lady_bird_ver2A generation much younger than mine will surely look at Lady Bird and think of it as their The Breakfast Club. That’s how much I loved this movie. And to make it even better, it doesn’t rely on an eighty-five-year-old Judd Nelson pretending to be sixteen. Huzzah!

Saoirse Ronan, fast becoming one of my most favorite actors, plays the titular teenaged Lady Bird, a name she gives herself to replace the far more everyday Christine that her parents thought to give her. Sheldon’s mom, Laurie Metcalf, plays her mother. Laurie Metcalf is also excellent. I kinda love Laurie Metcalf. No, that’s not right. I love Laurie Metcalf. From the opening scene, we understand everything we need to know about their relationship. On a drive somewhere, they’ve been listening to the audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath. They share a tear together, and then fall into a horrendously bitter argument that ends with Lady Bird throwing herself out of the moving car.

There’s little plot beyond that, as such, and the story as it exists is based around Lady Bird’s final year of high school, how her relationships change and she grows up. Lady Bird longs to move from her Sacramento hometown to attend college on the East Coast. She hates her home life. She thinks she deserves better. She thinks that her family should appreciate this. She’s embarrassed by her surroundings. Her mother responds to this by reminding her of what she owes to her family, particularly her depressed but hard working father. And that’s pretty much it.

As light as that sounds, it’s heart-breaking, it’s funny, it’s real, it keeps true to its ideals throughout, and most importantly, it works. Everyone involved in this project is at the height of their game. The acting is first rate. Aside from the leads, Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s dad, and Beanie Feldstein as her best friend are equally great but for different reasons. Director Greta Gerwig is clever enough to not let any scene drag too long. She’ll happily cut where another director would be half way done. How so much talent to write, direct, act and still just be in her thirties is beyond me, and slightly infuriating.

So is there anything I didn’t like about it? Well, yes. There’s a toilet door that you’ll question why it wasn’t locked, and there’s a job interview confusion that felt a little there just because of plot. That’s it. I’m done. It was great. It was emotional enough to make me cry, and say Ooft! but not in the places I expected it to. If you haven’t seen it, you should do so now.

A triumph!



death wishAt the time of writing, there are exactly 297 days left in 2018. Which means that 2018 has 297 days left to release a 90 minute movie of Bruce Willis doing nothing more than sitting in the middle of a paddling pool full of creamed rice, wearing an Easter bonnet and making bibble-bibble noises by drumming his fingers over his lips. If 2018 delivers, and that movie actually comes out, there’s only a 50/50 chance that it will be more stupid than Death Wish.

It’s the remake no one was waiting for. Michael Winner’s 1974 original, starring Charles “Charlie” Bronson, was extremely problematic thanks to a brutal rape scene and the unquestioning siding with the vigilante. The solitary positive to be taken from this mess is that Eli Roth’s 2018 version chooses not to linger too much on the sexual violence. If this were an M Night Shyamalan movie, that would have been the twist.

Bruce Willis, almost ten years older than Bronson was at time of filming, plays Paul Kersey, who seems to be the only working surgeon in Chicago. At the start of the movie, before the opening credits, he’s interrupted from one operation to try to save another gunshot wound victim, something he ultimately fails to do. For a good fifteen minutes, the movie does it’s level best to make us care about him and his family; wife Lucy (Elizabeth Shue) and daughter Jordon (Camila Morrone) and ne’er-do-well brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio). It does so by allowing us to watch them have breakfast and be cute together. It doubles down on this by showing Jordan playing soccer while Paul confronts but fails to fight a profane parent on the sidelines.

Try as we might, we simply don’t care about those people so when the house is broken into by masked people related to the baddies from Home Alone, leaving Lucy dead and Jordan in a coma, aside from an unintentionally funny pan-of-boiling-water-to-the-face, it’s difficult to muster up anything more dramatic than a sigh.

Enter at this point Chicago’s only working detectives; Dean Norris (who you’ll remember being a million times better in Breaking Bad) and Kimberly Elise (who you’ll probably remember from nothing at all). They’re really bad at their jobs, which may or may not be intended to be funny, and after an amazingly strange post-funeral encounter with his father-in-law, Paul decides to investigate the crime himself and take matters into his own hands by becoming a cold-blooded killer and tactical mastermind after watching one gun shop commercial. Hey, he didn’t spend all those years at medical school NOT learning to how to hurdle dumpsters while escaping gunfire.

We all know how this is going to turn out. What’s disappointing is that Eli Roth does nothing to usurp that sense of premonition. The kills are largely dull and uninteresting, given his track record, and when we see a bowling bowl, inexplicably poised on a raised shelf, anyone who’s ever seen a Fred Quimby Tom & Jerry cartoon know that ball is destined to meet cranium before too long.

As predictable and stupid and bothersome as it is, it’s fatal crime is that it is terminally boring. Bruce Willis seems to be forgetting how to act. Eli Roth doesn’t know how to shock anymore. When the most memorable thing about the movie is Dean Norris’s attempts to stick to his diet, you know that you’re in trouble.

Okay 2018. Let’s see what you’ve got. 297 days and counting. Bibble-bibble.

annihilationThere’s something quite refreshing about seeing a familiar genre take a turn in a new direction. Last year’s Arrival was a great example of an alien movie that took linguistics and determinism, locked them in a room with a bottle of red and a Barry White CD and waited to see what happened. Annihilation very much continues in that manner. From the opening shots when we see what is presumably a meteor crash through a quiet oceanside lighthouse, we get the impression that we’re aiming for a quieter, more nuanced experience. Otherwise, it would be Grand Central Station that would’ve been totaled. Again. Maybe it’s not really about the meteor. Maybe it’s not really about the alien threat.

A quite fabulous Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former soldier who now teaches biology at a big fancy university. Her army husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac out of Star Wars), has been missing for a year and then suddenly returns a different man with no memory of where he’s been. When he takes violently ill, he’s rushed to hospital but on the way the ambulance is ambushed by some military types and the couple are transported to a base on the edge of a mysterious, fluid barrier called The Shimmer, which basically looks like the solution used for blowing bubbles, all rainbowy and oily. With Kane on death’s door thanks to the affects of a mission inside The Shimmer, it isn’t long before Lena and an all-female crew (but not in a 90s remake way) are tooled up for their own mission to discover what secrets The Shimmer holds and for Lena to (somehow) save her hubby. They’ll have to be quick, though, because everything on the wrong side of the barrier is changed, and dangerous. It’s all a bit like Evolution but without the laughs and lubrication (assuming you found Evolution funny (which it was)).

Fans of the Jeff VanderMeer novel will most likely be perplexed by this. Aside from the general concept, the movie bears no real resemblance to the book. The characters are named, the whole basis of The Shimmer is different, we start and end in completely different places. One has to wonder what VanderMeer thinks about this state of affairs, in between counting his piles of money.

Portman is entirely believable as the biologist, and we get a real sense of the pain she has to go through losing her husband twice. She’s supported by a strong supporting cast. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr Ventress, the base’s rather socially inept therapist, and Gina Rodriguez as the fiery Anya are in excellent form. Visually, for the most part, it’s stunning and Garland isn’t scared to take his time in the exploration of the environment or the themes. A two hour running time, particularly these days, seemed to be on the ponderous side for other audience members, but felt just about right to me.

Where it really works is in its exploration of depression. Lena has her demons, Anya is an addict, another member of the party is mourning the loss of a daughter, Ventress is a friendless mystery who barely seems to exist on any level outside of work. And here they all are, facing an unseen but quickly changing demon that lurks in the shadows, or under the water, or in the depths of the night. This is something that I didn’t really spot in the book, most likely because the book is about something completely different, but it’s front and center in the movie.

There’s a short section towards the middle where there’s a conversation about how everyone self-destructs in one way or another — be it drugs, alcohol, philandering, whatever. It’s an interesting observation and one that applies to all the characters in the film, and a nod to the sense of depression that permeates practically every scene. There’s an awkwardness about it all, from the position in which Lena wakes up, to Ventress’s posture in the opening, to any number of uneasy conversations. Everything is set to make us feel uncomfortable, and while the price for that is the arm’s length distance that’s kept between audience and characters, it remains true to the thrust of the movie.

The whole project, though, is let down a little by some ropey animal CGI and for all its attempts to be mysterious and enigmatic, the flashback structure of the movie robs it of any tension that may otherwise have been present.  We know who lives and dies fairly early on. Also, as well acted as it is, and as clear as the themes are, it’s difficult to feel much for these flawed characters.

It’s still a pretty decent addition to the library of 2010s Sci-Fi movies and while I kinda enjoyed the new Blade Runner, for example, it’s more refreshing to see something like this take a more unusual, and for our times, salient path.

gamenightJason Bateman. He’s come a long way since Teen Wolf Too. Well, in a sense he’s come a long way. He’s an older man now, proof if ever we needed it that the laws of entropy and decay apply to Jason Bateman as much as they apply to mere mortal non-Jason-Batemans such as ourselves. He’s earned something of a reputation, in my mind anyway, of being a one trick pony, which is probably deserved. But you know what? I like him. I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in so I went into Game Night pretty sure I was going to like what I saw. I did.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a well-matched competitive couple who host regular game nights for their friends where they, em, play board games. Look, just go with it, okay? Some people probably do this in 2018. Not anyone I know, right enough, but these people surely exist. Max’s estranged brother, Brooks, because if people play board games with friends then it’s absolutely certain that people are sometimes named after multiple small rivers, turns up to one. Brooks is really successful, much to Max’s chagrin, and seems to enjoy embarrassing his sibling at every opportunity. He invites everyone round to his gaff the next week where he, instead, will host Game Night. Outrageous! Well, Max and Annie think so, and because they’re so competitive and stuff, decide that they MUST win Brooks’ Game Night.

But Brooks has something up his sleeve. This isn’t going to be another night of Charades, Jenga, and Scrabble (thank God). Instead, it’s going to be a murder mystery style affair where one of the party is going to be kidnapped and then everyone else must work to find the clues and the hostage before the end of the night. So when two masked men with guns burst into the house and drag Brooks away in a van, everyone is amusingly nonplussed. Max even graciously tells the goons to drive safely. It’s just a game, after all. Or is it? And doesn’t this sound an awful lot like The Game?

For the next while, the fun of the movie comes from these suburban couples becoming increasingly and unwittingly immersed in a seedy underworld of kidnap and black market dealings that may or may not be fictitious. And it is fun. Bateman and McAdams have a great chemistry together and bounce off each other well, and the supporting cast are all engaging. Writer Mark Perez has a great ear for dialogue, directors John Francis Daly and Jonathon Goldstein keep things moving at a brisk pace for the most part, probably because there’s two of them. There’s even a neat little device where most of the establishing shots are animated models of towns and roads, like toys and games.

Where it fails is in the continuity of the ideas and the bluffs and the duplicity and confusion of who knows what and when. With each new twist and turn, the plot makes less and less sense and by the end, nothing of what you’ve seen adds up to anything remotely in the vicinity of coherent and plausible activity.

It’s almost forgivable, though, because it’s great fun and it’s laugh out loud funny in lots of places, with humor that’s mined mostly from people reacting calmly to outrageously dangerous situations. Jason Bateman has seldom been so Jason Bateman. He’s the same character as he was in the Horrible Boss movies. They may even have the same name. I’d have to look it up.

It’s not going to win any awards. Beyond the first 24 hours after viewing, all memories of it will end up filed away in a folder in the brain marked, Things That Happened in Jason Bateman Movies, which will no doubt come back to haunt me at a Trivia Night in the not too distant future. At some point, I’ll question if I’ve ever seen it. But for now, I did, and I’m pretty happy about that.

winchesterOh, Gran! What are you doing? Getting up there at karaoke and doing a profane, if accurate, rendition of Ice T’s back catalogue? And then downing half-a-dozen Jägerbombs and discarding items of your outer clothing to the winds whilst gyrating on a table to Funky Cold Medina?

That’s pretty much how I felt watching Winchester. Oh, Helen Mirren! What are you doing?

Inspired by true events from the early 1900s — cough, cough — this is the story of Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, and her propensity for building a really big haunted house with ghosts and EVERYTHING. It seems hardly a day goes by without a new extension being added on to an already pretty big house. Construction goes on day and night. Worried that this is a sign of Dame Winchester losing her marbles — which it clearly is — the board of the Winchester company send the troubled Doctor Eric Price, played by a troubled Jason Clarke, to assess her before ousting her out on her backside. And wouldn’t you know it, but the good doctor has some demons of his own.

From the opening few frames, with the title and copyright card appearing like an old Hammer House of Horror, right through to the clumsy close there is nothing much new in this world and unfortunately it has been written and directed by people who literally have no idea how to scare an audience beyond a jump-scare. What about atmosphere? What about building a sense of dread? What about having characters we actually care about? Nope, jump-scares it is. Now, I don’t really mind the occasional jump-scare but there are no points in this movie where you expect a jump-scare and a jump-scare doesn’t happen. And that doesn’t make for a scary movie. It makes for a stupid waste of everyone’s time.

There’s got to be a decent movie somewhere in this mess. It’s America’s Most Haunted Mansion, after all, or so the end credits would have us believe. It’s a house that has hundreds of rooms and, according to a lovely bit of heavy-handed exposition from Sarah Snook as Winchester’s loving niece, it’s really easy to get lost within its maze-like corridors. And yet, no one gets lost. The Doctor is instantly familiar with its layout and can wander to his heart’s content and is always able to find his way back to his room.

But as disappointing as the story is, it’s nowhere near the level of disappointment I feel in having to witness Dame Helen Mirren going through the motions or listen to her saying utter dogs of lines of dialogue. “I feel the house is out of balance,” she says with a straight face moments after half of the house falls off. Ya think?

I mean, I expect this from Jason Clarke. But Dame Helen — gran, if I may — what were you thinking?

billboardIf the multiverse theory is to be believed then it must stand to reason that somewhere, there’s a universe that exists where Frances McDormand can’t act her way out of a soggy paper bag, where she might appear in a commercial for bagels and fail to convince the audience, and potential new consumers of bagels, that she’s a woman who enjoys bagels. Meanwhile, in this universe, she can absolutely do no wrong and she isn’t about to start here. Now where are the bagels?

McDormand plays Mildred, a mother still grieving for her daughter who was abducted, raped, and killed in the months before the movie starts. The crime remains unsolved and, suspecting that the local police force could be doing more if only they could stop beating up black people for five minutes, she rents out three forgotten and dilapidated billboards on a quiet road on the outskirts of town and uses them to display a set of messages that grab the attention of Chief Willoughby (admirably played by Woody Harrelson) and his underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the latter of which in particular doesn’t take too kindly to these developments.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, you kinda know what you’re going to get before the lights have dimmed. The characters and their development are just as important as the arc of the storyline, the script is going to be crisp and pin-point and jut ooze with black humor, and there’s going to be enough buckets of swearing to make Malcolm Tucker, and possibly even Chris Tucker, blush.

As good as the script is, as gorgeous as the scenery is (filmed in California rather than Missouri, fact fans), and as magnificent as the performances from Harrelson and Rockwell are, it’s Frances McDormand’s movie. Every little flinch, each throwaway motion of picking a nail with her teeth, every reaction to another letdown or attempt to reach out to her teenaged son, well, she’s simply perfect. The emotion she carries through the couple of hours running time has such heft and thickness and is never overdone. Tellingly, she makes it look easy.

The movie as a whole does suffer somewhat from a strained — and perhaps even ill-judged — redemption arc for Rockwell’s detestable racist cop, an oddly-phrased section from a news reporter who seemed to be channeling Alicia Silverstone from Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, an Australian accent that couldn’t stand out more supposing it was falling out of Quentin Tarentino’s mouth, and an act of outrageous violence that somehow manages to avoid sufficient consequences. There’s so much good stuff going on, though, that these crimes are (just about) forgivable.

2017 had movies I enjoyed more — The Shape of Water, for starters, and I genuinely don’t think I saw anything better than Paddington 2 in the last twelve months, but in this universe right here, there’s more than enough in Three Billboards to enjoy and some performances that in years to come will still be genuinely savored.

loving_vincentSome movies are so beautifully shot they look like they could be a painting. Well, this little Polish-funded art-house movie about the death of Vincent Van Gogh takes that to a new level.

Literally, every frame is an oil painting. That’s because it was filmed traditionally with actors first and then a team of 125 animators turned each frame into a Van Gogh-esque painting. That’s right. Imagine Starry Night was animated. I know. It’s quite remarkable.

Not only that, if you have any knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh’s work, you’ll recognize the people from his paintings. Who knew that Jerome Flynn is a spitting image of Dr. Gachet from the famous portrait? Or that John Sessions bore more than a passing resemblance to Pere Tanguy? Even Armand and his ever-present yellow jacket feature on a canvas. So what started at remarkable has suddenly gotten itself an upgrade to extraordinary.

Okay, so it looks amazing but what about the story? Well, I’m glad you asked. Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, it’s an odd kinda mystery-biopic that sees Vincent’s friend, Postmaster Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), ask his son, Armand (Douglas Booth), to do him a favor and deliver a letter he has from the recently deceased Vincent to Vincent’s brother, Theo. Armand wasn’t much of a fan but begrudgingly accepts. After learning that Theo is also dead (oh, spoiler alert, by the way) he decides to deliver the letter to Vincent’s doctor, so off he trots to Auvers-sur-Oise, where no shortage of people unburden themselves to him, with the minimal amount of prompting, all of which plants the seed that maybe it wasn’t suicide after all.

Some of the dialogue is so lumpy and on the nose and exposition-laden that it would make Basil Exposition from Austin Powers wince, and maybe it’s because of the way it was made but some of the vocal performances felt removed from what was on screen. From the perspective of the narrative, it’s a far less satisfying experience, and if it looked like a regular movie, it might even land pretty flatly.

But these are minor complaints. In an age where digital computer animation is so common place, it’s something of a joy to see a movie that not only has taken blood and sweat and tears to make, but to do so in such an original fashion really makes it worthy of all the praise that can be thrown at it.