Category Archives: film



(Quick note: This trailer is definitely not representative of the style of the film, though certainly of the feel. It’s a slower film than this presents and the stuff you see is even creepier and weirder in the actual film proper.)

Who’s This For?

Sci-Fi aficionados, anyone who wants to support strange and unique big budget filmmaking, anyone who really liked Ex Machina, fans of Andrei Tarkovsky, people who want to see something legitimately new on screen.

Who’s Gonna Be Turned Off?

Most general audiences, any fans of the book who expect total devotion, anyone who expected a traditional horror or thriller flick, anyone who’s not ready for a slow flick, anyone who’s watching right before bed

My Feelings!

It’s important first and foremost for those introduced to this through Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant book to understand that this is ABSOLUTELY in no way similar to the book. While it maintains the spirit of discovery and wonder and terror, the film takes an entirely different narrative direction. One that is equal parts easier to grasp narratively as it is harder and scarier to grasp thematically and more disturbing in its imagery. This is not guaranteed to be loved by those who loved the book, but I think anyone who enjoyed that will enjoy this movie as well.

The actual movie itself is a rare sort of achievement. Seeing it makes it very easy to understand why Paramount was so nervous about its release (especially after their insanely ambitious and artistically brilliant mother! so famously crashed last year [not before becoming my favorite film of 2017]). This is not an easy or pleasing film. It is ambiguous and difficult to comprehend and disturbing in a way few major films ever are.

The best comparison (beyond things like Stalker that this film directly cribs on or Arrival that this film shares a space with) is the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is infused in this film through the depiction of things that should not or could not be. Annihilation is filled with images of creatures and places and phenomenon that seem wrong, like their existence is a challenge to humanity. Terror in this film comes from trying to wrap your brain around how something might exist and the rejection of the forms that you see.

It is to director/writer Alex Garland’s credit that I can legitimately say that there are things in this film that I have not seen before, even a few things I actually don’t have the vocabulary to describe. Think the end of 2001, an ending this film’s last 20-30 minutes sits comfortably alongside. Garland’s incredibly steady hand (influenced heavily by Tarkovsky) keeps things carefully trained and unfolding just slowly enough to wrap your head around before you get a new challenge that plunges you deeper in. You may be confused, but you’re never lost, and that’s the sign of the great work Garland does here.

This is not a character-based movie, these characters exist as archetypes inside a world that’s engulfing them. There is no character development, they exist to serve a larger purpose. The cast does amazing with that, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez being marked as particular standouts. But if you’re seeking grand heroes, it’s gonna be hard to discover how little they matter but as vectors to something stranger and grander than they are.

This is maybe the best set of visual effects I’ve seen in a movie in sometime. What’s created feels natural to the world without ever looking obviously CGI’d while still maintaining just enough distance from reality. Kudos to the SFX and Production Design and Camera teams all around on this one, this is an impressive world they’ve created and some of what’s here still lingers with me.

Should You See It? 


I think it’s worth supporting any film made on this scale with this budget and this many ideas in its head. You want more things that are new and weird and fantastic? It requires your dollars. Moreover, it’s worth showing Paramount that things like this don’t have to be relegated to Netflix.

But beyond that, it’s worth it as long as you know what you’re getting going in. You’re getting something difficult and disturbing and divisive. Something that’s new to fans of the book and even newer to the general audiences coming in fresh. A whole lot of folks are gonna stream out hating this movie and you may be one of them.

But if you’re not, you get one of the most singular, jaw-dropping, chilling and mind-blowing cinematic experiences of the year so far. You get new images and new thoughts. You get something that will leave its print on you long after you’ve left the theater.

Grade: A+



The 15 Best Films of 2017

The most important question that any film must ask itself and that any filmgoer must ask themselves is “Why?” Why tell this story in this way? Why did I leave my house to go see this specific story being told? Why did I like that, why did I find that important to my life, why did I keep thinking about it? Why this film, this year?

For 2017, I had a fairly simple criteria. The “why” had to be “Because no one else could tell this story.” I looked for films that felt unique and exceptional. I looked for films that went above and tried to reach beyond what is to what could be. I looked for escapism in fantastic worlds, intense thoughts, and deep emotions. I looked for films to transport me to another world, to another mind. I looked for films that took a swing to land among the stars. These 15 did that.

15) Brigsby Bear

Creativity can and should be an act of kindness. Sharing some part of ourselves with the world around us is both asking for empathy and attempting to provide it. It’s a way of understanding the world and trying to work out our part in it, it’s that core belief that undergirds Brigsby Bear and makes it such a wonderfully remarkable little achievement.

Your mileage will of course depend on how much of writer/star Kyle Mooney’s anti-comedy shtick you can bear. There’s an awkwardness that feels genuine to every part of his interaction, a knowledge of how those truly isolated from society feel trying to interact with it, but it can be painful to watch someone on screen going through those growing pains.

But that’s what works about the film. It understands those growing pains as universal and finds the specificity in its bizarre little alternate world. The titular Brigsby Bear is a work of surprising cleverness and its steady outward growth and development provides a constant delight. It’s also rare that a year can boast two great Mark Hamill performances, but that’s what this film is good enough to give us.

Brigsby Bear is for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere but want to show people where they do.

14) Your Name.

The next Miyazaki is kind of a reductive term in Japanese animation (like calling anyone the next Disney), but let’s just say that I think Makoto Shinkai at least deserves the chance to carve the same path that Miyazaki had.

While he’s well into his career by now (and has made many great piece of animation), Your Name is the first movie that really stands to prove the great future potential of Shinkai. A fully realized and gorgeous work that feels like an old genre (body swap) made wholly original (now that would be telling), you see clearly why this film was the smash in Japan that it was.

It’s a rare accomplishment to write a story that goes from the intimate to the truly epic without ever feeling like it’s taking a wrong step. A tale across space and time that never loses sight of what’s on the ground, the snapshot of a time in your life where every possibility lays before you and you have no idea, where you uncover a world that’s larger than you could ever imagine.

Your Name tells a story we all feel on a scale we could only imagine.

13) Personal Shopper

Grief is an ever-changing process. It is something that no one can move through the same way, that no one has the same experience, but it is something that we must move through.

Personal Shopper shows one process of grief. Yours may not involve texting with a hostile-ish ghost, beautiful designer dresses, or being a medium. But Olivier Assayas’ haunting meditation is deeply recognizable in raw experience, in trying to move past something that has its claws dug into you, how to understand a loss that you haven’t reconciled with.

It helps that it has an all-timer of a performance by Kristen Stewart at its core. It’s important to never forget how much she’s turned her career around since the awkward early-20 something years to develop into one of our finest actresses. There’s an envelopment of the character, an internalization that she moves through in her own specific way to create something dazzling. She’s not creating the character, she is the character.

Personal Shopper moves through grieving in a way that makes us all understand.

12) Logan

America is heading towards collapse. We imagine it’ll look like The Road or maybe Escape from New York, but I know we won’t be that lucky. It’s more horrifying to imagine a world where things get steadily worse, but history keeps moving on. Humanity gets replaced, things get more desperate, the tentacles of control seize us without us knowing, the marginalized are shoved off.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate darkness at the core of Logan that has made it so resonant. James Mangold’s sweaty, fever-dream send-off to Hugh Jackman’s defining character posits a future where technology has increased late-capitalist desperation and where our own prejudice ends up swallowing up society whole. Jackman wears the weight of all that and the decades of violence that he has committed into his best performance, every moment and motion is a new agony informed by old pains.

Yet despite all that sorrow, Logan is at its best in the moments where it slows down. The moments of family, where Logan and Stewart’s Xavier get to just talk or enjoy a moment with Laura, Logan’s ersatz daughter. It’s a movie of atmosphere, willing to wear the weight of generations on its sweat-soaked shoulders.

Logan is a look into a future that we can prevent and a goodbye to the past we can learn from.

11) Colossal

It’s kind of rare that a movie ages well within the year it comes out. But as Hollywood had its dark underbelly turned up, Colossal‘s story of male entitlement and putting the pieces back together loomed larger and larger, much like the monsters contained within its movie.

Now, it is safe to say that no movie handled the Me Too moment (or pre-handled the moment) with more off-kilter wit or fun than Colossal did. Writer/Director Nacho Vigolando reamed a lot of bizarre humor out of Anne Hathaway’s exemplary performance and the increasingly strange situation she finds herself in. He manages to explore the actual sci-fi ramifications (she did technically kill people!) without ever feeling like it’s getting too lost in though, a deft handling of a difficult tone.

It’s that ability to handle tone that becomes more and more important as the film goes on, as Sudekis’ Oscar begins to become a more sinister presence and the film becomes a good v. evil story where one side is every dude who ever said the phrase “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Colossal is a story just a few months ahead of its time that’s funnier and weirder than it has any right to be.

10) Baby Driver

As a resident of Atlanta, I spend SO much time these days watching my city play anything but itself. It’s New York, it’s L.A., it’s Lagos. It’s hard to ignore that the Chinese restaurant that was down the street from me for 3 years has suddenly picked up and moved to Portland, Oregon. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you Edgar Wright for letting Atlanta be fucking Atlanta and showing the whole world why this is the coolest city.

Of course, it helps that the rest of Baby Driver is about as cool as movies get. Edgar Wright has carved a breathless blast of high-energy cinema, slick as a 70s Steve McQueen and singular as 60s French auteur. Baby Driver has every beat of film cut to a perfectly curated soundtrack, every bit of action designed like fine clockwork.

No film this year felt so alive and exciting and like a shot in the arm for popular cinema. Elgort’s Baby is gonna be in the heads of every young film fan getting behind the wheel for the first time.

Baby Driver is the kind of film that makes it a little more dangerous to drive down I-85, blasting “Bellbottoms” and trying not to get caught by the law.

9) The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro probably has done more for my love of film than anyone else. There’s a part of me that will always be the kid meeting him during the promotion for Hellboy in awe and just a little confusion.

But it’s the slow delve into his filmography and his love of monsters that pushed me forward. Del Toro is a filmmaker of supreme empathy, seeing the good and the beautiful in the grotesque. The Shape of Water is in someways the ultimate fulfillment of this, a movie where the outcast and the monster is the object of empathy and the beautiful lover and the man of society is the twisted murderer.

A film borne of a young boy wondering why Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t end up with the damsel ending up with the monster, The Shape of Water certainly makes some bold choices (including the one you’re wondering about). But the magic of the film is that it helps you understand all of those choices, believe in them, and become enveloped in them.

The Shape of Water believes in the good of monsters and the beauty of their love.

The Shape Of Water

Guillermo del Toro believes in the good of monsters.

There’s always been a beauty through which del Toro filters the grotesque and macabre. Through his eye, these creatures from the depths and horrors from beyond have an elegance and sense of awe that make them something more than a terror. They are animals or they are spirits and they have pain.

That warmth of spirit comes to the forefront in The Shape of Water, del Toro’s love-letter to Creature from the Black Lagoon and the mythologies and genres he grew up with. Anchored by incredible performance, technical brilliance, and a wealth of head and heart, The Shape of Water is a magical fairytale of a movie about people on the margins of society.

Set in the midst of the Cold War, government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings The Asset (Doug Jones), an amphibious humanoid creature, into a dark government research facility. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who spends her nights working at the facility alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her days sleeping and spending time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa finds a strange connection with The Asset, one that goes deeper than anyone could have imagined.

I don’t want to go much further, this movie takes more delightful and interesting turns than anyone might have expected but let me drop one fairly major story note. Not so much a spoiler, but something that will help you understand where it’s coming from.

They fuck.

The lady and the fish guy fuck.

I tell you almost entirely so you can understand what this story is. It’s a lovely fairytale, something beautiful and otherwordly. But it’s a frank story about things like desire and love and what it means to be human (or not).

This is, perhaps more than del Toro has ever been, a film that feels free creatively. It’s a film that, despite maybe being his smallest, feels like his grandest in thematic vision.

You have a story of those on the margins. A woman who cannot speak can only listen to the voices around her. A gay man seeking to find affection, a black woman who no one will listen to, and something beyond human that can’t communicate either. A story of those people shoved to the side and told they aren’t human, given voice and allowed to make their story.

It’s also a story of love and romance, but one without the sanded off edges. This is a film with and about sex. Elisa is a woman who has desires that are communicated frankly from early on in the film. It’s about centering those desires and understanding how someone can interact with that, how desperately we long for affection that understands us.

It’s about that darkness coursing under the American history, the people we shoved into the underclass and the swath of destruction we cut across the land. The people who tried their best to stop it and were killed along the way.

This is a story about so much and it would be easy to get muddled and get lost in all the threads crossing and weaving. Yet del Toro is an absolutely talented enough director to weave into a tale that feels primal and real.

His world is characteristically gorgeous. While one of the least fantastic locations his film has been set in, it’s made with the same level of grimy detail and tangibility that his others have. The Asset is an incredible piece of design, even pulling off of Abe Sapien as it does, it’s still a distinctive and living creature that Doug Jones flawlessly inhabits.

The performance all around is incredible. It’s worth instantly reiterating that Doug Jones is an incredible creature performer and Michael Shannon plays a terrifying monster just as well, inhabiting an all-American man pushed to the edge, something too real to not be scary. Spencer and Jenkins also turn out great performances, Jenkins’ kindly friend a particular highlight.

But this is Sally Hawkins’ movie and she FUCKING nails it. Not a word is spoken (minus a brief and lovely jaunt into a fantasy) but she conveys everything through her smile and her body language and the touch she gives others. She embodies a deep well of life experience and gives character to every motion. It’s a beautiful performance, an absolutely incredible character from an actress who’s made it clear time and time again how good she is.

Honestly, I’ve talked enough, The Shape of Water is a movie that exists in the theater. It’s a beautiful, honest and vital piece of cinema from one of the great living filmmakers. It’s worth letting it wash over you, the world of wonder and the world of monsters.

Grade: A


Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 7: Saoirse Ronan charms a night that gets better as it goes along


How’s the Cold Open?

Holy fuck this is bad.

It’s hard to talk week after week about how bored I am by Baldwin’s Trump and I not only appreciated the break but was sure that I would have warmer feelings when he returned.

But even if I did, one of the most obvious and irritating pieces of writing that they’ve come up with in sometime would have dashed all those quickly. I mean, look, Trump Christmas Carol is a premise so blatantly obvious as to be hackwork just do it, much less to do it totally earnestly without any real subversion.

It’s made all the worse by the sketch playing it as standard and woefully obvious recitation of “things Trump has done and said” in order to reach for clapter. That Conway “I got so drunk I told the truth line” or that Clinton “Lock Him Up” has no real comedy basis and no joke to it and within the sketch land like a wet thud, even if McKinnon is doing her best to sell it.

It’s just a broad and clunkily written sketch. It feels like all the worst SNL political tendencies in one sketch, buoyed by a fairly lazy impression. It’s like the sketch someone would write to make fun of the show, nothing hits, overly broad, doesn’t know how to end, and ultimately pointless and reassuring with no comedy.

Who’s Hosting?

Saorise Ronan is one of our finest young actresses, one destined for an Oscar shortly enough and one who I may not have suspected to be so ready for the SNL stage. But the same self-assured confidence of performance that makes her so great on film is what makes her work here. Ronan manages to never feel out of place or nervous and she’s actually acting and selling bits of comedy based on her performance. She’s game and really talented with this and I hope to see more of her doing comedy and more of her on SNL.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Welcome to Hell”

This is undoubtedly the sketch that’s going to have the most life outside of this episode and for good reason. The Ladies of SNL Music Video has been a mark of quality and a recurring sketch onto itself and this one is a fairly smart handling of the sexual harassment stuff. It’s centering reaction of the women and contrasting the bright bubblegum pop of the song and video to the real horrors described, stacking and building in just the right way and using the production design here so well. It’s a lot of fun and even if it could have used a little more energy, this is another great music video.

“Floribama Shore”

We should maybe be a little concerned about the increasing dropping of “Live” from SNL, but we can get to that later. This is a solid send-up of the mining of “middle-class affecting the lower-class reality show” that MTV found working around Jersey Shore. Great characters and details (Quartney, “Benghazi Truther in the Streets,” damn Aidy Bryant really owned this one) and the inclusion of Chris Redd’s sane person in the middle of the whole thing may be the funniest gag of the whole night (that shot of him packing in the middle of the party). And look at Luke Null getting a moment (more on him later).

“The Race”

Beck and Kyle sketches are this show’s truest and most consistent delight, the talent and the specificity are just so good. This is another example, a short that’s half sports-parody and half-80s pastiche parody that spirals so wacky that telling you out of context would just spoil it. Greta Gerwig cameoing is also real fun, she should host.

“Bachelor Auction”

Chad is one of the most odd recurring characters on this show, no voice and no backstory and no conceit but Davidson playing the dumbest possible version of himself. The joke is that everyone is ridiculously magnetically attracted to him for reasons they aren’t quite sure of themselves. This is the first live version but it absolutely plays right,

“Return Counter”

This is a “Parade of Weirdos” sketch and a fairly effective one. Like the Floribama Shore sketch, it’s just about getting those great little details in, what people think and do. McKinnon is probably the best of these at the end, even if Strong is definitely giving it the most effort in this one and is definitely my favorite by a mile.

“American Girl Store”

Mikey Day is getting good at finding these recurring bits, isn’t he? “Distracting Guy in the News Report” (I’m sure it has an actual name) is always a fun one and even if this one is a little more obvious, Day is playing it well and Ronan is underplaying so nicely.


“Aer Lingus”

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. I honestly laughed really hard for reasons I don’t understand. It’s slightly too surreal to just be “Irish jokes” and it definitely just kind of ends, but there’s such a great oddball quality to this one.

What Didn’t Work?

“Late for Class”

Woof. Let’s talk about this one for a second.

Clearly intended to try to give new castmember Luke Null a chance, it’s a really bold choice. A sketch that’s supposed to give no laughs for two minutes so that it can pull up at the end and turn things around and mine how uncomfortable the beginning of the sketch was.

But it doesn’t work. First, the fact that you’ve already bombed and set the audience against the sketch leads to some mild titters among the crowd when it turns around and a hostile atmosphere for the rest of the performance.

But I also think Luke Null doesn’t play it right. He overacts, hitting it too hard, feeling like he isn’t necessarily threading the needle between funny and uncomfortable. Which is hard, I get it, but it’s still what he’s being asked to do.

I feel bad that he took such a hard challenge, but it’s not a fun look to start him out with. Nothing he can do that Mikey Day or Alex Moffatt or Beck Bennett can’t.

“Saoirse Ronan Monologue”

$20 bucks if the monologue isn’t about her name.

It is? Then I got 20 bucks.

Weekend Update!

Boy, Jost and Che have really turned it around. Or the writers have at least. Che may have been weirdly a little off tonight, but there was plenty of great hits on the continuing sexual harassment scandals (comparing it to the Powerball numbers), Roy Moore (segueing out of the creepy YouTube kids videos), and hitting against the tax bill passed in the wee hours of the night. No all-timers, but a lot of strong hits.

Two correspondents this week.

Mikey Day and Leslie Jones return as the sexually adventurous married couple. It’s threaded and performed well with Day letting the passive-aggressive resentment sink in as Jones bashfulness occasionally gives way to her intense desires. Plus the “Stop Whining, Sandwich Boy” is such a good gag.

McKinnon adds another world leader to her repertoire with British PM (for now) Theresa May. While McKinnon plays her with the same able and nimble performance that she does Clinton, Merkel, Ginsburg, and others. But it doesn’t work with May, personally.

McKinnon’s specialty with these characters is taking straitlaced lady world leaders and creating an interesting and funny character out of them. Ginsburg as an insult comic, Merkel as a nerdy high school girl with a lot of crushes, Clinton as power-mad and ruthlessly competent. In other words, people who aren’t terribly funny becoming funny.

The problem is that Theresa May is a hysterical figure. Not intentionally, no. She’s an Armando Iannucci character, someone who believes they’re the only smart person in the room but proceeds to trip over their dicks all the way down the stairs. The person who called a snap election with a double-digit lead and proceeded to lose all of that and her majority to THE ABSOLUTE BOY/JEREMY FUCKING CORBYN and had to ally with insane Scottish reactionaries to barely cling to power as most of her party is waiting desperately to desert her. The character they’ve put together here is just not as funny or comedically interesting as the real person.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did not!

I haven’t heard the new album yet and wanted to wait.


Cecily Strong had a strong night, really going for it at a lot of turns, including stealing K-Mart straight from under the feet of every one else. Just a good solid night for a great performer.

Cecily Strong – 2
Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Heidi Gardner –
Kenan Thompson – 1
Chris Redd – 1

Final Thoughts!

A nice week! Saoirse Ronan is a great host anchoring a lot of strong performance-based sketches. “Welcome To Hell” is definitely going to have some legs here, but a lot of strong stuff here! A few duds, but nothing bringing down the night too much.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Chance the Rapper
  2. Tiffany Haddish
  3. Saoirse Ronan
  4. Kumail Nanjiani
  5. Gal Gadot
  6. Ryan Gosling
  7. Larry David

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

It would be improper of me to chide a bird for flying or to mock them for having feathers. It’s simply endemic to who they are, being a bird and all. But on the other hand, if a bird had ended up underwater and was trying to fly through it, we might pause to consider whether or not this was the best approach.

Martin McDonagh is a crackling wit of a screenwriter and a surprisingly effective director. He exists with that sort of Sorkin-esque style where he crafts a singular voice through which his dark, ribald sense of humor and profane dialogue flows through all of his character, creating a unified vision of misanthropic worlds comprised of people who swear at their families.

This exact approach is why In Bruges felt so fresh and Seven Psychopaths felt so fun and why Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri felt so much like slipping ass-first onto concrete during a victory lap.

Three Billboards is the most serious story McDonagh has told yet. The story of small-town Ebbing, Missouri and a mother, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Hayes lost her daughter, Angela, in a brutal murder and the police have come no closer to solving, no closer to bringing her justice.

So she puts a little pressure on and puts up three billboards. “RAPED WHILE DYING” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is the popular Chief of Police and he’s obviously not exactly thrilled about that sentiment being directed his way, especially as he’s dying and would like to end on a good note. Fortunately for him, most of the town is on his side, especially his second-in-command Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a controversial figure given his torture of a black man. But Mildred won’t back off.

Before I get into this, it is absolutely worth acknowledging that on every technical level, Three Billboards is the kind of success through which I absolutely understand why I’m the outlier here.

McDonagh’s penchant for directing actors has never shined through more than here. Much attention has been paid to Frances McDormand and even more attention is due. It’s a tour-de-force performance that kind of orbits the whole film around her gravity, all coiled rage ready to burst and lash out and leave just a raw, sad vulnerability at its core. She gets great moment after great moment from her dressing down a priest to a tender monologue to a deer that reminds her of her deceased daughter.

But Sam Rockwell is perhaps the secret weapon and surprise of the movie. It’s certainly a controversial figure, and we’ll discuss more of him later on. But Rockwell fills out the character so well, giving him such a heart and never excusing what he does, turning Dixon into a scumbag trying to do something decent for once in his fucking life.

McDonagh orients these great performances around a tightly constructed ensemble in a fairly tightly constructed film. It takes a few nice turns and keeps the drama moving along at a solid clip, reminding much of McDonagh’s theater background. But it’s not all just theater, Three Billboards really manages to pull off some gorgeous framing and shots, a lot of great quiet Middle America landscapes and great blocking of relationships between people.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri really is a great work of filmmaking and in a vacuum, it absolutely makes sense why McDonagh took on this story. A story of justice and mourning in America feels deeply relevant.

But…let me put forth…I don’t know if McDonagh’s style necessarily hits the story in the right way.

There is always a line between a story being told and the storyteller telling it. The best can absolutely merge themselves with any story. The best can also make any story told with their tongue. But even the best shouldn’t tell every story. Not every story should be told through every tongue, not every story translates properly.

McDonagh’s storytelling, his hyper-verbose and profane style, feels distancing from the raw emotion here and the difficult moral navigation. Far from stories of criminals and hitmen, the stories of real people make McDonagh’s style feel distant from humanity. It stands out more than ever that people just don’t talk like this. Which is fine, film is not and shouldn’t be reality.

When you tell a story that does strive for such reality though, it stands out when you distance yourself. You become an avatar of screenwriting contrivance, every moment standing out because it what technically is supposed to be there. The ugliness and sloppiness of real life feels lost here, such a dark story told by such a wicked wit.

It’s a movie that must show a mother half-joking that she hopes her daughter gets raped shortly before she does to give her a sense of guilt. It’s a movie where characters are complicated but their thoughts aren’t as to keep out of the way of the plot and of the style. Mildred has a streak of defiance, but her ideas about justice swing towards the point of the film. Dixon is a momma’s boy, but everything falls in line with what he does.

Three Billboards feels up and down like a contrivance, an attempt to make something McDonagh’s style is comfortable with without ever straining his emotional range or straining his thematic range.

Postscript thought:

Let me also add on a quick thought about Peter Dinklage’s character. Dinklage’s character has been on both sides of the discussion, an attack on the “Nice Guy” and the only decent person in the movie getting shit on at every single step. While I think it’s a rare misstep of characterization in this movie (McDonagh is ruthlessly clear on most of these), its bigger issue is how unnecessary this feels and how much he stands out. It’s a case of midget joke after midget joke with absolutely no nuance or purpose to it. There’s plenty of other moment where they point out how these folks are “un-PC,” a rare sort of meanness to a movie that doesn’t need it. In Bruges played it similarly right, here it feels like beating a dead horse.

That contrivance is perhaps what has so ended up grating about Dixon’s character to so many people. Trying to redeem a man who tortured black people would work in a movie that was maybe less darkly comic or had more complex ideas going on. But the contrivance here bends the arcs the wrong way, it makes Dixon’s redemption feel hollow, an idea rather than a fully implemented arc. Rockwell did a great job with a character that needs more work.

That’s what ends up being so disappointing about Three Billboards for me. It feels like a film that has all the best intentions and is so well-made and it ends up so misconceived. McDonagh is a talented filmmaker who swung at the wrong target here, not the storyteller who should tell this.

Grade: C

Lady Bird is a beautiful and true movie

The praise for Lady Bird deserves to start with a single detail. At two points during the movie, the song “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band plays as part of integral emotional moments. It’s a bonding for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), something that gets them into the same emotional space. It’s not just what a perfect period detail that is, but what it says about the ethos of this movie.

Dave Matthews Band is not cool. Steven Hyden talks about this at length a little more (I’m pulling this idea from him but it stood out so much I had to repurpose), but Dave Matthews Band is not the kind of band that associates with having the kind of music taste that people in teen indie movies want to have, usually opting for the references points of what people in their 30s think is cool.

But it’s absolutely the kind of music a character like Lady Bird would be into in that year in that time. Lady Bird chooses to make sure its main character feels real rather than turning her into some icon of cool, to find a reality that grounds her rather than an attempt to impress the aesthetic.

With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig hasn’t necessarily blazed a new path, but simply made an exemplary version of a classic story by sticking to what feels real to her, by sticking to a rawer truth. The result ends up being a supremely confident debut, a warm film with a ton of life and a keen eye for those little human interactions.

Lady Bird follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), known as “Lady Bird” the name she gave to herself. It’s a coming of age story in Sacramento in Lady Bird’s senior year, 2002-03. Lady Bird wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento and to the East, to New York where she thinks culture is, and away from her overbearing mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

And that’s your premise. Gerwig wanted a picture in the mold of The 400 Blows or Boyhood and in movies like that, the premise by necessity needs to be thin. You need room to expand and breathe and find all the little tangents that life goes down. Coming-of-age is a genre that functions as collage, all the little bits pulling together into a larger snapshot.

It’s about the people, first and foremost. Lady Bird is really great about capturing the deep flaws within people who are fundamentally good, not ever letting it diminish who they are and still letting what shines about them shine, both through writing and performance.

Saoirse Ronan takes the lead here and continues to prove that she’s one of the best young Hollywood stars. Her Lady Bird performance ranges from deliberately affected, trying to be something she’s not (a side-splitting moment as she tries to slide up on Lucas Hedges’ Danny), to achingly raw, cutting through the problems of teenagedom and learning who you are with a single question. It’s a truly great performance, one I hope gets the proper attention come Awards time.

But just as good is the character on the page she’s given. Lady Bird is the kind of character only the best coming-of-age movies fine. She’s absolutely nuanced, an intelligent and thoughtful girl capable of being cutting and selfish. Navigating the line is difficult, but Lady Bird never strays into her being unlikable or unrealistically good. She’s a person, Gerwig has created someone who feels real and who helps us understand the navigation of a difficult time in life. It’s not that it’s not angst, but it’s the kind of angst people actually feel.

You could easily write similarly about everyone in this movie, there’s a deep bench of extraordinarily well-written characters performed by great actors. Lucas Hedges has an Oscar in his future, let me tell you.

The other one who deserves to be singled out is Laurie Metcalf, playing Lady Bird’s mother Marion. In a way, this is her story too. Marion is coming to grips with her child moving on and with the difficulty of realizing that you have no way to actually grapple with the person your child is becoming. Metcalf does such a wonderful job of letting everything bubble just under the surface, of layering all her lines with the subtext and giving a really knock-out performance.

It’s easiest to talk about all the dramatic elements here, all the realizations and the grappling and the good and bad people. But Lady Bird succeeds because it weaves a warm sense of humor into the whole proceedings. Always good-natured and always ebullient, think the contributions that Greta Gerwig made to the work of Noah Baumbach without his inherent darker cynicism. There’s a lot of great little moments and asides, those that make you smile and those that make you sink into your seat knowing the horrifying embarrassment from your own life that you can map onto the experience.

Look, I’m just saying that I also tried to feel smart by reading a copy of The People’s History of the United States in high school and I didn’t get that shit until last year. So I feel you Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

And hey, Gerwig’s handling of all this is helped by the fact that Lady Bird is an incredibly finely made picture. A film that is handsomely shot, well-edited, and absolutely drenched in great period detail (given that we can now make movies in periods I lived through).

I also just have to appreciate any movie honest about financial struggle. Not making it a point, not showing “one bad day poverty” as some deep lamentation or some noble endeavor. Just there, just a part of it, just an extra obstacle to pushing through the month. Having grown up that way, I really appreciate the way Lady Bird conveys it.

Lady Bird is the kind of film that makes you excited to see the next one from an artist. A film that’s absolutely lovely, wonderfully true, a film that feels so specific that everyone can relate.

Grade: A

Justice League is a flawed and enjoyable-enough crossing of the finish line for the DC Film Universe

Far be it from me to ever give a movie too much slack, but it’s a minor miracle that Justice League isn’t a total 12-car pile-up. After all, this is a movie that had at least 2 major creative sharp turns during the course of it with the critical failure (albeit commercial success) of Batman v. Superman and the tragedy-laced departure of director Zack Snyder to be replaced by Joss Whedon, two directors who could not have styles more worlds apart. Had it been an absolute mess, we could have simply sighed, understood, and moved on.

So again, let reiterate the petite miracle that Justice League kinda works. It is by no means a rousing success. There’s enough flawed narrative and weirdly bad CGI to make sure that this falls just short of managing to come in for a smooth landing or even a landing where it doesn’t take some damage. But a better-than-expected set of characters and a more resonant thematic work helps make Justice League something that you can at least see steering towards a much better place, finally.

Picking up in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, the world has fallen into chaos. Its beacon of hope-

By the way, let’s take a brief early sidebar. In this film’s attempt to essentially right the ship of DC state, one of its most jarring (but very welcome) choices is to not only change the character of Superman, but to pretend that was how we always was. He’s not the controversial, complicated (like your bad high school boyfriend), and feared figure of Batman v. Superman. He’s a corny, charming and human hero that the world mourns deeply and falls apart without. I get the need to reboot without rebooting and I’m certainly happy they did it, but it is odd.

has gone out and darkness looms overhead. That darkness is in the form of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a general of Apokolips who has come to terraform in its vision. Standing in his way is Batman (Ben Affleck), who’s figured out the invasion is coming, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who knows the power of this ancient enemy.

Together, the two must recruit other superpowered individuals across the globe. From Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a troubled loner seeking solitude, to The Flash (Ezra Miller), an eager young man hoping to get his father (Billy Crudup), to Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former football star who was stitched back together with mechanical enhancements after a devastating accident.

Our scrappy group of heroes is perhaps the best thing about this movie. Of our returning (that I can talk about), Gadot has such a star quality, a charismatic screen presence who’s enrapturing to follow, and her Wonder Woman is a very classical sort of superhero, with shades of that fundamental decency and belief in good that Christopher Reeve had. Affleck’s Batman is still sadly underdeveloped, but he gets more room to breathe with the ability to make a dry joke or two and lighten the character up just a little bit.

But hey, you knew that. It’s the new ones you came to see, so let’s just run down them.

Ezra Miller has been a star on the rise since Perks of Being a Wallflower and here you see what he can do in a bigger picture. He gets to play a Spider-Man role, a young hero in awe of the adults around him trying to figure out his place. The effects for him could use some work down the road, but there’s an exciting quality to a superhero who doesn’t come in ready to fight, playing more with nervous energy than many of the characters around him have.

Momoa is functionally playing Aquaman at his bro-est, think a Zack Snyder version of The Brave and the Bold’s cheesy, over-the-top-at-all-times Aquaman. It’s an enjoyable enough performance, though underdeveloped given that he’s the reluctant member, filling in a role that Batman often plays in team-ups like this. If they given him more room with his place in Atlantis, we might really see something interesting.

Fisher is the newest actor here, so naturally anything he’s gonna do is the biggest surprise. Fisher is actually really good here, giving Cyborg a little more substance than the Frankenstein monster he’s written as. There’s a cool, calm relaxed assurance to his character, something I wasn’t expecting but that Fisher really sells.

And perhaps most importantly, Justice League gets a team dynamic right. While Steppenwolf may not necessarily be the threat the movie needs (is he really that much more powerful than Ares?), there’s a sensible dynamic that brings them together. If The Avengers are a team of the personally flawed who had to get over themselves, then the Justice League (never called that in the movie) are a team of the tragic who have to move on. Each of them has lost something and they have allowed it for too long to consume them who need to save a world that has lost something and been consumed by it.

Justice League is essentially a movie about how those around us can help us move through tragedy. How the depths of despair can be escaped with a hand reaching down.

It’s a shame how much it gets right because the disastrous production got just enough wrong to keep it from really succeeding as it should be able to.

Steppenwolf may rank as one of the worst comic book movie villains period, down around Malekith the Accursed or Enchantress. His motivations are completely muddled, his threat is unclear, and the mythology behind him is only glancingly referenced, avoiding the substance an obscure villain like Steppenwolf would need. The lack of physical presence from Steppenwolf is noticeable too, an all-CGI character might be fine…

If it wasn’t for the weirdly terrible effects work in this film. I get that reshoots likely forced a lot of quick fixes, but the sheer amount of CGI might also come some way towards explaining why none of it felt focused on. Terrible green-screen, a lot of clearly visible actor replacements, maybe one of the most jarring human effects I’ve ever seen, and Steppenwolf himself looks plasticky and fake, like someone’s having an action figure fight the Justice League. Cyborg also falls victim to this from time to time, his design is just too busy to really look good. There’s a very substandard quality to something that takes up so much of this movie.

Which’d be fine if this film worked well narratively. To its credit, Justice League fixed Batman v Superman‘s pacing problems. This is a snappy, fast-paced narrative that’s always got something happening. The problem is that it’s got it happening way too fast. The jump from moment to moment can be jarring, much of the actual machinations don’t hold up to much scrutiny (I’m sure), and there’s a lot of introductions to people that only matter for a scene.

We’re given an early moment to a terrorist group led by Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) that Wonder Woman defeats. They get introduction, a monologue, and a whole action sequence and then are unceremoniously dropped without any explanation of why they got that much time. There’s multiple things like this throughout the film that just don’t work.

Plus your mileage will absolutely vary on the mechanics of the writing. Between Terrio and Whedon, the dialogue is…corny. This one feels like a Saturday morning cartoon more than anything else, and not necessarily the Bruce Timm cartoons. Your enjoyment of this film is really going to depend on how the film’s sense of humor works for you and how much you can get over some clunkers.

I’ll say this much. I could vibe on Justice League‘s sense of humor and the clunkers didn’t bother me much. There’s an entertainment value to this movie that works, character moments and beats and sequences that really do soar and get the fist pumping. This is the worst superhero movie this year, but it’s more the fault of the quality of the rest rather than simply the issues here.

Justice League is an enjoyable enough ride and one that steers the DC ship in the right direction. It feels like a purge of the universe that came before it and the creation of one that may be far more sustainable. One more full of heroes that want to do good and a world that is worth saving.

Objective: C
Subjective: B