living conditions aren’t entirely what Henry had in mind when he purchased the property. Nearby with a wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and three children is Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), a tenant farmer who wishes to own the land that his descendants worked as slaves.

Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) enlist when the time comes for the United States to enter the Second World War, and both come back seeing things differently. Ronsel has become accustomed to being treated more equally. He also leaves behind a German woman for whom he was great affection and seems restless back home. Jamie is haunted by the death he witnessed in wartime and often gets drunk to assuage the pain. The two bond over what they saw and did in the European theater even as such chumminess draws negative attention from the locals.

MUDBOUND’s screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees fluidly shifts among perspectives through weary narration stained with the disappointment and bitterness that colors the day-to-day realities and futures for these characters. All wish for something better but know that they seem doomed to be stuck in the mire.

Racism exerts a strong pull on what transpires, and MUDBOUND demonstrates how it destroys through overt and less obvious guises. Pappy’s virulent strain of hatred is the most appalling and easiest to condemn. Its consequences for those he targets and his own corroded soul are readily apparent. Rees also shows how a quieter, less loud form of racism tips the power dynamic. Henry does not make explicit threats or direct disgusting comments toward Hap and his wife, yet they know that if they don’t heed his requests, he won’t continue to ask nicely. Their interests are subservient to his, whether it’s jeopardizing their health or taking leave from their family to attend to his.

While MUDBOUND observes that the muck in this mindset drags everyone down, it also spots the potency of shared experiences to foster understanding that breaks down barriers. Hedlund and Mitchell give the richest performances, in part because their characters breach what separates the others.

Grade: A-

Justice League

JUSTICE LEAGUE (Zack Snyder, 2017)

Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, and a villain too strong for any other superhero to stop threatens to destroy the planet in JUSTICE LEAGUE. Thousands of years ago a coalition of gods, superheroes, and humans defeated Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Different parts of the alliance were responsible for hiding and protecting three cubes, but the Mother Boxes are no longer dormant. Their awakening draws Steppenwolf’s return to Earth so he can find and unify the Mother Boxes in his quest for immense power.

Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) know that they need assistance in stopping the pending apocalypse. Bruce Wayne’s search for other superheroes to join the team leads him to Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a university student known as The Flash for his superhuman speed, and Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), whose Atlantean heritage and abilities pertaining to water cause him to go by Aquaman. Diana Prince works on bringing into the fold Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a former athletic star referred to as Cyborg because of his post-accident cybernetic reconstruction.

JUSTICE LEAGUE is the DC Extended Universe’s equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s THE AVENGERS. While online fandoms engage in heated battles regarding which is superior, such distinctions seem increasingly silly when the two AVENGERS films and JUSTICE LEAGUE share Joss Whedon as a creative force behind both. As viewers it’s impossible to know how much influence Whedon wielded on the final theatrical version of JUSTICE LEAGUE, as he was brought in for reshoots and post-production while director Zack Snyder took time off to deal with family tragedy. Nevertheless, the comedic sensibility and overall lighter feel, especially in comparison to the brooding verging on nihilistic DC films, seem attributable to Whedon, who gets a co-screenwriter credit with Chris Terrio. It’s a solid comic book-like joke when The Flash pushes a few people in a truck to safety and then looks to see that Superman has relocated an entire building.

Although JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t as oppressive in tone or visual palette--this film looks notably brighter and more colorful than BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE--it has the personality of an instruction manual. This is a schematic assembly more than a story, and the lengthy build-up culminates in a third act battle that, like many of its superhero film predecessors, can seem interminable and less consequential because it’s simply a stepping stone to the next three years of sequels. JUSTICE LEAGUE can stand as a self-contained film, but it plays as an enormously expensive TV episode.

Gadot remains the best thing about the current DC films. While her character is an immortal, she brings the humanity lacking amid the noise and darkness. Miller’s Flash provides winning comic relief. Still, with so many superheroes to devote time to, not to mention their primary task, JUSTICE LEAGUE doesn’t accrue a lot of valuable character moments so much as it teases what you can get when each returns to their individual showcases.

Grade: C

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin


Wrestling with how to appreciate a work of art when the artist’s actions range from objectionable to abhorrent is nothing new, but in light of the number of sexual misconduct and assault allegations emerging in creative communities, such a question seems particularly worthy of consideration right now. Because 2017 seems to be the year of explaining why we can’t have nice things, along comes GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN to potentially ruin Winnie the Pooh. The author behind the beloved character didn’t do anything as horrid as what is dominating today’s entertainment news, but becoming aware of how he exploited his son in promoting the Pooh books introduces some acidity into the gentle mystique around them.

Years after serving during World War I, writer A.A. Milne (Domnhall Gleeson), who often goes by the nickname Blue, remains haunted by the experience. Blue wishes to get out of the city decides that he, his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their eight-year-old son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who they call Billy Moon, will move from London to the countryside. The new home in Sussex isn’t the cure-all for what ails him, though. Frustrated with his inability to work, Daphne leaves and vows not to return until he writes again.

Neither Blue nor Daphne are the most active parent, leaving the child care to the nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), who Billy is attached to like a mother. When Olive needs to leave to care for her ill mother, Blue is left to watch over the boy for awhile. This time could have been yet another obstacle to his writing, but instead it inspires his most enduring work. Their walks in the woods and Billy’s play with stuffed animals, including a yellow teddy bear named Edward, generates a popular poem and then the Winnie the Pooh books. Daphne comes back home, and the works are massively successful. The public’s love for the books also prompts a keen interest in the real Christopher Robin. The Milnes eagerly involve Billy in the publicity cycle.

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN attempts to tell a rather acrid tale within a placid, storybook world. The prim and proper surface disguises the sourness of the material. It’s like taking a drink of what one thinks is light lemonade and discovering it is lemon concentrate. As directed by Simon Curtis, Gleeson and Robbie appear to be playing very loving and very emotionally distant parents. The actors aren’t at fault for the lack of consistency in which they interact with their screen son. Rather, Curtis seems to want to resist the truth as represented in the screenplay while achieving some measure of vindication on Billy’s behalf. Macdonald, playing a tender and concerned motherly stand-in, is the only one who comes across with any awareness of what is happening in this household.

It doesn’t help that GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN lacks a perspective. This isn’t Milne’s reckoning of his shortcomings as a father. Nor is the film viewed from Billy’s side as a kid or an 18-year-old who resents how the books affected his life. Curtis sands off the rough edges and tries to be sympathetic to father and son, but it simply isn’t credible in the way he tells is, especially the especially phony-seeming ending.

Whether Curtis deserves all the blame or if some can be attributed to Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan’s screenplay is difficult to know, but it is easy to see how GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN could have been much different in someone else’s hands. A hypothetical Terry Gilliam version might have played up the phantasmagoric fairy tale qualities of a child whose imagination is plundered for his father’s creative renewal and whose odyssey through the media circus denies his real self. Another director might have focused on how the trauma of war lingers long beyond the battlefield. Yet another might have zeroed in on the public’s weird fascination with child stars, made all the stranger here because Billy is the basis for a fictional book character. GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN could have rich thematic layers, but Curtis settles on a bland, psychologically confused way of exploring them.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 17, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

The celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) expects a brief respite from sleuthing on a three-day luxury train ride from Istanbul to London, but in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS he finds himself confronted with solving the killing of a fellow passenger. The murdered man is Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an American businessman of questionable repute who tried to hire Poirot to protect him during the journey. As the suspect assuredly must be on board the express train, the case would seem to be an easy one to crack for someone with his considerable talents, but it proves to be possibly the greatest challenge of his career.

The social statuses of the passengers complicates the investigation, as who could imagine such esteemed or responsible people descending to act so primitively. Nevertheless, among those to be questioned are the husband-seeking socialite Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Ratchett’s associate Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and the temperamental Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his reclusive wife Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). Not to be overlooked is Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s roguish friend and the director of the Orient Express. Tensions run high among the riders as an avalanche derails the train, leaving them isolated with the unknown murderer until help can arrive.

As director, Branagh packs the compartments with stars, recognizable faces, and the unfamiliar as we attempt to uncover the truth behind the murder alongside his prominently moustached detective. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a decidedly old-fashioned film and one that has been adapted often enough from the Agatha Christie mystery that for some there is no secret in the famous ending of this whodunit. Whether you know what awaits at the big reveal or not, the film’s success hinges on the interactions leading to it.

In that regard, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS can be a bit of a mixed bag. Michael Green’s screenplay unfolds in basic fashion, with Poirot interviewing one person, then the next, and so on. There’s a lot of shoe leather, and with so many suspects to interrogate, the film can ease into a pattern that lulls like the rhythmic clatter of a train on the tracks. Moving action outside the train minimizes the squeeze all parties should feel either as potential victims or as an unmasked killer. The solution should land with a more dramatic flourish instead of the lengthy but momentum-sapping explanation that details the logic and deduction.

While the film is less than fully gratifying as a mystery, Branagh uses the camera with big and bold movements and painterly framing, such as the scene when all the suspects are arranged as if in an elegant police line-up. His Poirot is also more vulnerable than the brilliant character can be portrayed. Although done with a much softer touch implicating the viewers than provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke wield, Branagh broaches the topic of whether a murder, even a fictional one, should be treated as light entertainment. A life has been lost, and the soul of the perpetrator is soiled for eternity. The most surprising quality in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is not putting the pieces of the puzzle together but examining why doing so is attractive in the first place.

Grade: B-

A Bad Moms Christmas

A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, 2017)

Even those families with relatively low levels of dysfunction can find the holidays to be stressful and chaotic. For the three female heads of households in A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS, the festive time of year ramps up the burdens they feel. Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) vow to take Christmas back this season, but the pledge faces a tough challenge when each of their mothers turn up on their doorsteps unexpectedly or unexpectedly early.

Amy desires a low-key Christmas with her kids and boyfriend’s family, but that plan disintegrates when her demanding mother Ruth (Christine Baranski) and agreeable father Hank (Peter Gallagher) show up with a punishing number of activities and expectations in the week’s lead-up to the big day. Before Kiki is ready, her clingy mother Sandy (Cheryl Hines) arrives and disrupts the home with her creepy lack of boundaries. Carla’s freewheeling mother Isis (Susan Sarandon) usually only turns up when she needs money, so Carla is suspicious of what brings her to Chicago after years of not seeing her.

Like BAD MOMS, its Christmas sequel spots and expresses real frustrations that mothers deal with. Much of the perceived success of holiday gatherings does tend to fall on such women, and the pressure and judgment felt from their own mothers, whether well-meaning or not, adds to the burden. While A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS identifies something emotionally and interpersonally true, the film is anything but a high-striving overachiever in finding humor in the stress. Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore lazily cobble together a bunch of cliches and rely heavily on music montages to pad out the running time. Much of the comedy is supposed to derive from suburban, middle class women using stereotypically unladylike language, but at this point in pop culture, it’s hardly as subversive or shocking as the filmmakers would have us believe.

The previous film disappointed by giving its three funny stars little to do that was actually funny. A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS doubles that, giving six actresses with comedic chops cut-rate fodder from which they are tasked to make an extravagant feast. Kunis gets a few funny moments in displaying her character’s humiliation. Bell hits the mark when trying to strike a balance in putting up with her mother and calling her out when necessary. Hahn sometimes connects with Carla’s unfiltered comments. Baranski, Hines, and Sarandon get the occasional good line, but overall the starpower in the film greatly exceeds the dimness of the jokes.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Buster's Mal Heart

BUSTER’S MAL HEART (Sarah Adina Smith, 2016)

For five years the scraggly-bearded mountain man dubbed Buster mostly eludes being spotted as he scavenges in the wilderness during the warm months and breaks into Montana vacation homes when the weather turns cold. BUSTER’S MAL HEART alternates between the police chasing him toward a showdown, the life he had before he withdrew from society, and his time at sea.

Prior to going off the grid, this fringe figure was known as Jonah (Rami Malek), a late-night hotel concierge with a wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and a two-year-old daughter. They live with her parents in a tense arrangement, so he dreams of one day buying some property and living off the land. One night at work someone proclaiming himself The Last Free Man (DJ Qualls) approaches Jonah about the societal illusion and the collapse in a few years with Y2K. Jonah may or may not fully buy into talk of a second inversion and how to escape the system, but he is happy to listen to what this stranger has to say.

Like MR. ROBOT, a TV series that features Malek, BUSTER’S MAL HEART is steeped in a paranoid world in which mysterious forces are at work behind the scenes manipulating the rest of us. Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s film is less plot-driven and more opaque, something along the lines of Shane Carruth’s mindbender UPSTREAM COLOR. The dreamy quality running through BUSTER’S MAL HEART isn’t so abstract to be thoroughly confounding, yet the resolution amount to less than the enigmatic elements trying to be pieced together. Smith employs religious symbolism in telling the main character’s tale, although this Jonah only seems fleetingly connected to his Biblical namesake.

Malek’s expressiveness performs the hard work of convincing that this weary family man could fracture, disappear into the countryside, and become the stuff of local legend. His eyes reveal how weighed down he is by frustrations of what his circumstances offer and the need to trick his body into getting a decent rest while the sun is out. They reveal Jonah’s internal vacancy and the opportunity for anyone to fill him up with even a halfway persuasive argument. Malek voices skepticism while those eyes appear to plead for the answers he hasn’t found. Even after his conversion of sorts in reverting to a more animalistic state, his civilized humanity shines through when face to face with those who assumes are blind to his reality.

BUSTER’S MAL HEART likely doesn’t succeed if the flashbacks with Jonah’s family weren’t so effective. Malek, Sheil, and Sukha Belle Potter as their daughter Roxy have minimal moments to flesh out a loving relationship facing the strains from personal finances, especially as they relate to living situation and expectations. The tenderness in their interactions and the rawness between Malek and Sheil emphasize the enormous support in this unit perceived to be threatened by those in the shadows.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Only the Brave

ONLY THE BRAVE (Joseph Kosinski, 2017)

In ONLY THE BRAVE Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) oversees a unit within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department that fights wildfires, but because they are not certified at the highest level, they are relegated to tasks he feels the team is overqualified for. With the help of the department’s Duane Stinebrink (Jeff Bridges), Eric gets his chance to get the team to the level of hotshots. He also convinces the mayor that as hotshots they'll earn more for hire to other communities than it costs to maintain the team. Among the firefighters is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a burnout who says he’s determined to turn around his life after fathering a daughter.

ONLY THE BRAVE holds up the honor and dignity of a group working tirelessly and selflessly toward a common cause. Although the men may carry themselves with a certain swagger, the danger in what they do is always apparent to them and the loved ones worrying as they rush off to stop a big conflagration. While Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Springer’s screenplay holds these men up as heroes, it doesn’t do so at the expense of portraying their flaws and the tensions among them. These guys must rely on each other, but the personality clashes and self-destructive behaviors that exist in every team are just as visible here. Such a large crew can make it difficult to get to know all of them beyond a defining trait or two, which is why Marsh, McDonough, and Taylor Kitsch’s Chris MacKenzie, the wilder spirit in this bunch, receive the majority of the focus. Still, ONLY THE BRAVE does well at providing glimpses of those who are no less important than the ones who dominate the story.

Director Joseph Kosinski shoots the firefighting scene with attention to the technical requirements and strategy involved in taming the flames gobbling up the land before they reach homes. The hotshots literally fight fire with fire, which sounds counterintuitive but proves to be a remarkably effective approach as long as the situation has been properly assessed. ONLY THE BRAVE houses deep respect for the people who do this work, and in explaining how they achieve positive results, it honors all those whose accumulated knowledge and losses allow for such remarkable achievements now.

It’s fair to assume that a film about civic protectors probably contains its share of tragedy. ONLY THE BRAVE fits into the tradition of memorialization for such people. Rather than doing so with a plaque, the moving images, in the literal and metaphorical senses, depict what some are willing to risk for the safety of all. Kosinski handles the inevitable scene of informing loved ones about deaths on the job with delicacy and power combining the joy and jealousy for those who survived and anger and sorrow on the part of those who don’t come home. There can be a tendency for empty valorization of sacrifice, as though death in service makes it more acceptable while denying the impact that resonates through those left behind. ONLY THE BRAVE acknowledges the heroism but respects that all of the ringing words of praise can never make up for what is given.

Grade: B