Monthly Archives: November 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — 8/10


Appeals to the 19 year-old version of me who was studying existential philosophy in college, but also appeals to my aesthetics and sense of humor, so this was a win all around. McDonagh seems to have perfected his pet genre of funny, dark melodrama that includes the stagey, two-handed chat-fest between introspective hitmen of IN BRUGES and the frustratingly empty and nihilistic meta exercise in revenge and forgiveness that was SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. This is the sweet spot: great dialogue, characters defined by action (and defined in interesting ways, ensuring there’s no good unsullied by some darkness, and no evil without a little goodness), and a huge depth of feeling throughout. A mid-film sequence (involving the first of Chief Willoughby’s wise, amusing, and bittersweet letters read in Harrelson’s characteristically humane voiceover) and the final five minutes are both profound enough to choke up even the most cynical members of the audience.

Within the first three seconds of the movie, which are the first two notes of the score, you’ll recognize Carter Burwell’s hymnal oboe sounds (the end credits confirmed for me Burwell’s contributions, though I’d have recommended a lawsuit if this wasn’t him), recalling MILLER’S CROSSING and other fine Coen brothers movies, a distinct signpost that we may be dealing with Coen-ish themes and modes of storytelling. And we are — not only in the casting of Joel Coen’s wife (FARGO’s Frances McDormand), but in the world view of funny, lovable Midwestern hicks caught up in the existential dilemma of a vast, quiet world uncaring for their silly dramas (bickering spouses, petulant teenagers, being an outcast dwarf, having cancer, misplacing your badge, etc.) and indulging in the entropy of a human condition reliant upon chaos, violence, injustice, confusion, miscommunication, prejudice, unhappiness, loneliness, and death.

There’s another British filmmaker who traffics in working class stiffs burdened by life’s uncaring lurch, and that’s Mike Leigh — whom I thought of a few times during this, so I wasn’t surprised to see that his longtime editor Jon Gregory cut this film. Gregory favors rhythm and comic juxtaposition over straight continuity; a more fluid, realistic editor might not have found the warm laughs that mark THREE BILLBOARDS.

Most of those laughs come from McDonagh’s witty dialogue (“Penelope said ‘begets’?”) but often that dialogue is focused on delivering the life-is-meaningless, create-your-own-reasons philosophy that would make everyone from Nietzsche and Camus to Wright and Beckett proud: “We’re all dying,” “We’ll figure it out along the way,” etc. And while everyone is basically a mouthpiece for McDonagh’s point of view, this doesn’t feel like a series of pithy platitudes — they come honestly out of the story. There isn’t a lot of backstory to flesh out this large cast; instead we learn about these people through decisions they make and actions they take, Johnnie To-style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. This includes PSYCHOPATHS veterans Rockwell, Harrelson, and Cornish, plus the amazing McDormand, an underutilized Dinklage (I don’t watch GAME OF THRONES so I feel like this guy has been missing since THE STATION AGENT and wish he was all over the place) and the hilarious, suddenly ubiquitous Samara Weaving (Hugo’s niece, whom I hadn’t heard of a few months ago, and now with THE BABYSITTER and SMILF, turns out she’s quite a talent).

McDonagh may still include a few too many writerly contrivances, misleading for the sake of point-making, and may still not trust his camera enough to say things without putting it in the script. But for a guy who makes a movie every four or five years, he’s improving by leaps and bounds, and he’s finally found a narrative rich enough and timely enough (it isn’t an accident that the group of townsfolk who band together to rebuild the billboards that protest a largely white, male police authority is made up of two women, two blacks, and a dwarf) to support those stinging, hilarious barbs that push all of my existentialist buttons.

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The Florida Project — 7/10

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

Now with six features under his belt (the last three of which I’ve seen), Baker has established himself as a workhorse keen on specificity and world-building. The difference with his latest is that the details of his world have a much larger resonance beyond the specifics on which he focuses. Whereas STARLET and TANGERINE had their fair share of humanism on display, they were introverted films too carefully examining their own bodies. Now the gaze is looking up from the navel and into the sky above, and that’s what lets the audience in. Finally, I was emotionally involved, and the individual feels connected to the universal.

The looming presence of Disney World shadows every scene, though we don’t get a glimpse of the actual kingdom until the final shot. We’re in a place that couldn’t be closer to family paradise, but also couldn’t be further away from it — there’s nothing here as squeaky clean, corporatized, or luxurious as a theme park. When the kids run past the sign for FutureLand, it says “Stay in the future — today.” But the future these children inhabit is one of economic depression and increased danger. Still, that ugly existence is shot with tender beauty by Baker and his production team, who manage to find the right pink Florida sunsets as a backdrop, and powerful wide shots for kids to drift their way through the frame. The world, and the future, is what you make of it.

Willem Dafoe (who has defied nature by managing to be exactly 46 years old for over three decades) plays his motel manager character as a caring protector, leader, and cheek-turner — as if he was reprising his Jesus role from Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. He usually reserves his anger for the worst threats to his domain: not the tenants, but creeps like the pedophile he scares off the property in his most heroic scene. When he has to clash with Bria Vinaite as the troubled young mother Halley (think a white-trash Sarah Polley), his threats are emptier — as annoyed as he gets, he won’t deprive her and her daughter Moonee of a home.  But he has a boss, too, and he still has to repair the ice machine.

Baker wisely avoids the poverty-porn trap that victimized BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD by refusing to condescend. A good balance of humor and objective distance helps the plot-free nature-doc aspects of it go down easy, and before you know it, a climactic close-up shot of Moonee crying is unshakably heart-breaking even though you know it’s manipulative. The pathos is earned, legitimately or not, just like every dollar Halley makes to pay her rent. And while a few of the vignette detours fail to resonate (the relationship with Scooty and his mom culminates in drama but not a payoff) and the directionless pace (trying too hard to match the directionless protagonists) kills some momentum, the distinct tone is what lingers. And all the complications, nuances, and moral grey areas keeping Baker’s shoes gum-stuck to the asphalt — they’re absolutely necessary.

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The Square — 8/10

THE SQUARE (2017, Ruben Östlund)

A sharp and sticky provocation that manages to transcend its didacticism and become something unshakable. Take, for example, the big voicemail scene towards the end. It sounds like Christian is spelling out the movie’s themes, and in a way he is. But then he goes on too long, well past the point you’d expect him to stop, and the speech takes on a different tone. Now it’s about character, not content.

It’s the sly, clever character development throughout that gives this lecture its flavor, most notably in the Elisabeth Moss scenes, which explore the stubbornness that Christian would need to handle every issue the way he handles it in the back half of the film. And his name — Christian — maybe not the most subtle clue, but this is really a movie about turning the other cheek, helping the poor, and doing unto others, etc. And while the first scene introduces the concept of what constitutes a work of art (is it its display, its intention, or something else?) it’s not until the show-stopping setpiece at the gala dinner where we visualize the incredibly blurred line between performance and reality; it’s a sequence that feels perfectly at one with the film’s tone, yet separated from the narrative in a beautifully theatrical manner.

Östlund is so gifted and confident in his direction that every scene (in what appears to be a disjointed narrative) ties in with the problematic art piece at its center. There’s the white square surrounding the cheerleading performance, the chimpanzee presaging the performance artist, and the use of off-screen space in the scene where Michael is babysitting the car and gets preyed upon. So many memorable shots: the overhead in the garbage dump, the shopping mall escalators, the extras on their phones, and even Dominic West in his pajamas. Viewers may be turned off by a filmmaker forcing you to endure his sociological study, but when it’s this invigorating, sign me up for next semester. I’ve got no problem being teacher’s pet.

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Blade Runner 2049 — 5/10

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

I bristle whenever the cool cinephile kids pick on Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. It’s dismissed as dorm-room posing, style over substance, and the meathead’s version of art cinema. This baffles me, since I find it as emotionally devastating, profound, and effective as any movie this century. Ridley Scott’s 1982 BLADE RUNNER, on the other hand, I can see generating that kind of scoffing. When I tried watching it as a kid, I fell asleep. When I tried again in college, I fell asleep. When I finally got through it a few years ago, I was still bored and annoyed. Some nice shots, a lot of bad dialogue, and themes worthy of no better than freshman stoner babbling.

Take it with a grain of salt, then, that this 2017-sized version left me cold as ice. But that doesn’t mean it it’s totally worthless — it’s yet another argument for putting Roger Deakins in the DP Hall of Fame (if such a thing existed). And the production design, Hans Zimmer score, and costume design is all eye and ear candy. But for a film so big, so bloated, so heavy with its own desperate attempts at profundity, it disappears like smoke the second you leave the theater.

The best stuff involves Villeneuve’s visual ideas for exploring the themes of virtual vs. human, especially the drawn-out sex scene with a hologram clumsily latching onto a person. Then there are the elemental images of water (a grand fight, drowning), fire, dirt (the future Las Vegas), etc. But in being so humorlessly focused on the themes of what it means to be human and to have memories, it crawls too far inside itself and almost doesn’t care if you’re even there watching at all.

The plot falls apart upon further investigation, but Villeneuve doesn’t even really care about it much (nor does producer Scott, picking up where he casually left off 35 years ago). Still, why lean so hard on those interminable, devastatingly bad Jared Leto scenes (come on, Jared, you’re making it really hard for me to keep defending you) and the gotcha flashbacks during the third act twist? The resulting experience is an exhausting one — nearly three hours of sci-fi atmosphere, serious hand-wringing, and noble attempts at making visual something that’s intangible and philosophical. Never thought I’d say this, but it could have used one of Gosling’s musical numbers from LA LA LAND, just to lighten the fucking mood.

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Thor: Ragnarok — 7/10

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017, Taika Waititi)

I fear this is about as good as MCU movies are going to get these days. It’s become a genre in and of itself — there will always be mediocre villains, too much CG, and a few too many members of a ragtag group of heroes, stuffed inside a north-of-2-hours sci-fi noise-fest that doesn’t stop for one second to digest the consequences of its violence or contemplate the complexities of its storylines. So if that’s all we can expect, consider it a huge breath of fresh air that this episode is wildly entertaining due to being a full blown comedy. It’s the film James Gunn’s GUARDIANS entries so badly wanted to be.

After a laborious first act dumping painful amounts of exposition, the action centers on Sakaar, a WALL-E-inspired trash planet ruled by Grandmaster Jeff Goldblum (virtually stealing the whole show with a giggling performance of unchecked showmanship), and introduces Hulk and Valkyrie, two characters Thor desperately needs to bounce off of (figuratively and literally). We also get the secret MVP: Korg, played by the New Zealand-born Jewish director Waititi, whose sense of humor carries over from his hilarious WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and makes this entry a cynical satire of itself, skewering clichés and taking the entire franchise about as seriously as anyone should — which is to say, not at all. It knows just how stupid it is that Oscar-winning thespian Mark Ruffalo has to deliver the line “We’re approaching the devil’s anus!” so it just has a childlike glee in the destruction of everything Thor — his hammer, his eye, and his planet. When your villain is Cate Blanchett in goth-club black eye makeup and Anthony Hopkins is standing around giving ghost-dad speeches, you might as well just mock until the credits are over, then keep it going an extra couple minutes.

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