Sunday, November 26, 2017

Female Trouble: “Lady Bird” is a Funny & Moving Piece of Teenage Americana

“Lady Bird” is, in fact, not a spinoff of last year’s first lady character study “Jackie.” When buzz for the film began whirling around the internet I mostly ignored it because what I assumed was a biopic of ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson didn’t appeal to me at all. This is not that film. The film is about typical suburban teenage life and strife, ie, I hate my life, I hate my town, I wanna get out of this place. Sound familiar? The film is headlined by a fantastic performance from two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (whose name I still can’t spell without looking at her imdb page). “Lady Bird” certainly isn’t the first film to tackle the ins-and-outs of being seventeen but director Greta Gerwig’s portrait of teen life feels so authentic I’d be damned if it wasn’t a true life tale. The story focuses on one year in the life of a 12th grader named Lady Bird and her sometimes contentious relationship with her mother. From the moment Lady Bird first throws herself out of her mom’s moving vehicle you’re with her and the film 100%. It’s not based on a true story but in a way it’s based on all of our stories; it’s immediate and immediately engaging.

There’s nothing particularly flashy or eye-catching about the filmmaking in “Lady Bird.” Writer/director Greta Gerwig, known for her charismatic performances in smaller, indie films (everyone should see “Frances Ha”), makes an auspicious debut behind the camera. And that’s probably because the Lady Bird character is probably ingrained in Gerwig’s soul and you can feel it. While this is far from the first film to portray realistic teenagers and family dynamics (we got a great one last year even “The Edge of Seventeen”), Gerwig just gets everything so right here. The filmmaker certainly knows where the main character is coming from, Gerwig attended Catholic high school in Sacramento and went to college in New York. For all intends and purposes the director IS Lady Bird. And even if you don’t relate to her specifically, someone you know will definitely remind you of her.

Lady Bird is played by Saoirse Ronan who is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most talented young performers. The character is one of those rebellious, somewhat pretentious teen movie characters that is somehow immediately relatable. It’s a role actors would kill for. She doesn’t always do the most likable things (or the smartest things for that matter) but she feels genuine. She hangs out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), has the hots for the cute guy in the school play (another outstanding Oscar-nominated young actor Lucas Hedges from last year’s “Manchester by the Sea”),, and has the occasional quarrel with her mother Marion (underrated character actress Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird hates Sacramento and wants to attend college in New York but her mother insists they can’t afford it. She gets sarcastic commentary from her adopted older brother who can’t seem to escape his supermarket clerk career. Only her dad (played by playwright Tracy Letts) seems to get her. Oh and Lady Bird and Julie occasionally eat the church wafers as snacks between classes and I have the strangest feeling that Gerwig probably did that at least once.

The female-centered film is a fascinating slice of high school life that takes place in 2002 and successfully reflects some of my own experiences growing up in the early aughts. Those expecting some kind of shocking revelation or big plot twist will be sorely disappointed. The film and its screenplay function to bring well-drawn characters to life in a naturalistic way, not to wow you with expert cinematic trickery. The movie is way more interested in making you laugh or feel something. The film has a wickedly delightful sense of humor. It’s has some keen life observations to make, some really fun vignette-like moments, a great sense of identity, and an emotional core that is sure to resonate with any adult who has ever been a teenager. So, essentially, everyone.  GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Signs: The Thrilling “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a Jet Black Dark Comedy

You never know quite what to expect in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It's a movie as eccentric as its title suggests but it's also an expertly written and acted searing drama about loss, vengeance, and a microcosm of the current state of affairs in this country. Oh and it's also wickedly funny. Sort of in the vein of “Fargo,” writer/director Martin McDonagh takes the tragic story of a mother's loss and turns it on its head in a way you rarely encounter in mainstream movies. Frances McDormand leads a fantastic cast as a woman hell bent on starting a war of words with the local cops who have yet to find her daughter's killer. In lesser hands it sounds like a movie-of-the-week tearjerker, but here it's a fiery indignation about the role of authority, the nature of violent crime, and the questionable morals of its central characters. Did I mention it was really funny? Oh right I did. This is a one of a kind movie-going experience and a fresh alternative to all that Marvel vs DC crap that's been going around.

“Three Billboards” revolves around a terrible, violent crime. The rape and murder of a teenage girl. But it takes place nearly a year after this horrific events (which we never see). Instead, the film doesn't focus on the victim but rather the questionable behavior of her grieving, pissed off mother Mildred (McDormand) who challenges the cops to solve her daughter's murder by purchasing three billboards just outside of town displaying a controversial message to the town's sheriff. The town is practically turned upside down as Mildred practically begins a war between her and the town's police force. There's the sympathetic Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) who happens to be dying of cancer. And then there's bad-tempered Officer Jason Dixon (a perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) who trades nasty barbs with Mildred and anyone else who stands in his way. The billboards are a catalyst for what sets off violent confrontations. But it's also funny I swear.

The film comes from the mind of Martin McDonagh who showed off his flair for mixing crime, comedy, and drama in his critical hit “In Bruges.” He slowly peels away the layer in this story of horrible violence in small town America. He paints broader strokes that deal with racism, homophobia and the clash between cops and civilians that have made headlines around the country. But there's also quick wit here with his fascinating characters who are always making questionable decisions whether it's the “heroes” and “villains.” It's a fine line of course. All of this is wrapped up in a mystery that is really second fiddle to the tension unfolding among the characters.

The acting here is top notch. McDormand was born to play the role which feels like a fun echo of her good-natured Fargo character Marge Gunderson. Rockwell playing a difficult character to like is fascinating here. Harrelson plays off his southern charm in a way that completely fits. He's really the soul of the film (along with Carter Burwell's uneasy score). Caleb Landry Jones, who played such a creepy, nasty character earlier this year in “Get Out” is in opposite form here but no less charming. And there are minor but solid turns from Oscar nominees Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes. Oh and Peter Dinklage is there as well.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a fantastically original film. It has an amazing sense of time and place. There's nothing too flashy about it, but it features one of the most electric scripts of the year. It's witty and unpredictable and will stay with you long after it's over.  GRADE: A 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A League of their Own: DC’s Big Screen Team-Up “Justice League” is Fine but Underwhelming

Full disclosure: If I’m being honest, I could take or leave the first big Marvel team-up “The Avengers;” I enjoyed it at the time, but has since receded from my memory. I can’t recall a single plot element or joke that made me laugh. I’d rather watch any of the other Marvel films. I’d rather watch “Wonder Woman.” I’m dumbfounded that people rank it so high in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Released several months after the outstanding aforementioned “Wonder Woman” and practically days after the surprisingly fun retro-chic “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” easily feels disappointing in comparison but is nowhere near the trainwreck some have described. Have they never seen “Batman & Robin?” The thing that hurts “Justice League” the most is that “average” comic book films feel so slight and underwhelming when there are so many great ones already in existence. Having said that, there’s no reason someone can’t have an enjoyable experience with “Justice League” though it does feel much more like a product than the Marvel films do. The movie doesn’t feel depressing, overly long, or as self-serious as the previous DC outings and while some of the humor feels forced I’ll take what I can get when it comes to an already overcrowded marketplace full of caped crusaders.

One has to admire the courage it took to kill off Superman in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Of course, no one will be surprised if the Man of Steel returns somehow. Superman has always been the weak link in this universe mostly because the filmmakers could never quite figure out how to make such a dated character feel relevant, even in such a shit-show of a world we currently live in. We already know Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is great and she’s great here as well, teaming up with grizzly Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) who wasn’t as terrible as most strangely hoped last time around. Then there are the newbies who we got flash of (pun intended) in “BvS.” There’s Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, injecting some fun but slightly awkward humor into the proceedings, Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa, perfectly cast as a beastly Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and probably the least interesting being Ray Fisher’s Cyborg/Victor Stone.

And now the real disappointment and I’m not alone here. Does anyone care much about “Justice League’s” generic CGI villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds)? I’d much prefer to see a human performance. Of course, why would we need five of the world’s most super humans to defeat someone like, say, The Joker? You need a big, bad villain whose goal is total destruction of the human race and/or planet. I get it, it’s just not all that interesting.

It must be said that director Zack Synder still sort of feels like the thing that makes these films so uneventful. He has made some very good movies, most notably “Dawn of the Dead” and “Watchman,” so he’s not incapable. But “Wonder Woman” gave us a fresh perspective and a new eye. We need some new voices in the DC world. “Justice League” has suffered from rewrites and such and even “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon was brought in to fix things up. Even the God himself couldn’t make this a perfect work of art. Bottom line: the film is fine, it’s entertaining, and it has finally reunited Danny Elfman and Batman. You could do a lot worse.  GRADE: B

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The ‘Rok: The Thunderous “Thor: Ragnarok” is Retro Fun with a Capital R

Let’s be honest, the Thor films have sort of been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So obviously they took a cue from the wild success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and injected a wonderful sense of fun, humor, and retro-coolness into the surprisingly enjoyable third Thor outing. Gone is the fish-out-of-water story that was the basis for the first “Thor” film and so is the convoluted “Portal”-like plot device of “Thor: The Dark World” and we finally get a wild comedic action-adventure that is completely amusing and funny from beginning to end. Hot off the silly horror-comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” director Taika Waititi goes full retro-vibe in “Thor: Ragnarok” which is a welcome change of pace for a series that always took itself a little too seriously; even 17 movies (!) deep into the MCU, the film is fresh, funny, looks cool, and the always charming Chris Hemsworth again proves his comedic ability is impeccable.

The last time we saw Thor (Hemsworth) at the conclusion of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” he was leaving Earth in search of Infinity Stones. At the beginning of “Thor: Ragnarok” he’s been captured by a gigantic, fiery demon creature. In a perfectly wonderful opening, Thor escapes his clutches while spouting snappy dialogue provided by screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost and learns of a prophecy of destruction known as Ragnarok. He returns to his home of Asgard to find a Shakespearean play version of his life unfolding live in front a captivated audience that consists of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Of course it’s really his evil adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. With the help of another Avenger Thor and Loki locate their dying father who tells them about their even more evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) who will basically take over Asgard once Odin passes. She does lookin’ like a wicked, futuristic Victoria’s Secret model stag complete with pointy antlers and everything. She destroys Thor’s hammer and he’s whisked away to a colorful foreign planet where he’s imprisoned and forced into a deadly gladiatorial death match with… you know who. Oh and there's Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblumy.

Oh boy, does anyone really care about the plots of this films? After sixteen of them we just want to see fun action and “Thor: Ragnarok” certainly delivers. The film is a visual treat thanks to Waititi’s flamboyant direction and the humor has thankfully been dialed up. There are some truly inspired bits here that are too good to spoil. Blanchett always makes a fantastic villain, but of course we knew that already. The film’s synth-heavy score by Mark Mothersbaugh completely works with the film’s colorful imagery as do some of the interesting song choices. It’s like an 80s cartoon come gloriously to campy life.

At this point are reviews even matter when it comes to the MCU? You know what you're getting into when you see one of these things. Marvel and Disney have proven that these movies are of high quality. Sure they don't always take many risks but they are unabashedly fun. Some are better than others. “Thor: Ragnarok” is definitely in the top tier. Even 17 movies in the film proves that the MCU still has plenty of fun tricks up its sleeves. Here's to 17 more!  GRADE: A-