Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS Starts Strong But Loses Its Way

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
(Dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)


Such a juicy premise: a hard as nails Missouri woman who rents three billboards alongside a country road to shame her town’s sheriff who has made no arrests in the wake of her daughter’s rape and murder.

And such a great cast: Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, the mother whose grief has solidified into anger over this injustice, Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby, who doesn’t take kindly to billboards that read “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?,” Samuel Rockwell as Officer Jason Dixon, who has a reputation of torturing black suspects; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage as a local car salesman who has a crush on Mildred.

Add to that the lush mountain scenery surrounding these characters which has locations shot in my home state of North Carolina standing in for the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, and you’ve got the elements to make up a tensely funny thriller, but roughly half way through it nearly two hour running time, the movie runs out of steam and doesn’t know where to go.

This happens right after the exit of one major player and the entrance of a suspect that initially appears to serve as misdirection, but ends up being the direction the film mistakenly decides to go with.

McDormand’s dour divorcée Mildred owns the movie’s best moments, but, like with everyone she interacts with, she never lets us get close to what she’s dealing with enough to really be on her side. Harrelson’s Willoughby draws more empathy as he’s dying of cancer and seems to have a good sincere head on his shoulders, but his character’s fate does the film no favors.

When the film shifts to the underwritten perspective of Rockwell's Officer Dixon, who we never learn whether he is guilty of racist activity or not, the narrative gets muddled, and a restlessness sets in.

Also, the presence of McDormand and composer Carter Burwell (who provides a solid yet instinctive score here) made me wish for the more purposeful (and wittier) approach of the actress and musical directors long-time collaborators, the Coen brothers.

Writer/Director McDonagh has had better luck with this sort of black comedy in his previous films, IN BRUGE and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, which also features Rockwell and Abbie Cornish who appears here as Harrelson’s wife. Here his screenplay strands its protagonists and possible antagonists in a pointless parable.

It’s not that every movie has to have a pat pay-off – many great films end ambiguously – but this particular story of these broken people who fight for justice that they likely will never get deserves a better thematic resolution than we get here.

More later...

Friday, November 17, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE Continues DC’s Struggle To Catch Up With Marvel

Now bombing at a multiplex near everyone:

JUSTICE LEAGUE (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2017)


The good news is that DC’s latest entry in their ongoing attempt to catch up with Marvel is a lot better than the fiasco that was BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (it has a snappier title too), but the bad news is that it’s still far from a great, or even good movie.

Zach Snyder, with help from Joss Whedon, who handled lengthy re-shoots, teams up Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Henry Cavill’s Superman (it can’t be a spoiler since everyone knew that the character was going to resurrected after his death in BVS, right?) to save the world from the clutches of the supervillain Steppenwolf (an all CGI-ed up Ciarán Hinds, but the result is a colossally anti-climatic mess.

However, perhaps due to Whedon’s involvement, there are flashes of wit – largely from The Flash, who comes off as the Spider-Man of this gang as he’s a wise-cracking kid who has the film’s best lines (I loved his quip, “Pet Semetary!” when Superman returns from the dead and is initially evil).

JUSTICE LEAGUE falls short in many departments, but one that stood out was that it has no third act. The first act is all set-up as it follows Affleck’s Bruce Wayne as he assembles the group, having walk and talks with Gadot’s Diana Prince and Momoa’s Arthur Curry (Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s alter egos), and roping in Miller’s Barry Allen, and Fisher’s Victor Stone (The Flash and Cyborg’s alter egos) into the fold.

The second act is the big battle between the Superfriends and Steppenwolf and his army of flying creatures called Parademons. This bloated sequence goes on and on with precious little excitement before it concludes with a wrap-up that reaks of lazy afterthought.

Trailers and TV spots were smart to play up the Wonder Woman angle as that’s the only character these DC movies has had any critical success with, and Gadot does have her moments here, but she’s overshadowed by Affleck and Cavill’s charmless and unconvincing takes on their iconic roles. Affleck gets a lot of flack for his acting, but I maintain that he’s not really a horrible actor; just an uninteresting one.

And after the lame likes of MAN OF STEEL, BVS, and now this, I’m still not buying Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. The British actor still feels miscast to me as the most famous superhero, as he never comes close to matching the power of Christopher Reeve, or even George Reeves’ corny version of the caped crusader from the old ‘50s Superman TV series (incidentally Affleck played Reeves in Allen Coulter’s 2006 drama HOLLYWOODLAND).

Of the other League members, Momoa and Fisher, as Aquaman and Cyborg (the character I know the least) didnt make much of an impression on me, but, as I mentioned before, Miller’s Flash steals the show. Then there are the supporting turns by Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Irons as Batman's tech saavy butler Alfred, which are serviceable but don't really add anything to the whole shebang.

With its 300 million dollar budget, one would expect better special effects, but the movie is marred by a lot of crummy CGI, which really dims the impact of much of the action. There have reports that the movie is underperforming, and may not recoup its production costs, which I hope will make DC reconsider letting Snyder direct its follow-up (or any other project for the brand for that matter).

Despite some signs of improvement, Snyder appears to be unable to make a decent superhero movie (or any other movie for that matter), even with the copious assistance from Whedon here. Marvel’s business model of inter-connecting story-lines, Easter eggs, and strategically placed cameos is obviously a lot harder to copy than they thought.

WONDER WOMAN showed that it is possible to make an effective stand-alone movie, so there may be salvation for the franchise yet, but it’s a safe bet that Marvel will have racked up a bunch more crowd-pleasers by the time DC really gets their shit together, that is, if they ever do.

More later...

Monday, November 13, 2017

Branagh's Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names - spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) - the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel - Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)


We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).