Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

December 3, 2017

threebillboardsAn unburied corpse, in ancient Greek tragedy, gave pause to the very gods themselves. It was the ultimate indignity, an affront to life as well as death, a refusal of humanity. This has something to do with Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a sort of Greek tragedy in modern garb. Here, the body, which we never see except fleetingly in police photos, is that of the teenage daughter of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who works in the town gift shop. Mildred’s daughter was interrupted rather violently almost a year ago; in response, Mildred has rented three billboards and uses them to frame an accusation. The billboards — posted within about a football field’s length of each other, like three-quarters of a grim parody of a Burma-Shave sequential ad — read as follows: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That would be Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who has done everything he can to find the rapist and murderer of young Angela Hayes. Sometimes, he says at one point, you don’t catch a break. That’s not nearly good enough for Mildred, who may as well be aiming her query at God. “The heaven shall reveal his iniquity,” the book of Job tells us, “and the earth shall rise up against him” — in the form of billboards, presumably. Three Billboards proceeds in the grand classical tradition of tragedy, though it’s not without humor, this being a movie by the writer/director of the madly amusing crime films In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). This is something of a crime film, too, though the major crimes take place before and (possibly) after the narrative’s reach.

Whodunit? Maybe God — unless, of course, “there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other,” muses Mildred. She flirts with nihilism, but it doesn’t flirt back, and soon she’s swinging into action again, driven forward by rage and grief, hardly even noticing her living son. Like many Greek-tragedy heroines, Mildred is both a great woman and a monster. Her quarrel with Chief Willoughby is really a quarrel with death and with life, and McDormand creates a façade of stoic strength she allows to develop tiny cracks so we can see the ungovernable pain beneath.

Three Billboards deals in the, let’s say, archetypal — the drunk, racist mama’s boy who ultimately shapes up to be a fine detective and avenger (Sam Rockwell, mesmerizingly askew as always); the cheesy, near-pedophiliac ex-husband (John Hawkes). Peter Dinklage shows up — McDonagh must love dwarves and love it when clueless idiots call them midgets, because he told that joke in In Bruges and tells it again here, only with Peter Dinklage. By now such things in McDonagh’s work impress us as signatures, pet themes, preoccupations we can only guess at. McDonagh had been building a rep as the next bad boy of crime cinema (cf. Tarantino, Danny Boyle, etc.), as conversant with gore as with wit. But this film feels like a step forward, or at least a step sideways.

When a character here opts for suicide, McDonagh attends to it with empathy, but also doesn’t let us forget the deceased leaves behind a grieving spouse and two children. A good chunk of Three Billboards is about redemption and how people are stubbornly complex, able to be many things at once. A man can be good and noble and still be prideful in ways that deprive children of a father. A man can be a racist twerp and still (rather literally) come through a baptism of fire and find himself more reflective and intuitive. A woman can be full of unappeasable fury and still, in telling little moments, pop back into community and humanity when faced with another’s agony. How we’re supposed to feel about the ambiguous ending depends, I think, on what mood we’re in — whether we want to see it as proof of evil helplessly regenerating itself or proof that even the most monomaniacal and violent can grow and change. Either mood is, accidentally I’m sure, very much of this harrowed and degraded moment.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99

October 29, 2017

Brawl-In-Cell-Block-99-TrailerIn the first shot of Brawl in Cell Block 99, the heavy tire of a truck flattens a can of lite beer. This, I imagine, is a signal that you’re about to get a shot of the hard stuff. You may have read about how ferally brutal Brawl is, and what a change of pace it is for its star, Vince Vaughn, but the truly shocking thing about it is how tender much of it is, how much humanity even briefly seen supporting players are apportioned. The movie is hushed, almost meditative, as it lays the groundwork for a grand finale involving crushed skulls, faces scraped against concrete. The audience for the film may fall within a very tiny Venn diagram of those who can sit with subtly emotional, drawn-out scenes and those who can hang with the bone-cracking and bloodletting.

It is also some kind of grim masterpiece, fully delivering on the promise of writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk. In that Peckinpah-meets-Deodato epic, Kurt Russell and a small posse delve into hell — land of hulking cannibals — to save a woman from a fate worse than death. Here, Vaughn, as recovering alcoholic with a side order of rage issues Bradley Thomas, must descend level by level into a dungeon of horrors to rescue his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter from an equally ghastly end. There’s a heaping helping of white-knightism in both films, but it doesn’t go unchallenged, nor do easy notions of manhood or machismo. Violence in these films is not to be relished, but to be engaged in with sorrow that it had to play out this way — without sadism but also without mercy. They are portraits of men in extremis, grotesque but fully alive and human.

After being laid off from his auto-mechanic gig, Bradley comes home to discover that Lauren has been cheating on him. He tells her to go into the house, then uses his fists on her car, finally ripping the hood off. We don’t need to be told that he is inflicting damage that he can easily fix; the same would not be true of wounds dealt to Lauren. And then a wondrous thing happens: after punishing the car, Bradley steps inside and faces Lauren, and they talk. They talk like adults in a movie for adults. This, too, is shocking. Everyone who meets Bradley seems to sense that he has, as a detective puts it, a moral compass. They can also see in his eyes that he would rather not hurt people, but is exceptionally capable of doing so if his hand is forced. Well, his hand is forced, in an odyssey that takes him from a minimum to a maximum security prison, and finally to “the prison within the prison,” ruled by the sportive cigarillo-puffing sadist Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).

Brawl in Cell Block 99, like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, doesn’t use brutality for a kick or a tickle. It’s lumbering, terrible, thudding stuff, with the fights often filmed in long takes so we can see that, yes, that is indeed Vince Vaughn and not a stunt double distributing pain like Halloween candy. Bradley is a bad-ass, but Vaughn isn’t interested in that aspect of him (nor is Zahler). You’re not meant to go “whoo!” when the fists fly and arms are splintered, the way you were at something like Sylvester Stallone’s back-to-basics 2008 Rambo. You’re meant to wince, avert your eyes. Vaughn brings an intelligent wit and vulnerability that play against his six-foot-five frame. Bradley is a man who could easily be a hero, except that fate has made him a villain.

He does it all for his woman and his unborn child. As with Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t be less interested in unpacking the story’s politics (avoiding spoilers, but some of the plot hinges on a hot-button issue). A great many effective pulp fantasies of the past, of course, would not pass today’s ideological purity tests. I’m as lefty as they come, and whatever right-wing skeleton may be rattling around inside Brawl concerns me not in the slightest. There’s no agenda being pressed here, just a cracking story with across-the-board fine performances (it’s predictable that Udo Kier is in perfect creepy form as a crime associate, but how about the surprisingly authoritative work from Marc Blucas — the most boring presence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — as Bradley’s racist drug-dealer friend?). I don’t know how S. Craig Zahler votes, but I have seen how he writes and directs, and I’m ready to say he’s the most exciting filmmaker working in the violent genres since Tarantino raised his flag 25 years ago. Watch him.

Inhumanwich!

October 1, 2017

inhumanwich“In Soviet Russia, sandwich eats you!” is not a joke featured in the retro sci-fi/horror tribute Inhumanwich! (pronounced IN-hyoo-MAN-wich), but there are plenty of other jokes. The movie, shot in golden-oldie black and white, concerns an astronaut whose sloppy joe sandwich combines with radiation to turn him into a rapidly growing monster made of meat. This is the kind of knowingly daffy premise that can go south — and sour — but writer/director David Cornelius strikes a light tone early on and delivers, as I said, a tribute to schlock of the ‘50s, not a callow put-down. If you’re too hip for ridiculous big-monster movies, why put in the years of work to make one? To show the world you’re better than the movie you just made? Cornelius, in contrast, is not too hip for those movies or for his own movie. He loves them as I do, and his affection is infectious.

I don’t know for sure (but he’ll probably tell me) exactly which creature-double-features Cornelius is referencing, but I’ll take a stab and say Inhumanwich! is The Blob by way of The Incredible Melting Man (or, if you want to be fancy, First Man into Space), with elements and tropes from however many hours of snowy TV young Cornelius sat in front of. (There also seem to be fun nudges in the ribs of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the infamous Arch Oboler radio play “Chicken Heart.”) Astronaut Joe Neumann (amiably played by Jacque “Jake” Ransom before he turns into a blob of beef) terrorizes the Cincinnati countryside after his rocket crash-lands, and it’s up to the usual team of soldiers and scientists to stop it before it engulfs the planet.

Cornelius and editor Matt Gray keep Inhumanwich! sprinting (and short — the film crosses the finish line at an hour thirteen, including credits). As the old-timers who made stuff like Them! and Tarantula knew, you don’t want to give the audience a lot of time to think during your movie about killer turnips or whatever, and Cornelius also knows what the soul of wit is. (Look for his uncredited cameo as a Jordy Verrill-type gentleman who encounters the monster in the woods.) The scenes are clipped to punch up the punchlines; this good-hearted comedy boasts a good deal of technical savvy, of the sort that’s invisible when it’s working. There’s a bit about a character who repeats everything she hears during a phone chat, which would make a goofy sort of sense if we were just hearing her side of the conversation and we were getting exposition from it; but we also see the other side of the talk via split screen, so the redundancy becomes a surreal joke. It’s one of several gags in Inhumanwich! that you just know started with Cornelius watching some forlorn excuse for a movie with buddies and saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”

The performers are mostly encouraged to mimic the unhip flatness of ‘50s sci-fi actors. The movie doesn’t confine itself to any one era, though; some of the signifiers announce themselves as from the ‘50s, some from modern times. To that end, Jake Robinson’s stogie-chewing, growling General Graham seems to channel John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso and the uncouth soldiers of Day of the Dead, moreso than the rigid military men you’d find in antique schlock. He seems to be of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whereas a later character (Brad Nicholas), whose competitive abilities might be of some use against the monster, seems of more recent vintage. Cornelius mashes up the decades as if to say that some things in the universe remain constant, such as humanity’s response to a killer pile of ground beef. Inhumanwich! is just the brand of inspired nonsense we need at the moment.

mother!

September 23, 2017

mother2“Words cannot describe,” said a man loudly in the theater, “what we just saw.” What we’d just seen was mother!, the audience-infuriating new whatsit from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). As it happens, Aronofsky has many words to describe it, and he’s been unwisely sharing them in the film press. Luckily, I kept my eyes and ears virginal before sitting down to mother!, so I didn’t know — and you shouldn’t either — his allegorical explanation. Some will interpret it another way, as a male artist’s unconscious apologia for what the pursuit of his art can do to the one he loves. Others still may take the movie’s events literally, which the movie doesn’t discourage for about its first half, at which point it saunters casually for the exit in the house of logic, clears its throat, and takes a Nestea plunge into apocalyptic surrealism.

If that sounds like your cup of art, I wouldn’t dream of dissuading you from catching mother! while you still can on the big screen (and with big speakers — the sound mix is brutal), or eventually on home video, probably sooner than its studio, Paramount, would prefer. If, on the other hand, you are spiritual kin to the middle-aged ladies who sat near me commenting at frequent intervals about how stupid the movie was, I would advise you to stay the fuck home. I came out rattled, relieved that it was done with me, and somewhat exhilarated. mother! is art, for sure, sincere and emotionally loud and taking place entirely in the landscape of a bent imagination; it is also unafraid to speak the language of schlock, and it amuses me that the climax that appalls so many viewers is actually the ending of so much bland Hollywood fare — blood and fire and bullets and explosions.

I am actively avoiding the story. I can safely reveal this much. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a house that she’s fixing up. The house was once his until fire consumed it. While she plasters the walls, he sits around trying to write (he’s a poet). One day, a doctor (Ed Harris) visits, soon joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The doctor is a fan of the poet’s work, and he and his wife stay the night. Some stuff happens. Exit doctor and wife. Later, the poet impregnates his wife and starts his greatest work within the same 24 hours. His book comes out and is a major success. He gains a horde of new fans. Meanwhile, his wife is about ready to pop out the baby. She does so, amidst a cataclysm of hellfire and cannibalism and a gun-wielding Kristen Wiig. There’s more.

No doubt about it, mother! is the most audacious folly a major studio has allowed an American filmmaker to pursue since Southland Tales, which also collapsed into ecstasies of fireworks incongruously involving veterans of Saturday Night Live. The tension ratchets up deftly; the 24-frames-per-second representational recording of a movie keeps us locked into interpreting it literally from moment to moment, until it vehemently parts company with reality. The trope of the guests who won’t leave, wreaking chaos in one’s home, is robust enough to get our anxiety pumping. As the movie got crazier, I responded gratefully to the visual and aural hyperbole. But the burn leading up to the light show is slow and uncomfortable … and a little irritating.

Art has a right — an obligation — to irritate occasionally. I’m glad I saw mother! and glad it was made, but I don’t want to see it again (a reaction I also had to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, another pure horror movie that trafficked in the Biblical). Aside from Aronofsky’s deafening virtuosity, there is pleasure in the performances, especially Ed Harris’ portrait of a man in decline. I wouldn’t say mother! offers no entertainment value, but it rises to a level of unpleasantness, even as allegory, that feels punitive. I’ve respected Aronofsky’s films even when I didn’t like them. You don’t always have to like art. I didn’t like mother!, but I think I might love it, or some of it, anyway. Twice in a row now, Darren Aronofsky has made batty, antagonistic, gobsmacking swings for the fence, about what he considers the biggest problem facing humanity. In a culture that increasingly values only childish power fantasies, movies like this are to be protected and highly regarded. Just not liked.

Beatriz at Dinner

September 10, 2017

beatrizatdinnerI’m not sure whether Beatriz at Dinner is, as advertised, “the first great film of the Trump era” (Get Out might beg to differ), but that’s a reductive tag anyway. Its concerns go deeper (and it was finished months before Election Day 2016), so don’t let that description scare you away or foster unrealistic expectations. The movie is not the savage jugular-punch to the current administration that some will want and others will wearily and warily expect. It’s accidentally topical — it could just as easily have been made in the mid-2000s, on the heels of the two other films by Beatriz’ makers, Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). But director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White speak to today’s preoccupations precisely by not tying themselves to the present.

The movie is archetypal, not satirically specific. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist and general holistic healer, and also an immigrant. Her opposite number here is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a real-estate magnate who seems to represent the values that validate Trump without actually being much like Trump. Mike White allows Doug some wit and self-awareness (he’s way too well-spoken to be a Trump parody), and Lithgow makes him quick and shrewd, but with an understanding that Doug’s self-opinion is deeply divided. Doug is reflective, even existentially aware of his place in the world. In his way, Doug is the most honest person in the movie. He’s joshingly cruel but he never pretends to be anything other than what he is.

Beatriz is brought into Doug’s sphere when she’s stuck at a client’s house by car trouble. Her client is Kathy (Connie Britton), the sort of conscientious rich white woman, blind to her own privilege, who thinks of her massage therapist Beatriz as a friend because having a woman like Beatriz as a friend makes a woman like Kathy feel warm and gracious. (She commiserates tastefully when a saddened Beatriz says her neighbor killed her goat.) Beatriz knows they’re not really friends, though she once treated and helped Kathy’s (offscreen) daughter through her chemotherapy. She knows how easily a rich white person’s affection is given, and withdrawn. Beatriz doesn’t say much until some wine loosens her tongue, but the great actress Hayek writes an entire novel wordlessly, with stares of despair or outrage.

Beatriz at Dinner has also been described as a comedy, but it isn’t really — the level of camp is awfully low (it spikes a bit in some of Beatriz’ flights of fantasy), and the few laughs are uncomfortable. There is one top-notch twisted joke: these rich people love passing grotesque photos around on their phones; it happens twice, and both times Beatriz is horrified, and finally livid. Beatriz is more or less marooned at the California mansion of Kathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) as an important business dinner, involving Doug Strutt, looms later in the evening. Amusingly, except for Doug, the men seem indistinct; the women come off snappy and precise. They’re intelligent and know the right things to say to continue presenting as compassionate people, but some part of their soul is gone, scabbed over. They enable their men to kill the world.

Sometimes Hayek’s Beatriz is powerful Earth Mother, other times just a slumped, small-statured woman trying to get through the day. She is the conscience of the earth, but hardly its consciousness. She feels others’ pain, even a dying octopus, and may be too intense an empath to function in a harsh world created by the rich and white. She seems to understand Doug, or would like to think so (she keeps saying she knows him from somewhere), but Doug has her number the moment he lays eyes on her. His final words to her reverberate far past the end credits. Beatriz at Dinner is being sold as some sort of Greenaway-esque satire of manners, but it’s a good deal more troubling than that. It bothers us long after it’s over, bringing us back to Beatriz’ death-haunted eyes, looking for the man who killed her goat.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

Get Out

May 28, 2017

getout“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” Jordan Peele’s political horror movie Get Out, which he describes as a “social thriller,” tells us just how the very rich (and, mostly, very white) are different. This paranoid masterpiece has also been an old-school-style horror success story, earning back many, many times its cost. It hit a nerve; it is also legitimately frightening at times, and deeply funny at others, and always both entertaining and wince-inducing. It is not, perhaps, as radical as some have made it out to be — screen Fight for Your Life or The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for such people — but it’s still an electrifying achievement.

Peele reveals himself as an intuitive director early on, when our protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) arrives with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her affluent parents. The parents, we are told before the trip, have not been briefed on Chris’s blackness. They are, we are also assured, the furthest thing from racists. So when they meet Chris, we wonder what subtle tics of anxiety the camera might impart in close-ups. Peele leans away from this trope and shoots the whole scene at an across-the-street distance; we hear the voices, the cloying dadness of Bradley Whitford and the patrician rich-white-lady tones of Catherine Keener. Peele is encouraging us to look beyond appearances and to avoid putting too much weight on visual cues.

The movie will likely play better a second time; Peele must have planted a thousand little Chekhov’s guns, and the performance of one actress in particular, Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid Georgina, almost demands further scrutiny. Georgina and another servant, the oddly spoken Walter (Marcus Henderson), are both black, and Rose’s dad sheepishly acknowledges the problematic optics. Rose’s parents engage in a sort of meta-narrative, commenting on the likely appearance of things as if self-awareness were itself redemptive. It’s a tried and true way of deflecting criticism about privilege.

Get Out ramps up gradually — for the longest time there’s very little blood, a drop here, a headlight smear there — and, as Chris becomes more and more menaced and baffled, the plot rolls inexorably into paranoid sci-fi/horror. Black writers trying to account for white perfidy have from time to time engaged with metaphor or conspiracy-myth; it goes back at least as far as the story of Mr. Yakub. The metaphor-myth Peele creates and parcels out bit by bit has to do with the different style of racism practiced by wealthy white liberals. Peele doesn’t say that underneath outwardly genteel white liberals are racist demons. He says that genteel white liberals can also be racist demons, side by side in one person, one shading into the other. For good measure Peele throws in a Japanese man, who asks Chris if his experience as an African-American has been an advantage or disadvantage.

That detail, like many others in Get Out, has been unpacked in thinkpieces from sea to shining sea. For a while, it was the biggest gotta-see-it-and-talk-about-it movie in too many years. Written during the Obama years, filmed when a female president seemed likely, premiering at Sundance three days into Trump’s presidency, the movie does collide productively with the zeitgeist while never abandoning the story’s more timeless horror elements — the tension of our hero trapped in a ghastly situation. The narrative goes way over the top; anyone still taking the story literally will end up on the side of the road. Metaphor and myth can also power satire, and that’s where Get Out ends up — has been all along, really. For black audiences, the true horrors on the screen are nothing new, except in movies. White liberals take a few hard shots in the chops. It’s not as if we didn’t have it coming.