(On Cable TV, October 2018) As I’ve grown up to become a cranky middle-aged movie reviewer who gets to complain that they don’t make them like they used to, here comes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to reassure me that while original mid-budget realistic drama movies are on life support, they’re not dead yet. It does help that even within the context of a contemporary adult setting, writer/director Martin McDonagh gets off to a roaring start with a strong premise: a small-town woman putting up three highly critical billboards demanding justice for her murdered daughter. The event sparks dramatic conflict across an ensemble cast of strong actors, reaching across a community to spur characters to action. As befits a film written by a playwright, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an actor’s dream with several strong sequences, well-developed characters and a dark sense of comedy that keeps viewers interested from beginning to end. Frances McDormand now deservedly owns an Oscar for her performance here, but there’s a lot more good material from Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. A strong plot means that the film’s 115 minutes go by in a flash, with a conclusion that provides some comfort but not an entirely wrapped-up happy ending. It’s quite a ride, and I couldn’t be happier to see how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri leveraged its critical success to become a commercial one as well.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) A while ago, I started suspecting that I was seeing a too-limited selection of movies, and started letting my viewing being influenced by popularity lists as an opportunity to look at genres I’d normally avoid. And while I may roll my eyes at Adam Sandler comedies, weepy romantic dramas, gory horror and other movies on those lists, there’s one category that has consistently outperformed my expectations: Coming-of-age drama-comedies. From The Fault in Our Stars to Sing Street to Paper Town to The Way Way Back, I’m discovering authors such as John Green, investigating the early movies of rising stars and finding much to like in the results. The Way Way Back has a few passing similarities to films such as Adventureland, featuring a socially marginalized teen finding guidance and companionship on a summer job. Liam James is featureless but likable as the lead character, but it’s the supporting actors who often shine more brightly: Sam Rockwell is particularly good as a man-child compelled to mentor our hero, while Steve Carell plays an unusually detestable role as an antagonistic, philandering would-be father-in-law. A few familiar faces also show up in minor roles, from Maya Rudolph to Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. The portrait of a small seaside town and its attendant water park is warm and sympathetic, fitting almost perfectly with the script’s goals. While the story is familiar and the beats are predictable, The Way Way Back is satisfying for all the right reasons. It may not set the world on fire, but it’s a sure-fire choice for a quiet evening. It may be about today’s teenagers, but the extemporal setting will ensure that the themes will resonate with a wide group.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) If I have trouble getting angry about movie remakes these days, it’s because I grudgingly recognize that they don’t make the original go away. If they’re good, they earn their place in the sun. If they’re not, they’re forgotten quickly and the original remains the reference. But even relatively competent remakes can fall in the last category, as proven by 2015’s Poltergeist. I ended up watching both films back-to-back in a single evening (sleeping very well afterwards—that’s how jaded I am) and the original still kicks the pants off the remake, even though the remake itself isn’t half-bad. More faithful than many remakes, the 2015 Poltergeist follows the same plot structure of the original film, adding a few technological refinements, compressing the pacing by a quarter and adding as much CGI as it can. It works insofar as the film is rarely boring even when seen immediately after the original. Some sequences, such as the drone “flight into hell” are even decent additions. But this remake has a mechanistic quality that is hard to ignore: It doesn’t try to ape the original’s intermittent goofiness, and you can feel the weight of 35 years’ worth of added Hollywood formula filmmaking bearing down to choke any accidental quality to the result. Sam Rockwell and Jared Harris (with a welcome appearance by Jane Addams) do relatively well as anchors despite erasing much of what made their original counterparts so memorable. That explains why, as much as this remake isn’t a bad film, it does have trouble justifying its own existence. It’ll do for those viewers who have trouble locating the original, but that original has a craziness that the normalized remake sorely lacks. In a few years, most people will have trouble remembering that there was a remake—the original will still stand tall as one of the movies of 1982 that are still remembered … and that’s saying something given how terrific 1982 was for genre films!
(Video on Demand, June 2013) Writer/director Martin McDonagh clearly isn’t happy doing the usual or the expected: With this crime comedy, he plays around with structure, experiments with form, and uses a comic crime thriller to reflect on the place of violence in movies. Collin Farrell is low-key but effective as a screenwriter who turns to a friend in order to get some inspiration for his next screenplay. Sam Rockwell is quite a bit flashier as said friend who finds himself creatively inspired, and starts bringing the screenwriter into his own criminal enterprise, where we meet an unusually reflective Christopher Walken. It quickly leads to a clash between true psychopaths, repentant ones and unexpected ones. McDonagh’s dialogue is as good as could be expected from a playwright, and his directorial technique feels a bit more natural than in his previous In Bruges. Seven Psychopaths takes a turn toward meta-fiction in the third act, as it tries to reconcile the impulses of thrill-seeking viewers with the humanistic instincts of a filmmaker trying to avoid gratuitous violence. While the result feels a bit more scattered than it should, it’s an unusually intriguing film, and one that has quite a bit more thematic depths than the usual crime thriller. As a bonus, it’s also quite funny… except when it decides not to be.
(In theaters, July 2011) There’s no real reason to dislike the western/Science Fiction hybrid Cowboys & Aliens, but no real reason to love it either. It plays surprisingly straight, what with Daniel Craig and Harrison out-gruffing each other on the way to rid the Earth of an alien menace. The SF elements are weak (Mining gold? Really? Did they miss all the asteroids on their way here?), the action sequence lack a certain oomph and the film seems happy just delivering the goods in more or less the same way the audience expects. Given that even competence is sometimes missing from Hollywood blockbuster, the acknowledgement that Cowboys & Aliens does deliver on its promises should be seen as a compliment. (If nothing else, you do get both Cowboys and Aliens. Happy?) The problem is that there’s little more to director Jon Favreau’s film. After a thorny first act, everything reverts to unthreatening adventure with a perfunctory finale and the self-simplification of the script is particularly harmful to its SF elements: There’s little rhyme or reason to the aliens’ capabilities except for dramatic effect, and at the point it becomes harder for the viewer to actually form expectations or build any kind of suspense if narrative rabbits are going to be taken out of various orifices. Interestingly enough, some of the better works comes from supporting actors: Sam Rockwell is once again unrecognizable in an atypical role far from his better-known characters; Adam Beach is earnest and sympathetic; whereas Olivia Wilde manages to carry an element of ethereal difference to her character beyond simply looking pretty. Oh, Cowboys & Aliens plays well and satisfies base expectations. There’s just a nagging feeling that the film could have been just a little bit more…
(On DVD, June 2011) There’s something almost earnestly old-fashioned about Conviction, a film that has few scruples about belonging to the “inspiring story based on true events” category. Here, a woman puts herself through law school for the express purpose of freeing her wrongfully accused brother. It ends pretty much like you’d think. Still, Conviction is more polished than you’d expect: the setup is handled efficiently, and the early structure of the film seamlessly meshes two levels of flashbacks to explain how the characters got where they are. This is the kind of film that showcases actors, and Hilary Swank is very good in the lead role, with a strikingly transformed Sam Rockwell as her wrongfully accused brother. I almost always, for some reason, enjoy seeing Minnie Driver on-screen, and she gets a lot of screen time as a sidekick to the protagonist’s legal investigation. For a film of its genre, it’s curiously restrained until the very end, and clever about how it takes us from one detail of the case to the next. It doesn’t necessarily spring Conviction up and away from typical TV-movie-of-the-week fare (it will live best on DVD than it did in theaters), but it does pretend to be a dramatic awards contender, and it’s not misplaced in those ambitions. It all piles up to amount to a satisfying film, but not an overly memorable one.
(In theatres, May 2010) As one of, apparently, only half-a-dozen people who didn’t go completely crazy about the first Iron Man film, my expectations for the sequel were kept in check. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding in agreement at this follow-up’s overlapping snarky dialogues, well-choreographed action sequences and pleasant character beats. The force of the film remains the character of Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, one of the few superheroes around to actually enjoy the superpowers at his disposal. Contrary to many of his brethren, this sequel tackles the responsibilities of power from another direction: while the parallels with alcoholism get heavy at times (in-keeping with the source material), it’s a neat bit of character affliction that keeps things interesting even when stuff is not exploding on-screen. Add a little bit of honestly science-fictional content in how Stark manages to synthesize a solution to his problem (“That was easier than I thought”, the movie self-knowingly wisecracks) and there’s enough fun here to pave over the film’s less convincing moments. Never mind how a single suit-equipped billionaire can apparently create world peace, or Sam Rockwell’s unconvincing grandstanding as another, dumber billionaire, or the shoe-horned intrusions by the rest of the Marvel universe, or the lengthier stretches in which Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs down. At least the film has a good understanding of the character’s strengths, and works hard at maintaining them. I can’t say enough nice things about the replacement of Terrence Howard by the ever-dependable Don Cheadle, nor of Gwyneth Paltrow’s adorable reddish bangs: director Jon Favreau is fine on-screen and even better directing the whole thing. Iron Man 2 is, unlike other superhero movies often dominated by angst, about joy –and the feeling is infectious. It may not be a classic, but it’s a decent follow-up.
(In theatres, August 2009): Let me count the reasons why I wanted to love this film: It’s a pure science-fiction piece whose visual aesthetics clearly owe something to great SF films of the seventies. It’s a quiet piece of psychological drama, limited to a few sets and a handful of characters (including a strong performance by Sam Rockwell. It’s relatively smart, doesn’t depend on action or humour, and was produced on such a small budget that, if it’s successful, it may lead to other SF films of the same ilk. Furthermore, Moon has been acclaimed by critics throughout its limited-release run, which is another rarity for films that wear the “Science Fiction” label with pride. This being said, Moon may be a bit too successfully SF for its own good in that it wants to be compared to top-level genre stories… to its detriment. No one will question the scientific accuracy of Star Wars, but the realism of Moon’s setting and machinery create expectations that can’t be met by the rest of the film. As a nitpicky nerd, I was bothered out of my suspension of disbelief by such scientific errors as the Earth-normal gravity, the communications without light-speed delays or (ack!) the use of Helium-3 as an energy source. Other signs suggest that the seventies aesthetics also betray the last time the screenwriter seriously read top-level SF: Question the assumptions of the plot (that a vital money stream depends on a single human point of failure; that the base’s Artificial Intelligence is incarnated in a single machine rather than distributed throughout the entire complex; that one would jam signals through blunt interference rather than by selectively manipulating the data stream) and everything feels dated and simplistic. Throw in more explosions, gunfights and bouncy wenches and no-one would question Moon seriously. As it is now, though, it looks close enough to hard-SF to be considered by hard-SF’s own standards and suffer from the comparison. It’s still a really interesting film, of course, but it’s hard to recommend as a success when it fails to withstand the scrutiny it invites.