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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

 

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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

A24 Double Feature: The Florida Project and The Killing of A Sacred Deer

The Florida Project

What do you do when a film whistles just past you?

The Florida Project, director Sean Baker’s tale of the disaffected and forgotten poor on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, is by all means a work of raw and honest beauty, something wonderful and deeply humanist in a way that absolutely deserves to be as celebrated as I can imagine this film will be.

Yet I must confess that something didn’t quite hit right for me about this, didn’t take that extra step from being a great made film into be something truly special. The Florida Project is a wonderful movie, yes, but what’s missing?

It’s not the cast, for sure. It’s a largely unknown/non-professional cast minus a few familiar faces, most notably Willem Dafoe playing the manager of the motel our main characters live in.

The story revolves around children, Brooklynn Prince playing a young girl named Moonee is our star, and yet all of them feel only as affected as children do. The performances don’t have that child actor showiness, but they still retain the artificiality that children naturally have, trying to figure out words and posturings they don’t know how to use just yet. Prince is particularly extraordinary, the perfect eyes to a world of wonder.

It revolves around the adults who raise them too. Their actors are all equally extraordinary. Newcomer Bria Vinaite, playing Moonee’s mom, is a powerhouse standing right alongside Willem Dafoe, giving maybe his most likeable performance ever. These are people who feel real in their quiet desperation, in the need to just get by day by day.

All of that is thanks to the filmmaking of Sean Baker, quickly becoming one of our best filmmakers telling stories of the forgotten people. The Florida Project really is a gorgeous-looking film, finding the wonder that children must in these dirty and dilapidated urban places. There’s an honesty to it that never loses a belief in the humanity.

The film is funny and charming and really deeply affecting in how much it loves and believes in the misfits that occupy its frames. Baker knows what it means to actually care about these people like few filmmakers do, never coming down to the level of tourist.

I mean all these nice things, truly. But I want to throw back to the film Sean Baker did right before The Florida Project for a quick point of comparison.

Tangerine, his iPhone-shot film about two transgender prostitutes (Alexandra and Sin-dee) in LA during Christmas, has a moment at the very end of the film where Alexandra takes off her wig and offers it to Sin-dee while she’s cleaning her own. It’s a raw and very vulnerable and beautiful moment, something so specific and such a moment of human kindness that feels like it peels back the layer of film artifice and feels like you’re watching this real moment of kindness.

The Florida Project never really has that. There’s a similarly honest feeling to the whole film, but never the moment that really digs down to be honest and raw. And it leaves the whole film feeling as though it tells an honest story in an artificial way. Never finding that moment where it can get real. Perhaps that’s where it just barely misses my heart.

Grade: B+

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It’s rare for any year to yield a film as divisive and distancing and engrossing and fascinating and sickening as mother! It’s even rarer for a film to yield two films that you walk out of imagining that there’s a very real chance 95% of the audience hated it. But that’s 2017 for you.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly not as jaw-droppingly audacious as Darren Aronofsky’s middle-finger masterpiece, it’s something just as difficult and insane to grapple with, something mythological and terrifying and confusing.

It’s hard to quite grasp what happens. Colin Farrell is Steven, a successful doctor married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an equally successful doctor, with two children. Steven has also befriended a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The two have a past that seems to revolve around the death of Martin’s father as Steven operated on him.

Martin seems to blame Steven for it, and for not marrying his mother (Alicia Silverstone) and giving him a family, and chooses to take his revenge. Steven must kill one of his family or they will all succumb to a mysterious illness that may or may not be caused by Martin. It’s unclear.

An off-putting enough premise, but filtered through the Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) lens it becomes something truly bizarre. The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to eschew human belief and action totally, turning them into living embodiment of the avatars of narrative. Lanthimos characters are bizarre and stiff, like a robot pretending to be human, and it makes an off-putting story into something bizarre and hypnotic.

It helps that Lanthimos has such an incredible grasp and control of what he wants to do that it keeps all that from spiraling out of control. That bizarre detachment of his character is his whole world, something perfect and pristine in arrangement and design, terrifying in its coldness and threatened by somebody who is all willingness to tear the perfection down.

Farrell and Kidman are great in this film, no surprise. Kidman is having a banner year and Farrell is having a late-career renaissance, Lanthimos’ ability to pull really reserved and mannered and complex characters out of him contributing to that. But the real surprise is Keoghan, playing perhaps the most terrifying villain of the year. He somehow manages to make his very presence unnerving, yet its hard to understand the true nature of his evil. He is something twisted and unknowable, all the scary for what we imagine he must be thinking as what is revealed.

Lanthimos has created something uneasy, something so pitch black that terror and comedy feel intertwined in the sheer ambiguous insanity of a work like this. He leaves no questions answered and seems to revel in making his viewer actively uncomfortable. A slightly-dragging second act notwithstanding, Lanthimos manages to keep such thrall over this bizarre world that you don’t mind how little he does to solve it, you suspect that was never the point.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is perhaps one of the most deeply unsettling things you’ll see this year (besides the aforementioned mother!). Its actual value is certainly going to be evaluated on a personal basis but undeniable is that Lanthimos swings for the fences to create something truly dark, truly disturbing, and truly worth watching.

Grade: A

Murder on the Orient Express is a delightful but adequate retelling of an old tale

On one hand, Murder on the Orient Express is a story so basic with an ending so known at this point that I don’t even have to summarize what’s going on because basically everyone else knows and because of that it makes impossible to justify doing yet another big budget version.

On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh’s mustache has a mustache.

Sooooo…

At a fundamental level, Murder on the Orient Express really only ever amounts to a Kenneth Branagh vanity project that some famous folks agreed to come along on. Branagh wanted to play Hercule Poirot, 20th Century Fox wanted a live-action fall 4-quadrant hit, and everyone else wanted a paycheck.

But you know, there have absolutely been worse reasons to make a movie.

I think it’s become apparent I’m of two minds on this movie, a kind of weird split drawn between my critic brain and the lizard part of my brain that just wants to be entertained. So let’s argue between them.

I said that this was a vanity project for Branagh to play Hercule Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express fundamentally conveys what must have so deeply appealed to him about playing it. Branagh’s Poirot is an absolute and total delight to watch. Not just the mustache (which is truly something else), but the absolute exacting confidence with which he plays the character. It steers away from the antisocial genius portrayals of characters like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and makes him someone simply too connected with humanity and able to see deep into it, someone too connected with the rights and wrongs and hearts of the world. He’s the best thing by a mile and carries the movie at basically all times.

But you know, a Branagh vanity project doesn’t necessarily mean he has to do everything, not at his level. Branagh also directs Murder on the Orient Express and he certainly does able work, especially with his actors, always a specialty for a director like Branagh. But outside of some great landscape shots (thanks to the 65mm he shoots on), the film feels just too inert and stagy. It’s big-budget but it seems like it just allowed them to use a lot of CGI and green-screen to make a film that’s directed around people in a false background, a train that never actually exists or becomes a location for this story. A director who might have not needed to spend so much time in front of the camera may have been a better hand for this one.

But hey, it’s not all about Branagh. This is a cast of great actors and most of them are having a good enough time to keep watchable. Michelle Pfeiffer is having a hell of a comeback year and she’s definitely the stand-out in this one, but plenty of props deserved to the cast for putting in the effort here.

It’s just a shame that they don’t really have more to work with. The biggest problem here is that with a known quantity story like Murder on Orient Express, it’s really gonna live or die on the substance of the characters leading you through the subterfuge to make you forget you know the answer.

Yet minus Pfeiffer, no one really gets too much substance. A few big scenes here and there, but I’d be hard-pressed to recall anything about them besides the plot movements they go through. It’s hard to stand out when you’ve just not got much to work with. It’s all fine and enjoyable in the moment, but nothing leaves an impression.

Also Johnny Depp continues to be just slightly too much at any given time and Leslie Odom Jr. and Olivia Colman are both great actors who are criminally underserved in this movie.

But speaking of the already-known plot, I will say that even if the characters don’t quite nail it, screenwriter Michael Green handles the narrative fairly well. The twists and turns all feel fairly natural and the lack of audience clues feel like a feature (only Poirot can piece it together) rather than an accident. It’s easy enough to follow along and enjoyable enough to watch. It’s old-fashioned and slow in just the right way, along for a ride but never feeling overly modern in a way a story like this should be.

Though, you know, maybe there should have been some updates. Outside of a lesson about justice, it feels like the thematics here are never really dug into or updated in any real way. There’s honestly just nothing new here. The film brings up race a few times but throws it right out the door about halfway through. No real new ideas or morals or stories are injected into the text, it’s too faithful for all that.

After all that, what do I end up actually thinking of Murder on the Orient Express? It’s got great actors, but no real characters for them to play. An engaging plot that we already know with the ability to make you forget you know it but nothing under the surface to find new. A vanity project that maybe was a little too vain.

I think it all amounts to something perfectly enjoyable but nothing special. A rainy Sunday afternoon, a half-watched TBS movie while you’re preparing dinner, and a pretty agreeable movie for everyone to see during the holidays.

I had a good time! I liked it! But there’s the talent here to aspire to more.

Grade: B-

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok is an absolute delight

Taika Waititi is a genius and the fact that it took Hollywood so long to give him a large budget and free reign is a mistake that can only be rectified by giving him both of those things in the years to come.

This isn’t so much a statement inspired by Thor: Ragnarok as a statement that would have been true basically no matter what else he had done. But Thor: Ragnarok does provide central proof to my thesis being a film that sails in simply how much of a delight it is. A psychedelic, candy-coated heavy metal fantasia with a surprising layer under the surface, it’s just refreshing to sit back and have something to really enjoy. It’s still Marvel, yes, but it’s Marvel with a little extra spice.

Picking up after Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron set Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a journey through space searching for the Infinity Stones and leaving behind his home on Asgard. In his absence, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken on the identity of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and is ruling Asgard.

Thor’s return to Asgard exposes Loki and also sets Hela (Cate Blanchett) on a war-path to retake Asgard and conquer the universe. And also sets Thor and Loki adrift in space to land on the planet of Sakaar, a world ruled by the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor must fight his way off the planet with the help of the roguish Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who has no interest in helping, and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who ended up on this planet in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron and became the champion of the Gladiator games, so that he can save the people of Asgard.

You can’t talk about a film like this without talking about in the context of the larger franchise around it first and foremost. Thor: Ragnarok stands apart a little bit, as the Thor franchise sort of always has. Thor has never been the most connected character, if mostly because like the Guardians of the Galaxy his adventures take place far away from Earth.

But Thor: Ragnarok connects with its surrounding universe in slightly more substantive ways than the last two have. Not so much in plot threads (all of that’s pretty well-explained for any third movie in a trilogy in part of a massive mega-franchise), but in those nice little references that get a little extra “oomph” with their callbacks.

Take the first moment that Loki sees the Hulk in this movie, not knowing that he is the Grandmaster’s champion. Hiddleston’s sheer stomach-dropping terror is a great little touch to cut back to (considering we know what happened the last time he ran into the Hulk…)

and there’s an extra little oomph later on when Loki cheers after Hulk does the same thing to his brother. Not only for the repeat, but because we know the relationship that has been developed between Loki and Thor, that Loki feels Thor was always somewhat sheltered from the things Loki had to deal with.

There’s also storytelling that works because we’ve gotten to know these characters for so long. In the first Marvel film directed by a person of color, Thor: Ragnarok manages to seat a pretty fascinating little discussion of the legacies of imperialism and colonialism and the way our history paints over them. Hela is imperialism personified, Odin shoving her and her blood-thirsty ways under the rug and literally covering up the history of their conquest.

But it works so well because we know this world, we’ve gotten to know Odin as the kindly old father-king and we know the glowing utopia of peaceful warriors. Seeing how it was built, seeing the horrors needed to build it only has the impact because we had the history.

Thor: Ragnarok is full of those little touches, little shout-outs that feels based in the world they’ve been building. Not alienating in its density, but just character moments and jokes that work because there’s some history behind them. Think more TV show, less movie franchise.

Which could be insulting, but Thor: Ragnarok definitely isn’t scaled like a TV show. On the contrary, Thor: Ragnarok perhaps smartly scales things up bigger than the Thor films have up until now. Mainly by trading its Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones influences for Jack Kirby, heavy metal album covers, and Heavy Metal.

While Asgard keeps its Rivendell look, a massive chunk of this film takes place in the candy-colored twisting Sakaar, filled with bizarre creatures (think Guardians of the Galaxy aliens) and towering structures. The costumes are more colorful and elaborate and the world feels more packed with detail, it’s a welcome injection of psychedelia into a franchise that’s often struggled with its identity.

It also helps that it turns out the amazing work Taika Waititi has done on a smaller scale really does translate to blockbuster filmmaking. His control of the image on the smaller scale translates to a splash-page ability on the big screen that makes a few really great compositions (there’s a shot of Thor flying across a lava planet chased by a dragon that is just *mwah*) in a franchise that often lacks visual distinction.

But more important is Waititi’s control over his actors and their chemistry and relationships. Thor: Ragnarok runs directly up to the line of comedy and it seems to let many of the long-running actors spread their wings more than anyone else.

None more than Chris Hemsworth, a comedic actor in a leading action hero’s body. Getting the chance to play a more overtly comedic character creates a more natural performance for Hemsworth and one that feels like he’s not trying so hard to occupy whoever this person is and out of that flows a much more natural conception of things like his royalty or his strength. But it also helps Anthony Hopkins, who finally feels like he’s not phoning it in, and Tom Hiddleston, who locks into the idea that it’s super funny when dignified people have comedy to them. It’s funny when a guy falls down a manhole, it’s funnier when that guy is wearing a monocle.

It’s the new supporting cast that really makes Waititi’s work stand out though. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is an unabashed show-stealer, playing the fallen warrior as a Han Solo-type, slowly regaining her belief in anything. It’s pure swagger from the moment she walks on screen and Thompson’s screen magnetism is never more on display than in her brilliant opening scene.

You’ve also got the great Cate Blanchett playing Marvel villain by way of Gloria Swanson which honestly stirred up all kinds of feelings in me. She’s only slightly surpassed in her scene devouring by Goldblum’s Grandmaster, playing as much Goldblum as he can. Karl Urban does a great turn as the morally conflicted Skurge and I also absolutely must give a shout-out to Waititi himself as Korg, the quietest revolutionary.

Thor: Ragnarok is simply a firework, a burst of fun and excitement and visual delight (with a few caveats, that Norway scene oof). So worth escaping into, so worth the attention that Taika Waititi has always deserved.

Grade: A-