Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Titan

Earth is just about used up. (I'm really tired of typing this premise over and over, someone think of a new standard scifi premise pronto!) Humanity is ready to give up on the planet and move to the stars -- more accurately, one of Saturn's moons, Titan.

Titan has an atmosphere higher in nitrogen and lower in oxygen than humans can survive, deadly hydrocarbon lakes, and is far, far too cold. Enter: science! Instead of trying to terraform this moon, it's decided that the human species is what should be changed. Tom Wilkinson leads a project attempting to give evolution a generous nudge in Titan's direction, and Rick (Sam Worthington) is one of the volunteer guinea pigs.

We're going to live in space, kids! And you know what that means: we have to turn ourselves into aliens first!

Here is the most consistent problem with Netflix Original films: they aren't advertised accurately. Watching the trailer for this film, I was under the impression it would be a scifi horror film -- with a slow build-up, and on the heavily dramatic side, but still. What this movie is, is a scifi drama, plain and simple. Rick wants to make a better future for his son (Noah Jupe of A Quiet Place) and jumps into the risky, life-altering program, his wife Abi (Taylor Schilling) in full support; and their faith and expectations are challenged.

Our expectations are challenged too. Once the plot got going I adjusted my perception filter to fit "scifi drama" but even then, the trailer messed up my viewing experience. They showed some of what he looked like after he transforms or evolves or whatever, so I knew how drastic it would be. Apparently, none of the characters did. It plays out in the film as if the physical transformation was the big twist, but I thought it was the premise. Even as the film itself sets up the premise, the implication of the experiment involves physical change. The word "superhuman" and phrases such as "you, but better" and "fly on Titan" were used.

So I'm not exactly gonna be amazed to see someone sprout wings.

And when subjects can stay underwater for over thirty minutes, it's no surprise that they're developing gills. But a surprise or not, this kind of stuff is pretty cool in a straightforward scifi way. It takes some suspension of disbelief and ignoring of some nonsense, but this scifi testing and training is the best element the film has going. It reminded me a little of the Dauntless training in Divergent, with new strange things happening every day, and people dropping dead in regular intervals.

But even with belief suspended, there was a lot of inconsistency within the scifi side of things, that comes down to plot convenience. At first, I wondered how the subjects would survive on Earth if they evolve to Titan standards, but it's more like their survival abilities are expanded rather than altered. (Titan's not too cold anymore but that doesn't mean Earth is too hot.) That makes sense, but then the superfluous changes divert from that idea. Eventually Rick can't speak anymore, and he communicates through touch and at some inaudible frequency.

Also, his middle fingers fuse together. Seems more like de-evolution to me...

But why can't he do both? He shouldn't have lost his vocal cords, and he definitely still has a mouth. It seems like from that, the idea was to create a wholly new species that can only really live properly on Titan; the movie just had to allow him to survive Earth's climate and atmosphere because the story couldn't exist if he couldn't. The whole story is bent into its shape that way, and it actually gets worse as the film ends, not ever answering some logistical questions I had at the start.

More amusingly, the premise centers on an enormously overpopulated Earth, with catastrophic climate problems. Yet, all we ever see is sleek, expansive, and expensive futuristic housing and research facilities situated comfortably in the middle of a thriving nowhere. Rick and Abi go on a run and stand looking out over a lush valley and green wooded mountains, comment on how nice it is, and then bemoan the fact that they can't save it -- while I was under the impression that Earth was already so far gone that places like that didn't exist anymore.

Whatever, I'm sure they were just trying to make a point about global warming or whatever it is these days.

What they should've been doing was focusing on making a good story. I can forgive lapses in logic if only the story and the characters are worth the investment. These characters weren't fundamentally bad, but the movie didn't really seem to know what to do with them. First, we focus on Rick as he gets his treatments; later focus shifts to Abi as she deals with his changes. Then it tries to flip-flop, but the result is an emotional disconnect because they always seem to make the wrong choice about whose viewpoint should be shown.

Overall the story could've been much more effective from Abi's view only, but it was more entertaining from Rick's. Neither the science fiction nor the character drama is fully thought-through, and if they had been, the logical process would have worked the story out of existence. With a couple of neat ideas, and filmmaking of good technical quality, The Titan reached the absolute height of its potential -- but that's not saying much at all.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Quiet Place

Spoiler-free!

Mysterious creatures who hunt by sound have invaded and prowl the earth, and a family lives silently to survive among them. John Krasinski takes a giant step into the artistry of writing and directing, and though his movie is often quiet, it delivers a deafening bang.

Not his first directing or writing effort, but there's something special and significant about this one. Like he's crossed a boundary.

But he doesn't do it alone; the original screenplay was written by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, who I'm sure deserve plenty of credit even if Krasinski did additions/changes/rewrites/whatever it is he did, because the story -- from its basic premise right up to the finely tuned more superfluous moments -- is masterful. Krasinski stars with his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and they both tear up the screen with strong, emotional, and nuanced performances. The kids who play their children also do a great job, especially Millicent Simmonds, the oldest, whose talents and character importance is right up there with the adults.

She's deaf in real-life, and her character is deaf in the story, which is why the family is all fluent in sign language, only 80 days into an apocalypse that requires silence. The practical, sensible way they live with this unprecedented restriction is thoughtful and full of rich detail. I love when movies make me think and ponder what I would do in an impossible situation, and that's the first thing this film does remarkably well. A low-key, semi-scifi culture that is endlessly interesting even without the monsters.

I love how the anger had to be quiet, too.

The next thing this film does right is, it has a family drama at the heart of its horror/thriller plot. It's relatively simple -- simple enough to be carried properly with limited dialogue -- but effective in wonderful, heartbreaking, and stake-raising ways in turn. In a first viewing, this element, and the more internal, softer, warmer moments that make it up are overshadowed by an extremely enhanced sense of dread that something terrible could happen at any time. The juxtaposition of the family moments and the looming terror was far too effective to be unintentional, but I'm looking forward to fully appreciating the moments of peace and internal conflict next time.

It's fitting then, that the terror and suspense are the most prominent element since they are what makes a theater experience exciting. This is the side that Krasinski gets more than right; it's not just suspense building up to some good scares; this film is a study in tension. It's an artful exploration of fear and terror of the basest kind, and never lets up through its whole runtime. The monsters are scary, but when they show up, it's a relative relief from the tension, because what is frightening in this film is not the thing that comes to eat you, but the thing that draws them there -- noise. Watching this film, you fear sound.

This movie features the most effective jump-scare I've ever witnessed. Usually I hate jump-scares, but they are so appropriate here!

And when you fear sound, the potential for sound creates tension. And the potential for sound is so wonderfully, maniacally constant, that I got a backache from being tense for an hour and a half straight. I love how boiled down the horror element is. As terrifying as those creatures would be in real-life, there's too much distance between them and reality; so the movie digs down to the core, to a practically untapped reserve of the origins of fear, and exploits it beautifully. John Krasinski does a masterful job in putting the focus where it should be, for the exact right amount of time, to get the most enhanced effect possible.

Every moment had to have been meticulously assembled. The plot structure runs smoothly without telegraphing its direction, and with even pacing -- nothing is under-explored, and no scenes become stagnate. Sound and lack of sound is used with special care to excellent results. I especially liked the times we would hear from the daughter's perspective. Camera placement and other visual aspects isn't as purely dedicated to enhancing the tension as the audio is, but gets occasional terrifying moments to shine; otherwise the film is consistently beautiful, but not in a distracting, overly artsy way.

It's very bold and simple, visually. I really liked it.

Though there is some dialogue here and there, plus the captioned sign language, the bulk of the story is told through visual methods. Essentially a silent film -- though sound is important, words are not -- it utilizes the fundamentals of visual storytelling. Characters don't just sit down and have a conversation, they express themselves physically. And there is no stilted, lazy exposition. Instead, we have to glean explanations and translate expression ourselves. It's presented in a sure way that's not difficult to understand, but the mere fact that it isn't handed to us unearned is commendable.

Because of the silent-film type style, the plot is pretty straightforward and the drama fairly basic. This is the closest thing to a flaw the movie has. No mind-blowing twist or turns, no complicated character motivations to study -- they're just a normal family trying to survive in a permanent dire situation. And occasionally this stretches into plot events. Sometimes things happen because they need to for the story to move, and it comes across like very bad luck. While this shakes the realism slightly for me, faulting it for that seems like nit-picking in the pettiest sense.

To quote Sabrina: "More isn't always better, Linus. Sometimes it's just more." This movie refrains from overreaching.

This film allows a few traditional tropes on the side, while focusing on what it wants to do exceptionally with fervent vigor. The result is a streamlined film that follows a narrow path with absolute dedication, and takes its elements of focus to envelope-pushing extremes. It has constant, immaculate, smartly crafted tension. It has a reason for you to care, displayed through powerful performances, especially from Emily Blunt. It's thrilling and emotional, but not pushy or contriving. And it's artistic in the most natural, unpretentious and honest way possible.

Completely unrelenting, and wholly welcoming, A Quiet Place is a terrifying but open place, inviting you to enter and lend yourself to its power; it may be frightening, but it returns you safe again when it's through, with a heart fuller than when you arrived.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Major Spoilers. I'm going Spoiler crazy with this one, since I was so late seeing it.

The last surviving YA dystopian film series makes its final stand.

Of the Big Three, this one was my favorite. Especially film-wise, as The Hunger Games destroyed itself my splitting its third installment, and then Divergent followed suit but only got halfway through before dying under the strain. Still The Maze Runner was fashionably late to the party to begin with and with a filming delay on this one, it seems like an after-thought; a second-place finisher only by default, stumbling across the finish line after the spectators have already moved on to the next event.

But I'm still here. I stuck around, partly because I enjoyed the books, partly because I still enjoy the first two films, and partly because the next event is the Superhero Crossover Relay, and of that, I am not a fan. And I'm impressed; I'm impressed that they stuck it out and got it done; I'm glad they didn't run themselves into the ground and that I got to see the end play out on film. Genuinely -- well done. I'm proud of you shanks. The only damper is, this last film is the worst of the series.

Oops.

Honestly, I don't think it had the potential to be otherwise. Besides the death of fan-favorite, he-deserved-so-much-better, our beloved Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), The Death Cure is also the weakest book installment, without much to the plot that sticks in the memory, and after the serious tweaks made to The Scorch Trials, big changes were inevitable. Basically, all that remains is Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) at the lead, Newt dying, and the ending (more or less) -- oh and Gally (Will Poulter) being alive. Everything else was pulled to pieces and put back together again in a way that just barely manages to get to (more or less) the same result.

Since I keep having to say "more or less" (and when I say it I mean less) in reference to the ending, I'll start there. See, whoever wrote this movie probably looked at the book titled "The Death Cure" and noticed, like many of us, that it contained a lot of Death, but not so much Cure. In fact, no Cure at all. So this movie adds some Cure. As a result, Thomas's blood can cure the Flare. As a result, he could have saved Newt but for some poor timing. And as a result, his escape to the Safe Haven isn't so justified, and in fact the film leaves open the idea that he may return and Save The World after all.

I'm not opposed to changes on principle, but if the story was going to be bad anyway, I'd rather it be bad and more like the book.

So even though the location of the end is the same, the implication is the exact opposite the book meant it to be. The book's Death Cure was the immune. By living and escaping they saved the human race from death. And though they thought it was escape it was always WICKED (or WCKD, whatever.) that was behind it. The book said that sacrificing the lives of a few to save many is wrong, and makes the point clear. The movie gives Thomas a savior complex and cliched Chosen One characteristics in replacement of the stolen theme. Book three may have been the weakest, but its lack of Cure was certainly intentional.

Though it's a bit of a slippery slope situation that started with some seemingly innocent changes to The Scorch Trials, the filmmakers appear to have lost sight of both what the story was all about, and, more bewilderingly, what it is that fans loved about the film adaptations and the books alike. Strangely out-of-touch, they seemed to think it was a great idea to have smart-mouth Minho (Ki Hong Lee) say almost nothing the whole movie. They showed very little running; and there were no mazes or maze-like set pieces to navigate. And Thomas never ran, slid, jumped or otherwise barely squeezed through a closing door. If not that, then what in the world are we here for?

These three made the movie worthwhile alone. I wish it had focused solely on them.

Every action sequence was brutally mundane, with characters trading punches or gunfire, or being chased until our heroes are suddenly in a Hopeless Situation, where, after a beat of Suspense, they are rescued out of nowhere by Someone You Forgot About. Pauses in the action are taken for death scenes, and I'll admit: even with that catastrophe of a buildup, Newt's death and the aftermath was still good, and the highlight of the whole film. They even got a letter in there, and it all wound up being surprisingly effective. Good ol' Newt.

Teresa's (Kaya Scodelario) death was the lowlight. Again I say, the filmmakers were out-of-touch; they didn't realize that no one cares about Teresa, and we certainly didn't want half the plot to revolve around her, or her death scene to take as long as Newt's without any of the emotional weight or plot relevance. Teresa was a throwaway death so Thomas would be with Brenda (Rosa Salazar); nothing more. Here they try to convince us that she actually matters or something, and it only makes for way too many boring talking scenes while she hangs out with the bad guys. Then she only dies because Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) "can't get the Berg any closer" to the completely open roof they're standing on. I may or may not have laughed.

"And then I said, 'I can't get the Berg any closer!' and they believed me! Now you get Thomas all to yourself, Brenda!"

They even took out the part where they return to the Maze but then replace it with a nightmare about the Maze. They make sure Newt says his two most famous lines, ("Great we're all bloody inspired" and "Please Tommy please") though they're mildly shoehorned and don't carry the same weight that made them memorable in the first place. They do a couple more callbacks to previous films and the only one that feels genuinely valuable to the movie -- rather than lazy fan-service -- is carving the names in the stone at the end. It's like they knew they'd made the story into something totally different and were trying to appease anyone who'd care with trinkets.

I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, as Wes Ball did an excellent job crafting the first film into a taught and non-stop action-thriller, and the second was an incredibly decent zombie flick -- but I suppose at some point he just lost that solid grip on it. This one is a cliched action movie, using the same tired cop-outs and tropes over and over. It's starts slow and gets nowhere fast, but after Newt dies it finds its feet. Thomas turning himself in, and the ensuing drama and fight with Janson (Aiden Gillen) is tense and has real stakes behind it all. And after the hiccup of Teresa's hilariously contrived death, we get an anti-climax with some good emotional weight -- even with the theme being muddied.

Not a complete failure, and with a sub-genre full of complete failures, that's worthy of being called a success.

Having these characters who I've grown fond of be the center of the cliched plot and generic action did increase my enjoyment in a shallow yet solid way, and I can see giving it a second go in the future. It is, after all, the final part in my favorite young adult dystopian action adventure film series -- even if it is the worst installment. On the verge of being exciting, on the verge of being memorable, and on the verge of being meaningful, The Death Cure feels exhausted and worn down, but manages to finish running its race and brings its series to a rounded, if faltering, conclusion.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Ready Player One

Spoiler-free!

Based on the book by Ernest Cline that's an absolute smorgasbord of 80's pop culture, Ready Player One takes place in a near future where the rundown world is all but abandoned by its populace. In its place -- the OASIS, a virtual reality where people can go anywhere and do or be anything, all from the comfort of their cramped, neglected homes.

Laws of reality need not apply.

One such person is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose life outside the OASIS is, well, nonexistent. But in the OASIS, he's Parzival, a gunter (egg hunter) who looks for Easter eggs left by the game's creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Upon his death Halliday instigated a hunt for three keys that would lead to the ultimate Easter egg. The finder would receive Halliday's inheritance and full control over the OASIS itself. The hunt has been going on for years without even the first key being found when Wade finally figures out the first challenge, and the discovery launches him into adventure, fame, and real-world danger all at once as the race for the OASIS begins.

It's been a long time since Steven Spielberg has done science fiction, and the result it something that is a little -- and pleasantly so, I might add -- out of time. The featured tech and special effects are fully modern but the plot and characters move in a more traditional "blockbuster" sphere. The three keys make the act structure strongly defined, with no room for anything unprecedented, and characters are well cast but then left to catch what little bits of development and arcs they can on the run, as the action-driven plot breaks for nothing. Though deeper development without sacrifice elsewhere would've been more ideal, the characters are accurate to their book counterparts -- stunningly accurate to my memory -- and that is due to pitch-perfect casting.

I knew it was perfect when I first saw the cast list but they still managed to wow me.

Every actor I know here has given a better performance elsewhere, yet I don't think the cast could be more perfect. Tye Sheridan was more comfortable and natural in Mud, and Olivia Cooke had even more genuine charm in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl -- they both still fit their characters to a T. Ben Mendelsohn is basically playing Krennic from Rogue One, but boy is it fun to watch him be that type of baddie. I am sure that Mark Rylance has never given a bad performance in his life, but even he has his exceptionally charming turn as the eccentric geek Halliday beat elsewhere -- though this may be a personal favorite for me due to the charm and humor he gives alone.

Simon Pegg's American accent threw me through a loop and his small part felt almost like a cameo, but he still managed to sneak some dramatic oomph in there. The adults are undoubtedly the acting highlights of the film. Aech, Daito and Sho are good casting as well, but used only for support, comic relief, and to make the point of how anyone can be anything in the OASIS. Sheridan doesn't lead the film so much as he's swept along at the front of the wave that is the plot, but the fact remains: he embodies Wade ideally. The roles here are on the shallow side by nature. More depth may have improved them, but whether it would've served the movie as a whole is another matter.

As much as I love character, I do think putting them on a lower priority was the right move here.

After all I would hate for a scifi adventure flick to have to give up any time adventuring, world-building and wowing for the sake of unnecessary character development -- however great the development may be. There were a few times I would have tended more toward character briefly, but I understand the idea. This is a crazy and complex scifi world here, and explaining and exploring it satisfactorily takes priority. Spielberg erred on the safe side, over-explaining at times, but the flaw isn't in the intention. He took the right track of making the character/plot balance the same ratio as the book, and was impressively successful in it.

I liked the book, but it's flawed. Most of the movie's flaws stem from that, as a fundamental part of the story. I've seen plenty of worthy but flawed books be adapted into film and commonly, "improvement" is the name of the game. Sometimes said "improvement' makes the story so convoluted that it becomes completely different, and often falls apart. (The Divergent series springs rapidly to mind.) I'm surprised to say, that I'm impressed to say: Spielberg refused to play that game. Instead he took the story as it was and put in on film. "But what about all the changes?" you may wonder. Simple: those changes were for the purpose of making the story as enjoyable as possible on screen, not to improve a story cynically seen as lacking.

I loved this scene, mixing live action with animated avatars.

Forgetting the book, this film is a sight unlike any other. The motion-capture does excellent job capturing personality as well as performances, so characters are consistent even as animated avatars. Everything has that Spielberg sheen, and the detail of the OASIS is thrilling and visually stimulating without being too overwhelming. And pop culture. Pop culture everywhere. I loved it, but that's the sort of thing that's about personal preference, not so much a if-it's-done-right-everyone-will-love-it type thing. I do think it transcends the references it makes -- much like Stranger Things did -- but admittedly I love 80's pop culture already. I especially enjoyed the music, since that was something the book was incapable of doing.

This is a movie about Easter eggs, so it's no surprise that its main feature be Easter eggs. Still it doesn't settle for fun references only, putting commendable effort into garnering maximum enjoyment out of its entire runtime. Even if you don't get the references it should be a thoroughly entertaining flick -- through a fast-paced plot, fun characters, a straightforward and sincere theme, a general lighthearted tone, and that patent Spielbergian element that adds just a dash of cheesy magic.

I promise -- this movie does have a point to it, and a heart.

This is certainly not a movie without flaws, but the more I watch films by Spielberg, the more I realize that his filmmaking greatness isn't in making unflawed films, but in making films that will stand the test of time by their joy and the unique experiences they give us, long after a film's given technical expiration date. And the more I watch movies in 2018, the more I realize that it's this kind of simple, honest joy that I want to see on the screen -- that reaffirms my love for the singular magic of escaping into the movies.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Upcoming Movie Roundup - April

Happy Spring, happy April, happy April Fool's Day, and most importantly, happy Easter and Resurrection Sunday!

In March I saw my one must-see, that also happened to be my most-anticipated film of 2018 -- Ready Player One! It didn't hit the highest heights that my imagination hoped it had the potential for, but it was every bit as fun as the book, boasting the same greatness and the same flaws alike. And the cast is perfection. I'll write a review soon, but for now I'm listening to a playlist of the music and relishing the experience.

Still have interest in Thoroughbreds and Isle of Dogs. I need to get better at actually going out and seeing these non-blockbuster releases in theaters. Lean on Pete also hasn't hit a theater near me yet, but looks like it's expanding this month. I'm on Easter break this week, so maybe I should do a serious movie splurge.

What did you see in March? And what looks good in April?


A Quiet Place
Apr 6th; PG-13
My second-most anticipated movie of the year after Ready Player One. After I see this I'll have to come up with some new most-anticipated for the rest of the year's eight months. John Krasinski directs, and stars with his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and I'm sold on that alone. Plot-wise I don't want to know much, but horror/thriller vibes are blatantly obvious, which I'm definitely cool with. Something about this movie reminds me of 10 Cloverfield Lane, and I'm not even worried that influence will make my expectations too high because the movie has been getting rave reviews so far.




You Were Never Really Here
Apr 6th; R
Joaquin Phoenix looks intense. This movie looks intense. It's probably good but it's also probably not exactly my kind of movie.




The Endless
Apr 6th; NR
The color grading make it look like it's on the cheaper side of low-budget indie movies, but the scifi/Lovecraft thing it has going is undeniably appealing. The scifi side of it doesn't look cheap either. I'll be very interested to watch if I ever see it floating around on a streaming site somewhere.




Rampage
Apr 13th; PG-13
Ugh, this looks so dumb. Not that it appears to be trying to be anything else, but it's just not appealing to me. I'd rather watch Skull Island again, or Jumanji. If this movie winds up being dumb but genuinely good and fun like those movies, I will be very surprised. But still, I'll probably watch it at some point, if only to roll my eyes at it.




Borg vs McEnroe
Apr 13th; R
Not that it sounds boring to watch Shia LaBeouf get beat in an epic game of tennis by a Swedish fellow, but to be perfectly honest, the main appeal of this movie for me is that the Swedish side of things is done in Swedish -- so it's half a foreign language film. I don't think I've ever seen Stellan SkarsgÄrd act in his native language. (This trailer isn't green-band approved -- language warning.)




Marrowbone
Apr 13th; NR
It's a creepy horror movie set in what looks like the 50's, and it has Charlie Heaton in it, so I guess I have to watch it. The nice thing is, it's releasing on Amazon -- so probably not the greatest quality film, but that okay by me. Maybe it won't be too scary.




Avengers: Infinity War
Apr 27th; PG-13
Oh yeah, I forgot about this one! lol.
Here's the thing about this movie: I don't care.
I'm going to go see it, but I'm not particularly excited about watching all my favorite superheroes come together and not get enough screentime in a 2-hour, 40-min movie, just so that some drama can be milked and one or two people can get killed off in what I assume will be the most forced, senseless, and irritating ways possible. So sue me. When the ads boast about how Marvel has been building to this for 10 years it irks me, because of how dismissive it is of previous Marvel films -- films that were sometimes this close to being great apart from their shared universe but perhaps weren't simply because they only needed to serve to sell the next film. Even this film is just going to point to next year's Avengers 4. That kind of mindset makes me want to quit with Marvel altogether, but I guess I'm in too deep now. Spider-Man and Bucky are my excuse.




The House of Tomorrow
Apr 27th; NR
Aw, this looks cute. Like a retry of The Space Between Us for Asa Butterfield, but not ridiculous and painfully awkward. I guess he likes playing naive outsiders getting introduced to the world. This one also has Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn and the Second Edition Wolff -- Alex Wolff. Are he and Nat twins, because I seriously cannot tell them apart? *research* No. They act so similarly too though -- it's like Nat went back in time and switched the mole on his chin to his lip so he could make more teenage movies. Anyways, this movie. Looks neat. Will check out.




Thursday, March 29, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Spoiler-free!

Sam Rockwell deserved an Oscar for this.

Good thing he got one I guess!

One of very few Oscar season movies to grab my attention beyond their Oscar material, this inexplicable film is either an upbeat violent drama or an immaculately subtle, pitch-black comedy. The incomparable Frances McDormand is Mildred, a woman whose daughter was brutally murdered, and the killer never caught. To light a fire under the police force and keep the case from being buried and forgotten, she hires three billboards near her home, puts some bold, goading words on them, and then steps back to take flak from every side.

Unexpected, crazy, beautiful, and heartbreaking plotlines ensue.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film is similar to his previous, Seven Psychopaths, but with a significantly more serious edge. The film toes the line of reality while being firmly planted on the side of fiction; heightened and caricatured. Though serious and dark, and unwilling to downplay that aspect, this film is at its base, made to be entertainment -- entertainment that challenges, moves and evokes thought, but entertainment nonetheless. To that end it finds humor where it can, and finds it in many wonderfully unexpected places. To that end, its characters display realism through their exaggerated existence; and to that end, the plot moves with irony, violence, a plethora of bold turns, and plenty of cinematic flair.

This movie is absolutely rich with content. So much detail in every moment, so much to read between the lines; so much to glean from expressions and subtleties of performance. My favorite thing is how completely inconspicuous the foreshadowing is -- a couple times I realized what was about to happen by remembering a casually mentioned line from before. But I could never guess exactly what would happen, because the film would then immediately take another twist in a new direction. The plot direction was impressive to me as it was unpredictable, and is confident and cleanly displayed -- save for one plot hole so obvious and significant that I'm wondering if I merely missed something, with how confidently the film plowed through it unblinking.

The conflict mixed with understand between all the characters in a thing to behold. 

McDormand is way out there with Mildred, finding an interesting balance of likability. That is, she's almost completely unlikable as a character -- brazen, hardened, rude, selfish -- but is so sympathetic that we care for her anyway from the get-go, and by the end she has shown genuine good qualities. McDormand also deserved her Oscar; average performances aren't exactly in her wheelhouse. Woody Harrelson was also nominated for his supporting role, and the balance his character made was intricate; full of ins and outs and things to consider. His character -- the police Chief -- influences the plot more than anyone. There is nary a not-impressive performance or character to be seen, but you'll forgive me if I spend my time on one in particular:

Sam Rockwell I've been a fan of since I first saw The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and seeking out his movies, every one only increases my admiration. After seeing this, his first-ever Oscar-nominated performance, I've realized something: That he commits the exact same level of intense devotion to every role -- as naturally as another actor might phone in or run on star-power. It just so happens that Dixon is the first role he's landed where the character is so complex and mesmerizing on the page, that when he brought it to life with the same dedication and care as always, suddenly no one could ignore the merit or the talent which he's quietly possessed his whole career.

I think he deserved every award he got, but I'm a fan regardless of those trivialities. 

Dixon was the most unexpected aspect of this whole wild movie. Rockwell's performance is outstandingly good. I expected that, and adored every second. What I didn't expect was the arc direction the character would take, and that astounded me -- multiple times. This character in any other movie would've been a throwaway straw man, boring an irritating. Here the movie builds him, moment by unprecedented moment, into a gorgeous arc, that, every time it moves forward, seems incapable of taking another step without snapping and destroying the realism, but doesn't; again, and again, and again, into a thought-provoking and moving conclusion. Many of his moments make you laugh and hurt simultaneously, and no one can make the most of a beautiful opportunity like that like Sam Rockwell.

I'm not sure if a year's time will see me remembering this as basically a Rockwell vehicle that conducted some timely explorations and looked great; or if it will stick with me in a permanent and significant way. Without a doubt it's an excellently constructed film. The characterization is immaculate all-around. The location is lovely and memorable and it is shot in a wonderfully clear, sturdy way that complements the blunt but heartfelt tone. The way the writing ties in to itself is endlessly impressive to me, and the plot itself plays by its own rules in great ways. It had a lot to say but isn't preachy about it, nudging with gentle, subtle violence.

This movie boils down to sincere moral exploration through outlandish characters.

I liked what it had to say; I liked the story, the look, the tone, the humor, the emotion, and of course I loved the complex characters and the fine performances that made them larger than life. If at a later time the impression it left on me has faded, that will be alright. Personal connection is tricky and unpredictable, but there's a big difference between a movie meaning much, and a movie meaning much to me. Time will tell if this movie will find a permanent spot in my heart, but for now: I think this film is a pretty doggone incredible piece of filmmaking, and I love it for that alone.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Road

and star in this subtly-scifi drama about a father and a son who are journeying through a freezing apocalyptic wasteland in pursuit of the one thing they have left: survival.

 Directed by , based on the novel by .

Nuclear fallout has killed all the animals and bugs, the plants and trees are dying and literally crumbling down around them, and humanity is all but gone. Sure, there are a few humans left, but most have lost their humanity. Suicide is only slightly more popular than cannibalism. The father is determined to protect his son as best he can, and grapples with the idea that someday the best protection he may be able to provide is to shoot him in the head with one of the two bullets remaining in his pistol.

This film is bleak. It's the epitome of the word. It started, and began explaining all of the above to me in Viggo's soft and dramatic voice-over, and when he was halfway done I thought there was no way in the world I was going to like where this movie goes. The journey might be well-told and beautifully, harrowingly shot, but it would be impossible to conclude and leave me happy. I thought that, but how wrong I was.

 Bleak scifi films love to end further down than they start. This one breaks the tradition for exceptional results.

The Road is a journey through hopelessness toward the impossible goal of hope. Miraculously, it gets there; and impressively, it gets there realistically. Through every turn the movie ponders the natural questions that its extreme setting creates: In the most dour situations, does survival ever become worthless? Can inhumanity or immorality be forced on people by circumstance, or is it always a choice they make? Is it possible to live in a world of pure evil, and not fall into evil?

With every question that is subtly posed, it seems that cynicism and pessimism will win every time, but then truth pushes its way through and the father and son press on, unsoiled. They carry "the fire" inside them, they say, and it seems to drive them past hardships that no one else had the courage or will to overcome. The determination they display in such a bleak world is staggering and inspiring.

There's so much rich content to glean. I feel like I picked up on 60% of what's there.

On the more technical side, the movie is taut -- put together excellently with a strong tone and beautiful imagery. The pacing is slow but steady, and consistently edged with foreboding suspense. Performances are wonderful, particularly Viggo, who carries the movie almost completely alone, and expresses all his questions and worries and thoughts without exposition via dialogue. Kodi is also great; this is the youngest I've ever seen him, so he doesn't get quite as much to do, but is still impressive.

This is a hard-hitting movie in the best possible way, leaving you haunted and pondering its dark themes. It may disturb or depress by its vile setting and the darkness it explores, but is determined to uplift with its themes and character arcs. Every message it gives, and every conclusion it makes, is doggedly, admirably, beautifully hopeful. Against all odds, this bleak little film left me soaring.