3 1/2 (out of 4)
A triumph in artistic maturity, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes a case that Martin McDonagh may be the most talented writer-director to emerge in the last decade.
The opposite of the writer’s block-themed meta mayhem of Seven Psychopaths 5 years ago, Three Billboards is a daringly uncharacteristic original screenplay, with so many stranger than fiction plot turns that conjure a peculiar, studied realism. Though not nearly as quotable or hysterical as In Bruges, McDonagh's third film doesn't need to be, as it lands squarely in dramatic territory despite being very much a comedy-drama.
Thematically McDonagh covers so much ground. Within his tangle of finely fleshed out characters, we glimpse the irony within the slow grinding wheels of justice, the cyclical nature of violence, and the paradoxical connection between misery and comedy. Unpredictability and dry wit help the small-town politics and morality of vengeance feel both madcap and rather plausible from moment to moment.
McDonagh's characters are so believably drawn, evolving from Midwest stereotypes to real people by their respective ends. Frances McDormand is at her best, though I wish the script didn't offer up so many venomous zingers for her to dish out to lesser characters. Sam Rockwell offers up one of his best performances ever, while Woody Harrelson makes the most of another great character he fortunately gets to inhabit. Three Billboards may paint an unhealthy picture of grief, but as a triptych character study, the film manages to mesh a rich plot and terse, honest dialogue into a most entertaining and morally insightful final film.
Tonally, McDonagh's penchant for swift, brutal violence and foul-mouthed main characters shouldn't align with all the carnal brutishness and unapologetic bleakness of an unhinged mother attempting to impossibly right the wrong of her long dead daughter's rape and murder. Somehow the stabs to the gut from one of the scripts' narrative and emotional wallops or from the precise comic timing arrive exactly when needed.
3 (out of 4)
The worst thing to point out about Coco is how much it feels like a Disney film rather than a true Pixar joint – the 20-minute Frozen Christmas special playing beforehand, as opposed to their usual original shorts, only makes this more obvious. But excluding the out of the blue brilliance that was Inside Out, Coco is their best non-sequel film of late, and still a rather predictable one at that.
Standard and solid, Coco is likely to be forgotten along with the likes of Brave and The Good Dinosaur, but in the moment it's actually rather emotionally wrenching when it needs to be. The appeal to family values and adherence to the simple cinematic needs of the very young coalesces into the unfortunately rare Pixar feature that doesn't play effectively to every age. The times in which the film addresses the importance of music over dull domestic assurance is where the best ideas of Coco are – by thankfully avoiding doing a musical altogether, the songs that are in fact incorporated are poignant as well.
If nothing else the land of the dead concept is cleverly conceived and illustrated, if you don’t think too hard about this film's version of the nature of legacy, death and remembrance. Everything about Coco's structure is of a well-worn template, but the visuals are of anticipated vibrancy and its emotional beats are struck sound and clear. If only it felt like anything close to an enduring, one of a kind animated feature, which is to say, a genuine Pixar classic.
2 (out of 4)
The pieces mostly fit – Ben Affleck’s wearied Batman, Gal Gadot’s amazon warrior princess, Ezra Miller’s rookie Flash, and Jason Mamoa’s easy disappearance into the silliness of Aquaman all feel like a natural batch of partners in justice. It's just that Cyborg's lazy, loathsome design, CGI and character is more than a little jarring against the rest, not to mention the inevitable arrival of Henry Cavill's resurrected Superman and his digitally removed mustache.
Clocking in at less than 2 hours, Justice League's culmination of the DCEU 5 entries in – just as many as Marvel took before The Avengers became a blockbusting phenomenon – is an unwieldy final product, at once extremely basic and a heaping, campy, complicated mess. As a story the film is as complex a 20-minute episode of Teen Titans; Justice League doesn’t even require higher functioning to process. It’s all just scaffolding for seeing these DC characters stand aside one another and exist mostly as properties rather than remotely relatable characters. Miller is at home in his natural place as comic relief, while side characters like Amy Adams' Lois Lane and further company have thankless appearances bordering on cameos.
Zach Snyder, though without final control this go-round, has an eye for epic mythos even if every script he’s worked with for DC has been shoddy and overly serious. Joss Whedon’s inserted quips and Superman’s abominable digitally inserted upper lip – both done in reshoots – make a messy superhero tent pole more digestibly silly and even sloppier.
Hamstrung by a childish plot, a terribly generic villain, as well as indelicate editing and screenwriting that comes off rushed and audience-tested, Justice League at least has enough nonsense happening fast enough to enjoy on the most purely superficial levels. But being a few degrees more enjoyable than Man of Steel and Batman v Superman is nothing worth commending.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Greta Gerwig's previous screenwriting credits included co-writing her boyfriend and accomplished independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s recent and best films Frances Ha and Mistress America, the titular roles of which she took over. The spiritual succession of those efforts leads us to a rich and piquant writer-director debut for Gerwig. Lady Bird is a mirror to the Gerwig's past; a director's youth reassessed. And for once the image is not of herself and out of her delicate and charmingly clumsy hands.
Saoirse Ronan isn't what you would call a stand-in though. Both Baumbach/Gerwig features drew a warts-and-all portrait of two young women – Frances' rendering was loving and poignant while Brooke's was a near-condemnation of a complex character, epitomizing the pitfalls of idolizing our near-elders. Lady Bird finds Gerwig at her most self-aware and yet most removed from her work, with 15 years of adult experience to reflect on the transformative times of living through senior year of high school (Catholic at that).
The aura of autobiography here is elevated to universality by her easy alignment with the milestones of the average 18-year-old into a three-act narrative. There may be a tad too many affected jokes within the script that could have been dialed back in order to make Lady Bird’s lovely, frank tone – and even the character – that much more true to life, but Gerwig’s way with humor is just as subtly stinging as her partner's.
Labeling Lady Bird as a contemporary coming of age film does not credit Gerwig properly for all the revelations she manages to invoke without trying hard at all. The hopeless passive aggression between passionate children and their insecure parents, the indelicacy of young lust, the comfort of best friendship, the rapidly changing ideas of self, the dread at the notion of not unlocking your own potential – it's all here.
Gerwig's poetically has rewarded herself and cineastes by realizing her actual potential in the process of turning her age of greatest uncertainty into a film of soft sublimity. She spares neither the bliss nor the heartbreak in recreating the yearning for self-actualization.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Kenneth Branagh appears at home in the shoes and stache of detective Hercule Poirot, and he makes a hearty attempt to alter and update Agatha Christie's popular classic mystery for the mainstream masses. But this Murder on the Orient Express is somehow deflated and underwhelming despite being so lushly produced and magnificently star-studded.
Not that there couldn’t be something cinematic about murder and suspicion upon a snowbound train, no matter how many tries have been far from definitive. Some Christie stories are primed for modern manifestation like And Then There Were None, which has the makings of a lip-smacking horror flick – Orient Express boasts refined discourse and sharp humor, but nothing diverting enough to help the attention-span-contracting viewers fend off the urge to yawn. The narrative motion of the film is set upon a plateau early and the story’s shape is so driven by words and names that thrills never really manage to surface. Christie’s novel is an elaborate guessing game and, especially in all its snowy splendor onscreen, an unfulfilled one by the very end.
Sure, watching Penélope Cruz, William Dafoe, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer and especially Branagh function amongst the crime and costumes is its own mild but steady pleasure. Nevertheless, Murder on the Orient Express feels off set against today's other moviegoing distractions – the toying and teasing, in addition to the multitude of names, backstories and motivations, is much more suited for the imagination than for real.
3 (out of 4)
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos acquired the attention of many an American film viewer (myself included) with his idiosyncratic romance The Lobster. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a slightly more conventional next step in his directing career, but a prickly, perverse one at that.
Aligned with the pitch black comedy and bizarrely grim premise of his famous feature Dogtooth, Lanthimos takes Sacred Deer to even more unsettlingly ambiguous tonal tremors. This is the first film of his worth considering as Kubrickian: beyond some seismic low shots in dialogue and some one-point perspective, the film’s use of slow zooms and an eerie, haunted soundtrack provides echoes of The Shining despite many other differences.
Colin Farrell submits a capacity-expanding performance as ignorant surgeon Stephen Murphy – one of a similar kind of calculated restraint as his role in the director's last film – while Nicole Kidman does what she does best in the motherly role not unlike several others of hers as Anna. The real bravura acting in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is from Dunkirk actor Barry Keoghan as the queer and vindictive teenager Martin, as well as Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic as Murphy's daughter and younger son. The youth are hysterical at times and their effect on the film defines it as distressingly tense and often absurdly awkward. The film is such a tough nut to crack despite being relatively straightforward in story because of their almost robotic emotion.
There’s nothing metaphorical occurring here per se as in Lanthimos' past work, and the real world sensibility makes Sacred Deer’s smallest touches of oddity feel ever more wrong. I can see this film being torture for viewers as much as it is for Steven Murphy, but sympathy is not asked for nor encouraged for in partaking in such a psychologically maddening affair.
3 (out of 4)
In a year where Disney/Marvel has branded their films with an unflagging lightheartedness, Thor: Ragnarok, unlike Guardians Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, actually benefits from its generous helping of comedy.
And with a low bar to clear in the first two forgettable Thor installments, Ragnarok goes grander for the better in establishing its own mini-Avenger collection in the Hulk/Thor duo, plus some Loki and a new face in Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. The best part of the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it still has time for a deliriously lengthy second act that employs weirder sci-fi elements, amusing secondary characters and an enamoring sense of discovery that we so infrequently get to enjoy due to MCU’s own growing exhaustion.
While the endless quipping and tongue-in-cheek that these capeflicks dish out more and more in a "see what sticks" mentality, I can honestly say this third Thor was quite fun. Aligning along with the restrained boldness of the seriously underrated Doctor Strange, Ragnarok has inspired world-building that Guardians misses aplenty in its juvenile-aimed mischief and childish characters that work better as the cartoons they basically are.
It does no good to praise Disney's doings more than necessary, so all that is left to say is that Thor: Ragnarok taps into the episodic qualities of the franchise for the best, even if it requires typical stock villains like the Goddess of Death Hela, played by a wondrously hammy Cate Blanchett. This formula is going nowhere, but at least their tweaking the flavor enough to keep us coming back for further helpings.
To keep it brief...