Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri(11/23/2017)

It has been almost ten years since Martin McDonagh made his feature film debut with a little crime film called In Bruges and yet he’s still established himself as a pretty strong voice in pop culture just the same.  I wasn’t expecting much from In Bruges, a movie that was basically advertised as a Tarantino riff of modest ambition, and while I didn’t immediately love that movie as much as some people it did certainly exceed my expectations.  It was a movie that managed to easily transition between some legitimate psychological turmoil on the part of its characters and this very biting and subversive sense of humor.  At the end of the day I don’t know that it quite had the substance it needed underneath it all, but it’s a movie that’s improved my memory more than I would have expected.  His sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, went all in on that subversive sense of humor and pushed it into a place of meta-textual anarchy that proved to be a little too messy and too crazy for its own good.  Despite how nutty that movie was it didn’t actually seem to leave much of an impression on the culture and in many ways his newest film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a more direct continuation of what McDonagh started with In Bruges but also feels generally weightier more focused than that movie.

As the title implies the film takes place in and around the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri and follows a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a high school aged son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges).  Mildred is at this point a rather prickly woman who’s done taking crap from anyone and is at this point reeling from the violent death of her daughter Angela (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Newton) seven months prior.  Angry that the town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make progress on her case she decides to rent three billboards on the outskirts of the town which read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” respectively.  In town this causes a great controversy, in no small part because Willoughby is a very popular figure in town despite the fact that a lot of his deputies seem to act like dictatorial monsters, especially one named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dangerously stupid little monster who is alleged to have tortured an African American suspect in a prior incident.  What follows is a standoff of sorts between this determined woman and a police force that is completely unprepared to look itself in the mirror.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has widely been hailed as a remarkably topical movie given that it’s about a strong willed woman trying to make sure a rapist is held accountable.  It’s not too hard to read the film that way, but there are a couple issues with that.  For one, while sexual assaults often aren’t taken as seriously as they should be by law enforcement, it’s usually less extreme cases like date rapes that have trouble getting investigated or rapes that occur in areas that are backed up by bureaucracies.  A white girl being forcibly raped by a stranger and then viciously killed and burned alive in a rural area is not one of those cases, that’s the kind of thing that usually does get significant police and media attention.  The movie does acknowledge this; the first thing that Willoughby does upon hearing about the billboards is try to go to Mildred and explain everything he’s done to investigate the case and the reasons why the trail went cold.  The film’s take on Willoughby himself is a bit complicated.  He doesn’t seem like a “bad” guy exactly but he does allow bad things to happen through a sort of obliviousness.  He willfully employs Dixon even though he’s plainly both a racist and an incompetent officer to boot basically just because he doesn’t have the vision to improve on the town’s status quo.

The film works better if viewed less as a specific expose of how police handle sexual assault cases and more as a metaphor for the process of what’s needed for citizens to hold their governments accountable.  The dysfunction going on at the Ebbing sheriff’s office plainly runs deeper than their handling of this one case and Mildred makes it clear throughout the movie that in addition to her anger that no arrests have been made in her daughter’s case she also frequently points out that the deputies spend their time harassing African Americans and is in general need of reform but no one seems to do anything simply because the like Willoughby and never seem to think to challenge him either out of some kind of courtesy or fear.  The film suggests that sometimes “good” people need to be exposed in order to make needed change happen and that this kind of protest often involves sacrifice and determination and that there’s no guaranty of accomplishing what you set out to do.  The film is also interested in the possibility of improving certain people and reconciling them to a certain side, which is where it perhaps runs into trouble.  There’s a redemption arc here for one of the characters which is going to be a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people.

This should not, however, be mistaken for some dry take on civil action, it is still a Martin McDonagh film with all of the irreverence that this implies.  Much of the film’s entertainment value comes from it the cleverly biting and often politically incorrect lines that McDonagh puts in Mildred’s mouth as well as Dixon’s shameless incompetence.  If you’ve watched the red band trailer for the film or you’ve seen other movies by McDonagh or his brother John Michael McDonagh you probably know what to expect from the movie’s humor and it’s brought to life very well by the cast, who adeptly manage to strike the right balance between serious naturalism and heightened comedy.  I would caution people that this isn’t necessarily a laugh a minute comedy so much as a dark story with frequent moments of piercing wit.  The film also loses some steam in its second half when the shtick starts to wear off a bit and that somewhat questionable redemption arc starts to kick in.  That McDonagh is a playwright originally becomes clear as the movie goes on.  It’s not that if feels locationally condensed or conspicuously talky but the themes all present themselves and the plotlines all come together in a way that feels self-contained in a way that a stage play would.  Still, it’s a bold piece of work for the most part which finds a unique way to present its themes and is for the most part well worth seeing.

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Last Flag Flying(11/19/2017)

The “New Hollywood” era of the late 1960s and 1970s was a marvelous moment in filmmaking, the one by which most serious American films today is judged against, and it’s also a great entry point for budding film buffs to get into movies that are more challenging than the mainstream blockbusters we’re often fed today.  That was certainly true for me and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did a lot to shape my interest in cinema and the deeper I went the more I was able to see the importance in some of the names that never really went on to be major institutions like Arthur Penn and Bob Rafelson.  However, if there was one fairly major figure from that era whose films I was never quite able to get into it was probably Hal Ashby.  I can see some of the boundaries he broke and I can see his influence but he sure made a lot of “classic” film which I don’t actually particularly enjoy watching.  His cult classic Harold and Maude always just sort of struck me as a redo of what made Mike Nichols’ The Graduate work, Shampoo sort of bored me, and while some of his later 70s work like Coming Home and Being There are neat movies that both have their charms they still aren’t really movies that sing to my soul.  The same sort of goes for his 1973 film The Last Detail, a movie I know I’ve seen but which I don’t particularly remember outside of the general plot setup and a few scenes. I had meant to give that film a re-watch in preparation for my viewing of its new unofficial sequel to that movie from director Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying, but I didn’t manage to fit that into my schedule but now I wish I had because Linklater’s film has certainly renewed my interest in these characters.

Last Flag Flying is not a direct sequel to Ashby’s The Last Detail, but it is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan which was published in 2005 to be a follow-up to his previous novel which was the basis for Ashby’s film.  The character names are different here, possibly for legal reasons (hence “unofficial sequel”) and they’re being played by different actors but it’s very clear that the people here are meant to be echoes of the characters from The Last Detail plus thirty years of aging.  It begins with Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) walking into a bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and re-introducing himself.  He tells Nealon that he spent two years in the brig after having been escorted by him and his fellow soldier, but that since then he’s settled into civilian life and actually has a military-adjacent job in New Hampshire.  Deciding to catch up Shepard drives Nealon out over to a nearby Baptist church, where Nealon comes to realize that the reverend speaking is none other than Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburn), the other soldier who escorted him to the brig thirty years prior.  After catching up with Mueller Shepard explains his reasons for re-uniting the three men: his wife had recently died of breast cancer and his son had apparently enlisted in the marines the prior year and was killed in action two days prior in Bagdad.  The three then decide to go with him to Arlington cemetery to oversee the funeral and provide support.

Though the names and actors have changed it isn’t hard to tell what each character’s counterpart from The Last Detail is supposed to be.  Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepard despite having matured into a rather plain suburbanite is plainly based on Randy Quaid’s Laurence “Larry” Meadows, the young and possibly disturbed young man being escorted to the brig for stealing $40 from a collection plate.  Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon is plainly meant to be Jack Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky, and he remains an aimless hedonist who has spent the last thirty years running a dive bar and chasing women.  And Laurence Fishburn’s Richard Mueller is meant to be a vision of what became of Otis Young’s Richard Mulhall, who unlike Nealon has left his hard drinking ways behind and found a new life as a respected reverend and family man.

These characters have changed in a number of ways since their time in Vietnam but also stayed the same in certain notable ways which is probably the main tension of the film.  Linklater has said that he was inspired to make the film after he caught up with some of his old college baseball friends while researching his last movie Everybody Wants Some!! and making certain observations about what these reunions of old friends are like.  At a certain point it becomes, in typical Linklater fashion, a bit of a hangout movie in which these men just talk to each other, catch up and think back on the Vietnam experience and its similarities and differences from the war in Iraq.  Here Mueller and Nealon take on a perhaps more obvious role as the sort of angel and devil over Shepard’s shoulder with Mueller suggesting he follow the usual process of military decorum and mourning while Nealon encourages him to rebel against the marine corps who killed his son and conduct a funeral devoid of the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral.  Added to the mix is the character of Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), one of the deceased son’s fellow soldiers who accompanies the men on part of their journey and adds the perspective of a younger generation of marines in some interesting discussions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Amazon and Lionsgate have opted to release Last Flag Flying in late November when it is likely to get lost in the shuffle of flashier prestige films with hookier premises because it’s certainly another very solid entry in the Richard Linklater filmography.  The connection to The Last Detail is ultimately something that shouldn’t distract the viewer too much as the movie stands alone and is ultimately a film more in line with Linklater’s usual style than that of Hal Ashby.  Like Linklater’s other movies Last Flag Flying does a great job of placing its audience into the shoes of a certain kind of people and allowing them to observe their interactions like a fly on a wall.  The characters here are a bit more blue-collar than some of his usual characters and there’s no obvious Linklater analogue here like there are in some of his other movies but that doesn’t seem to hold him back from presenting interesting and three dimensional characters and he proves to have unexpected insights (possibly Darryl Ponicsan’s contribution) into the meaning of military service.  It doesn’t have the entertainment value of something like Dazed and Confused (though parts of it are funny), or the audacity of something like Boyhood, or the universality of the Before trilogy, but it does still work in much the way some of his other movies do and continues this little win streak he’s suddenly amassed.

Lady Bird(11/18/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The thing about coming of age movies is that they’re written by people who have already come of age looking back at their youths.  This means that they’re generally set in the past, often about ten or twenty years ago, which just so happens to be the peak period for an entire generation’s nostalgia interest.  That’s why George Lucas set American Graffiti in the early 60s, why Richard Linklater set Dazed and Confused in the late 70s, why Noah Baumbach set The Squid and the Whale in the 80s, and why… I actually can’t think of too many set in the 90s (The Wackness, I guess) but you get the point.  Well, after years and years of watching other people’s memories of bygone eras things have finally come around: I’m finally old enough that they’re making nostalgic coming of age movies about the era when I was actually in high school.  The new film Lady Bird, directed by 34 year old Greta Gerwig, is about the high school experience of someone from the class of 2003 and while that is still technically about three years older than me (class of 2006) it’s still basically the era I knew compete with watching news about the Iraq War, seeing people talk on non-ubiquitous flip phones, and hearing Justin Timberlake songs get played at parties.  It’s kind of freaking me out, but I won’t hold that against the movie, which is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed.

The film is set in 2002 and 2003 and takes place over the course of the senior year of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on going by the self-applied nickname “Lady Bird” for some teenagery reason.  Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, a city she does not have much appreciation for, and goes to a catholic school despite her parents only barely being able to afford it.  Lady Bird is a character who could be called “quirky” but she’s not quirky in an unbelievable indie-movie sort of way, she’s more quirky in the way that brainy high school students actually behave when trying to find their own identity.  She wears red hair dye and occasionally rebels (though not too wildly) against the rigidity of the nuns and priests who run her school.  Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf ) can be a bit much to handle and her father Larry (Tracy Letts) often struggles financially and otherwise while acting as something of a “good guy” when dealing with Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is kind of a hard movie to talk about.  Many of its qualities are readily apparent but sound kind of mundane if not cliché when their described on the page.  Much of its appeal comes down to little details that make it feel very true to life and just generally make its central character a bit more… I don’t know that lovable is the word (at the end of the day she is still a dumb teenager) but certainly more fully realized and human.  Saoirse Ronan’s performance is one of the movie’s biggest assets.  I had assumed that Ronan was done playing teenagers after having played someone in their early twenties or thereabouts in Brooklyn but she seems able to slide right back into playing an 18 year old despite being 23.  Lady Bird, the character, is in some ways less a real person than the self-image that people construct of a sort of ideal of what they would have been in high school if they could live it all over again.  Fun and arty, cool but not necessarily part of the unpleasant “in-crowd” for the most part, extremely self-confident and rebellious but not is a way that’s really dangerous.  Much of the film focuses on Lady Bird going through typical teenage stuff over the course of her senior year like making new friends and going through boyfriends, but what the movie ultimately comes down to is her relationship with her parents and especially her mother.

This is actually where the film both gets interesting and also kind of falls short for me.  It’s not unusual for these coming of age films to feature conflicts between teenagers and their parents but usually the films implicitly side with the parents and view the teenager’s rage against them to be the result of a youthful failure to appreciate legitimate parental concerns, and if they don’t it’s because the parents are straight up abusive or something.  Here Lady Bird’s mother doesn’t exactly seem like a terrible person but she does kind of suck.  She’s someone who constantly nagging her daughter over goofy little things like how quickly she washes her school uniforms while being seemingly uninterested in helping her with the bigger problems in her life.  The mother’s key flaw seems to be the gigantic chip she has on her shoulder about money and class.  She’s constantly going on about how the family is “poor” even though they really only appear to be, at worst, lower middle class and this also leads her to have an incredibly snobby attitude about public schools and anyone who’s actually poor.  This manifests itself in its worst way when she actively discourages her daughter in her ambitions and begins acting like a petulant child herself when Lady Bird ends up surpassing expectations.

The fact that I was actually on the side of the rebellious teenager by the end of the film is a big part of why the film’s ending didn’t quite work for me.  In some ways I feel like the movie should have just ended with Lady Bird getting on the airplane and left the conflict between her and her mother as this messy thing that simply isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon and will probably linger with the characters for years.  On some levels I do think Gerwig wanted that but for whatever reason she added on this little post false-ending coda about her first few days in college leading up to an attempt at reconciliation that frankly felt unearned.  If anything it was the mother who owed the daughter an apology and the notion of a college student who frankly has nothing to apologize for having some epiphany to be the bigger person and end the conflict just because she had a wild night or two.  Whether or not the movie sticks the landing though, this is plainly the best look at adolescence since Linklater’s Boyhood and is in many ways a joy to watch.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)(11/11/2017)/The Square(11/12/2017)

Every year I follow the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and every year I get excited.  2017’s festival didn’t seem overly notable while it was going on given that no one movie ever really stood out as being terribly important.  Everything seemed to just get a B or B+ from critics and for the most part people spent more time talking about Netflix than about the movies.  Still there were definitely a decent number of movies to look forward to and for a variety of reasons it seems that we’re actually having something of a banner year for Cannes competitors actually showing up in American theaters in a timely manner.  By my count eight of the nineteen movies that played in the main competition have gotten American releases including two movies that showed up in my city just this week: BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Square.  Coincidentally those happen to be the two movies that ended up taking the Palme d’Or and the Gran Prix, which are the first place and second place at the festival.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was the movie that seemed to get the most enthusiastic reviews while the festival was going on, but it was The Square that Pedro Almodóvar and his jury ended up selecting, a decision that most analysts thought was a surprise but one that made sense to them in retrospect.  These are both big and important movies that probably deserve to be looked at individually, but the novelty of being able to look at the top two films from Cannes side by side (plus, admittedly, the pressure to avoid getting behind on my reviews) inspired me to look at them together and decide whether the jury got it right.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is set in France during the 1990s and focuses on the Parisian branch of the famous AIDS activist organization ACT UP.  It begins with some new members being inducted and trained in the group’s mission and methodology but the film doesn’t necessarily focus in on those new members and instead becomes a true ensemble piece which becomes something of a procedural look at a year or so of the group’s activities including a number of scenes where you get to be a fly on the wall as the members debate strategy and group priorities.  The Square by contrast has more of a central character but also largely functions as a look into the inner-workings of a community of sorts, namely a modern art museum in Stockholm.  Our focus is a guy named Christian (Claes Bang) a curator who is getting the museum ready for its newest exhibit, a conceptual piece called “The Square,” which is a square drawn in the center of a room with a plaque next to it which reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”  While prepping for this exhibit Christian suddenly finds himself distracted from a number of personal and professional problems as he obsesses over retrieving his cell phone and wallet that were stolen from him during a pickpocketing.

It is probably worth noting that neither of these movies came from directors that I was eagerly awaiting new films from.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was directed by a guy named Robin Campillo, whose directorial output I’m not familiar with but who was a co-writer and editor on a 2008 Palme d’Or winning film called The Class which I liked quite a bit but which never really made a big splash when it left the Croisette and went out into the world.  That film followed a teacher as he taught French literature to a class of urban students over the course of a year and the activist meetings in his newest film definitely share a DNA with the classroom sequences that made up the majority of that film.  The Square’s director, Ruben Östlund, is probably the guy the film world was more excitedly waiting for a new film from.  Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, was an extremely well received satire about a man who finds himself confronting his own shortcomings while on a ski trip with his family after he runs like a coward when his family is put in danger’s way.  I got what that film was doing and could see why people liked it but it didn’t really do much for me; I never really found it all that funny, I thought its sub-plots were unneeded distractions, and I don’t think its interest in the fractured male ego ever really went anywhere after the initial setup.

The Square, worked a lot better for me than Force Majeure in no small part because its humor just seemed a bit more on point but also because I found its anxieties more relatable.  I don’t have a family and I make no claims to being some courageous protector, so the concept of being exposed as a coward does not exactly hit home with me.  The Square on the other hand is about the prospect of being exposed as a jerk, as someone whose behavior doesn’t come close to matching your ideals and who maybe isn’t as brilliant and in control as you think you are.  The main character, Christian, seems like he should be the platonic ideal of an upper-class European.  He’s wealthy, attractive, intellectual, and somewhat powerful, and yet heavy rests the crown because he seems to spend a lot of the film trying to maintain his reputation despite everything going wrong.  Christian is not an asshole exactly; he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone and he generally doesn’t have evil intentions but he proves to be rather oblivious to the damage he occasionally causes and also proves to be rather flexible in his ideals when put to the test.  His solution to getting his wallet stolen, dropping a threatening letter into every mailbox in a low-rent apartment building, is a pretty good example of this.  It’s not exactly illegal and not entirely aggressive, but he certainly isn’t thinking about the distress he’s causing everyone else in that building and this comes back to bite him in a big way.

Of course Christian’s first world problems would seem to be even more pathetic when compared to the ACT UP members chronicled in BPM (Beats Per Minute), who are fighting very hard for their ideals but also for their very lives.  Campillo’s movie is at its best when it sits back and observes these activists’ interact with each other and plan their various protests.  These scenes capture both the youthful passion of these activists but also doesn’t depict them as immature fools and also has an interesting ear for the tempo of the kind of arguments that emerge in these settings.  The focus of the movie is ultimately on the people rather than the politics, the various issues being debated like the speed at which clinics share results with the public are not really explained to the audience and the movie isn’t necessarily trying to make much of a case for how effective ACT UP’s brand of confrontational demonstration were in the fight for AIDS research.  Where the film starts to falter a bit is when the group breaks up a bit and we start observing these characters act as individuals rather than as a group.  I’m thinking particularly of the film’s third act where we watch a character named Sean Dalmazo as his health deteriorates.  I wouldn’t call these scenes bad at all but they are a lot more conventional than the movie that surrounds them and feels a lot more like a generic tragic approach to the AIDS epidemic of the kind we used to see out of 90s movies.

If BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a very heartfelt and emotional movie, The Square is a bit brainier and leaves you with a bit more to interpret and dissect.  Key amongst its mysteries is what to make of the fictional art exhibit with which it shares its title.  Christian seems to view “The Square” as a piece with a rather utopian vision of human cooperation but I think he might be missing the larger point of the piece.  The plaque on The Square does read that “within [The Square] we all share equal rights and obligations,” but the implication there is that outside of The Square those lofty ideals are far from guaranteed and more than likely the only reason that those things apply inside The Square is because it sits in the middle of a big well-funded museum with a security team.  In some ways that feels like a bit of a metaphor for what these museum curators have always been doing: creating a bubble where various principles exist, but are contained, and then not putting a whole lot of thought into what happens outside of that bubble.  This pretty clearly makes the characters in The Square sort of the polar opposites of the ones in BPM (Beats Per Minute) who are if nothing else very dedicated to their ideals and are insistent to the point of sometimes being obnoxious and are very much trying to spread them into the wider world.

So, do I ultimately agree with the choice that the jury made at Cannes?  Yeah, in this head to head matchup I do, and of the eight films from that festival’s main competition I would say I liked The Square the best.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that The Square is quite the instant classic that some other Palme d’Or winners have been.  It is, however, a very clever and very entertaining movie that manages to critique the “elites” in a smart way that doesn’t resort to overstatement or unfair pitchfork waving.  This is not to say that BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t also a film that’s well worth your time.  Those scenes of the activists debating are great but the movie as a whole never quite manages to find an overall structure that really brings it together.  Still, it’s a fine movie and certainly a more worthy companion to the great ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague than the indie/Hollywood depiction of the era Dallas Buyers Club.  However, The Square is the more creative movie and the movie that jumps out at me and which I can see myself revisiting more often.  In some ways I think I might “get” Ruben Östlund now in a way I didn’t before and might even want to give Force Majeure another look.  Ultimately though these are both fine works of world cinema worthy of your time

BPM (Beats Per Minute):

The Square:

Thor: Ragnarok(11/8/2017)

The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other.  Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.”  While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.”  But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now.  Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last.  Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them.  If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World.  That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours.  Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.

The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War.  It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron.  This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard.  For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected.  Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie.  Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life.  Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok.  Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard.  Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.

The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline.  Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to.  As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months.  This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk.  That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it.  Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.

Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard.  We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume.  Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here.  Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward.  As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT.  The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach.  The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.

Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief.  At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue.  For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance.  Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard.  This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating.  If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way.  It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does.  I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service.  It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer(11/4/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Plot Spoilers

There are weird filmmakers and then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who’s proven to be one of the more outlandish voices in modern cinema and who has managed to bring his curious visions to the screen on a larger scale than I would have expected without making any compromises.  Lathimos first emerged when his controversial 2009 Greek film Dogtooth showed up in Cannes and surprisingly won the Prix Un Certain Regard despite being a crazy disturbing movie.  It fascinated fans of international cinema so much that it even garnered a nomination the next year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, a choice that was almost certainly made by the special selecting committee.  His follow-up, Alps, was something of a sophomore slump.  People didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t really cause the stir of his nominal debut.  He did, however, rebound with his English Language debut The Lobster.  That movie didn’t fully work for me but it was certainly interesting and provocative and made me interested to see more.  Fortunately that “more” has arrived in the form of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, another English language film starring Colin Farrell and quite possibly his darkest film yet and that’s saying something.

The film looks at the life of a successful heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic).  The family is mostly happy despite a couple of strange quirks like Steven’s curious role-playing fetishes.  As the film begins Steven has recently reconnected with a strange sixteen year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose relation to Steven is not immediately clear.  He tells his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) that Martin is a classmate of his daughter with an interest in medicine who he’s been sort of mentoring, but he stills his wife that Martin is the son of a former patient of his who ended up dying in a car accident.   Wherever it was that Steven first encountered Martin it becomes clear that Martin is more and more finding his way into Steven’s life whether Steven wants him to or not and when his son mysteriously stops being able to walk it becomes all the more urgent to understand who or what Martin is and find out just what it takes to get rid of him.

This movie is basically impossible to talk about meaningfully without getting into spoilers so I’m going to get right to it.  The title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who found himself invoking the wrath of the goddess Artemis after he unknowingly kills a deer that was under her protection and was eventually forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to satisfy her, thus allowing his troops to move on to the Trojan War.  A similar dilemma comes into place here when it’s revealed that Martin has cursed Steven’s wife, son, and daughter through some form of unexplained magic in retaliation for Steven having killed his father through malpractice and will let them all three of them die unless Steven chooses one of the three and kills them himself.  There are of course noticeable differences between the myth and the film, most importantly the fact that Steven is given less of an out than Agamemnon (who could have chosen to forgo going to Troy despite the incredible blow it would have dealt to his honor and reputation) was and unlike Agamemnon’s wife the wife here is ultimately on board with the sacrifice even if self-preservation is part of her reason.

The myth, at least in Aeschylus’ rather influential telling of it, is something of an exercise in an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind.  Agamemnon’s wife never forgives him sacrificing their daughter and upon her husband’s return from the war she conspires to kill him and in turn her surviving children, Orestes and Electra conspire to kill her and are then only themselves saved from the furies through divine intervention.  Needless to say much of that isn’t paralleled in the movie so this probably shouldn’t be viewed as a complete one to one parallel of the myth but the film does have a similar interest in the morality of revenge and of what an eye for an eye truly means.  There’s a point in the film where Martin bites Steven on the arm and then suddenly bites his own arm similarly out of some kind of warped sense of needing to restore the balance of power.  I don’t, however, know that the film necessarily delves too deeply into the morality of this kind of revenge outside of the general ghastliness of Steven’s situation and perhaps the ending in which the family essentially turns the other cheek rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that the myth descended into.

I found the overall plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer fascinating and I also liked the way a lot of it was constructed.  The sticking point for me is probably the same thing that tripped me up about The Lobster: the way that Lathimos has his characters interact it weird and off-putting.  Where most writers and directors strive for conversational naturalism Lathimos is a filmmaker that tends to have his characters who speak in somewhat blunt and stilted dialogue and just do strange things when talking to each other.  This wasn’t as clear in Dogtooth, firstly because it was in a foreign language and secondly because it was assumed that the family at its center was a sort of aberrant cult in the middle of a world of otherwise normal people.  It also kind of made sense in The Lobster given that that movie was set in an otherworldly dystopia but was still a bit of a distraction that I pegged on Lathimos’ adjustment to making movies in English.  With his latest film I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and it’s increasingly hard to explain given that the movie seems to take place in the real world despite the supernatural element strange psychodrama that the principal characters are involved in.  It’s also distracting here because it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether it’s an important part of the puzzle that these characters are willing, for example, to discuss body hair and menstruation without any kind of filter.  Does that make some grand statement about the kind of people these are or is it just a quirky red herring?

This is not an insignificant problem, it makes it kind of hard to get a real grasp of the characters when their personalities are prone to swing a lot and that becomes an issue when much of a film’s appeal is in seeing how its characters are going to respond to a fantastical situation.  The benefit of the approach, I suppose, is that it primes you for the strangely casual way that the film introduces the supernatural at about the halfway point and also just that it adds flavor to the movie.  Was that worth it?  I don’t know but I wouldn’t say it was a deal breaker.  In many ways this is a film I maybe want to give another look before making a final judgment, but it seems like another bold film from a filmmaker who is doing things that few other people are doing right now in cinema.  It is however a movie that’s hard to pinpoint an audience for.  It’s certainly not a movie that I’m going to recommend to random movie-goers and even among cinephilles it’s going to be a film that’s hard to describe without spoiling, especially if I want to get across just how weird and dark the film can get.