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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Category Archives: 8-8.5/10

I, Tonya (2017)

Goodfellas on ice.

In the early-90’s, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was one of the premier figure-skaters in the country, let alone, the world. She was popular, talented, driven, and oh yeah, a lot different from the prissy, overly-attractive skaters out there. It’s why the judges didn’t love her so much and felt as if she wasn’t the face of the figure-skating world, despite her being the best in the game and clearly deserving of a spot on the Olympics team. It’s also what Tonya’s husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), thought too, and it’s why he decided to take matters into his own hands, therefore tarnishing Tonya’s good name and professional career forever. But in a way, it was destined to always be this way, according to her mother (Allison Janney), who never let up on her for a single second, no matter how young and/or inexperienced she may have been.

Uh oh. Look out, girl! Here comes the swing!

One of the most important takeaways from I, Tonya is that, above all else, it makes you look at and view Tonya Harding in a different light than I think has ever been done so before. For almost two decades now, Harding’s name has been used as a punchline for something, in all honesty, she never did or even had a hand in; she’s always claimed innocence, but honestly, no one ever wanted to listen. Most people thought she truly was a jealous, evil and maniacle woman who saw what she wanted, saw that she wasn’t going to get it, and decided to do what she could to take away from said person who was going to take it away from her.

I, Tonya, in a way, proves differently. It shows us that Harding had nothing to do with it and even if she did, was she a tad bit justified? Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers come together in a very interesting way, in that they don’t ever argue the authenticity of this tale, but argue whether it’s sad and depressing, or over-the-top and hilarious. Or, in a way, is it a little bit of both? Can it be a little bit of both?

In other words, I, Tonya is a tragic-tale that often times, can get played for laughs a little too often, but it’s never, ever boring.

One main reason for that is because the movie never seems to ever settle down, no matter what. Gillespie’s direction is pure-Scorsese in that it’s quick, fast-on-its-feet, and always giving us something new to chew on, at least every five seconds or so. Even the plot-device of having the story told to us by a few different interviews and viewpoints, makes the movie all the more exciting as we’re getting to know the full story of what happened, who did what, who’s to blame, and hell, why any of it matters. I, Tonya is the kind of biopic that could have easily been boring and a little too long for someone like Harding, but as Gillespie and Rogers show, we realize that there’s much more to this story and how it still relates to our world today.

See, one of the main discussion-points behind I, Tonya isn’t whether or not Tonya did it; we already know that she didn’t and we’ve all moved on. What the movie shows us is that the way Tonya’s life was lived, both on and off the rink, mattered a whole lot more to the judges than what she could actually pull-off. She was, as they say, one of the best figure-skaters in the world at one point, however, the judges didn’t like the way she looked, acted, or who she went to bed with and while her life and actions weren’t perfect, the movie argues that none of that should have mattered. Her personal life may have been an absolute wreck and in-shambles from day one, but it didn’t take away from her ability to skate the hell out of her opponents, so why should anybody else care but herself?

Would you really expect a woman with that hair to be a nice, generally-pleasant member of society?

It’s an interesting argument that, unfortunately, gets muddled underneath all of the wacky and crazy hijinx that ensue everywhere you look.

And it’s why I, Tonya, despite being an altogether entertaining and compelling look at Harding’s life, also feels a little off, tonally speaking. Scenes of Harding getting her teeth kicked-in by her husband, while awfully disturbing in nature, are played for chucks here when they shouldn’t; even the times when it seems like her mother’s going too over-the-top with her intimidation, the movie decides to play up an obvious song-cue from whatever retro-playlist it can find. I admire the direction Gillespie takes, in that he makes material like this, literally pop off the screen, but it comes at a price and it’s that it sometimes feels like we’re not fully getting the story of Tonya Harding that we, as well as her, should be treated to.

That said, Margot Robbie is absolutely amazing in this lead role, so that has to at least accounting for something, right? And yes, it does. Robbie’s becoming more and more of an interesting actress as she’s not only taking on roles that take away from her sheer stunning beauty, but that also challenge her more emotionally as an actress; she did it last year in Suicide Squad as the downright insane, but bubbly Harley Quinn, and she does it so here, with equally as much power. As Tonya Harding, we see a sad, tortured soul who just wanted love, acceptance, and to be considered one of the best in the world, but because of mediating circumstances surrounding her life, she just never got what she wanted. Robbie’s plays up this sadness and this desperation so well, that by the end of the movie, when everything has settled and the tone is cooled-off, we truly do see a battered, beaten, and broken-down human being. We feel for her and although we don’t love her, we sure as hell root for her.

And it’s easy to when you’re played by Margot Robbie, someone who is closely becoming one of our best actresses around.

Same goes for Allison Janney who, for what seems like the first time in forever, is given a role in a movie that’s up-to-par with the constant skills she shows on TV. As Tonya’s mother, Janney steals every scene as this mean, cruel, and downright nasty woman who always challenges her daughter to do better, isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind, and push all those around her. It seems phony and like a made-up character, but by the end, we realize that this woman’s real and it makes Janney’s performance all that more impressive. Same goes for Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, an idiot who we learn to grow some sympathy and heart for over the film even if he is, in the end, just another man who took the main-prize from Tonya Harding’s life.

Like all men do to the successful women around them. Nice going, fellas. Way to make us all look bad.

Consensus: The tone is a bit wobbly and all-over-the-place, but I, Tonya benefits from some great performances, and an electrifying pace that hardly ever slows down.

8 / 10

That’s how it starts. And unfortunately, ends.

Photos Courtesy of: NEON

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Wormwood (2017)

The government lies? Say no more!

It was a cold, winter night in 1953 and Frank Olson, an American biological warfare scientist and CIA employee, was found dead on the sidewalk, just below his hotel window. The idea was that he through himself, due to paranoid visions, depression, and a general sense of craziness somewhere in his mind. However, as the years have gone by, and more information has come out, there’s been more mystery surrounding the death of this man. Now, many decades later, his son, Eric, is telling the story the way he sees it, with all sorts of shady characters coming in and out, information being swept under the rug, conspiracy theories, and oh yeah, lots and lots of LSD.

PIGS!!

Wormwood is typical-form for Errol Morris, one of the greatest living documentarians we have around. At first, Wormwood seems like a simple case of a man, pushed to the edge of his own mind, having to kill himself and get rid of all the pain, anguish, and general craziness that overtook his mind. But as time goes on, and the story continues to develop, we realize that there’s something much more complex, more dangerous, more scary, and more upsetting than that. If anything, it’s a case of another man wrongly killed for the sole sake of the government possibly protecting its ass and making sure that there are no loose-ends.

Then again, maybe not.

The real genius surrounding Wormwood is how it never seems to really center in on one theory, idea, or theme about where it’s headed, what it’s story’s about, and just exactly we’re supposed to learn from this whole story being told to us. Morris is such a smart director that he allows for Eric to tell the story, the way he sees fit, and sort of allows us to draw our own conclusions about this man, his father, what happened, and who exactly to trust. It’s a smart choice on Morris’ part, as this could have easily been a generic-affair, where it was clear where the story was headed, what surprises we were going to get, and especially, all told by a guy we didn’t care about.

But that’s the thing: Eric Olson is actually a pretty interesting guy, in such an odd way. He’s clearly dorky and a little weird, but like his father was before his untimely death, he’s not crazy. Sure, he’s got conspiracy-theories rolling all over his head and he’s sure as hell willing to talk about each and every single one that he sees fit, but he also knows and understands that even he can get a little far-fetched with his theories, too; one theme surrounding Wormwood is how Eric, after decades and decades of not letting this go and searching far and wide for the truth, somehow needs to just let it go.

“Dear Diary. S**t’s ‘effed-up.”

He knows this, but he just can’t stop and absolutely won’t stop. Why? He believes an injustice has been done and so does Morris.

And it’s why Wormwood, despite its long running-time, and often times, annoying reenactments done by a great ensemble, it’s worth the ride. So much information gets tossed at us, but Morris knows how to settle it all down to where we can keep up, join this so-called “adventure”, and come to our own conclusions of what really happened, what didn’t, and what we are, or not, being told from daddy government. It’s just solid investigative journalism and in a day and age where all of that is being threatened by scared politicians, it’s a nice reminder that it still exists in a world such as this.

Let’s just hope it sticks around and especially, with Morris leading the charge.

Consensus: Even with it being nearly four-hours or so, Wormwood is a spell-binding, thrilling, and rather complex tale of intrigue, family-relations, and government-conspiracy that seems to get more and more interesting, the more we learn and think about it.

8 / 10

It’ll be okay, Frank. I think.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Whose Streets? (2017)

Sign o’ the times.

After the killing of an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American by the name of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, people were just about ready to explode. Years and years of corruption, racism, unlawful and unjustified killings, cover-ups, and systemic violence, were all beginning to catch up now and it was up to a community to stand up, use their voices, use their phones, use their cameras, use their social-media accounts, and most of all, used their fists, to not just get their points across, but spread the word to the whole world: Black Lives Matter. And thus, a powerful entity was created, bringing along all sorts of different activists from around the world, all together for once and a lifetime, to prove that enough is enough. Even if, unfortunately, their voices may not get them anywhere except to another jail-cell.

Say it loud!

Whose Streets?, despite it being a perfectly solid, compelling, and sometimes shocking first-hand account of the BLM movement and protests, it also can’t help but feel very of the moment and a little incomplete. Then again, I guess that’s a general problem with a lot of these documentaries; they capture a moment, a point in time, and a popular-issue, that feels like it’s still unraveling as we go on. It’s like when Concussion came out a few years ago, focusing on the issues of head-injuries in the NFL and the possible lawsuits that came, but still felt like it was a little too early on the button.

Maybe some time could have been taken to make it more relevant? Or maybe, it’s just too hard to actually do that? Especially when you’re co-directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis who seem to knew that they were sitting on some golden-footage, had something of a narrative to worked with, and didn’t really care about timelines, or junk like that. They just wanted their movie out for the whole world to see, understand, and take notice to.

Who says activism can’t be a little fun?

Which is what every person who cares about humans-rights in the world should be doing, but sadly, they don’t.

Because what Whose Streets? does is that it helps inform those idiotic, right-wingers who go on and on about how “BLM is offensive to all lives and blue lives”, when in reality, that’s not true. The movie shows why they aren’t protesting the idea of white lives mattering; the message/idea is that those lives do matter, AS WELL AS black lives. It’s an easy solution and answer to what seems to drive so many stubborn people crazy, when in reality, it shouldn’t and Whose Streets?, with some awfully unsettling, but all too relevant images and videos, reminds us why these issues matter.

But most importantly, it reminds us that these all go beyond just fighting an incredibly corrupt police-force and judicial-system. It’s mostly about coming together, locking arms, standing as one, and not letting those at the top, separating us and making us forget that we are one and the same, regardless of age, race, gender, political-beliefs, or general background. We all bleed red, want our country and our planet to be safe from evil-doers, and most of all, we want people to stop being killed in the streets, without any rhyme, or reason, or even a slap on the wrist for said killer.

Especially if those being killed in the streets are young, unarmed black kids. Get it together, cops. As well as America.

Consensus: Even if it can’t help but feel incomplete, Whose Streets? is still an effective piece of work because it doesn’t forget to inform, but remind us what’s worth fighting for, and not backing away from the honest pains and truths of this kind of great activism.

8 / 10

Yes.

Photos Courtesy of: Magnolia Pictures

The Shape of Water (2017)

Further proof why we need to save our oceans.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, lonely woman who lives by herself and generally has a calm, care-free, and quiet existence. Her best friend is also her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who also happens to be gay and wanting desperately to come out of the closet, yet, with this being early-60’s Baltimore, few things like that are ever heard of. Still, Elisa gets by with her job as a cleaning-lady at a top-secret, government-testing facility, where she mops and cleans up mostly everything. But then, one day, her suspicions get the best of her when she notices a strange fish/person/thing (Doug Jones), that the facility has in its own safe keep so that the Russians can’t get it. What they want to do with it, or what’s going to become of it, they don’t really know, but the security-guard keeping watch over it (Michael Shannon), knows that he wants to make its life absolute and total torture. But Elisa doesn’t like this and sees a little bit of herself in this creature, making their relationship stronger and more passionate as the days go by and the danger of their lives near closer.

Good friends live disheveled lives together.

In all honesty, Guillermo del Toro is a writer/director I respect and admire more than I actually like. Mostly all of his movies work for me, they’re beautiful, put-together exceptionally well, and feel like the creative-work of a visionary at his finest, but for some reasons, the emotions are just never there for me. This isn’t to take away from his work as a writer/director, nor is it to say that those who love his work are “wrong” by any means – it’s just a thing with me. I’ve come to accept it, watch his movies, appreciate them, and move on.

And the Shape of Water is another one of those works I respect and appreciate, yet, by the same token, also walk away from a little cold.

Mostly though, it’s shocking how conventional and simplistic the Shape of Water is, considering that del Toro’s films all take on a rather crazy, confusing, and fantastical tone that seem to come from some other dimension. Not that there isn’t any of his usual fantasy-elements here, but mostly, they’re all toned down so that del Toro can get to a more human and understated story about a group of misfits, getting by, finding love, happiness, and meaning to a life that seems to hate them for being who they are. In other words, it’s a beautiful movie in both the way it looks and feels, but at the center, it’s also a lot sweeter than a lot of del Toro’s other more foreboding movies.

Which isn’t to say that del Toro plays it safe here, because that’s not the case. In fact, del Toro still somehow finds a way to keep his voice and vision, even when it seems like he’s making some sacrifices to bring other people to his work; though it’s a creature-feature in some senses, there’s also romance, drama, comedy, and espionage that makes this a movie that has something for everyone, regardless of if they want it or not. And of course, some people may not be willing to stick with this odd movie, the plot, the twists, and turns, but so what?

“Go and get your fish-man, girl.”

They’re not used to something this odd and original, which makes the Shape of Water a treat for us all who want a little something more out of cinema.

No matter how large or small.

We also appreciate a movie that has these somewhat colorful and comical characters, yet, also gives them enough heart and humanity to make them seem somewhat humane. Sally Hawkins, in what is practically a silent performance, does a lot with very little; she’s sweet and soulful, yet, doesn’t have the opportunity to ever make us feel that with her words. It’s just the way she carries herself and looks, and it works. Richard Jenkins is even better as her gay neighbor who, with almost every line, steals every scene. He’s funny, heartfelt, smart, witty, and oh yeah, a little sad. Basically, he’s a perfect character for Richard Jenkins to play and he makes every second work.

There’s also Octavia Spencer as Hawkins’ funny, smart and sassy co-worker who, with just about every line, also has something funny to say. In fact, other than the Hellboy movies, the Shape of Water may be del Toro’s funniest movie, because while it embraces its darker, more sinister undertones, it always has a funny snap or two immediately after, that knows how to be self-aware, but never too cloying or over-the-top. It’s just the right amount of light and darkness, and it’s why the whole cast, does a great job. Michael Shannon plays the villain here who is so distasteful and evil, it’s hard to really watch him, but once again, it works.

It all works. It just didn’t, once again, grab me the way it probably has to everyone else. And that’s just my cross to bear.

Consensus: Ambitious, smart, funny, humane, heartfelt, and well-acted, the Shape of Water proves to be del Toro’s mos accessible movie, but also doesn’t let go of his ever creative-vision.

8 / 10

Under the sea. Under the sea.

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Princess Cyd (2017)

Growing up blows. That’s why we always have aunts to help us out.

Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is a 16-year-old girl who comes from a troubled past. Her mother killed herself when she was very young and her father, doing the best that he can, just can’t deal with her at this moment in time. So, he decides to send her away to live with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) in Chicago for the summer. The two don’t really know each other all that well, other than that they both are related and are women, but both are also different. Miranda is single, a writer, and very much attuned into who she is, or what she wants, whereas Cyd, being so young, doesn’t know what she wants to do with the rest of her life, whom she wants, or even, if she really likes Chicago. Over the course of the summer, both change and learn things about one another that have them grow closer, but also realize a little bit more about their family-history.

Everybody does this kind of stuff with their aunt!

After having seen three of his films so far (the Wise Kids, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, this), I can safely that writer/director Stephen Cone is one of the rare film-makers out there who’s movies are literally made for nobody, but everybody. Each one looks like and sort of plays out like an after-school special, dealing with issues of faith, coming-of-age, sex, homosexuality, and family, but are also so sweet and light, they never get quite as dark as they probably should. But then again, they also don’t shy away from dealing with these issues, they discuss them, have cursing, sex, nudity, and oh yeah, even a little bit of drug-use.

This may sound like a bad thing, but I assure you, it isn’t. If anything, it only proves that Cone is that much more of a treasure, who has somehow had a steady-career behind the camera, yet, doesn’t work with any big names, nor do his movies really gain all that much attention. They’re all good, smart, well-written, acted, director and small character-studies that probably everybody should see.

But is “everybody” the audience these movies are intended for?

Once again, not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that Princess Cyd, while not perfect, may be Cone’s best film yet, because he truly digs in deep into his thoughts, ideas, and themes, yet, also doesn’t forget to keep his focus on these characters and what makes them tick. The idea of religion that’s been so persistent in his other flicks, is sort of her, but sort of isn’t; the movie’s really a focus on one girl’s coming-of-age, as well as her aunt’s realization that life is slowly passing her by and she doesn’t have much time to really make a difference anymore. It’s the kind of movie that moves to its own beat and doesn’t really give you an idea of where it’s going, how it’s going to end, or what conflict is even going to arise (if any), and it’s somehow a bit of a beauty because of that.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking and no, this is not a porno. Maybe.

It also helps that Cone was able to get together a pretty good cast of, once again, relatively unknowns who have either been supporters, or somewhere in the background of your favorite films. As Aunt Miranda, Rebecca Spence is surprisingly very good and it mostly comes down to the small bits and pieces of history we get about. She’s single, independent, a writer, and loves the arts, but she also wants something more out of her life. It’s rare to get a movie about a 40-year-old, single, unmarried, and childless woman that doesn’t feel patronizing, or at least, uses that as a crux for a plot, but Princess Cyd and Cone are both a lot smarter than that. Miranda is smart and relatively care-free, but also seems like maybe, just maybe, she wants to settle down.

See, any key element of Cone’s movies is that they are so slight and subtle, you truly do have to pay attention because the smallest nod, or look, or movement, can mean and matter so much. It’s why Miranda, as well as everyone else here, are so interesting – there’s always something deeper within them and beneath the surface, that even the smallest hint of what they’re thinking or feeling, at any given moment, is worth watching and paying attention to. It sounds like nothing, but for those who love, appreciate, and have a constant need for smarter writing and directing in movies, it’s all we need.

In fact, it’s everything. So yeah, more of Princess Cyd please.

Consensus: With a small, attentive eye to detail and characters, Princess Cyd proves that Stephen Cone is one of our more interesting film-makers in the world of indie cinema.

8 / 10

Prince or Princess? You tell me.

Photos Courtesy of: Wolfe Releasing

Gook(2017)

Always do the right thing. Or don’t.

Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So), two Korean American brothers who own a struggling women’s shoe store, have an unlikely friendship with 11-year-old Kamilla (Simone Baker). On the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots, the trio must defend the store while contemplating the meaning of family and thinking about personal dreams and the future.

It’s really hard to watch Gook without thinking of two things: 1) Do the Right Thing, which it’s style is so clearly reminiscent of, and 2) 21 & Over, the raunchy bro comedy from a few years ago starring Justin Chon, the writer, director and star of Gook. Why the latter? Well, because that movie, while entirely forgettable, stupid, unfunny, and oh yeah, really bad, also had me wondering about the two other dudes in that cast, Miles Teller and Skylar Astin.

Did these hair-cuts ever catch on?

Once again, “why?,” you may ask? Well, because both of them have gone on to do far different things from one another; while they’ve both stayed hunky and handsome, Astin’s career has mostly stayed stuck in-neutral, with him showing up as the possible funny guy in stuff, whereas with Teller, he’s been doing all that he can to be taken more seriously and make one of his many dramatic-projects a hit (sadly, it hasn’t worked out). But then, there’s Chon who, after that movie, seemed to not really be anywhere but instead, saving up, doing all that he could to make this little flick of his that is way different and far more interesting than anything he’s done in the past.

Does that mean it’s a reckoning of sorts? Not really. But it’s a sign that his career is in the right direction and hopefully, far, far away from stupid frat-bro comedies.

But like I said before, Gook is definitely a movie that loans a lot of its style-points to Spike Lee; there’s a dream-like, sort of impressionistic tone that feels like it came from Fellini, but dipped in a much more realer, grittier world. It’s an interesting direction from Chon, who could have easily kept things simple with just telling this story, in a conventional manner, but it shows that he’s got way more on his mind and up his sleeve, than just letting the budget keep him down. After all, for a movie that literally takes place at three different locations, with only a few blocks between them, it never feels claustrophobic, or as if Chon ran out of money and was just cutting corners.

In fact, the smallness of it all felt refreshing. It not only helps us grow closer to these characters, but get to know and understand the world in which they live in, the political-climate at the time, and why their stories, are being told exactly. Chon’s ambitions may reach farther than he’s able to grab, but the guy’s got gutso and it’s a solid offering on his end, not forgetting to build characters in every which way that he can, but also still feel the outside world of L.A. in the summer of ’92, just when everything was about to go to s**t.

Always the sign a good time was had.

As if we needed another movie about the Rodney King riots, right?

Well, that’s why Gook‘s a little bit different. It stays small and subtle, even when it seems to want to reach out a bit further. It can’t quite reach its objectives like it wants, but it comes pretty close and Chon, when he’s not showing the world that he knows how to work a camera, gives us a raw and sad performance of another guy living in America, trying to get by, and trying not to be killed due to the way that he looks, where he comes from, or how he speaks. The central message of Gook is a simple one: Love one another, regardless of race, gender, or beliefs. We’re all minorities, in a way, and we’re much stronger together, than we are a part.

It’s a bit hokey, but the movie has such a lovely feel to it, it’s hard to really hate on it. Also, Simone Baker as Kamilla is the absolute light and delight of the movie that every chance she gets to be up on the screen, the movie somehow gets better. Chon seems to know this and uses her not just as the heart and soul of Gook, but as the central message to which we can all learn something from: Be nice to one another, as they’re are still young ones out there who look up to us and learn from us, each and every day.

Pretty timely, if I don’t say so myself.

Consensus: Despite what seems to be a very small and limited-budget, Gook presents a smart, funny, and sometimes sad snapshot into the lives of some interesting folks who still feel relevant today.

8 / 10

The heart and soul of America, folks. Take notice.

Photos Courtesy of: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Always truth in advertising.

After months of her daughter’s rape-murder investigation stalling, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides that it’s time to let the world know of her annoyance and pain. She gets the grand idea of renting out three billboards, right outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which read: “RAPED WHILE DYING. AND STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”. It’s enough to get her point across, but also to piss-off everyone in town, including Willoughby himself (Woody Harrelson), who has cancer and is just trying to live out the last few years of his life in peace and solitude. However, the whole town turns on Mildred and her sense of anarchy, which makes her public enemy #1 in the eyes of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a police-officer who uses his mouth and knight-stick, more than he actually uses his head and code-of-conduct. In fact, that seems to be a general problem with this little town of Ebbing, wherein minorities are still mistreated, corruption is still swept under the rug, and oh yeah, rape-murder cases, where all sorts of DNA is to be found, don’t ever get solved.

Just bone already. He’s got a few months left. Might as well.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh has proved with his movies (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and this) that he doesn’t really care about what people like, don’t like, what’s considered “politically correct”, or not. He likes to write despicable, sometimes inhumane characters who say what they want, do what they want, and whenever they want, regardless of what kind of audience is out there to accept it and see it for what it is. In a way, that makes McDonagh a true risk-taker and a brash talent to keep an eye on.

It’s also why Three Billboards will really rub people the wrong way, as well as it should.

McDonagh writes a lot of questionable dialogue, for sure; the use of the word “retard”, the n-word, and “c**t”, to name a few, are spewed quite a few times by just about every character. Obviously, this is meant to shock and surprise us, but it’s also meant to get us closer and closer to this town, these characters, the lives they live, and give us an even better idea of what small-town America look, sounds, and acts like, post-Trump. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of cursing, a lot of misogyny, a lot of racism, a lot of corruption, and oh yeah, nobody gives a shit, because we’re supposed to be making America great again.

Whether or not McDonagh intended for this metaphor to be drawn or not, doesn’t entirely matter; it’s what how we view the movie, in this context that matters most and it’s why I’m able to give this movie, like his others, a pass. McDonagh doesn’t seem to love or entirely adore the way these characters are and the way they talk, but he’s more so fascinated by them and if anything, it’s why Three Billboards works much more than it should. It’s the kind of movie that likes to beat-up and make fun of its characters, while also realizing that they’re human, accepting them, and asking for us to do the same.

And at the same time, still being a very smart, well-written, hilarious, and sometimes tense dramedy that doesn’t know when to stop making jokes, or being mean.

And yet again, there’s something fun about that. McDonagh’s dialogue, while highly stylized and unrealistic, is also snappy and filled with something to laugh, while simultaneously, think about. A whole diatribe about how the clergy and the Crips and Bloods aren’t too different from one another, while seemingly out of left-field, is also a bit of dialogue that only McDonagh could make work, regardless of if it matters to the plot or not. McDonagh has a couple of speeches that are just like this – they don’t really matter to the plot, but they’re fun to listen to – but they also seem to exist in this world where everyone’s always thinking and having something smart to say, even if they themselves may not be all that smart to begin with.

Love him, or hate him. Actually, just love him.

But like I said, it’s the three-dimensional characters here that really allow for Three Bilboards to go above and beyond just being a bunch of funny pieces of dialogue, strung-together with a rubber-band. Frances McDormand, as per usual, is amazing as Mildred Hayes, a role that seems to have been written for her, only because it’s the same role she’s been playing for the past 30 or so years. Yet, it never gets old. She’s still sassy, rough, tough, and seeming like the smartest person in the room, but she’s also a human being, with a real heart, soul, and sense of humanity that shows up in surprising, but earned ways. A lot of McDonagh’s dialogue, coming out of the wrong mouths, just wouldn’t work, but thankfully, McDormand’s isn’t one of them.

Why am I talking about Frances McDormand’s mouth?

Anyway, she’s aided by a solid supporting cast who, like McDormand, know what material they’re dealing with and make it work. Harrelson’s Willoughby is a tragic and sad soul, and builds a nice chemistry with Mildred; Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s son who’s all sorts of angsty, but still fits; John Hakwes shows up as the abusive and mean ex-husband, and is surprisingly effective; and Peter Dinklage, when not seeming like the butt of every dwarf-joke thrown his way, still gives us a sweet character who genuinely seems to love and appreciate Mildred. Then, there’s Sam Rockwell who, once again, proves why he’s one of the best actors working today. As Dixon, he’s still got that charm we all know and love him for, but there’s something deeper, darker, and meaner to him than we’ve seen before. It’s a slight change-of-pace for Rockwell, but it’s a welcome one that gives us a character we learn to love to hate and it will hopefully give Rockwell some sort of Academy love.

Then again, probably not.

Consensus: As per usual with McDonagh, Three Billboards is rash, brash, mean, and a little distasteful, but by the same token, funny, well-acted, unpredictable, and even heartfelt, once you get past all of the cursing.

8.5 / 10

I guess billboards are still a thing, post-Y2K.

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mudbound (2017)

Have the times really changed all that much?

Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) meets Henry (Jason Clarke) and all of a sudden, her life changes forever. She falls in love, gets married, has two kids, and together, they all move to work on a Mississippi Delta farm, where they’ll hopefully be able to stay there in peace, love and harmony. They live next to Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) Jackson who, despite all of the troubles and turmoils they face at the hands of racism, still do what they can to get by. For Florence, she’s mostly made to work for the McAllan’s, as both a nurse and caretaker, whereas Hap gets by as a sharecropper. They’re neighbors in the sense that they live next door to one another, but don’t really know how to connect in any sort of way. That all changes when WWII ends and their family-members return, with both mental and physical scars to bare. Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is struggling with getting over his fellow soldier’s deaths and Hap and Florence’s oldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), doesn’t know if he wants to stay in America, where he’s hated and disrespected, or back to Germany, where he fell in love and was adored for the first time. Together, the two forge something of a connection that causes all sorts of issues in the Jim Crow South.

They’re besties, but could they be much, much more? The possibilities!

Dee Rees’ debut, Pariah, was something of a small wonder. It was intimate, heartfelt, sad, funny, and most of all, insightful into the way certain people of color and sexual-preferences come-of-age. It was kind of disturbing in the sense that never flinched away from an argument or a conflict it didn’t like, but was also the rare kind of movie that we don’t get to see too often of, let alone from a black lesbian film-maker.

That said, it’s even crazier to think that Rees would be handed the keys to such a large, ambitious, and over-stacked project like Mudbound, but once again, that’s why it’s great Netflix is around. They’re able to take the risks and chances that most mainstream studios are too afraid, or too dense, to ever even consider. If it was bad, Mudbound would have proven to be a different kind of mistake, but a mistake that took a risk, for once.

But that doesn’t matter because Mudbound is quite great.

Though it’s much bigger and grander than Pariah, the heartfelt and simple emotions of Pariah are still to be found in Mudbound; they’re just much more mix and matched this time around. Rather than getting one or two subplots about people’s problems, we get three, or four, or hell, maybe even five. Can it feel like a bit of overkill? Sure, but Rees knows to give every character they’re own backstory, lives, and reasons to matter in a large story like this.

It doesn’t help that the narration can get in the way of everything, but when it’s all settled and gone, Rees depends on the ensemble, all of whom are amazing. While I was a tad bit skeptical of having Australian Jason Clarke and British Carey Mulligan, play these two roles as deep and dirty Southerners, they fit in well with the roles. Clarke’s subtlety works wonders for a character who were never sure of being a total racist, or just a kind one who’s trying to get by, but also knows that there’s a lot of tension between both races. Mulligan’s great too, even though she does do the sad, pouty-face an awful lot.

Cheer up, Carey. No seriously! Stop being sad!

Maybe that’s just her trademark by now.

Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige are also quite good as Hap and Florence, with Blige really proving her acting-abilities as the heartfelt, but stern helper of the McAllan’s. Jonathan Banks also shows up as the incredibly angry and racist daddy of Henry, who always snarles his way into every scene, going on and on about blacks, whites, and the war. While this is a tired-type in these kinds of movies, Rees does her best to show that there’s much more to him than just a sad, old man. Perhaps he’s the way he is, because of the way society mandates it? Or perhaps, he’s just an angry, old codger who needs to shut his pie-hole? Either way, there’s something there that Rees touches on to make it seem like so much more than we’re used to seeing.

But at the heart of the film is both Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, both of which give Oscar-worthy performances. The two create a bond that the movie really relies on and doesn’t use to just preach and pander; it’s made to show us that two sides can connect and get along, but also to make us all realize that each and every person is the same, with their own trials and tribulations to overcome. They both have a lovely chemistry that, at times, can feel a little homoerotic, until you realize that they’re literally just in pain and have nobody else in the world to connect with – the fact that they found each other and are able to gab away, is more than enough healing for both.

Currently, these two are some of the best actors we have around and it makes me hope and wish that more great is left to come.

Hopefully.

Consensus: With an incredible cast, Mudbound finds Dee Rees taking on much more ambitious source-material, but not ever forgetting to find a humane, powerful pulse through it.

8 / 10

America: Been randomly pulling over black people ever since the invention of the wheel.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Lady Bird (2017)

Don’t grow up. Like ever.

Marion (Saoirse Ronan) is just like any other kid growing up in California. She longs for a life out in the North, wants to get out of her small, dilapidated home, constantly fights with her mom (Laurie Metcalf), gets along swimmingly with her father (Tracy Letts), and wants a little something more. That’s why, with this being her senior year and all, she’s poised to do right by herself, and whether that’s by studying her ass off so that she can get into the college of her dreams (NYU, of course), or by being with the hottest, most interesting guys in school, it doesn’t matter. She just wants to get by this year and if she learns a little life-lesson every so often, well then, so be it.

Despite being awfully pretentious and a little too whimsical herself, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird is surprisingly not like that at all. In fact, it’s a very straightforward, understated, subtle, and moving coming-of-ager that takes a look at a time in all of our lives, when everything was a lot nicer, sweeter, and a whole lot simpler, even if, at the time, it didn’t feel like that at all.

Don’t fall for those charms, Lady Bird! All men are the same!

Movies like Lady Bird are so up my alley, that in all honesty, I don’t even try to hate them – I know that they’re going to work their nostalgic magic on me, so it’s best to just succumb and accept it for what it is. But what makes Lady Bird so particularly special is that it seems to understand and respect that coming-of-agers can fly around a bunch of bulls**t about love, adolescence, growing up, and figuring out just what it is that makes us all tick the way we do when we’re so much younger. Gerwig’s direction, while sometimes a little too quick and snippy, feels mannered in the sense that we get these literal small snapshots into the senior year of this girl, when everything’s right on the cusp of changing and she, nor anybody else around her, really knows.

In that sense, it’s pretty sad and almost tragic. But it’s oh so beautiful because, once again, Gerwig brings no b.s.

She understands what it is about these kinds of tales that make us all swoon and feel all warm inside, while also smack our heads in annoyingly awkward, but fond memories. Lady Bird never talks down to its subject, nor does it really judge anybody else, either; it’s fair, well-mannered, and understands that the best way to have us all relate to these young, sometimes pretentious kids, is to remind us that they’re all kids, going through the same stuff we probably did, or still are going through. That means that yes, Lady Bird touches on certain issues like drugs, sex, alcohol, growing up, careers, picking colleges, unemployment, depression, family-turmoil, faith-struggles, friendships lost, anxiety, addiction, and so on and so forth, but it never feels like too much, or too little.

Everything is given plenty of time to shine and remind us that, once again, these were once our lives. It may be Gerwig’s life that’s being portrayed on the screen, but it’s still easy to feel some semblance of understanding. And it’s not as if the movie’s just getting by on pure, high school nostalgia, either – it’s a downright funny, sad, and downright touching look at this one girl’s coming-of-age – but the heartfelt memories don’t hurt, either. They help have the movie hit closer to home and feel less like it’s just Gerwig bragging about her upbringing, and instead, inviting us to register her life, with ours and grow more compassion as time goes on.

“Stop being a bitch, okay?”

Which is to say that I’m definitely excited and interested in whatever the hell else Gerwig wants to do behind-the-camera. In front of it, I’m fine with not seeing too much of for a short while, but hey, that doesn’t matter here.

What matters is that Gerwig knows how to direct a smart movie that isn’t just all about the actors, but the look, tone and general feel. That seems to be the problem with most directorial debuts from actors – they know how to get great performances out of their casts, but when it comes to everything, like plot or the visuals, it just doesn’t quite work. It can sometimes feel under-cooked and a little dull, which is why it’s always nice to get the rare occasions that work splendidly, such as this.

Sure, the performances all around here are great, with Laurie Metcalf stealing the show as the supportive, yet also brutally honest mama, but they aren’t the crutch that Gerwig hopes and depends on. She’s got more tricks up her sleeve and it makes me hope and wish for the best, whatever she decides to do next.

Possibly Lady Bird, Ten Years Later? Who knows?

Consensus: Honest, sweet, funny, well-acted, and a little sad, Lady Bird is a bright directorial-debut from Gerwig that not only doubles as a moment of self-reflection, but a great bit of nostalgia for when days were simpler, if also a whole lot more dramatic and emotional, for some damn reason.

9 / 10

True pals. For life. For now. At least.

Photos Courtesy of: A24

Step (2017)

This is why they outlaw dancing!

It’s senior year and for some students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, times are going to be tough. When they aren’t juggling school-work, boyfriends, work, family-issues, and just general things that most teens have to go through, oh yeah, they got this little thing called college coming up. For some of them, they already have their decision made and now all they have to worry about is how much money they’re going to get from their choice. However, for others, the choices aren’t so clear and as the months continue to go by, and slowly but surely, the senior year begins to fade away, so do the bigger, brighter and better opportunities for colleges that these girls want to get into. But through it all, the girls are always able and willing to fall back on their dance team, that’s not only one of the better ones in the State, but a perfect release from their stressful day-to-day lives.

Clearly channeling Bey.

Step is an interesting documentary because you could easily seeing as just being about this high school dance team and leaving it at that. And for the first half-hour or so, that’s what it is; it’s interesting and entertaining, but still a little conventional and sort of like an afterschool-special. Then, director Amanda Lipitz shows her true intentions by having the movie focus less on the dance team itself and instead, use it as a springboard to focus on the actual members themselves, their lives, their hopes, dreams, ambitions, and wishes for what the rest of their lives may turn out to be.

Aka, what college they’re going to.

And in that sense, Step is a very intriguing documentary because it literally focuses on these gals in one of the most important moment in their lives, where all of a sudden, everything becomes far more serious and adult-like. In a way, it’s kind of sweetly nostalgic – that feeling of having to choose a college, or better yet, what the hell you want to do with the rest of your life, while also saying goodbye to childhood. It’s sad and heart-breaking, sure, but it also brought me back to my good old days and made me feel warm, just as I bet this documentary intended to.

Don’t know what this move is, but if the kids are all doing it, then it must be hip and cool, right?

It’s also smart because Lipitz doesn’t forget to focus on these girls as they are becoming full-fledged, adult women and it’s all the more compelling because it feels like no frills are being taken. We see them all for their mistakes, problems, and issues, as well as their accomplishments, skills, and lovely qualities that make them worthy for a whole documentary to be about them. In fact, the ones who make the most mistakes are the ones to watch the most, because through them, it’s easy to remember the decisions we’ve all made in our pasts, and how some of them worked out and didn’t.

In other words, it’s insightful, but also incredibly sweet and lovely to watch. It brings us back to the good old days, while also not forgetting that these women’s lives and their stories are what matter the most. In a way, it’s actually more interesting to see them struggle with the day-to-day, like get good grades, or have to keep a steady boyfriend around, rather than seeing their dance-moves.

Sure, they’re good dance moves, but do we really need to see them all to make us feel that these girls are, in any way, special?

Probably not. But okay, I guess it helps.

Anyway, Step is the one movie you should see. Don’t let the possibility of it being dancing for an-hour-and-a-half scare you in any way, shape or form. It’s mostly just about a bunch of women, getting ready for adulthood, being on their own, and having to understand what it all means.

Remember those days?

Consensus: Heartfelt and sweet, Step takes a smart, insightful look into the lives of a few girls and brings us all back to a time when everything was a lot simpler, but also painstakingly important.

8 / 10

Respect and power to ya girls.

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight

Columbus (2017)

Life is architecture. That works, right?

Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a recent high school graduate, is at a bit of a stand-still in her life. She wants to go out to college, work on architecture, study, and make a name for herself, but ever since her dad left, her mother (Michelle Forbes) has been having some issues with staying sober. So it’s what keeps Casey at home, working at the local library, and occasionally, flirting with her coworker (Rory Culkin). But then her life changes a bit when Jin (John Cho), enters town. His father, a renowned architecture scholar, falls ill and is forced to stay in the hospital, making Jin to come back home and figure out what the next step is. He, like Casey, is in a bit of a rut and together, the two strike up something of a friendship that starts off as admiration for one another, but then, turns into something far more sweet. But not in the way you’d wholly expect.

Who cares about the people? Look at those trees!

Columbus is one of those rare movies that isn’t afraid to take its time, literally plant a camera down, just keep shooting, and use absolute silence. It’s the kind of movie that’s perfect for when you have an empty home all to yourself, because there’s hardly a score (and when it does play, it’s beautiful) and just a bunch of characters walking, talking, and gawking at the beautiful buildings all around them. If that sounds too boring for you, then yeah, Columbus is just not going to work.

It’s a smart, interesting, and relatively touching character-study that should be seen.

But hey, if it’s not your bag, then it’s not your bag. So be it.

Regardless, Columbus brings us a smart and fresh voice in writer/director Kogonada who, thankfully, makes the smart decision to not get all that pretentious with the material. Sure, it’s about architecture and certain people’s love for it, but the movie’s much more about taking advantage of the life you have, the opportunities you get, and figuring out just where you want to go next. Architecture is used as a gorgeous backdrop, but really, it’s less about the buildings, shapes, sizes, and colors, and much more about the actual humans who build them and live in them.

And with that said, it’s a pretty great ensemble. Haley Lu Richardson shows us that she’s one of the more interesting younger-actresses out there who, despite her beautiful looks, is also able to really give off the vibes that she’s just another ordinary, young, and confused girl in this world. The movie smartly doesn’t make her decision to leave all about a romantic love-interest, but her dedication to her mother and the fact that she has no clue just how to go about moving out and doing something with her life. She’s not whiny and sad – in fact, she’s quite settled and pleased – but she also wants to go somewhere, anywhere that’s possible.

“So, like, buildings.”

It’s a lovely role that reminds me of a young Winona Ryder. I hope that Richardson’s career turns out the same way, without the shoplifting incident.

But then, there’s John Cho who is also very interesting here, not because he plays a man at his crossroads, but because he’s actually in a drama, given a role that’s worthy of his talents. Cho’s got great delivery where he always seems like the smartest guy in the room and will call you out immediately, but also shows that there’s plenty of insecurity to him. The relationship he and Richardson’s character has, seems like it’s going to get weird and creepy, but actually turns into something beautiful that’s not just shocking to us, but to them, too. It’s sweet and mannered and never once does it seem like it’s going to go over the line.

That’s not just good acting, either – that’s just good writing.

Remember the name “Kogonada”, people.

Consensus: Mannered and a little slow, Columbus may seem like it’s taking too much time to get going, but it’s sort of the point and it helps the performances work so much more.

8 / 10

Seriously, who needs humans when we have buildings!?!?

Photos Courtesy of: Superlative Films

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

All family’s are screwed-up.

Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a renowned cardiovascular surgeon living in Cincinatti and not having to worry about too much. He loves his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Both of whom are getting a little bit older so they are starting to show some signs of rebellion, but nothing too much. When he isn’t performing surgeries, however, Dr. Murphy normally spends his time with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teen who insinuates himself into the doctor’s life in many ways. At first, it’s just casual hang-outs that no one feels weird about, but then, it begins to change and Steven has to soon try and cut the chord between him and Martin. However, this decision results in some awful things happening to his family and it’s now up to him, to not just make a choice, but think of the rest of his life, in retrospect.

Ascent into darkness. That works, right?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer proves, once again, that when it comes to building and creating worlds/universes full of our weirdest imaginations, co-writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos really can’t be stopped. Mostly all of his movies, while obviously taking place on planet Earth, all seem to live in these sort of odd realities, where people act, speak, and get by in randomly weird ways. Whereas the Lobster was literally about a whole world being changed, the Killing of a Sacred Deer still takes place in our day-to-day world, where single people aren’t being turned into animals, but instead, people say and do weird stuff.

And unlike the Lobster, the Killing of a Sacred Deer is a pretty downtrodden and dark movie. Whereas the former was much more comical in its darker-efforts, the later is an out-and-out horror flick that feels a little smarter and interesting than that genre usually represents. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou don’t really seem to be making fun of anyone, or any one thing in particular, but instead, showing us how humans act, when their backs are up against the wall and have to think quickly, and in ways, correctly.

As you can tell, I’m being very cagey about what this film’s actually about and what it’s premise eventually turns into, but that’s for a good reason: It’s best to see this wide eyes and ears.

But that’s also one of the main issues that seems to be holding the Killing of a Sacred Deer back: That it’s almost too much plot. After the first hour or so, once Lanthimos has built-up his characters, the conflicts, and the world in which they live, he sort of just sits there and lets it all play-out, rather than just going from one plot-point, to another. In a way, the Killing of a Sacred Deer ultimately comes down to being about one situation, but stretched-out to a whole hour and you can start to feel it; it’s still compelling and interesting to see just where it all goes, but mostly, it also feels like it’s just another case of Lanthimos loving his creation too much, he never wants to leave it.

Instead, he lets it settle, which can sometimes make the movie feel like a slog, especially when it shouldn’t.

But still, Lanthimos gets by on never letting loose of the tension that it’s in the air and because of that, the movie is always worth watching. You never quite have an idea of where it’s going to go, how dark it’s going to get, or even who’s going to be alive by the end of it, and that makes Lanthimos one of the far more dangerous directors out there. It’s something that we don’t too often see in modern-day cinema and it’s why it’s nice to see Lanthimos get some mainstream exposure, so that he can continue on his awfully deprived and sickening ways.

How envious I am of that perfectly bushy beard.

It’s also nice to see Lanthimos play with the big-leagues because he also gets the chance to work with an incredibly talented ensemble. Colin Farrell, returning for another outing with Lanthimos, works very well as the tight, straight-laced everyday man, Dr. Murphy. Farrell’s Irish, in case you didn’t know, but he’s always had to hide it in American-accents – but as Dr. Murphy, he’s Irish full-and-through and it’s kind of jarring. But hey, it also kind of works. We’re never explained too much about his backstory, or why an Irish doctor is over in the states, with a wife, kids, nice house, and seemingly never lost his accent, but that sort of stuff doesn’t matter because when it comes to playing slow-burning nuts, Farrell’s one of the best. He’s so devoid of any personality, that it’s almost funny and it’s why Farrell works so well here.

Same goes for Nicole Kidman who, once again, seems to be playing another suburban mommy with darker-edges surrounding her. But really, it’s Barry Keoghan as Martin who steals the show, seeming as if he’s just another sweet, rather innocent kid, who may also be something of an evil, despicable psychopath. There’s always questions surrounding him and his relationship to this family, which also works in favor of Martin who never seems to tell us exactly what’s on his mind, or what his next bit of action is going to be, but man, it’s so hard to look away from him.

Sort of like all teens out there, am I right?

Consensus: Less comedic than Lanthimos’ previous-ventures, the Killing of a Sacred Deer is also a tense, upsetting, and incredibly well-acted look at family-life and the decisions we all have to make. I think.

8 / 10

Just make-out already and be hot! Please! We need it here the most!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Every generation needs their own Rupert Pupkin.

Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is a mentally unstable girl who, after a recent stint in a clinic, finally gets out into the real world, only to then fall back into the same spell of obsession that she did before. This time, the object of her affection is social-media influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Her Instagram account is highly-followed, full of bright, shiny pictures, and full of all sorts of daily inspiration that Ingrid seems to need and want. To make it even better, Taylor responds to one of Ingrid’s comments, giving her the idea that it’s time to head out to L.A. and find out if Taylor will be her friend. And with an inheritance of over $600,000, she’s willing to make that dream a reality. The only issue is that Ingrid will have to make something of a persona up, to where she will be seen and accepted by Taylor as a friend, possibly even best-friend – a title that Ingrid has wanted from someone over the course of her life, not just one person in particular.

Who hasn’t done this? It’s so sweet…..I think.

Ingrid Goes West is an interesting movie because it doesn’t necessarily seem to be commenting on social-media, as a whole. It would have been easy for it to fall down the same rabbit-hole of many other countless shows and movies, where the idea of social-media is a harmful, awful place where nothing in this world is private and everyone’s soul can be seen with just a click of a button or two. Is that such an evil thing? Maybe. But what Ingrid Goes West shows us is that it’s honestly how one uses social-media, is what makes it such an evil and despicable platform in the first place.

That said, as goofy and as crazy Ingrid Goes West gets, it still feels firmly placed in reality, where these archetypal characters all feel real, honest, and humane, even if they are awful pieces of crap. Take, for instance, Taylor Sloane herself – she’s the typical valley girl who has a solid Instagram account, with pictures of the sun, pretty trees, houses, her brunch, oh and of course, Joan Diddion books. She seems harmless and actually, pretty nice, but what the movie shows us is that there’s more to her than usual, in both good ways and bad. She’s the kind of woman who seems sincere on the surface, but beneath the surface, she’s just as arrogant and as insecure as all of her followers may be, and therefore, in a way, isn’t she manipulating these kinds of feelings for her own betterment?

Ingrid Goes West asks this question, as well as many others, but it works so well is because it all feels so honest and real.

Not once does co-writer/director Matt Spicer seem like he’s not with the times, or doesn’t know what he’s satirizing. Sure, by the time the movie reaches the third-act, thing spiral pretty much out of control and the movie gets a little bit weaker, but even then, it still feels like Spicer is fully wrapped-up in this awfully twisted, sick kind of world where B-level artists, photographers, and performers all hang around one another, act like they’re having a great time, loving each other all, when in reality, they’re just as conceited as the other. So yeah, if there is anything that Spicer is poking fun at here, it’s not social-media, but those who use it to make themselves seem way more talented and much more spiritually woke and inclined than they actually are.

All Gen-Y hipsters love themselves some Joan Diddion. Or so they say.

But still, as much preaching as Spicer may seem to be doing, the movie itself is still funny and a little sad. Once again, that idea of reality shines through each and every scene to where we go from laughing at one of Ingrid’s ridiculous antics and how deep she sinks herself into this lie, but then we come to the realization that it seems all too real. There are many more Ingrid’s out there in the world, and they don’t just have to be beautiful and compelling.

They can just be as depressing as you’d expect someone who falls in love with a social-media personality to be.

That said, Ingrid is probably Aubrey Plaza’s best performance to-date, because she kind of bucks the typical performance we’re used to seeing from her. No matter what, Plaza’s always enjoyable to watch, but she always seems to be playing the same bit role, where she’s always dead-pan, odd, and off-kilter. Here, she digs into something more primal and creepier, making Ingrid a damaged and battered human being that we sympathize with, but also fear for, too. She’s a dangerous beauty, but also a sad one, at that, and it’s Plaza’s role for the taking.

Elisabeth Olsen is also pretty great in a role that, in other hands, in another movie, probably would have been awfully one-note. While we know from the very start that Taylor Sloane is absolutely full of her pretentious bulls**t, it also doesn’t forget to make us see her as humane who, just like you or I, may be wanting something a bit more than she already has. We never come to like her, but she’s still compelling, in that there are literally a million other Instagram profiles just like her, getting away with all the same junk as she does.

What a time to be alive.

Consensus: As weird as it is timely, Ingrid Goes West is an honestly brutal and raw attack on those who use social-media to their benefits, for better and for worse, while also not forgetting to be a funny, incredibly well-acted tragicomedy.

8 / 10

#PeaceLoveandHarmony

Photos Courtesy of: Neon

Only the Brave (2017)

Shut up, Dennis Leary!

The Granite Mountain Hot Shots were a group of a highly-trained, elite crew of firefighters who, when they weren’t palling around, sippin’ on cold ones, and trying to make ends meet, they were saving cities from wildfires. However, it wasn’t always fun, games, or hell, even all that pretty. For awhile, the guys weren’t certified and doing their best to not just be respected, but actually accepted in a world where firefighters, despite saving lives and, in this case, whole tons, weren’t looked at as “heroes”, or even “saviors”. They were just a bunch of bros, who brought a bunch of water, and put out the fires. But in this case, it was much different. For instance, there’s Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), or as they call him, “Supe”, who handles everything, when he isn’t handling his marriage-relations. Then, there’s Donut (Miles Teller) a junkie who’s causing all sorts of trouble, until he soon realizes that it’s time to get his act together, just in time for his baby to be born, by an ex that wants absolutely nothing to do with him. Of course, the fellas get certified and while it’s a heroic and momentous landmark for them to achieve, come 2013, it doesn’t quite work out too well.

“You talkin’ bad on the ‘stache, boy?”

Only the Brave is the kind of hokey, silly, and ridiculously entertaining piece of mainstream entertainment that can, at times, feel like a Budweiser commercial. It’s got big trucks, big men, big beers, big parties, big fires, big, loud music, and oh yeah, hot women. All that’s missing are the constant shots of these men’s tight, round-butts in a nice pair of jeans, although, while I think about it, I think there may have been one or two. It’s the kind of movie that praises and sends out a tribute to those old-fashioned, blue-collar lives that, in all honesty, each and everyone of us want and this movie, in all its shining and patriotic glory, doesn’t help to cease.

And you know what? There’s no problem with that.

Sure, Only the Brave could have been the kind of movie that makes each and everyone of these men out to be heroes, through and through, with no issues, or conflicts in life, other than whether or not they’re going to bag the hottest chick at the bar, or if they’re going to be able to stop that fire before everybody else. There’s nothing wrong with that if the movie did do this, because after all, it’s based off of real people and all too-real disastrous event that ended-up taking most of their lives, but Only the Brave is a tad smarter than that. It shows us that, beyond all the machismo and ripped-jeans, they were real people who, like you or me, had issues with money, with relationships, with family, and especially with trying to stay alive for those who depend off of them.

Director Joseph Kosinski and co-writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer never seem to lose sight of the humans in the center of all the madness and carnage that, even when it does seem to be praising these guys for every little thing they do, it sort of doesn’t matter. The movie’s already done a fine enough job of getting us to fall in love with their simplistic, Americana ways that we already hooked in to whatever happens to them. And because of that, we not only grow to love each and everyone of them, but the atmosphere in which they live and exist, making it seem like all too-ideal of a life to live, but one that looks almost too desirable not to be real.

“Be the young, hunky-lead they want now, kid. Don’t take it for granted.”

And it is. That’s why we love and praise firefighters so much, because deep down inside, we secretly want those jobs.

They’re simple, but not all easy and Only the Brave doesn’t forget about that aspect, either. But because it has such a great ensemble here, with Brolin, Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, and surprisingly, Taylor Kitsch, all turning in excellent performances, that we almost forget about the real danger lurking somewhere out there in the distant. It’s a reality that the movie alludes to every now and then, but due to it being involved with these guys’ lives, it we forget about it – it’s definitely done so on-purpose and you’ve got to chalk it up to the film-makers for not relying too much on the fires themselves and much more so on the actual humans in the center.

After all, they’re the hear and soul of this tale, as well as they should be. Cause if it wasn’t the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, it would have been other hopeful, ambitious guys who wanted a better life for themselves, their family, friends, and people they don’t even know. They’re just doing the jobs that most of us will knock off as “too simple”, or “too blue-collar”, but in reality, therein lies the problem.

It’s much more than that and hell, we shouldn’t forget.

Consensus: As cheesy as it can sometimes get, Only the Brave is still an entertaining, thoughtful, and incredibly well-acted tribute to the real lives lost, as well as the countless others who fight to save ours, day in and day out.

8 / 10

Ergh! So manly!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Bald truly is better.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a former boxer, loses his job as an auto mechanic and his marriage, which was already troubled in the first place, is about to expire. But as much as he wants to stay on straight-and-narrow, he can’t help but be drawn back into the life working as a drug courier. While it brings him all sorts of riches and saves his marriage, it also comes about with some great villains who want nothing more than to get a head up on Bradley and his position. One night, a deal goes bad and he soon finds himself in a gunfight between police officers and his own ruthless allies. When everything’s done, he’s arrested, a few officers are shot and killed, and a few of his supposed fellow drug couriers were killed to. But in this case, it was by him. Those guys were very connected and they hear about this, so while Bradley’s locked in the clink, they extract revenge the only way they can: By kidnapping his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and forcing him to knock somebody off while in prison. Problem is, Bradley’s got to do a whole lot in order to make sure that happens.

Uh oh. It’s happening, people.

At two-hours-and-15-minutes, Brawl in Cell Block 99 overstays its welcome a teenie, tiny bit. There’s a great hour or so dedicated to just sitting around, watching, and waiting for this Bradley character to eventually break bad and just let it all go. He does, after about an hour or so and while it’s good that we at least got some of that to build character and give us a reason to care, it still feels like maybe, I don’t know, perhaps, we didn’t need that whole chunk of change in the first place. Maybe about 15 or 20 minutes would have been fine, but once again, I don’t know.

Cause in reality, once we do get to jail and see Bradley imprisoned, it’s an entirely different movie. It’s still slow, it’s still melodic, and it’s still very, very quiet, but it’s also a movie with a motive, and a much harsher, meaner, grittier, dirtier, and uglier tone than ever before. And it’s at this point where it becomes clear why we needed that first hour or so: To make us think that we were in safe hands and not going to be rushed somewhere we didn’t want to be.

After all, we’re in the hands of S. Craig Zahler and it becomes very clear that this man is not to be messed with.

Like, at all.

And with Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler proves again why he’s a very good director at taking his time and not really rushing into things because, well, when all you really want to do is throw people for a loop and give them absolutely vicious and disgusting pieces of violence, who cares how much time you have to wait for it? Cause even though it’s long and a little meandering, Brawl in Cell Block 99 also features some of the most gruesome and disturbing acts of violence I have seen committed to film in quite some time, and what’s even nuttier about it all is that it happens so quick, so matter-of-factly, and so disjointedly, that it’s almost like it never happens. There’s no stunt-doubles, no fancy editing, and no real special-effects – it’s just limbs being hacked-off, bones being broken, and dudes being killed.

“You think you’re taller than me. Don’t ya?”

Sounds fun, right?

In a way, it sort of is. Zahler isn’t afraid to drag us through this mud of misery, but at the same time, doesn’t hold back on the darker, more sensational thrills that come with pulpy-flicks just like this. Does he have an agenda? Sort of. It’s interesting that the first prison we see here is actually pretty chill, relaxed, and quiet, until we get to another prison and it literally looks an old, medieval castle, where dark underlings lurk in the shadows. Maybe Zahler has a bone to pick with the justice system and all its corrupt features?

Or maybe he’s just not that deep, doesn’t care, and wants to enjoy someone’s head getting stomped in, almost to the point of where his eyeballs pop-out. Cause yeah, that happens. And yes, it is pretty rad, because mostly, it all feels worth it. The slow plodding and pacing of the movie eventually works out in the movie’s favor, because it sets us up for all the blood, gore and violence of the later-half and it proves that Zahler, while very hard to get into immediately, ultimately gives the goods of what you want and expect.

Does that make him a perfect film-maker? Probably not. But it does make him effective and it makes me excited to see what he’s cooking up next.

Same goes for Vince Vaughn who, after a few years of starting and stopping, seems poised for a dramatic comeback that he hasn’t seen since the mid-to-late-90’s. But what’s odd about Vaughn’s role here as Bradley Thomas, is that he’s still a bit of a smart-ass and domineering – it’s just way more different this time around. Rather than always speaking, ranting, raving, and improving until the cows come home, he’s quiet, still, stern, stiff, and always intimidating. Sure, it helps that just in about every fight he gets into, he can kill every person within an inch of their lives, but it also helps that Vaughn himself creates this character that is not to be toyed with and gets a lot of mileage out of just standing there, looking tough, gruff, and all sorts of pissed-off. It has me hoping that there’s a much brighter-future out there for Vaughn’s career, even if the roles he takes are darker and less filled with goofs, gags, and sadly, Owen Wilson.

Wow.

Consensus: Though it could definitely afford to trim a little fat, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a relentlessly brutal, bleak, and violent piece of pulp, that also serves as a rejuvenation in Vince Vaughn’s career.

8 / 10

Vincey ain’t happy. Or being funny.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

Family’s enough competition as is.

Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) is going through a bit of a rough-patch in his life. He and his wife are separated, his daughter (Grace Van Patten) is going off to college to hopefully continue the family’s long legacy of being artistically-sound, and he just lost his home, forcing him to have to move back in with his father, renowned sculpture-artist Harold (Dustin Hoffman). And by doing so, he also becomes closer with his sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and stepmother, Maureen (Emma Thompson). It’s not too happy of a time for Danny and while his father knows this, he doesn’t quite help the situation out much, either. Then enters Danny’s half-brother, Michael (Ben Stiller), who his father loves and adores a lot more and for very obvious reasons – Michael is a lot more successful and Harold happened to marry his mother twice. While the two aren’t really supposed to get along, they eventually try to tie the binds between them and get over the long years of familial strife and continue on the Meyerowitz legacy. Or at least, whatever is left of it.

“No! I’m funnier!”

Is Noah Baumbach a pretentious film-maker? A part of me likes to think that he is, but another part of me likes to think that he isn’t. While there are certain movies of that I don’t care for (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), there are others that I do (everything else), and it mostly all comes down to how unfathomable and unlikable his characters are. And in mostly all of Baumbach’s films, that seems to be the case.

It’s pretty interesting, really, that he’s chosen to have his protagonists be challenging, somewhat unsympathetic human beings that, while we dislike the time we spend with them, they’re still human and compelling. After all, the characters are either just like us, or like people we know, and while we may not want to spend two-hours with them, there’s no denying the fact that actually spending time with them is rather refreshing. So yeah. I don’t know if the fact that enjoys having his movies centered around these awful characters makes him pretentious, it just makes him, as well as his movies, a bitter pill to swallow.

But one that you’ll probably be fine with afterwards.

And while in the Meyerowitz Stories, there’s no really awful, unlikable, and reprehensible character here, they’re all kind of annoying and a little deuchy. Then again, that’s sort of the point. Family itself is raised on the notion of competition and who’s more successful than the other, so when these characters all start bragging to one another about their great noble achievements, however small they may be, sure, it may be a little tiresome, but it all comes from a soft spot in their hearts that we can, at the very least, relate to.

Baumbach’s a smart enough writer to at least know and understand that each of these characters all have something going for them, as well as a little something going for them. For instance, while Danny’s made out to be a bit of a loser, he’s also got a stronger connection to his daughter and most other humans than perhaps his half-brother, Michael will ever have with another person. On the flip-side of things though, Michael’s also a lot more successful in his life and probably always will be, whereas Danny seems like he’ll never get up off the couch and do something extraordinary with his life because, well, he’s never had to, so why start now? It’s an interesting contrast that follows just about every character in this movie, and while it may make them a wee bit over-bearing, they’re still honest and raw.

So much sarcasm.

And oh yeah, because of the ensemble, fun to watch, too.

Especially in the case of Danny, who gets a great performance out of Adam Sandler, for once and a blue moon. But what’s interesting about Danny is that he’s basically every other Adam Sandler character the guy’s played in the past two decades or so: He’s a man-child who doesn’t know if he ever wants to grow up, how to do it, and is kind of sad. But in this case, the sad-sack has a lot more to him than just childish hi-jinx, as he’s much more likable and sympathetic, and not just an all around dick. It’s great to see Sandler in this kind of role, where he’s literally forced to act and actually do something, and it shows us all that, yes, he’s still got it, and when the Netflix money runs out, he can always turn back to arthouse, character-driven roles. So long as it’s not something like the Cobbler.

Ben Stiller is, as usual, pretty good, too, playing another sort of dick-head who seems like he’s got his whole life in-check, but really doesn’t. Stiller’s done a great job in his outings with Baumbach and while this isn’t his most challenging, it still shows us that he and Baumbach help each other out in working better for the two. Together, Stiller and Sandler have a sort of anti-chemistry that, even though they’re not supposed to like each other, they sort of do and it’s quite a lovely little sight to see. After all, these are two of comedy’s greats, finally together, once again, but instead of yucking it up for the nosebleeds, they’re actually playing three-dimensional, fully-realized characters.

Wow. Funny how times change. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Consensus: With a talented ensemble and a group of interesting characters, the Meyerowitz Stories is an honest, funny, and sometimes look at family and all of the hostilities that go along with it.

8 / 10

Invite me to that reunion. Oh wait. Maybe not.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman (2017)

Three’s a party.

Professor William Marston (Luke Evans) and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), live a relatively happy and carefree life together. He’s a professor at Harvard and she desperately wants to be, but because this is the 1920’s and she’s a woman, for some reason, that’s not allowed to happen. Anyway, the two have a loving and passionate romance that gets a newfound lease of life when they meet Olivia (Bella Heathcote), a young grad-student who applies to become their assistant. Both are struck by her; he wants her, and so does Elizabeth, but it’s sort of different. But in a way, it’s a little too unconventional and controversial to really go about trying to initiate a poly-amorous relationship, especially back in those days. That’s why no one really makes a move for awhile, until they do and all of a sudden, they’re in a loving, sexy, and great romance together. The only issue is that the outside world doesn’t quite accept them all for what they are and it becomes a much larger issue when Professor Marston decides that he wants to make a comic-book.

And what comic-book would that be? Oh yeah, a little thing called Wonder Woman. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

“Babe? You want up next?”

What’s so interesting about Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is that it starts off feeling and looking exactly like one of these charming, relatively entertaining, yet safe biopics that we see too often. There’s soft jokes, a little bit of character-development, a great sense of time and place, and a smidgen of conflict in the air. But nothing too much, really; it’s almost as if writer/director Angela Robinson is doing this on-purpose to put us in the this safe-place where we won’t be expected to really think long and hard about much.

But then, in case you couldn’t tell, it all changes. Olivia walks through the door and into these two character’s lives, and suddenly, there’s sex, nudity, whips, chains, gimps, and a whole lot of kink. But no matter what, it actually still stays interesting and never strays away from being heartfelt and humane, even though, at times, the movie can get a little comical. Then again, it’s also the rare movie about BDSM that doesn’t poke jokes at it, or seem to ever have a laugh about that, either; supposed respectful pieces of art like Fifty Shades of Grey likes to think that they respect and appreciate those who like a little kink in their sex-lives, but really, mocks it in certain ways, too.

Here, there’s a certain deal of love and respect for this kind of sexual-healing and it’s nice to see. For once.

It’s also nice to see Robinson actually focus in on these characters, their relationships with one another, and how they all change, over time, when things begin to get hot-and-heavy. Robinson could have easily made this into a movie about how these characters feel about getting whipped and gagged, and how they try to hide it from the rest of the world, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about love, and how Marston himself uses these two lovely women in his life to make sense of the evil in the world, just when it becomes almost too over-bearing. It’s also a movie about life imitating art, and vice versa, where we see what happens to Marston’s real, personal life, and how that affected a lot of the material as seen in the Wonder Woman comics.

“Don’t speak. I know what you’re thinking.” (Why am I always referencing this damn song?)

It’s not all that ground-breaking in terms of the biopic-genre, but hey, it works. Why fix something that ain’t broke, right?

Anyway, Professor Marston also features one of the first performances, in probably ever, where I actually liked and appreciated Luke Evans’ presence. He’s always been charming, hot, and likable, it’s just that he’s never seemed to have been given the one role to really launch him beyond “hot and sexy British dude”. As Professor Marston, he not only gets to use that charm to the fullest-extent, but show a great deal of heart and humanity, which can sometimes put this character in a negative light. Which is fine, because it’s the kind of biopic that isn’t afraid to ask if this guy was a sleaze-ball, or a genuinely smart and intelligent man who did a lot for the world of comics and women, and who also appreciated a little bit more fun in the sack. Either way, he’s an interesting fella and it’s nice to see Evans get the chance to do some real work, for once.

Same goes for both Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote who are both pretty great. Hall’s a strong, commanding force whenever she’ up on-screen, whereas Heathcote feels sweet and shy, but also smart in every which way. Together, they represent a little part of Marston’s life, but they aren’t just there to be the women that he occasionally bangs – they have lives, hopes, dreams, and ambitions too that, hopefully, one day, they’ll be to achieve. There’s a slight feminist-angle which doesn’t seem to get fully explored as well as it probably should have, but it’s there, and it’s telling us that all women deserve an equal-chance at a career and love.

So can we at least progress, people?

Consensus: Smart, tender, and character-based, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman isn’t as safe of a biopic as it looks, with solid performances and an interesting-angle on sex and humanity, overall.

8 / 10

Always takes three to tango. And three to get ball-gagged and whipped, cause hey, someone’s gotta help.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Starlet (2012)

The bonds that can be forged by simple misunderstandings.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) is an actress down on her luck, short on cash, and in need of a new friend in her life, because her supposed one, Melissa (Stella Maeve), just ain’t cuttin’ it and her boyfriend (James Ransone), isn’t helping matters, either. But one day, Jane gets a surprisingly new lease on life and her apartment when she accidentally stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself, but also makes attempts to befriend the old lady who sold her the thermos in the first place. The old lady turns out to be named Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and although she doesn’t quite know what the hell Jane wants with her, she’s not totally against her wanting to hang around with her day and hearing all of her stories of the good old days. It not only adds a little more hope to Sadie’s later days, but gives Jane a newfound love and appreciation for the sometimes unfortunate, and rather disturbing, life she currently lives.

Put some clothes on, girls! It’s not that hot in L.A.!

Cause who knows? Maybe it will all get better.

Sean Baker does something brilliant here in Starlet, and while it’s no doubt a small aspect of the film, it’s a glaring example of why he’s one of the best writers and directors out there today. At the center of the film, we have Jane, a relatively idiotic woman who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a job, or even a career; she spends most of her time at home, smoking pot, yelling, listening to trash rap, and caring for her little dog. We get an idea that she’s an actress, but we never actually see her, well, acting.

Until we do. It’s one of the biggest and most well-kept secrets in the whole movie and the ultimate reveal of what Jane does, and how far Baker’s willing to go with it, not only took me by surprise, but had me looking at this character, and the whole movie a whole lot differently. It’s not so much of a twist, as much as it’s just a small, little secret hidden in plain-view – some may have been able to figure it out right away, but for some of us, it wasn’t all that easy. Either way, it’s another sure sign of Baker’s great writing and directing style that, no matter how much he depends on his naturalistic look and feel, the man still has some tricks up his sleeves.

That, and he’s also still a great storyteller, without it ever seeming like he’s trying too hard at all.

And with Starlet, Baker gets a lot of mileage out of just letting the camera sit there and do most of the work for him. He follows these sometimes annoying characters, but Baker never seems like he’s judging any of them for a single second; even Mikey and Melissa, the somewhat evil and conniving couple who live with Jane, just seem ridiculously dumb and not necessarily like they’re out to get any person in particular. Baker is smart in giving us a great idea of who each of these characters are, not just by telling us through a story, but just by their actions, and it’s as much of a testament to the actors, as it is to Baker himself.

That said, the performances here are all pretty great. Dree Hemingway, who’s beauty commands your attention with every frame, seems like a natural for the screen, just as her mother was. But in this case, there’s a much more dangerous and rather dark mystery about her that makes her compelling, as we never full well if we can trust her to have good morals, or if she’s just too dumb to function, too. Regardless, Hemingway is great here and makes Jane a whole lot more interesting, packed with a heart, than she had any right to be.

Mariel?

But the real stand-out here is newcomer Besedka Johnson as Sadie who, unfortunately, gave her first and last performance here.

But it’s a beautiful performance from Johnson, because it never seems like she’s acting. This was probably done so on purpose, hence why she was chosen for the role, but it really works in Starlet‘s favor – there are genuinely moments where it seems like Johnson is just being herself and forgetting that there was a camera, somewhere, out there, filming her every move and action. The chemistry she has with Hemingway is beautiful and while the movie does an awful bit of navel-gazing by the end and almost forgets about plot, them two are so extraordinary to watch, it’s hard to complain too much.

Or at all.

Consensus: With a thoughtful direction and attention to the performances, Starlet is a small, subdued, but surprisingly smart character-study of two women who couldn’t be further different from one another.

8 / 10

“So, uh, what’s your favorite color?”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Take Out (2004)

Tip your drivers, people. Please.

Ming Ding (Charles Jang) is an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a Chinese take-out shop in New York City. On a typical day, Ming puts up with a lot of crap from customers who are either too rude, or too unappreciative of someone of his delivery-skills. But because Ming knows very little English and is just trying to get by, he doesn’t care too much – he just continues to ride on, delivering treats to random New Yorkers, and getting very small tips, whenever they do come around. Problem is, Ming is behind with payments on his huge debt to the smugglers who brought him to the United States and he’s got until the end of the day to deliver the money that is due. After borrowing most of the money from friends and relatives, Ming realizes that the remainder must come from the day’s delivery tips. In order to do so, he must make more than double his average daily income.

“America blows, man. Everyone’s so angry here.”

You’ve got to love co-writer and co-director Sean Baker, who did this movie with Shih-Ching Tsou, for not ever bucking to convention. Mostly all of his movies focus on the outliers of society, the ones we don’t normally see as the main focus in a full-length feature-flick, where they aren’t just given the spotlight, but the ample opportunity to show their side of the story and the argument that sometimes comes with having a story be all about them. It’s also always interesting of Baker to never make it seem like his movie’s following any certain conventional plot, or story – mostly, we’re just plopped-down in the middle of someone’s life, where we are forced to sit there, watch, observe, and take them all in for what they are. Of course, this can be awfully intimate and uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the raw beauty that Baker gets away with in all of his flicks.

And Take Out is no exception. In fact, it’s one of his better ones.

By focusing on the small, meek, mild and awfully quiet Ming, Baker is able to tell us a great deal about this person’s life, without really telling us much of anything at all. He goes about his day, delivering food, getting crappy tips, and constantly wondering if he’s going to have enough cheddar to pay-off his dealers. We of course learn more about his life over the course of the movie, but Baker gives us character-development in smart, small ways that sort of happen without us ever really knowing; just sitting there and watching him gives us a better sense of the rhythm in which his life is lived.

Look at all that effort! Give him a big tip! Come on!

And therefore, we are not only more sympathetic to Ming himself and his situation, but many more out there just like Ming in our country, trying their best to survive, with very little resources. So often we see in today’s day and age the criticism of immigrants coming over to the U.S., soaking up benefits, taking up space, and generally taking away jobs from those natives who deserve it the most (this is all ridiculous and false, mind you), but little do these irate and pissed-off people know and understand that what they are doing, what they are trying to accomplish is, above all else, the American Dream. They, just like you or I, want to get by, be safe, happy, and have a little bit of money in their pockets, in hope of a better future for themselves, or their loved-ones.

It’s the notion of what this country was built on and to rob others of that privilege, is awful.

Take Out is the kind of movie that shows this, but never quite hits us over-the-head with it; Baker’s way too smart to really stand on a soapbox and preach to the rest of the world. Instead, he gives us a small, contained, but always compelling feature about someone doing what they can to survive and make a life, in the Big Apple, and not quite knowing full-well what’s going on around him. He’s just a small fish, in a very large pond and there’s a lot more out there like him.

Consensus: With a naturalistic look and feel, Take Out never feels too stylistically challenging, but is better off for that, giving us a glimpse into the life of an interesting, yet, all too sad individual who is far too similar to others out there in the world.

8.5 / 10

Just another day in Chinatown. With lots and lots of rain.

Photos Courtesy of: Take Out the Movie.com

Una (2017)

We’ll always have Junior year.

Una (Rooney Mara) arrives at a warehouse one day, looking for an older man by the name of Ray (Ben Mendelsohn). But why? Turns out, the two had something of a relationship when she was 13 and it lead to him not only being incarcerated, but even let out, forced to become a sex-offender, and move on with a different life, name, and in another part of the country. However, he wasn’t able to get away from Una, and on this one fateful day, where it seems like corporate has come in and promised to make cuts on certain employees, Ray doesn’t really have much of any time for this. But it also gets him wondering if he still loves Una for the little girl that she was and the awfully ruined and disturbed one that she is today. After all, he’s moved on and married, whereas she’s a drug and sex-addict, who seems to be using it all to mask her pain. Will she ever get over him? Will he ever get over her?

“So, uh, we doing this?”

The original play in which Una is based-off of, Blackbird, is a very interesting, riveting and smart piece of writing. It’s all in one room, with literally only two characters, yelling and speaking to one another and never losing sight of the heart and humanity in the desperation of these two lives. It’s why bringing the stage to the screen, can be a bit problematic.

Cause sure, while it would have been nice to have Mara and Mendelsohn in one room, doing the same thing that the play did, it’s different here, as director Benedict Andrews has a lot more time and money to work with. Meaning, he now gets the opportunity to tell the story in different ways, go to different places, and do whatever he wants with it, so long as he keeps the heart and sadness of the original. And while he definitely gets a bit too ambitious, who cares?

The heart and the sadness is still there and that’s all that matters.

Also what matters, is that we have two of the best actors working today, together and playing ridiculously challenging characters that we don’t get to see too often on the big-screen. Though her British-accent is a little wary, Mara is great as the lonely, self-destructive and beautiful Una; there’s always a huge frown on her face and you can never get past the fact that she’s lived a hard life where she doesn’t know if she’s loved, or ever will be again. Though we get tons of flashbacks to help us see what happened with the supposed “relationship” she had with the much-older Ray, the movie didn’t need it, as we can clearly see through the  long, winding and tearful eyes of Mara. It’s one of her more disturbing and compelling performances, yet, because of the small-distribution of the film, many won’t see it.

Clearly doesn’t stick out in a warehouse full of hot, sweaty men.

But they should. Not just for her, either, as Mendelsohn, as expected, gives another one of his great performances as a truly despicable, yet somehow, also somewhat sympathetic guy who knows the mistakes he’s made and does what he can to get past it. The movie paints him in a challenging light, where we never know if he’s truly just a dirt-bag, or a guy who actually fell deeply in love with a 13-year-old; by the end of the movie, we’re still not sure. What we are sure of is that Mendelsohn, once again, gives us a person we love to have, but hate to love, and it’s why it’s always a treat seeing him on the big-screen.

Together, the two create something of a tragic relationship that the movie tries to move around and make more difficult with subplots about big corporations, scandals, courtrooms, and family-dramas, but at the center of it all, is these two and they are what’s worth watching above all else. Andrews direction, mind you, should also be noted for the fact that the movie’s quite sleek and beautiful, but in a rather gritty way that never lets you forget about the darkness surrounding each of these character’s lives, whether they want to see it or not. The movie never lets us forget that, while we are seeing something of a love story, we are also seeing a story about two sad lives, who were once happy, in love, and together, were taken apart and had their lives ruined forever, because of it.

Is it a true love story? Honestly, who knows. And that’s the small, unfortunate beauty of Una.

Consensus: Anchored by two amazing performances from Mendelsohn and Mara, Una‘s a sad, honest, and rather frank tale of love, tragedy, sex, pedophilia, and romance, that sometimes gets a bit too carried away with other subplots, but almost doesn’t matter when the core-material is this compelling.

8 / 10

Kiss! Or don’t! I don’t know what I want!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire