Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: Justice League

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
A group of heroes with special powers band together to stop an invading otherworldly presence that promises to wreak havoc on mankind and bring about its destruction. Yes, that is technically the plot for "Justice League," but it could also stand in for any number of films that have been released during the summer or holiday season for the past decade or more. And therein lies the problem with "Justice League" - it is overly familiar to the point where we can guess the exact plot points long before they occur onscreen. The only variation is the order in which they are presented.

Zack Snyder's film isn't a bad one - although there are some cringe-inducing scenes, most notably the ones in which villain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) attacks with a marauding band of flying insects that give off the vibe of scenes that didn't make the final cut in "The Hobbit" sequels - but it is lacking a personality and a raison d'etre, other than - to quote the finale of "Spaceballs" - the search for more money.

Gal Godot and Ezra Miller add a little flavor to the proceedings as Wonder Woman and The Flash, respectively. Ben Affleck is back as Batman and he's given a little more personality than in the flop "Batman v Superman," while Henry Cavill reprises his role as Superman. A great cast - Diane Lane, Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Joe Morton and Jason Mamoa, providing a snippy Aquaman portrayal - doesn't go far enough to make up for the lack of inspiration here.

As the film opens, Steppenwolf and his band of insects are planning to attack Earth in the wake of Superman's death. Batman and Wonder Woman round up Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash to form their own Avengers-style superhero team to take on the menace. This mostly results in Batman brooding, Aquaman complaining, Cyborg sulking and The Flash babbling, although the latter's incessant banter provides a little levity amid all the nonstop battle scenes and expensive special effects.

An odd plot point in the film involves a Russian family, whose home is repeatedly threatened by Steppenwolf's crew for no other point than to be saved late in the movie by two of the heroes and then quickly forgotten. Another minor and unnecessary plot strand involves the sale of Superman's old home. Moving on.

Although I am as equally fatigued by "The Avengers" movies as I am the DC output, the former - at least - is lighter on its feet - that is, when it's not attempting to tackle such topics as the overstepping of Homeland Security - and quicker to poke fun at itself. "Justice League" is, similar to other Snyder films, often so straight-faced that it provokes a question once posed by one of DC's top villains: Why so serious?

Earlier this year, "Wonder Woman" showed how to do a comic book movie the right way. Should DC move forward with a "Flash" movie - as I'm sure they will - it could be fun, especially with Miller in the lead. But despite the fact that the villain in this latest entry is named Steppenwolf, the mantra for this picture could be "Born to Be Mild."

Review: Mudbound

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Dee Rees' "Mudbound" is a powerful film about perspective and how different people view a similar situation and come up with opposing views. The picture follows the stories of two families - one white and one black - in pre- and post-World War II Mississippi who, due to circumstances, find themselves sharing the same plot of land.

One perspective is that of pastor Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), who shares the plot of land with his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), and five children, one of whom - Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) - is drafted and sent to fight the Germans and, in the process, falls in love with a young German woman while abroad. Hap sees the plot of land as an opportunity to rise above his station in life.

Meanwhile, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has dragged his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), two daughters and evil racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), to the plot of land and comes to find it to be godforsaken. Shortly after taking over the plot, Henry's brother, the hard drinking and womanizing Jaime (Garrett Hedlund), has also returned from the war in shell shock. Another perspective in the picture is that of Jaime and Laura - who come to know members of the Jackson family and forge bonds of friendship - versus that of Henry, who merely see the Jacksons as a means to an end, and Pappy, whose perspective is completely driven by hateful racism.

Jaime and Ronsel strike up a friendship, all the while that Henry forces Hap to work on the land that he has hoped to become his own. It also becomes obvious that Laura has a thing for Jaime and, to add more drama to the scenario, Pappy not only insults Hap and Florence with racial epithets, but has a run-in with Ronsel that we know will lead to no good.

Rees' previous film, "Pariah," was a picture about a young, closeted gay African American woman and her relationship with her family. "Mudbound" is also about a family dynamic - make that two, actually - and Rees shows an affinity for stories regarding familial units. Although "Pariah" was very good, Rees' latest film is a major step up - it's the type of confident, visually striking and thematically rich picture you'd associate with a veteran director, rather than a second outing.

This is also the type of film that will likely make you angry. There are no Hollywood endings here and the film's characters are frequently forced to swallow injustices without any recourse. There's a particularly horrifying scene late in the movie that the viewer can probably see coming, but it's deeply unsettling and heartbreaking all the same. This is a very good film, anchored by terrific performances - especially Hedlund, Mitchell and Blige - and strong filmmaking. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Murder On The Orient Express

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Kenneth Branagh saved the best role for himself in the remake that he has directed of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." As the legendary Hercule Poirot, Branagh appears to be having fun as he struts about with braggadocio as the fuss budget Belgian detective who can't tear himself away from a good case and is driven crazy by the sight of a crooked tie.

So, it's a shame that the rest of the picture feels like the type of overstuffed film from the 1970s - from "Airport" and "The Towering Inferno" to Sidney Lumet's much better version of "Orient Express" - that features a who's who of talent who are mostly relegated to bit parts. Branagh's film boasts an impressive cast: Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Penelope Cruz.

The film opens with an over-the-top sequence in Turkey, during which Poirot is called upon to unravel a mystery regarding a theft that was likely carried out by one of three religious leaders. He then boards the titular train, where he is surrounded by a group of strangers and, not long after the train takes off, approached by one of them (Depp), a criminal of some sort who believes that his life is in danger and wants Poirot's help.

Poirot declines and, shortly thereafter, a murder occurs on the train, which then becomes trapped in a mountain following an avalanche. Naturally, everyone is a suspect and Poirot quickly begins formulating the scene of the crime in his head while interviewing all of the aforementioned, plus several other minor characters. Much of the film's early scenes lack energy, despite Branagh's wily turn as Poirot - who, as it turns out, is the only character given any sort of development.

Poirot pulls clues from the oddest of places, so much so, in fact, that it's often difficult to follow his line of reasoning. The finale includes a clever twist, albeit one that you can probably see coming if you stop to think about it. As a filmmaker, Branagh has worked wonders with Shakespeare and  independent dramas ("Dead Again"and "Peter's Friends"), but his bigger budget work ("Thor") and two remakes of classics ("Sleuth" and "Orient Express") have been lesser endeavors. Other than Branagh's inspired turn as Poirot and the film's final twist, this is a remake that wasn't entirely necessary.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Martin McDonagh's third outing as a director is not only arguably his best, but also a film that goes out of its way to challenge viewers' assumptions about and attitudes toward its characters as it deftly explores the concepts of grief and anger. This is an often very funny movie that draws humor from subjects that are not funny whatsoever. The ability to do so stems from McDonagh's talents as a writer and director and the abilities of his excellent cast.

Frances McDormand, one of our greatest actresses, is a force of nature in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" as Mildred, a woman living in the titular town whose anger and grief have overwhelmed her. However, she's long past the stage of shock and ready to take action when necessary. Several months prior to the film's beginning, Mildred's teenage daughter was raped and violently murdered and Ebbing's police department has no leads or suspects.

To announce her anger over her loss as well as her frustration regarding the lack of progress in the case, Mildred - much to the dismay of virtually everyone in town - pays for the ad space on three billboards on the outskirts of town that she adorns with three messages: "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" The last message refers to the town's sheriff (Woody Harrelson), who in any other film would be the villain, but here is most likely the most sane member of the town.

Willoughby is, similar to Mildred, frustrated about the lack of clues to the murder and he only becomes the target of Mildred's billboards because he's the sheriff and, well, the buck has to stop somewhere, right? In fact, the two appear to have an element of respect for each other and Mildred gets a slight lesson in humility after finding out that Willoughby has his own cross to bear.

If anyone is hostile in "Three Billboards," it is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the rogue, racist and violent cop for whose humanity Willoughby holds out hope, although no one else appears to do so. Other town members include a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who harbors feelings for Mildred, the timid man (Caleb Landry Jones) who reluctantly rents the billboard space to Mildred and Mildred's ex-husband (John Hawkes), who clearly beat her and is now living with a 19-year-old girl. Mildred lives with her teenage son (Lucas Hedges), who acts as her semi-voice of reason and appears mortified by her behavior. There's a particularly unsettling scene when Mildred's ex stops by, nearly hits her, is stopped by their son and then everyone goes back to what they were doing as if the scene were routine.

There have been numerous films about people who behave very badly and we've often been forced to identify with them - in other words, the human elements of their atrocious behavior. But it's not often that we are asked to empathize with them. "Three Billboards" does this - and it's a risky move, but ultimately an effective one. Every character in the film is flawed, some more than others. We may be compassionate regarding Mildred's grief, but she's also reckless and occasionally dangerous - take, for instance, her firebombing of the police station, which results in the permanent scarring of a character. And while Dixon, at least for the film's first half, is an unrepentantly disgusting individual, we witness behavior later on that could be seen as some sort of a redemption.

"Three Billboards" is often riotously funny, but also moving in a manner that often sneaks up on you. It also feels true. The film has an ending that will likely be much discussed and debated. Some might call it abrupt, but it ends in a manner that is open ended for a specific purpose. One's take on the final scene might depend on one's view of human nature.

McDonagh's debut, "In Bruges," was a screamingly funny movie about criminals that concerned itself with elements of the soul. Its follow up, "Seven Psychopaths," was amusing, but not on par with the playwright's directorial debut. "Three Billboards" follows in the footsteps of those films in that it deals with crime and punishment and some unsavory characters. But it's also a little deeper, more melancholy and thoughtful in how it examines the grieving process. McDormand should easily earn some awards attention, but Harrelson is also great and Rockwell gives what could be the performance of his career. In other words, I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Lady Bird

Image courtesy of A24.
In a scene near the end of Greta Gerwig's wonderful autobiographical semi-directorial debut "Lady Bird," a minor character notes how the titular character - high school senior Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) - describes Sacramento, the city in which she lives, with such loving detail. Lady Bird is surprised by the compliment, considering her feelings for the city she calls home. For much of the film, Lady Bird talks about how much she hates Sacramento, but the nun at her Catholic school who pays the compliment mentions that the girl had paid such great attention to detail while describing the California town.

And that, at its heart, is sort of on what Gerwig's lovely - and often hilarious - film fixes its attentions. Much of the picture follows the uneasy relationship between Lady Bird and her taskmaster mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who our protagonist believes is unnecessarily harsh - she chides her daughter about her wardrobe, her choice of schools, her behavior and much more. But the thing is: Marion pays attention to her daughter and, during a scene late in the film, Lady Bird recognizes that often paying attention to and taking interest in another's life is one of the greatest ways to show love.

"Lady Bird" is a coming of age story during which a witty, precocious and, let's be honest, occasionally bratty young woman makes a mess of things and, in the process, becomes wiser. Between her work here and her terrific performance in "Brooklyn," Ronan is easily one of the best actors of her generation and Metcalf takes what could be the thankless role of the overbearing mother and provides a deeply felt portrayal. Playwright Tracy Letts is also great as Lady Bird's easygoing father, who has well-hidden melancholia, while Lucas Hedges shines as a love interest - who has a secret - for Lady Bird and Beanie Feldstein plays one of the most well-drawn sidekicks in recent memory as Lady Bird's kindhearted pal Julie.

As the film opens, Lady Bird has set her sights on college in New York City and away from Sacramento, a town that she feels is vapid and culturally lacking. The year is 2002 and scenes of post-9/11 America are splashed across TV screens in the background. The film is based, in part, on Gerwig's youth. She sort-of made a directorial debut alongside Joe Swanberg with the mumblecore film "Nights and Weekends," of which I was not a fan, but her work here is that of a mature artist. This is a wonderfully warm, very funny and terrifically written movie. It's a film about youth that it took the maturity of an adult to bring to the screen.

Although named Christine, the titular heroine gives herself the name Lady Bird to distinguish herself from the other Catholic school kids with whom she attends school, but doesn't feel a connection of any sort - other than Julie, a good natured girl who appears to have a crush on a math teacher. Lady Bird first chases the affections of Hedges, a theater kid with whom she performs in a school play, and - after that romance fizzles - a pretentious hipster in a band whose aloofness tricks Lady Bird into thinking he is interesting.

There are some musical cues - Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" - that alert us to the era in which the film is set, but many of the songs in the movie are late 1990s nuggets that are well used - such as Bone Thugs N Harmony's "Tha Crossroads" and Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me," which is utilized to startlingly great effect.

Many of the best films from the past few years have been small budget dramas about existences that don't feel too far removed from ordinary life - for example, "Boyhood," "Moonlight," "The Florida Project" and, now, "Lady Bird." In Gerwig's film, Lady Bird makes the type of relatable mistakes many of us have made while forging our paths through the world. Her character might be a self-imposed outcast - at least, before she attempts to fit in for a brief spell with a few of her school's vapid popular kids - but her life follows a trajectory that many will find familiar.

There's also a wonderful mother-daughter dynamic in the film. The picture opens with Lady Bird and Marion tearing up as they listen to an audio book of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" during a college road trip and then quickly begin bickering after it's over as to what they should listen to next. There are a few grand gestures - a prom sequence, albeit a lovely one, and a goodbye at an airport - but "Lady Bird," much like "Boyhood" and "Moonlight," finds its magic in the smaller moments. This is a lovely film, a genuine calling card for Gerwig as a director and one of the year's best movies.

Review: Last Flag Flying

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Considering that his films frequently feature young men behind the wheels of cars, it is surprising that Richard Linklater has never made a road trip movie. His latest - "Last Flag Flying," a sequel of sorts to Darryl Ponicsan's novel and Hal Ashby's classic 1973 film "The Last Detail" - is a movie about three men on the road that is occasionally funny and often melancholy and boasts three excellent performances from its leads.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Sal Nealon, who is seemingly the Jack Nicholson character from "The Last Detail," although his name in that film was Buddusky. Laurence Fishburne fills in for Otis Young as Rev. Richard Mueller and Steve Carell takes over Randy Quaid's Larry "Doc" Shepherd. While Ashby's original film was a dark comedy, this sequel - while often funny - is a more sombre affair.

As the film opens, Doc wanders into a bar owned by Sal in Virginia. The year is 2003 and the two men haven't seen each other for years. Although Sal owns a business, he is by no means tied down by anything and it doesn't take much arm twisting for Doc to convince him to take a short road trip. They end up in a church where Mueller, once a hard partying ladies man, is now a reverend and are invited to dinner at his house, where they meet his pious wife.

But the happy reunion is interrupted after Doc confesses that his beloved wife had died earlier that year from cancer and, most recently, his son - a marine - was killed while deployed in Iraq. Doc has sought out his two former buddies - with whom he served in the Vietnam War - to accompany him to pick up his son's body and ride along while it is transported to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.

Similar to Linklater's other films, "Last Flag Flying" focuses on people and the way they gab with one another. The director is a great writer and each character - including Cicely Tyson as an elderly mother of a soldier whom the three men knew in Vietnam and J. Quinton Johnson as a soldier pal of Doc's son who travels along with the trio on their journey - gets at least a few scenes of great dialogue. Each of the performances is strong - Fishburne lends a certain gravitas, while Cranston gets to let loose as the incorrigible Sal. But it's Carell who nearly steals the show in a soulful performance as Doc, whose life has, in some ways, been the rockiest of the three characters.

The film is not perfect. There are a few scenes played for laughs that don't quite work - for example, a discussion of Eminem's music by Mueller and Sal, a sequence during which the three leads are mistaken for terrorists and an ongoing joke regarding Sal's newfound obsession with cell phones. But otherwise, "Last Flag Flying" is a film through which - similar to Linklater's other films - the characters come alive through conversation. There's a particularly funny scene during which the three men - and Johnson's character - laugh about the older men's exploits during Vietnam and a quietly moving scene later on a train when they realize that soldiers' experiences in wartime don't vary much from generation to generation.

Linklater has, for a while, been on a roll with his "Before" films, the remarkable "Boyhood" and excellent "Everybody Wants Some." His latest isn't quite on par with the aforementioned, but it's still very good and it ends on a profound one-two punch when the men visit the mother of a fallen comrade and then Sal and Mueller attempt to be there for Doc after receiving a letter written by his son prior to his death. This is a powerful, beautifully acted movie that does justice to its source material and the classic movie that preceded it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Review: Suburbicon

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There's a whole lot of talent involved in "Suburbicon," a movie with two stories that never quite successfully coalesce, but the results are, unfortunately, middling. This is a film that can't decide whether it's a satire, straightforward thriller or socially conscious period piece.

The film's director is George Clooney, an actor who has proven that he has talent behind the camera, and two of the picture's four screenwriters are Joel and Ethan Coen. The cast includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac and a bunch of other great character actors. And yet, "Suburbicon" never truly gels.

The picture opens with an ad for the titular town and gives an annotated history of the blossoming of the suburb. The film is set in the late 1950s and as the story opens, a black family is moving into the town of Suburbicon, much to the dismay of the town's predominantly racist population. One of the film's few funny jokes is during the prelude, during which the town is referred to as diverse, which we learn means that white families have moved there from New York, Mississippi and Ohio.

One of the many issues with "Suburbicon" is that, other than a few characters, nearly every person who appears onscreen is repulsive - to an extent that seems near impossible. The film's protagonist, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who lives next door to the black family, is prompted by his mother and aunt to befriend the new neighbor's son. Meanwhile, the rest of the block takes up a vigil of banging drums and other racket outside the black couple's home to scare them away.

Near the beginning of the film, a tragedy strikes. Two nasty men break into Nicky's home, tie up his mother (Julianne Moore), aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore), Nicky and his father, Gardner (Matt Damon), and knock them all out with chloroform. However, nothing appears to be stolen and the entire scene comes off as fishy. Nicky's mother, who is wheelchair-bound, dies as a result and the boy's uncle vows to find out who was involved in the home invasion.

Nicky begins to sense something is up shortly afterward when Margaret moves in to his house and takes up with his father, who becomes increasingly nasty. In fact, I don't believe I've ever seen Damon play such an outright villain. His character in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" comes off as a Boy Scout in comparison. Moore's aunt also gives Nicky a creepy vibe and it begins to appear as if the boy could be in danger himself.

One of the biggest problems with "Suburbicon" is its attempt to juggle the story involving the murder of Nicky's mother and his growing distrust of his father with the story of the black couple being taunted by Nicky's racist neighbors. At times, it feels like two films being blended together that merely share a similar setting and era, but not much else.

Also, the scenes involving the tormented couple are meant to be moving and anger-inducing - which they are - while the other story is occasionally humorous, but mostly dark and in the manner of the Coens' debut, "Blood Simple." In other words, it doesn't blend well. It's only when Oscar Isaac shows up as an unscrupulous insurance adjuster that "Suburbicon" is made more lively. Otherwise, the film is a blend of tones and concepts that never come together convincingly.

Clooney has shown that he has an eye as a director for period pieces - most notably, "Good Night and Good Luck," but also the decent "Monuments Men" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." But his latest didn't work for me and it's his least successful outing behind the camera.