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Lady Bird (2017)
A Beautiful Movie that makes you laugh, cry and think
In a revival year for movies, one with an abundance of notable gems, Lady Bird manages to stand out in the crowd. While taking on the coming-of-age angle, which has been done to death for 30something years, direct Greta Gerwig makes this one different. She brings freshness to a stale genre by releasing a steady stream of humor, heart, and honesty.
Gerwig's first solo directorial effort features the winning young actress who is also quickly becoming a veteran actress Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Atonement). Ronan shines, playing a Gerwig surrogate of sorts and showcasing a flawless Sacramento accent. Named Christine McPherson by her parents, she decides to instead go by the name Lady Bird. As she calls it, her given name (she gave it to herself). Mom (Laurie Metcalf) and Dad (Tracy Letts) are both perfectly cast joys to watch. Mom and Lady Bird flip a switch between sharing joyful moments to clashing in heated ones. Sweet and supportive dad does his best to help them both, even while fighting his own depression. Best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) is delightful to viewers and loyal to Lady Bird.
In her search for her identity, Lady Bird tests out a new best friend and an ill-fitting musician boyfriend (Timothee Chalamet). She lies about herself to both of them, pretends to live in the rich neighborhood, lies about her parents, trying to seem cool. Classic high school move, one of the cliché moments. The movie isn't entirely original, but what makes it so special is that everything feels authentic, never crammed in to fit a template. The characters and problems could have come across as stale and vacuous, but they contain real depth and honesty, so they're always compelling.
Lady Bird meets another boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea), while rehearsing for the school play. He resists the temptation of sex with her, "out of respect." Their relationship comes to an abrupt end but not before he describes Lady Bird's mom as "warm and scary." While Lady Bird scoffs at this descriptor at the time, she later recognizes the truth in it. She spends so much effort preventing people from seeing her family for who they really are that she never truly sees them herself. There's something in this movie for everyone. We may not all be now, nor have ever been a pink-haired teenage girl in Sacramento, but we all know what it's like to feel unsure about who we are and who we want to be. Lady Bird covers familiar experiences, but not only the pleasant ones. It's not an "aww" fest. Gerwig's directs the way Lady Bird's mom parentswith toughness and care. She explores the humor and hurt with equal deft. Her movie is heartwarming and heartbreaking. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will make you think. Gerwig delivers a story extremely personal to her in a way that makes it feel personal to all of us. Lady Bird is a wonderous success and truly one of the year's best movies.
The Snowman (2017)
Terribly Dull & Incoherent
Who would ever name their son Harry Hole? That is one of the many questions that crossed my mind as I watched The Snowman, which I suppose is technically a movie, but fails miserably to deliver on many of the standard qualifications that are contained by 99.9% of all other movies.
For one, most movies have an A plot and a B plot (sometimes more, but two a minimum of story lines is a reasonable minimum). The A plot is primary focus, while the B plot offers its own characters and conflicts who in some way tie into the A plot. This is usually the case because it makes sense that if two story lines are going to exist in the same movie they should be at least somewhat related. It makes less sense if the two story lines are completely unrelated.
In The snowman, the two story lines are completely unrelated. Plot A involves the unfortunately named Harry Hole trying to solve a series of grisly murders. Plot B involves a powerful politician and the city of Oslo's bid for the "Winter Sports Cup." There's also a drunken detective who is in the movie sometimes. I have absolutely no idea what any of these three stories had to do with one another. This is a problem.
One half of the movie does not connect to the other half of the movie. Does Harry know the politician? Is he a big "Winter Sports Cup" fan? I have no idea. This would be like if Silence of the Lambs was exactly the same except it added a side story about Chicago's mayoral election. Everyone would think, "Yeah Hannibal Lecter is terrifying and interesting, but what does he have to do with the new mayor of Chicago?" They had no consequence on each other.
The two side plots of this movie had no consequence on much of anything. Neither really ended in a clear way. They only ended because they were not shown in the movie any longer, as if someone quit halfway through writing them. This is also a problem.
For real tho, Harry Hole? The movie makes no acknowledgment of how ridiculous this name is, as if his name is Tom Johnson. We first see the name on an envelope addressed to him and I legitimately thought it was a gag, some inside joke from his pen pal or something.
The whole movie feels like an inside joke that we're not a part of. The stories don't connect, the cuts between scenes appear random, and the "surprise reveal" of the killer surprises no one. The Snowman is a tremendous waste of your time. I suggest you watch something else. Anything else.
It's a Misguided, Mismatched Disaster
George Clooney's latest directorial effort, overflows with Oscar-level talent both on camera and off. A quick glance at the credits list on IMDb would make moviegoers flush with excitement. But sadly, Suburbicon is one of those cases in which a movie with a loaded cast teamed with a star director and writers turns out awkwardly, embarrassingly wrong. It's unfunny, ill-fitting, frustrating, pretentious, tone deaf and abysmal. In other words, this movie is a disaster.
In addition to Clooney directing and the Coen brothers writing, the movie features the tremendously talented Julianne Moore and Matt Damon, who both feel like they're going through the motions of a walk-through day at practice. The stoicism of Moore and Damon's dorky dimwitted schtick both feel tiredbeen there done that. Given the limitations bestowed on them and their stiff characters, their half-hearted efforts are understandable, but nonetheless disappointing.
Suburbicon's greatest flaw is its mismatched identity. It doesn't know what it wants to be. Attempting to weld together two incompatible story lines, it throws the audience for a loop. Is it a socially conscious tale of racial mistreatment with the backdrop of a "perfect" all-white 1950s neighborhood, or is it a satirical Fargo-like family scam gone darkly and comically awry? A movie can't be both, so it succeeds at neither. Simply put, it just doesn't work.
Clooney and Coen brothers have produced sweet music on past projects, but they have different goals here. The Coens provide a zany violent spice as Clooney strives for an earnest political commentary zest. The combination leaves the movie with an incongruous and unpleasant flavor.
Mercifully, there are a few highlights. The consistently excellent Oscar Isaac provides a charming liveliness and the promising young Noah Jupe delivers a helping of humanity to a movie that is mostly starved of decency.
Alongside the scam family's disarray, a more disturbing story takes place as the town's first black family arrives (remember, this is the 1950s). The quiet and respectable family is tormented, subtly at first, rapidly escalating to a mob scene complete with violence, vandalism and fire. What is this disgusting side story doing in the movie? What purpose does it serve? Seemingly none. It's condescending and obnoxious. The father of the tormented family doesn't even receive a single speaking line. This story's inclusion a clumsy attempt to depict racism that uses the black actors as mere showpieces, rather than meaningful, developed characters.
The racial subplot is so vague and shallow that it winds up feeling empty. The rest of the movie isn't much different. This movie was not worth any of these stars' time and it's certainly not worth yours.
Happy Death Day (2017)
It's Fantastic Fun for an Hour, Then it all Unravels
It's Groundhog Day, but with murder. What a wonderful premise.
The main character, Tree (short for Teresa, she doesn't come from a hippie family with a brother named Root) wakes up with a massive hangover and a foggy recollection of the previous evening. She stumbles out of the dorm of some guy she doesn't remember from last night and heads back to her Sorority house before carrying on with a typical day in her life. We see very quickly that Tree does not treat people very well. Every passing interaction ends with her making the other person feel worse.
That night she walks to what she doesn't yet realize is her surprise birthday party. On the way, she is startled by someone wearing a school mascot mask, which is a baby (no, seriously; the school's nickname is the babies). This baby mask wearing stranger gruesomely kills Tree.
Then BOOM she wakes up in the same dorm to live the same day all over again because this movie is the birthday murder version of Groundhog Day. On this second time through her day, we watch a little more closely. We see every person as a suspect, every detail as a clue.
Eventually she tells the dorm room guy, who is named Carter, about her whole day repetition murder nightmare. He suggests that she use her unlimited lives to figure out who her killer is, which she does with limited to zero success in sometimes hilarious and sometimes terrifying ways.
At this point, we're about an hour into the movie and it is fantastic. It's sharp, moves at a brisk pace, and delivers an ideal balance of scares and laughs. Then everything begins to unravel.
The plot endures an infuriating twist. All the interactions and details of her day now seem like a waste of time. I begin to wonder if any of what I watched was actually evidence that could lead us to the killer. What first appeared as the work of a master craftsperson now seems to be haphazard and meaningless filler between Tree's morning wakeup and nightly death.
The ending attempts to clean up the mess, but the damage has been done. I'm left with a rather interesting questionhow much can I like a movie that entertained me endlessly for first 2/3, but aggressively disappointed me in the final third? My answer: not very much. Like I said, the damage had been done. This wreckage could not be salvaged.
On a lighter note, Jessica Rothe shines as Tree. She's believable in all facets, which is much more than can be said about the rest of the movie. Despite the misfire in execution of the final 30 minutes, I still love the premise. I would jump at the chance to see another Groundhog Day style movie.
Ultimately, my grave mistake was thinking. If you see this movie, which I think I would actually lightly recommend, don't think about it too much and don't try to figure out who is Tree's killer. Just watch, scream, laugh and repeat.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
A Visually Striking Sequel that is Well Worth Your Time
Visually the movie floored me. There's clearly so much intentionality and careful effort and planning that went into making that world. Villeneuve blended call backs to the original while still making this his own vision. I'll see anything he makes because I always feel like I'm in good hands with his movies, right from the opening scene.
The music had a similar feel to the visuals in that they blended old and new. The iconic "Tears in Rain" melody receives a much-deserved return in a delightfully appropriate moment. I'll give the movie serious props for providing a comforting level of nostalgia without ever feeling that it pandered.
Joi (Ana de Armas) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) were fantastic in their own very different ways. Joi, who plays Gosling's love interest of sorts, is essentially Samantha in Her, except she is a holographic projection instead of only a voice. Luv is Jared Leto's favorite replicant assistant and a total ice queen.
Gosling was cool and dutiful, though kind of lifeless, which I guess was on purpose since he plays a replicant (or does he?) Juxtaposing him with Harrison Ford really made the subtleties of Ford's performance stand out in a way that was absent for Gosling. But Gosling was still very handsome and that worked well with the rest of the movie, which is striking and beautiful.
Even though I didn't feel bored during any of the 164 minutes, I often felt like nothing was really happening. Even at the end I wondered what was the point. I know it was a character exploration of K (Gosling), like the first was of Deckard, and he clearly grew during the story. Still, the movie overall came across to me as heavy on striking visuals and light on substance.
Perhaps I'm demanding too much. While I enjoyed the heck out of the movie and would watch it again in a second, it fell slightly short of the profound best picture level movie that I hoped it would be. Somewhere in the two hour and 44 minute runtime is a great two hour movie trying to emerge.
All things considered, it's a pleasing complement to the original and is well worth a night in the theater.
Lights Out (2016)
It's OK, We're all a little afraid of the dark
Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Lights out doesn't attempt to confuse anyone, nor does it look to introduce a totally original idea. Instead, it boldly and unambiguously taunts the audience with the message, "you were all afraid of the dark as kids and most of you still are."
Never has a scary movie villain had such an easy foillight. Literally any kind of lightsun, fluorescent, bright. They each work perfectly well. Shine any sort of light in the direction of this movie's monster and she disappears. Poof. She's gone and everyone is safe. Writing this, I recognize that this doesn't sound even the tiniest bit scary. Yet somehow, as I sat in my well-lit house after watching the movie, I felt afraid.
A brief telling of the plot: there's a monster-demon-ghost-girl named Diana that lives only in darkness because light hurts her, and sometimes she kills people. She haunts other people in the movie who try to not be killed by her and also they try to defeat her. That's really all there is to know. Yes, it's a very simple plot, but still an enjoyable one, at least in this instance.
Something about the beautiful simplicity of the scare tactics just worked. Nothing confusing, nothing shocking. There weren't even very many classic hanging suspense moments interrupted by loud, jolt scares. These we textbook jump scares. A seemingly safe moment with normal amounts of sound that slowly drifts to silence then POW! A jump scare.
You may be thinking, "this sounds lame. How does this brutally basic approach yields effective scares?" Great question, my astute and thoughtful reader.
I've thought about this question and come up with a few explanations. First, we owe a tremendous credit to the actress who played Diana (Alicia Vela-Baley). Her intimidating posture and sickly contorting and Freddy Kruegerish flailing arms bring to life a terrifying character, whose mere presence on screen is enough to leave viewers unsettled. There's something about crouching, and Vela-Baley is great at it. Seeing a person crouch in a well-lit area is comical. But looking at a crouching figure in the shadows, that will make your skin crawl. The other explanation that I will offer is the visceral nature of the scares. Much of the movie takes place in the dark and the dark is scary. We are evolutionarily predispositioned to fear the dark. It's a survival instinct. Don't argue with me on this. I'm right.
Anyway, the dimly-lit, shadowy settings are the perfect playground for visceral and pure jump scares. Director David F. Sandberg hits all the right beats in framing and lurking camera movement to maximize this simple and smart approach.
So, that's it. If you can't stand jump scares or scary movies, don't see Lights Out. Honestly, I'm not sure why you're even reading this review if you don't like scary movies. If you do like jump scares and scary movies, watch Lights Out. And maybe buy a couple extra lightbulbs or a nightlight before you do.
A Ghost Story (2017)
It's 30% Deeply Moving and 70% Deeply Boring
If you prefer a movie rich with dialogue, A Ghost Story is not for you.
There is very little speaking throughout the movie. Only one scene features much talking and it's not even a conversation. One man launches into a lengthy, detailed monologue about the infinite size of the universe and our relative insignificance within it. The man believes that the speech is profound and laudable, but in reality it sounds like something a college kid would say while high at a party.
The gist of the man's speech expresses that the universe is too vast for any of us to truly leave a legacy when we die. The ghost (played by Casey Affleck) is especially compelled by this speech because he has just died and is now especially compelled by things concerning his legacy.
The ghost observes what he cared about most while he was alive. He haunts his house. He observes his wife, struggling to watch her struggle to cope with his death. He wants desperately to comfort her, but cannot. It's heartbreaking.
In addition to heartbreak, this movie evokes many other feelings: warmth, humor, boredom. Boredom comes up a lot. For every genuinely beautiful and moving moment of the movie, there is at least five minutes of emptiness. The runtime is short, just over 90 minutes, but it feels longer and could easily have been trimmed by 20 minutes.
One scene in particular that involves a pie seems to drag on for at least four days, even though it actually only lasts four minutes. In the moment, the scene is likely unbearable to many viewers. I plead for your patience. Do your best to empathize. Think about how you would feel in the situation. Do this, and the scene becomes haunting and powerful.
That's probably the best way to sum up the moviemany scenes may feel boring if given little thought, but are actually deeply moving if given honest consideration. Not all scenes fit this descriptionsome, no matter how much your squint, are just extended moments of vapid emptiness. The emptiness outnumbers the deeply moving by about 2:1, so this movie requires patience and commitment. The movie contains no conflict, only contemplation and some glorious music.
If that sounds like enough for you, give this movie a chance. But fair warning: if you bore easily this movie will feel like a waste of your time.
Good Time (2017)
Frantic and Fantastic
If I could ever experience what it's like to be a neon light inside a crowded nightclub, I imagine it would feel a lot like watching Good Time.
This movie exudes intensity, electricity, and neonicity (not a real word, just roll with it). The opening scene provides the movie's blandest color scheme, but it's serious and compelling and important, so pay attention.
From there, the movie leaps fearlessly into a techno blasting, adrenaline surging, rush of mayhem and terrible decision making. Two brothers rob a bank, run from the police, and one ends up in the hospital. Then it gets worse.
Constantine (played by Robert Pattinson, in a career-making performance) lives a life of dysfunction. He struggles to maintain healthy relationships with family or friends or anyone. The one thing in his life that he's sure of is that he wants to take care of his brother, who has intellectual disabilities. He spends a majority of the film frantically (frantic accurately describes the mood for most of Good Time) attempting to save his brother from the trouble that he put him in. The problem is that Constantine can't even properly take care of himself, so helping his brother is far beyond his abilities.
Try as he may, every attempt to help backfires. Despite Constantine's good intentions, he is a powerfully negative influence in his brother's life. He sees himself as his brother's savior, but that's very far from the truth.
It's tempting to sympathize with Constantine. He has real moments of decency. But just when you may think this isn't such a bad guy, he showcases another instance of unsavory behavior. That seems to be the story of his lifefleeting moments of hope, followed by swift slaps of grim reality that are mostly brought on by his own doing.
In the end, his brother, Nick, becomes the more likable character. We want what is best for Nick, just like Constantine does. Because of this shared goal, I want Constantine to succeed. I have never rooted harder for a character that I didn't really want to root for. That's all because of Nick.
Since this is sounding deeply dramatic, let me reiterate, this isn't a plodding sob story. The frantic pace, ludicrously rousing music and color scheme will make your eyes bug out and your hair stand up. Actually, you may literally stand up at certain moments because of the intensity.
See Good Time if you're up for an intense crime thriller. Just don't forget to think while watching. There's more to this movie than neon and techno.
Ingrid Goes West (2017)
The Actors Carry This Complicated Social Media Satire
Aubrey Plaza has a knack for choosing the right small, just off the radar indie projects. In the past, she starred in overlooked gems such as, The To Do List, Safety Not Guaranteed and The Little Hours, which came out earlier this year. Ingrid Goes West is her most recent indie gem, and perhaps her best.
Ingrid Goes West features Plaza as Ingrid (duh!), who has some umm let's call them social issues. She equates passing interactions on social media as meaningful friendships. These virtual relationships quickly turn into real obsessions.
Her latest target is a California Insta-girl named Taylor (played by Elizabeth Olsen, whose stock is rising rapidly of late), who responded to one of Ingrid's carefully thought out comments on her latest food photo. Taylor's winking advice to "check it out next time you're in LA" is all the incentive Ingrid needs. She grabs her backpack full of newly-received cash (no spoilers on how she got the money) and headed west to spy on Taylor/become friends with Taylor.
Through some mild stalking and other questionable behavior, Ingrid becomes fast friends with Taylor. Desperate to win and retain Taylor's affection through any means necessary, Ingrid takes advantage of her overly trusting landlord/next-door neighbor and Batman superfan, Dan (played by O'Shea Jackson Jr. who is about one more praiseworthy performance away from breaking free from people calling him "Ice Cube's son" and just calling him O'Shea Jackson Jr.) At first, Ingrid pays little attention to Dan unless she needs something from him. But he soon shows her that he's the only one that truly likes her for who she really is. It's the most heartfelt moment in a movie that often hides behind its humor.
Of course, with Ingrid things cannot remain rosy for long. She's a tornado of dysfunction and terrible decision making. Her dream world unravels and in the end the audience is faced with a rather confusing message about the value and dangers of social media.
The movie's stars make everything work. Give credit to first-time director Matt Spicer too, but it's hard to imagine pulling off this level of emotional vacillation with any other group of actors.
Especially in the opening 20 minutes or so, each passing moment evokes a new emotion so rapidly and seemingly randomly that it's almost as if Spicer was tossing dice and choosing a different emotion based on the roll. We dart between heartbreaking, heartwarming, hilarious, and shakily anxious. This is not a comfortable viewing experience.
We catch of glimpse of Ingrid's humanity early on and she remains empathetic throughout despite behaving in mostly distasteful ways. Plaza deserves commendation for her performance, which is both nuanced and unhinged.
Ultimately, Dan reigns as the most likable character, even if he may be the most naïve. In a story of full of phonies, he always stays true to himself. That has got to count for something.
IT Delivers the Scares and Humor in an Endlessly Fun Ride
Don't overthink it. Don't overthink IT.
That's a plea from the novel's author himself, Stephen King. He didn't want anyone to delve too deeply into analyzing this movie, so respect the man's wishes. He knows his work better than anyone else possibly could. After all, he wrote it.
I understand the temptation to explore the layers of IT. We see the themes of community, transitioning to adulthood, bullying, racism, friendship, yada, yada, yada. I'm telling youdon't fixate on that. Focus on IT. And by IT, I mean not only Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but also the embodiment of all your worst fears, everything that IT can be. Because that's what this movie is really about above all elsebeing afraid.
This 2017 adaptation of IT provides a litany of reasons to be afraid, not the least of which is Bill Skarsgard's terrifying, devious, vicious performance of the infamous clown. This is very much of modern version of Pennywise, equipped with special effects to illustrate his shape-shifting abilities and showcase his considerable power.
There's nothing cheesy here. Pennywise is only ever funny and charming as a means to lure children. The humor is intentional when it hits.
The most brilliant element of IT is its self-recognition. The movie (or its writers) understands that stories of this ilk (i.e. an unstoppable monstrous figure is killing people) are inherently kind of silly. Take Michael Myers, for example. Sure, his is scary, but he is also partly ridiculous and silly because it's ridiculous and silly to believe that a human child would ever turn into an unstoppable killing machine that has no reason for killing and also cannot be killed by gun shots or fire or seemingly anything else. The movie makers understand this and respond accordingly by embracing the silly: they make the unstoppable killer a dancing circus clown.
Now, I understand that to many people clowns are terrifying even if they aren't killing anyone. That's fair. Clowns don't really stir up those fears in me, but I find dolls endlessly creepy, so I get it. The fact remains that Pennywise most commonly takes the form of a clown, and clowns are silly. So, the movie also contains some appropriate silliness. The kids make crude jokes. A lot of them. Some of the things that Pennywise does blur the lines between silly and scary. Certain scenes, or at least certain moments within scenes, can be perceived as either scary or silly.
The movie navigates this blend of silly and scary brilliantly. The scares begin early and strike with ferocity. The jump scares come only as necessary; they do not wear out their welcome. There's also a satisfying sprinkle of disturbing images and prolonged stints of dread to deliver frights. Many of the scariest moments contain no surprise element. The movie simply presents a terrifying image then shoves in down your throat until you gag on the creepiness. If this sounds uncomfortable that's because it is.
After moments like those, the silliness provides a much-needed dash of comic relief to ease the tension. Other times the silliness lulls the audience into a false sense of security before slapping them in the face with something horrifying. This makes for an unpredictable and endlessly entertaining thrill ride.
Entertainment is the primary goal of this movie, perhaps the only goal. With that in mind, don't think too much about how absurdly useless or villainous the adult characters are portrayed. Don't think too much about the one-dimensional and token nature of many child characters. Most of all, don't think too much about how this movie is different from the book (books and movies are separate entities; of course they are going to be different!).
Don't overthink this movie. Just sit back and enjoy the silliness and scares. From the spectacular opening scene to the warm and comforting conclusion, this movie aims to entertain. It delivers.