Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand and Peter Dinklage

The people responsible for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri made some great choices, but they did not make a great film.  The plot centers around the aftermath of a rape and murder of a young woman in Ebbing, whose mother, Mildred, (Frances McDormand) puts up billboards calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to make some headway in the case.  Chief Willoughby says he doesn’t have much to go on, and it’s no wonder: his right-hand man is a dipshit racist (Jason Dixon played mostly brilliantly by Sam Rockwell), and the rest of the gang is a bunch of brazenly white guys that don’t seem to be doing too much in the way of police work.  On top of that, Willoughby has his own problems. Indeed, everyone in this movie is damaged goods in one way or another, and the film does a really good job of conveying the complicated emotions for all involved.

Despite these emotions, the story is told with this sort of a screwball comedy vibe, and this tension in the production never gets resolved.  On the way out of the theater, L wondered aloud how he didn’t like the movie even though it was a good movie.  I think the answer is that the film makers didn’t want to go  completely Altman and let it be built on character pieces, and they didn’t have the stomach to cut the good material they were working with in order to tighten it up to make it a great drama. The former is tough to do (and probably tough to sell in Hollywood), and the latter would have required cutting out some great acting and dialog.  So what we are left with is something that is sort of a mush of some of the best and the worst of the likes of Twin Peaks, Fargo and Mystic River.  This will go down as a movie where people remember some great scenes and amusing dialog, but will scratch their heads at some of the plot holes and other peculiarities.

The positives include the cast and characters, and the casting is brilliant top to bottom:  Red (Caleb Landry Jones) is the semi-principled ad exec, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is Mildred’s son who has to deal with the blowback from his mother’s antics, and Charlie (John Hawkes) is Mildred’s ex-husband, a wife beater now living with the unreasonably good looking “19-year old” Penelope (Samara Weaving).  On the negative side, Penelope is caricatured as a ditz, though she works as an animal trainer and reads about horses in her spare time.  Even more unfortunately, although the movie takes some stabs at race issues, the several African American characters are not developed at all.  Even Chief Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), who is eventually sent in (by whom?) to replace Willoughby, is just a place holder, not a character.  There is possibly a metaphor I am missing here.

Another positive is that there are some lucid scenes, including a a “date” between Mildred and the alcoholic used car salesman and midget, Peter Dinklage. The meal takes place for what passes for an upscale restaurant in Ebbing, and the ex-husband arrives with his young girlfriend about midway through.  This allows Dinklage to rattle off a brief monologue that lays bare life’s prospects for the likes of these folks, and there is probably a thesis of the movie in there somewhere.  We all play the hand we were dealt.  Other scenes, particularly the one where Mildred dresses down the Catholic priest, aim high and miss the mark.

Finally, at the risk of introducing spoilers, during the end of the film I was reminded of one of the great and mysterious lines of the 1993 movie, Tombstone, where the Val Kilmer Doc Holliday character says of Wyatt Earp:

“Oh, make no mistake, it’s not revenge he’s after; it’s a reckoning.”

A reckoning is a resolution and an ending, but that is not really what these characters are after.  And even if it were, a reckoning isn’t attainable, is it?  Finding the girl’s killer might offer some clarity along some margin, but it doesn’t change much of anything else.  So there will be no revenge, no resolution, no reckoning, and ultimately no justice.  That’s just the way it goes in Ebbing, Missouri.

So this makes its way over the $6 bar for some compelling characters and some good scenes. But, too many question marks and not enough Woody limit its upside.  So despite the gaudy critical acclaim elsewhere, this one won’t be filling space in the Best of L&D for 2017, which is coming sooner than you probably think!

The Foreigner

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The most revelatory thing I learned while watching The Foreigner is that Pierce Brosnan can actually act. He really turns in a stellar performance here. In a film whose characters all play the same note, he adds great variation to his. Arguably Brosnan’s character, a presumably reformed IRA chief, Liam Hennessy, is the central figure of this story. In the end it is he who comes to shame and epiphany. Only his character has shifting ideas of right and wrong.

Of course, Executive Producer and star Jackie Chan is why we came. I’m not sure how many times I leaned over to D to mention that he does his own stunts. “See how he lit that photo with the lighter? He actually did that.” I guess I am just a huge Jackie Chan fan. And Jackie, who to me is timeless, does kick some royal, well actually rogue IRA ass.

It took me a while to warm up to the story and to who the bad guys are. Which is good because it does keep you off balance about the antagonists for awhile. There are obvious homages to Taken, Taken 2, Taken 3 and even more to Rambo, in the best way possible. One reason to catch The Foreigner in the theatre as opposed to watching it on TNT next year is that it is shot in widescreen (2.39:1 aspect ratio) and it does take you on a ride with strong aerial footage and intense exterior situations.

There is also a certain gravitas to the film. I made D sit through the credits, as he has made me do during Marvel movies. Jackie Chan movies often have a whole series of the bloopers and goofed up stunts he did in the film on a split screen with the credits. But The Foreigner had no such outtakes. I think that Jackie Chan wanted to measure up to Pierce Brosnan and say, “Hey, I can act too. I can be serious too.”  He did do a fine job in his portrayal of Quan Ngoc Minh, whose heartbreak and capacity for vengeance is boundless.

Battle of the Sexes

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Battle of the Sexes is a political commentary wrapped in a history lesson holding at its core an entertaining and spellbinding narrative. I figured that Billy Jean King had defeated Bobby Riggs, or why make the movie but I really wasn’t absolutely sure about what happened. Their 1973 match and its buildup are as legendary as Cosell and Ali interviews. Emma Stone as BJK and Steve Carell as Riggs pull off the tennis stars’ volatile on-screen chemistry flawlessly.

The true nemesis in the film turns out not to be the marketing genius and buffoon Bobby Riggs, who by all accounts was a dedicated gambler above all. But rather Margaret Court, who as one of the greatest tennis players ever, was beaten in straight sets by Riggs before BJK stomped him. Court went on to be a Pentecostal Christian minister in her home country of Australia and staunch enemy of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.  The film has no qualms grinding that axe and would fit in easily as the Opening or Closing Night film at Outfest or Framline. Speaking of history lessons, Outfest and Framline are two of the premiere LGBT film festivals in the U.S. and have been around for 35 and 40 years respectively.

Battle of the Sexes itself is sensual and fun, well-crafted with great period touches like coin-op TVs in airport lounges and excellent wardrobe and costumes like BJK and Riggs’ glasses and fancy kicks.  The film is helmed deftly by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the team that delivered with the classic Little Miss Sunshine). They know how to handle tension and drama. They keep perfect continuity with the period without falling into sappy nostalgia.  The Directors also keep the various storylines with BJKs personal and professional life and Riggs’ own drama with his gambling addiction, problems with his wife — played expertly by the great Elisabeth Shue — and the pressure of his resurgent career as a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig.  Every time Steve Carell appeared, I laughed out loud. I haven’t appreciated him as much since his brilliant performance in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I thought the casting was spot on except for Fred Armisen who really should be starring in his own films by now. As Riggs’ restrained pill-pushing dealer Fred is unable to unleash his true comic genius. Or perhaps the role would have been more in tune with someone more intense like John Goodman. However, a wonderful turn was made by the great Scottish-American Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the flamboyant, big hearted and empathetic stylist to the women on the Virginia Slims tour.  One of the best lines is in the last act, right after her victory, Ted turns to BJK and says “Times change. You should know, because you changed them.”

American Assassin

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I was surprised by the scope of American Assassin. The film does a lot of globe trotting and in this way feels like the next Borne or Bond installment. If you have been reading the L & D at all you know how often I bemoan the big explosion at the end of movies. I think it should be its own genre: THE BIG EXPLOSION movie. And it’s not just action, it seems like anything outside of Jarmusch or Baumbach has one. However, I will give credit where credit is due and say that American Assassin has got an enormous explosion at the end that actually contains a lot of drama.  American Assassin is well crafted and passable for what it is.

If you are interested in turning your mind off and pretending the world is made up of easily categorized good guys and bad guys then this is right up your blindly patriotic alley.  I however have watched 6 hours of Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War since I watched American Assassin, so I am under no illusions. Spoiler Alert: Lyndon Baines Johnson lied about how good we were doing, when in fact we were losing and had no way to win.

Back to American Assassin. If you like to watch action, things blowing up, close range firing and don’t mind a little “torture-lite” this is the right thing for you. It will be cathartic. Of course, the world will have become two hours more complicated then when you entered the theater but remember, it is a movie and you can catch up. I did think that the star, Dylan O’Brien did a solid job. Shiva Negar as Annika was also convincing.  And of course, I was glad to see Michael Keaton but it did make us wonder why he did such a typical movie after such a great recent run including Spotlight, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Spider-Man Homecoming and The Founder. I guess he has to feed the Hollywood machine sometimes too.

Lucky Logan

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The milieu this film depicts is only known to me through my obsessive childhood viewing of The Dukes of Hazard and Smokey and the Bandit. Just like Bo, Luke and Daisy or the Bandit and Cledus, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) try to break out of a streak of bad luck by making money on the other side of the law.

There are some bizarre casting choices. The only word that comes to mind is incongruous. Like Daniel Craig as Joe Bang, the genius bomb maker. It’s wonderful to see him act and he does steal this film but at the same time, you are constantly wondering what James Bond is doing locked up in West Virginia jail cell. Not too dissimilar is Hilary Swank’s turn as FBI agent Grayson. It seems to me these actors should be doing some Globe Theatre work on the West End but are forcing out performances here for some reason. Did they lose a bet at director Soderbergh’s weekly poker game? Finally and most glaringly there is Seth MacFarlane, the voice of Stewie on Family Guy. Here he is doing the voice of Stewie as an evil stock car driver with a bad pasted on mustache. I can’t suspend disbelief that long and no one should ask me to.  If you are looking for a comedic bad guy NASCAR driver, it will be a long time before anyone tops Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  To paraphrase Lloyd Bentson, “Sir, I’ve seen Talladega Nights and this is no Talladega Nights.”

For all the A list stars in this film, I was not a fan of the cinematography. After the impressive and tightly choreographed camera movements in last years heist favorite Hell or High Water, there is no excuse for shaky, motivated or unmotivated camera moves. And also, natural lighting doesn’t mean you let the characters fall into shadow. It’s not that kind of film. I don’t know the reason but I guess most of the budget was spent on the car racing segment because those scenes look like they are from a totally different film.

Besides all these thorny issues this film can even melt the heart of a hardened Yankee like myself with a sweet rendition of Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver. If this song doesn’t get you, doesn’t pull at your heart strings, you should really have your circuitry checked out, because you are a robot. Even if this moment does come at the expense of Rhianna. What did Rihanna ever do to writer Rebecca Blunt? But I can accept that like Waylon Jennings’ Dukes theme song Good Ol’ Boys, the movie is just trying to have a little fun without meanin’ no harm. So if you can lower the bar and just want to go along for a hi-octane ride you can still enjoy Lucky Logan.

The Big Sick

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I went into The Big Sick with higher than usual expectations and it did not disappoint. That is saying something. The film is produced by Amazon Studios. In 2016 we saw another notable Amazon film, Love and Friendship, which was an excellent work from Director Whit Stillman. Each year it will feel less and less odd that online companies are also in the film biz as producers. In this case Amazon was smart enough to team up with Judd Apatow and in turn with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. Kumail, who is also the star, and Emily are the writers and The Big Sick is based on their life experiences.

I am not exactly sure how The Big Sick got an R rating. D explained to me that F bombs are dropped. Is that all it takes these days? Well, it’s a shame because I think younger folks would get a lot out of watching this movie. It’s not preachy but it is intelligent and gets its points about relationships and culture across in a humorous and meaningful way. On the other hand, kids will stream it on Amazon. So much for the MPAA and its outdated ratings system.

This film reminded me a lot of When Harry Met Sally. There is even a scene at a batting cage. Though it is not the theme, the movie is driven by the question, “When do you know you’re in love?” The twists here involve the cultural roadblocks Kumail faces in pursuing his relationship with Emily, in a strong performance by Zoe Kazan.

Some of the best moments happen when Holly Hunter as Beth and Ray Romano as Terry, Emily’s parents, storm onto the scene.  This is a critical part of the film as one of the main stars is in a coma i.e. the sick part of The Big Sick. At this point the movie really heats up with some high drama at a comedy club involving Hunter and a xenophobic heckler and Romano having an intense heart to heart talk with Kumail on an air mattress. The film never sinks to schmaltz, the actors bring it —  the emotion and intensity — and the writing remains honest and moving.

One cool and interesting thing to me is its long and eclectic soundtrack. Everything from Boz Scaggs to Veilumuth Chitralekha.  And as well as it is doing in the theatre, I think The Big Sick will even have greater success as a streaming title.  I thought The Big Sick was an excellent film that gave new angles to a story that feels familiar.

Atomic Blonde

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Atomic Blonde tries really hard to tell a story that isn’t there to begin with and the attempt is a strain all around. It’s self-indulgent, it drags, there is needless exposition and even a strange epilogue. However, there are some memorable and cool moments in the film, including an especially jaw dropping/teeth clinching/jaw dropping car chase scene.

And if you think you’d like seeing Charlize Theron beat, kick, punch, stab with a 5 inch stiletto, strangle, psychologically accost and verbally berate dozens of guys, while sprinkling in a lesbian spy love affair, then by all means don’t miss this film.

The art direction was truly impressive with spot on depictions of the Berlin Wall and its blockades and guard towers. Apparently since the last war movie we saw dealing with the GDR, Spielberg’s Tom Hanks vehicle, Bridge of Spies, the sun still refuses to ever shine in communist East Berlin.

Scenes like the one in the nightclub where Theron rendezvous with a sexy French agent, Sofia Boutella, (who was strong in Star Trek and unsteady in The Mummy) are really well done in terms of their mix of realism and fantasy. Great dramatic tension and acting make it easy to suspend disbelief. Here, an adjacent space painted red with light next to a  packed dance floor allows for the privacy of a long conversation about the perils of espionage, some gun play and even foreplay. Why not!

James McAvoy proves once again without a shadow of a doubt that he has impeccable acting range. It’s a pleasure to watch him do his thing. And as a period piece, the soundtrack rocked with some favorite bands and songs of the era. This is one film that, like Baby Driver, will have you rockin’ and head bobbin’ to a killer soundtrack.

So the movie has a lot going for it. The style of a DePalma at the height of his kinetic powers, fantastic actors unleashed, solid art direction, fun music, some kicking royal ass action sequences. Ultimately the wonderful elements don’t add up to an exceptional film but Atomic Blonde does have its moments and there is no doubt Charlize Theron is a bona fide badass.

Atomic Blonde

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Atomic Blonde is the latest in a series of movie-length music videos, this one featuring the synthy sounds and backbeats of the late 1980s.  The movie’s action is set in East Berlin right at the cusp of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the script is that of a low-grade Cold War espionage thriller.

The movie features Charlize Theron in the role of “Blonde, James Blonde,” a female incarnation of the invincible British secret agent, only Theron drinks Stoli on ice, no vermouth.  We first find her soaking in a tub of ice water with a body full of bumps and bruises and cuts and lacerations (but, remarkably, no broken bones, no limp, no discernible handicap), and then the movie proceeds to show us how she got that way. The film isn’t shy about showing Theron in the buff, beginning with an extended scene of her checking her beaten up body out in the mirror, but also featuring a couple of gratuitous lesbian exchanges.

If you don’t think about it terribly hard, the plot itself is pretty straightforward.  Theron sits down in an interview room with her “superior” (Toby James, that round-faced dude from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and American CIA agent (John Goodman). There is also an even more superior boss man watching through the glass that probably signifies something important here, though not important enough for me to try to figure out. Theron then details how she was sent to East Berlin to meet up with a British agent embedded in the terrain (David MacAvoy) and recover some sort of important list that seems to be contained inside some guy’s watch.  Meanwhile, a young French agent (Sofia Boutella) is following Theron around taking pictures about as inconspicuously as a fashion model in a skin-tight leather suit riding around on a motorcycle in Communist Eastern Europe could back in those days.  Then there are a bunch of Russians and local thugs, and, well, you’ll figure it out.

But, who needs a plot when we’ve got action?  And there is plenty of action to go around. Theron survives at least three major car crashes and is in a couple of extended hand-to-hand melees reminiscent of early Apollo Creed-Rocky Balboa bouts (at one point L shouted: “Stay down, kid, stay down”).  Indeed, one of those fisticuffs was about three minutes too long, so it turned from drama to comedy as the kids in the back of the theater began to laugh, but it segued into a terrific car chase scene that probably constituted the best few minutes of the movie.

Then again, I’m not sure this movie was even an action movie.  It might be better described as a vehicle for Charlize Theron to show off her super awesome self in some super awesome clothing, with her duds even matching the lampshade at one point according to my more fashion-sensitive companion.  This was partly utilitarian, as she beat at least one person to death with her shoe.  But I was concerned from a narrative standpoint about how she fit an entire wardrobe into such a tiny suitcase.  Perhaps she went shopping?   But where do you get a screaming red dress in East Berlin in 1989?  The questions pile up quickly in this one.

It is also possible that the movie is Theron’s response to getting passed over for the Wonder Woman role — she is definitely gorgeous and she definitely shows her chops as an action hero, even grabbing a bright yellow lasso of justice (a staple in most urban eastern bloc households, for sure) and beating the crap out of a bunch of Commie henchmen at one point. I guess you’d have to ask her.

Overall, over the $5 bar for its excellent music video qualities, but that’s kind of assuming you’ve seen the many high-quality action movies already out this summer – Wonder Woman, Spider Man, Baby Driver, Dunkirk.   It also assumes you sit in the theater with the good sound system (e.g., the Marcus SuperScreen DLX) for you to get your 99 Luftballoons on.

When writing this up I learned that this was directed by the guy who got his directorial start with John Wick, and, there it is, I buried the lede.   Evidently, he is also directing the second Deadpool movie, so here’s hoping that one goes a little better.

Dunkirk

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The script for Dunkirk must read something like this:

Page 1. The Battle of Dunkirk. / FADE TO BLACK /  The End

There is that much action and that little dialogue. And most of the dialogue is in any case unintelligible due to accent and vernacular. Luckily, the story of Dunkirk is not one of words but deeds.

The Director, Christopher Nolan, has great respect for the power of intersecting story structure. As in Memento, where he tells a story in reverse, Dunkirk follows three unique but intersecting strands. Unlike Moonlight where the three chapters come in chronological order, Dunkirk’s structure follows its own order. The acts, as explained through titles at the start include the sea, whose day long story is the anchor the others jockey towards and past. The story of the beach takes a week to unfold and the story of the air, one hour, or the amount of time that it takes for the gas tank of a Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane to run dry. Dunkirk is revealed in the cross cutting of these stories. As V.I. Pudovkin wrote in his 1930s seminal anthology Film Technique and Film Acting, it is through the control of time and space in editing that filmmaking is elevated into art. And that is true here. I can’t think of a war epic since Battleship Potemkin that has used editing in such a groundbreaking way. And in terms of the cinematography of Hoytema, the achievement is on par with Apocalypse Now and will no doubt be a front runner for the Academy Award next March.

Which brings me to the format of this film, IMAX 70mm. This is over twice the size of a typical 35mm film. In IMAX 70mm, the aspect ratio, or relationship between the vertical and horizontal, creates a large square frame. You may have seen an IMAX movie at a science museum. In the USA, the film is being screened in IMAX 70mm, the way Nolan shot it, in under 100 theaters. The nearest IMAX 70mm screening of Dunkirk to the L & D is at the Minnesota Zoo, four and a half hours away.  Weirdly, Alabama, not exactly known as a film mecca, actually has two theaters showing Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm. Here is a link to all the IMAX 70mm theaters screening Dunkirk: Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm.  The nearest cinema from the L &D screening the 70mm print is outside of Milwaukee in a place called Waukesha, about an hour and forty five minutes away. Here is a link to all the theaters showing the film in 70mm: Dunkirk in 70mm.

So what this means is that I watched Dunkirk in a cropped aspect ratio. The movie itself did not fill up the entire screen, neither sides nor top or bottom. Not knowing anything about the production of Dunkirk going into it, this definitely confused me. Back in the day, this issue would have been corrected by having a curtain come in from the sides and top and bottom to cover the blank parts of the screen. But theaters in the multiplex era are spartan affairs in this regard and the thinking is that ninety-nine percent of the films will have no issues since it is only Tarantino and Nolan who shoot features, like the The Hateful Eight, in 70mm. I found the blank screen distracting and it bugged me. An IMAX film camera goes for a million dollars. The quality of the resolution is off the charts. So it’s kind of a bummer not to be able to see Dunkirk in its full glory in terms of projection quality and aspect ratio.  However, if you are planning on waiting to watch this at home on Blu-ray, don’t bother, you won’t get it. Unless I suppose you are sitting about a foot away from your flat screen.

What to say about the rest of this film. There are flawless effects, brilliant combat scenes including the aerial dogfights, the acting is seamless and engaging. And I think its ultimate victory is something D said, it’s claustrophobic. For an IMAX formatted movie to be at once epic in its scope and claustrophobic in its atmosphere is a testament to the greatness of everyone who worked on this picture and the vision of Christopher Nolan.

War for the Planet of the Apes

If you are ready for some top-flight man on monkey violence, then War for the Planet of the Apes is the movie for you.   But it is so much more than that.   It is a nuanced exploration of racism, sexism, compassion, and possibly the greatest cinematic meditation on existential philosophy since The Seventh Seal.

Nah, I’m just kidding. It really just amounts to some good only man on monkey violence.  It’s not that the movie doesn’t try to do the things listed above, it just doesn’t do them very well.  The apes are generally set up in the “good camp” and the humans in the “bad camp” in this one, and we spend probably an hour of the movie literally watching the apes ape various stages of grief and angst and heartbreak while we wait around for the film to get to Woody Harrelson.

But, get to them they finally do, featuring one spectacular, borderline insane expository monologue that nearly saves the film along a number of fronts.  By the time they got around to the monologue, I had almost completely checked from the story, but he introduced enough material to bring the story back in play.  He is also able to almost — almost — blur the “good ape, bad man” line with his historic account, enough to give us a little sympathy for the human side.  Like the greats, he makes those around him better, so things that had been annoying me to that point got a little less annoying. But, alas, even the Hestonesque charismatic burst doesn’t save the film, and what we are left with is a few great pieces of film making in a movie that is pretty stupid and at least an hour too long (but do check out L’s review for a pro’s perspective on some of the legitimate cinematic achievements).

There are a couple of big plusses here.  Some of the action is great, including a super awesome wrinkle in the climactic scene.  Although I am kind of bashing on the movie here, even haters like me will take the drama seriously enough to enjoy the action in the context of the dramatic narrative, unlike action for action’s sake in, say, the Transformers or Alien v. Predator movies.  It’s probably worth mentioning again that Woody is must-see tv.  And, finally, this is one of the few movies where you can feel license to enjoy the fabulous Marcus 128 oz soda specials, because there are plenty of spaces between the pauses here to take a pit stop or two.

Over the $5 bar for some great action and for Woody, but I would have been willing to pay more for less for this one.