The Beguiled makes charm into the monster

Be careful with your v’s,” notes schoolteacher Edwina in a cursive class, in what would be the most hilariously blunt double-entendre of the year were The Killing of a Sacred Deer not hanging out in the rafters. Whereas that film starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman spoke frankly at all times, this film starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman speaks in code until it suddenly doesn’t. “I’m as blunt as I need to be,” says Kidman’s southern headmistress Martha to John, the wounded Yankee she temporarily shelters. Martha is a capable operator, but as the wounded soldier starts healing, starts becoming active, starts looking virile in a group of secluded women, is bluntness effective?

The Beguiled runs only an hour and a half, but it takes its time within that, carefully setting up its dominoes for the first hour as John charms his way into the existing fissures of the boarding house’s ecosystem. It’s Civil War setting provides an interesting feint; John quickly shows himself to not be the enemy Yankee they fear, but he’s hardly an altruist either. It’s final stretch pays off in intensity but lacks some of the previously evident restraint, feeling distinctly like a horror movie at points. But its a beautifully shot film with a talented cast who make this small corner away from the war feel fully realized. It’s not a terribly optimistic film, but it is often magnetic.

B

The Beguiled (2017)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell
Rotten Tomatoes (78%)

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The Shape of Water is fantastically, darkly graceful

A brutally violent, lusciously gorgeous film about a sexy fish-man

Within the first five minutes of The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’ mute maid Eliza sets a timer, hops in the bath, and masturbates. The film has been marketed as an adult fairy tale, and the first part of the statement can’t be ignored. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a raunch-fest about fish-sex. But unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, which was an adult fairy tale from a child’s perspective, The Shape of Water is distinctly mature through-and-through, a brutally violent, quietly introspective, and lusciously gorgeous delight. It also happens to feature a sexy fish-man.

Even if said sexy fish-man doesn’t work for you, there’s no denying how stunningly beautiful this film is, with oversaturated blues giving Eliza’s apartment the feeling of an aquarium and neon greens (or is that teal?) frequently blanketing the players. In many fantastic ways, the art design evokes Bioshock‘s Rapture, particularly when combined with its cold-war setting and record-box soundtrack. In a touch that could be viewed as cheap if I had a heart of stone, Eliza lives above a cinema, and The Shape of Water definitely earns the La La Land/The Artist movie-about-how-great-movies-are slot at the Oscars. But it does so in little ways, such as Eliza and her neighbour Giles performing a small couch dance routine, before paying it off in a big, spectacular moment.

The bloody violence might turn some off, and indeed ventures into fairly rough territory at times. Michael Shannon brings a lot of intensity to a fairly one-note heel, finding new dimensions of depravity in every act. One could also fault Del Toro for spending too much time with his side characters, but he paints Giles, Dmitri, and Zelda with a fine enough brush that I wouldn’t want to see them excised even if they occasionally feel extraneous. But the heart lies within Eliza and The Creature, whose sensitive puppy-dog attitude never feels manipulative. If this kind of fantastical twist is what movie romance needs, I for one welcome our new sexy fish-man overlords.

A-

The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Three Billboards should have gotten more than melodrama out of Ebbing Missouri

Three Billboards isn’t interested in great tragedies nor police violence, but maybe it should have been

In a three-act structure, the second act tends to be the one where the good stuff is. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri takes this to heart, beginning well after the murder that incites the action takes place and after the failed investigation has all but folded. Feeling the world is moving on from her still-burning rage, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the titular billboards, personally shaming police chief William Willoughby* (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of cancer and has perhaps the most screenwriterly name ever devised. The billboards scandal ripples throughout the town, perhaps nowhere more than in the police station, where the short-tempered, racist, and punnily-named deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gets angry seemingly on Willoughby’s behalf. But the driving background behind each character, from Hayes’ tragedy to Willoughby’s illness to Dixon’s racism, are all established quickly, sometimes awkwardly, through dialogue to cut to the chase. Director Martin McDonagh isn’t interested in great tragedies nor is he particularly interested in police abuse. He’s interested in how communities function, how defensive they can be to social upset, how putting their members into boxes begets violence. But maybe a bit of interest in the former would have helped.

Three Billboards has been marketed as a black comedy, but never finds an even tone, oscillating drastically between wallowing in melodrama and poking fun at bumpkins. Sometimes this tonal whiplash works: when Mildred’s violent ex-husband escalates a situation only to have it defused by his young girlfriend cluelessly asking for a restroom, McDonagh keeps the scene going for a hilariously uncomfortable amount of time. At another moment, a sudden intrusion of Willoughby’s illness during an interrogation provides the most intimate moment of the film. However, while a few of the performers find the right nerve to strike (notably the now-ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones and Samara Weaving), many others never quite find it. Some, like Peter Dinklage’s alcoholic salesman, serve one scene and otherwise hang out on the margins, which does give the town a nicely lived-in feel. But others, notably Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s far-too-young and implacably accented wife, feel air-dropped in from a movie-of-the-week. Compared to McDonagh’s fantastically odd and dark In BrugesThree Billboards is just too sincere to read as comedy.

Three Billboards commits to its second-act focus in the end, arguably cutting to black pre-climax. But before it gets there, it engages in some acts of forgiveness that have caused a fair amount of controversy, of which a lot of digital ink has already been spilled. A lot of it comes down to whether a certain act is read as redemption or a step forward, and for my money the film engages with the difficulty of redemption even after attaining self-awareness. It builds up a racial element only to unharmoniously sweep it under the rug, but it rather frankly asserts that atonement isn’t simple. The parallels it draws between its two most broken characters are legitimately interesting, although handled less-than-deftly. Thanks to the character of Ebbing itself, it’s certainly not a boring ride to get there. It’s just not as riveting as the material could have been.

C+

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Lucas Hedges
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

I did naht love it, I did naaaht

The Disaster Artist’s refusal to admit that its a lark proves to be its undoing

At its root, The Room is an all-time great movie in a way something like Snakes on a Plane isn’t* because it wasn’t made with the intention of being a bad movie. The Room was not made for guffaws; every frame of it screams that it is the work of an auteur. The auteur in question, Tommy Wiseau, has three main qualities that all blend together to make The Room so damn singular. Most obviously, Wiseau is perplexing physical presence as an actor, with a, let’s say, unique cadence. Secondly, as a director and manager of tone, Wiseau is inconsistent beyond the point of parody. But what can make The Room turn from camp classic to unwatchable dreck for some is that it’s also incredibly toxic. If it is to be taken as a look into Wiseau’s frame of mind, the diagnosis is clearly misogynistic, egotistical, and paranoid. Don’t get me wrong, I love every second of The Room**, but its incompetency isn’t limited to simply hamfisted moralizing; it’s also that the morals are awful.

Going under the hood of The Room and looking at its guts isn’t and shouldn’t be a purely fun adventure, and The Disaster Artist doesn’t take the assignment that way. But it doesn’t succeed at balancing the idiosyncrasy with the dark side of Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau is presented as a comic figure throughout, with any pathos or sympathy rather quickly brushed aside for a joke. The movie (and the on-set record) give us every reason to think of Wiseau as a villain, but the movie strives to give him unearned redemption, likely to avoid upsetting its subject. James Franco’s Wiseau impression is a fantastic party trick, but he plays the tics to broadly to register the more serious moments. Sure, they may be accurate, but this might be a case of life being too strange for fiction, especially given the straightforward, unadventurous cinematic style.

Much of the film is spent recreating the shooting of The Room, with the cast finding every opportunity to reference their favourite lines and moments (the breast cancer bit comes up a lot, as it should). It’s great fun, especially Seth Rogen’s bewildered script supervisor and Zac Efron’s too-brief turn as Chris R., but it never quite meshes with the Tommy/Greg Sestero tone, and its overuse of references plays as entirely reliant on The Room rather than an attempt to say anything of its own. Were The Disaster Artist just an excuse for a bunch of friends to hang out and recreate a historically bad movie, it would have been a lot more fun to be honest about that, maybe get a bit more experimental with the format, maybe a documentary framing device or something like that. If the overlong pre-credits montage of The Room footage side-by-side with their remake is any indication, that’s what the goal was anyhow.

C

The Distaster Artist (2017)
Directed by James Franco
Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, and Seth Rogen
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

* No offense to that motherfucking plane
** I suppose I could do without the ass shots

Twisted justice, texting spirits, and a dive back into The World of Tomorrow

Quick thoughts on The Lost City of Z, Downsizing, Personal Shopper, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The World of Tomorrow 2

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – B

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In his English-language debut, The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos had his actors speak in a stilted, direct manner to both immediately make its otherworldliness clear and for pitch-black comedy. In his follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the same technique is used, once again to increase our willingness to suspend disbelief, but this time in the service of psychological horror. Sure, the movie earns some laughs (“I’m not letting you leave until you’ve tasted my tart”), but the buildup is a bit off-putting, paid off when the central conceit of the latter half of the film is explained succinctly and directly. From there, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is entrancing, a nightmare crash in slow motion and a rumination on culpability and the arbitrary nature of justice. It’s lack of a strong emotional throughline or a singular visual style keep it from reaching the heights of its predecessor, as does its ultimately unsuccessful attempts to have one “The Scene”, but its strong command of tone and deliberate drip of tension still work wonders.

Downsizing – C-

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Downsizing is a complete a total mess, but it takes its dear sweet time making that clear. In Alexander Payne’s first attempt at tying his humanistic comedy to a sci-fi concept, his reach exceeds his grasp, with a half-dozen good-to-great ideas that he tries to pursue simultaneously by the films end, only leading to general annoyance and confusion. If it wants to be a movie about running from problems, the material is there, but it also wants to be a movie about the inescapability of inequality, even in utopia, and the incredible sacrifices that life demands in order to achieve some semblance of prosperity. But the themes dogpile on top of each other into an aimless mash after a fitfully funny opening act, which concludes with the single greatest use of a spatula in film history. If the second half were funnier, a lot would be forgiven, but it leans away from its fantastical elements surprisingly often, with certain shots and elements re-emphasizing the tininess of its characters but for the most part seeming to forget about it (there’s a party/rave scene that screams for little details, but never feels like it takes place in a doll’s house). The concept and first half are solid enough to make Downsizing an interesting curiousity, but it should have thought considerably smaller.

The Lost City of Z – B-

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There’s certainly a classic beauty to The Lost City of Z, an expedition film hewing closer to Master & Commander without sails than Raiders of the Lost Ark without whips. While itself a period piece, the film feels like it comes from another time, with nary a hint of modern humour or camera-winking. It only betrays itself with shoehorned-in attempts at wokeness, having its main characters act as occasional unsubtle mouthpieces for more modern takes on feminism and white superiority. The classic feel comes with all the drawbacks, and the film often feels cold and distant, interesting but unengaging. But when its in the Amazonian jungle, The Lost City of Z is plenty absorbing, with lush frames and stirring suspense. Main character Percy Fawcett spends the film itching to get back to the adventure, and that feeling is certainly contagious.

Personal Shopper – B-

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Personal Shopper is a simultaneously infuriating and fascinating film, but certainly not one that thinks of its audience as dumb. In many ways, its refreshingly direct. Very soon after we find out our main character Maureen is looking to communicate with her brother’s ghost, we see a ghost pretty clearly, removing unnecessary ambiguity. In one very important way, the ending is left confusing deliberate, resulting in an absolutely beautiful sequence of shots through a hotel but leaving the conclusion of one of its story threads unnecessarily open, distracting heavily from the remainder. Personal Shopper does pull off a neat feat throughout, acting as an effective supernatural thriller, technological suspense, and big-city millenial malaise film all at once, anchored by Kristen Stewart’s embodiment of twenty-something stressed and tired, and the film has a lot to say about how we process grief. But it’s late choices keep it from coming together in a satisfying way.

World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts – B+

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Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow is one of my favourite fifteen minutes ever created, an beautiful and idiosyncratic sci-fi dive into life, love, and doom. The second installment, The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, is longer but seems to contain less. It still features the voices of Julia Pott and Winona Mae, the latter Hertzfeld’s five-year-old niece whose ramblings are edited into the character of Emily, and the former her clone from hundreds of years into the future. With Winona Mae a full year older, her musings are considerably more coherent, moving from single-word exclamations to the point where her voice is used to play multiple characters conversing with each other. Segments such as these and the appearance of “memory tourists” more than justify the existence of the sequel, which is hilarious and often poignant, but it can’t help but feel a little less revelatory than its predecessor. The animation is certainly more ambitious, but in increasing the number of 3D effects, it feels less painterly. Still, by diving deeper into clone dystopia, Hertzfeld has produced a vivid, funny, and original short. It’s just not his masterpiece.

 

The Last Jedi is a more thoughtful and less captivating middle chapter

Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

Middle chapters are hard. They have to move the story along without closing too many doors while not leaving too many open for the final chapter, appearing consequential but not too consequential. But they’re also hard to judge in a vacuum; The Empire Strikes Back is pretty universally considered the best Star Wars movie, but how much of that relies on knowing that Return of the Jedi, for all its Ewoks, follows through on all of its narrative arcs? If Episode IX builds upon what The Last Jedi lays out in a satisfying way, The Last Jedi may well be thought of the same way twenty years from now. If not, does The Last Jedi hold up on its own merits?

If “its own merits” means “Is The Last Jedi entertaining?”, the answer is a bit mixed. That hyped, pumped-up feeling I got from The Force Awakens was considerably dampened for The Last Jedi, potentially due to Rogue One disappointment, potentially due to simple sequel fatigue. But its also clear that The Last Jedi is just less interested in thrills. Indeed, The Last Jedi is the closest a Star Wars movie has come to art cinema, with no expert action sequences to speak of but a constant barrage of absolutely stunning images. From a particularly blinding light-speed jump to gorgeous speeder tracks on a salt-ridden mining planet, a dolly shot across a futuristic casino that apes a classic, or (most blatantly) an auditory infinity mirror hallucination, director Rian Johnson provides an unexpectedly sumptuous artistic sci-fi vision, all while still feeling very much a part of the Star Wars universe, but the expected thrills (lightsaber battles and aerial dogfights) fall a little short.

But The Last Jedi isn’t principally interested in getting those expected thrills. If The Force Awakens was a celebration of nostalgia, The Last Jedi is a deconstruction of it (its truest kin is, weirdly, maybe Trainspotting 2). The Rebels won at the end of Return of the Jedi, but forty years later, they seem to be back to the start during The Force AwakensThe Force Awakens ignored this sticking point a bit, but The Last Jedi digs into the demoralizing trudging of time, how we (and the world) outlive our glory moments and have to just keep moving past them, slowly. Across numerous characters, illusions of heroism and seemingly predestined paths are shattered. The very definitions of light and dark get reshuffled, but a form of balance finds itself. Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

While it certainly gets more heady in themes than previous entries, The Last Jedi is also more obviously humorous than expected. The antics of BB-8 and the penguin-rat Porg creatures edge right up to the line of too cutesy, but stay *mostly* on the right side of it. While these scenes seem to be taking on a greater proportion of the popcorn-entertainment value of this installment than normal, they also keep the film from verging too far into darker-and-edgier territory. As entertainment, The Last Jedi certainly suffices, but as an entry into the Star Wars canon, it has potential to age into an absolute classic.

B

UPDATE:

OK, I saw it a second time, and loved it so so much more. The headiness of it all maybe distracted me the first time, but upon rewatch, having compartmentalized that the movie was going to be about failure and the deflation of legends, it turns out that it also works really really well as epic entertainment. Even if I still think things like the Throne Room Fight are a bit overrated, and that there’s maybe one too many Porg moments, I’m fully on board with calling The Last Jedi the first capital-g Great Star Wars movie since the originals.

A-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Mark Hamill
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Catching up with Thor, Bad Batch, Meyerowitz, and Billie Jean King

The true winner in the Battle of the Sexes? Movie-going audiences everywhere! Also, Thor is an overstuffed turkey, but the stuffing is oh-so-delicious.

So I’ve been a bit everywhere the last few weeks, and haven’t had much time to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard?). But I’ve still seen some movies, and here are some quick thoughts! One strong recommendation, one less-strong recommendation, one surprising shoulder-shrug, and one unfortunate thumbs down, in that order…

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The Battle of the Sexes (2017) – B+

If you were worried Battle of the Sexes would be a heavy-handed morality tale reflecting the re-emergence of feminist to the forefront of the public eye in the last few years, well, you’d be right. But, in addition to being a bit too precisely timely, the film is also surprisingly tender and a fairly rousing sport film in its own right. It lives and dies on its two star performances, and both Emma Stone and Steve Carrell have a good shot at adding more Oscar noms to their resume. Stone finds a lost soul inside Billie Jean King, but makes it an integral part of her fighter’s spirit rather than a distraction. And Carrell finds some humanity in the opportunistic Bobby Riggs, peeking at the brokenness that feeds his chauvinistic persona. It’s a film that’s as relevant as it’ll ever be, but it doesn’t rely on virtue signalling to hold up as a classically designed crowd-pleaser simultaneously.

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The Meyerowitz Stories, New and Selected (2017) – B

I liked The Meyerowitz Stories a fair amount, owing mostly to the chemistry and history of its central characters, played by Adam Sandler (channeling his childlike rage for both comedy and catharsis) and Ben Stiller (his smugness neatly transferred from his selling point as a comedian to his character’s chief flaw). But perhaps what keeps it from being astounding is, surprisingly, the cartoonish performance of Dustin Hoffman as the family patriarch, whose responsibility for the flaws of his children is the focus of the film. Hoffman is occasionally quite funny; indeed, the film’s one Excellent Joke™ is staged between him and Emma Thompson (it involves gourmet hummus). But he never feels like an actual human being rather than a caricature drawn by writer-director Noah Baumbach, which undercuts the more restrained tone taken when his character is absent.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – C+

Thor: Ragnarok is a fantastic Hulk movie sandwiched on either side by a half-assed Thor movie. Everything about it screams that director Taika Waititi really wanted to make the middle third, where Thor and Hulk wind up in a gladiatorial culture lorded over by Jeff Goldblum while making friends with a gentle Kiwi rock-creature named Korg, but had to advance the MCU plotline by including Thor’s long-lost sister Hela taking over Asgard on the fringes. Just look at how Waititi handles the Warriors Three, a strong presence in the previous Thor movies, to get an idea for how much he cares about Asgard. That middle third truly is outstandingly entertaining, and Cate Blanchett chews sweet delicious scenery as Hela whenever she gets a chance, but this really needed to be split into two movies instead of constantly distracting each other. Then we could get the Thor-is-a-gladiator and the Hela-is-a-colonialism-metaphor movies we truly need. There are enough fantastic moments to make Ragnarok memorable (melting stick! the retro score and effects! Banner’s buffoonish bifrost bounce!), but its less than the sum of its parts.

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The Bad Batch (2017) – D

And then there’s The Bad Batch. It opens fantastically, with a beautiful tableau of desolation at the gates of a sort-of desert open-air prison, where the undesirables among us are left to their own devices, and each others. The movie never tops its opening moments but constantly tries to, with occasional beautiful shots and a bonkers mute Jim Carrey performance being overshadowed by narrative incoherence and auteur touches that go from eye-rolling to motion-sickness inducing. The movie’s greatest sin, however, is its treatment of the central relationship of listless Arlen and the cannibalistic Miami Man, which is not sold nearly well enough to justify its resolution point. The concept is there, and the set design is killer, but The Bad Batch doesn’t work for either genre thrills or arthouse pontifications.