S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.
One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.
What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.
Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.
Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.
I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.
I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.
Nate’s Grade: A
Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore to sit through.
Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the top assassin in an organization filled with colorful personalities with guns. The head of the agency, Blut (Matt Lucas), has a surefire plan to pay off his debts. Rather than pay the assassins their pensions once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 50, he’ll just kill them. Brilliant. Duncan sets off to enjoy his last few days before his big birthday by settling down in a sleepy small town, getting to know his meek neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). This quiet new life is interrupted by a team of crazy killers determined to eliminate their colleague and collect his riches.
The tonal disparity with Polar never settles down, which makes it hard to find any sense of a baseline of what is acceptable reality. What is normal here? The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? There’s an extended torture montage that lasts a total of four days when it could have just been a single session if the point is to kill the hero. It’s close-ups of skin peeling and being penetrated, and I’m not averse to gore effects and exploitation elements but when it’s paired with this flippant, nasty tone it cheapens the violence. This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt, and mostly that of Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles). I swear her entire role seems to be butt-centric. Then there’s one shot composed entirely of butts shaking in Katheryn Winnick’s (Vikings) face. She’s having a phone call and her face is squeezed between two strippers shaking butts just because. It’s hilariously and transparently gratuitous. So many edits, shots, and even scenes exist just to call attention to its supposed sense of cool. However, cool movies, just like people, don’t have to convince you that they’re cool, they just are.
Let’s take the evil assassins that chase after Duncan. They’re the kind of glib movie assassins that all seem defined by one or two quirks and costume styling guidelines. It’s a diverse group of ridiculous cartoon villains who seem reverse-engineered as toy figures. Why are they also working for an employer that plans on killing them all to escape paying them upon retirement? Why would you willfully work for someone who is so open about betraying you? It’s astoundingly shortsighted thinking. Regardless, other movies have utilized colorful criminals to better establish a sense of fun, particularly the early works of Guy Ritchie. These villains bounce from person-to-person tracking down their target, killing with callous indifference mixed with childish glee, but there’s no personality, no menace, so the bloodletting feels gratuitous and ugly. Scene after scene feels like the actors had large trunks of costumes and props and were told to dig around and grab anything they wanted before they began filming. It makes every one of their appearances feel annoying and trite, especially when one scene, again, exists simply to highlight Fee’s butt in jean shorts. The killers’ big plan is to shoot their target while receiving oral sex from Fee’s character. Then the others will bulrush and shoot some more. Or, and I’m not an expert here, they could simply break in while their target sleeps and shoot them in the back? This lame group of hired killers is the big threat… and then they’re taken out with half the movie left. They are removed with such haste that I was shocked. We had spent so much time with these antagonists and then they’re gone. It’s a fantastic waste of time for a group of characters that didn’t even merit one minute. There’s even one scene where Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) shows up and is never seen again.
The supreme villain is played by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) and it just does not work. It’s like Toby Jones’ second cousin found the relics of Elton John’s closet and decided to try and play a Bond villain. I enjoy Lucas normally for his daft comedy roles and I think he’s trying to adopt a Goldfinger impersonation but it does not work. Once again it’s the entire tonal execution and narrative development at fault here. Blut is an officious dweeb prone to yelling at people and running away. He has no standout scene and poses no real threat once the hired guns and goons are taken care of. He cannot hold his own. This is why killing off the team of assassins with half the movie left relates to a dire misstep.
The only thing that does work in this movie is Mikkelsen (Rogue One), who is doing everything in his power to provide an anchor for the pitiable audience. He is way too good for Polar. He takes everything one hundred percent seriously and is genuinely emoting while everyone else is chewing whatever scenery isn’t nailed down. It very much feels like Mikkelsen is in some other different movie, or is pretending to be in a different, better movie. His interactions with Hudgens are a high point, taking her under his wing and showing small glimpses of sympathy and guilt. Their ultimate relationship is predictable, and she disappointingly becomes trapped as a damsel in distress for the final act. Mikkelsen does have a terrific brawl in a hallway (the location of all film fights now it seems) that is well choreographed and very physical without feeling like he’s superhuman. I wish I were watching the better movie Mads Mikkelsen thought he was in.
Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. The suspense sequences should be exciting or an example of our protagonist’s expertise but little feels clever. There are one or two moments, glimmers of what could have been had more attention been given to developing the sequences. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat. Polar is very much in that same description, a movie that is trying too hard to be a fun, breezy, exploitation movie. Except it feels adrift and phony and unpleasant. Polar doesn’t deserve Mads Mikkelsen and it doesn’t deserve a minute of your time, butts and all.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Clint Eastwood plays a real-life 90-year-old drug mule, though I must inform you dear reader that at no point does he hide his cargo in a very uncomfortable place. The Mule is an interesting story about the most unexpected mule. Eastwood plays a man broke and on the outs with the family he’s neglected their entire lives. He takes up an offer to simply drive albeit for a Mexican drug cartel. As with most life-of-crime movies, what starts off uneasily becomes second nature as our characters get in over their heads. Except that doesn’t really happen in The Mule. I would estimate twenty percent of the movie is watching Eastwood drive and sing along to the radio. There are some tense near misses where he’s almost caught, but these are confined to the first half. In the second half the cartel becomes the chief source of danger, all because he doesn’t go by their routes. If he’s their most successful mule, having never had a ticket in his life, then why micromanage? There are some other nitpicks that nagged at me, like the cartel knows the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are pulling over a very specific color and kind of car, but at no point do they change out Eastwood’s car. Also, Eastwood is spending vast sums of money in public for a man who was losing his house, and yet no red flags there. Eventually Eastwood has to make a choice of family over angering the cartel and risking his life, and I think you’ll know where his character arc is destined. The dramatic shape of the movie feels a little too inert for the stakes involved, leading to an all too tidy conclusion. Eastwood delivers a fine performance, as does every other actor involved. The movie kind of coasts along, much like Eastwood in his truck, on the inherent interest of its premise and the star power of its lead/director. The Mule might have worked better as a documentary.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Melissa McCarthy adopts the Oscar bait route of pre-approved credibility, which usually means playing a tragic, self-destructive real-life figure, stripping away any sense of vanity, and working with an up-and-coming indie film director (Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller). The recipe is alive and well in the consistently entertaining, but only for so far, Can You Ever Forgive Me? which traces the life of literary author Lee Israel, a biographer who nobody wants to read, that is, until she starts “discovering” lost letters from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other famous authors. In total, Israel forged 400 letters and sold them to private collectors and archivists until the FBI charged her with fraud. Because of the relatively low-stakes nature of her accidental jaunt into criminality, the “how” is less interesting than the budding friendship formed between Israel and a malcontent bawdy barfly/partner in crime (Richard E. Grant). Their rapport is wonderful and they truly seem to be having a ball with their ill-gotten gains, yet they still maintain a vulnerability even to the very end. In many ways this film does for McCarthy and her standard barrage of caustic, anti-social characters what Punch-Drunk Love did for the Adam Sandler introverted goofball sad-sack barely concealing his explosive rage. It’s a grounded deconstruction on that familiar movie archetype we’ve seen from a popular comic actor. There are some interesting aspects about Israel’s lonely life, like a timid female bookshop owner who circles around a potential romance with Israel, but it’s really a two-hander of a movie between Grant and McCarthy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a slight character-driven drama with comedic elements, but McCarthy shows that she has the acting chops to play multi-faceted characters in any genre if given the right opportunity.
Nate’s Grade: B
It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Happytime Murders asks one question on repeat: is something inherently funny just because a puppet does it? As I feared from the marketing, this is strictly a one-joke movie, and that joke being the entire concept of puppets behaving badly.
In a world where puppets and humans live side-by-side, Private Investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a series of grisly murders targeting the stars of a popular children’s sitcom. His ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is forced to work with Phillips as the bodies and felt pile up. Together they trace the killer amid seedy drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and criminals, all of them puppets.
For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don’t normally associate a teddy bear doing. A puppet simply dropping an F-bomb is not a joke, just as a random person dropping an F-bomb is not a joke without some degree of setup and/or context. A puppet smoking is not funny on its own. A puppet drinking is not funny on its own. This is lazy writing that falls back on its surface-level shock value to compensate for the paucity of actual comedy. Too many jokes fizzle on screen, drawing at best the occasional generous chuckle. While you’re watching The Happytime Murders, you’re quite conscious of the fact that it should be funnier. You can feel the desperation on screen and the disappointment. I kept thinking, “Why did they settle for that joke? Why aren’t they doing more with the possibilities of their premise? Oh great, now it’s a joke about balls.” An R-rated puppet cop movie starring Melissa McCarthy should not be this uninspired.
Let’s tackle one scene emblematic of the film’s best assets and its shortcomings. Early in the first act, our puppet P.I. visits a puppet porn store/theater/film set. As soon as he enters, the curtain is pulled back and we see an octopus vigorously milking a cow’s udders, milky geysers freely spraying everywhere amid giddy cries. It’s a memorable visual with obvious sexual connotations and it’s one of the better moments to convey some degree of thought as far as developing the world of puppets. But then the scene just keeps going without any new development or complication. And then it keeps going. And then you realize that the filmmakers tapped out with the visual and had nothing else. The sequence at the porn store/theater/film set keeps sliding in more debauchery, especially with clips from an array of fetish films, a notable example being a fireman whipped by a Dalmatian dominatrix. Then in short order it becomes a murder scene and the fluff flies everywhere. Once again it becomes readily apparent how poorly handled the development process was with this film. There are puppets fighting, puppets doing drugs, puppets even having sex, but are there comic scenarios here? Infrequently. Without better crafting, the shock value naturally loses its impact and then the film gives up. It’s front loaded with the most memorable transgressions, and then it settles into a fairly mediocre cop movie that you have to remind yourself is a comedy because… puppets?
Instead, what the viewer gets is pretty much a standard cop movie with some film noir elements emphasized as reference. There is some half-hearted commentary about discrimination against puppets and how they’re seen as second-class citizens (like Bright). This too is dropped after the first act and the movie settles into a second-rate potboiler. If you remove the presence of puppets, too many scenes don’t even present humor. It’s more a cop movie than it is a comedy, and that realization perplexed and disappointed me. The lazy, crude sexual humor is a crutch they return to, though with diminished returns, as another attempt to jolt the lagging movie to life. It’s a tedious affair where the imagination feels capped. You’ll likely be reminded, as I was constantly, of the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which tackled film noir tropes and cross-human integration. The difference is that Roger Rabbit thoroughly thought out its characters, plot, world, and satire, and I consider it to be one of the best-written films of all time. With The Happytime Murders, it has to resort to a Basic Instinct legs-crossing gag twice in 2018. This movie desperately needed a few more drafts from better skilled comedy writers to have more entertaining jokes than “puppet does non-puppet stuff.”
McCarthy (Life of the Party) is drifting on autopilot, desperately looking for ways to make this enterprise funnier. Her improv intuition runs into conflict with the simple nature that puppeteering demands a lot of preparation, so there are less off-script riffs. This is your standard brash, profane, ball-busting McCarthy performance we’ve gotten to know but there’s not a character here. Even in the realm of simplistic cop movie tropes, she’s still never more than the irritable partner who develops a begrudging respect. There is one interesting aspect to her character that the film does so little with. In a flashback, we see that she was critically injured in the line of duty and had to have an emergency puppet liver donation. The only thing ever done with this is the allowance that McCarthy is now able to snort puppet drugs that would ordinarily kill humans. That is it. There’s not even a joke related to this fact. It’s another example of the film’s deficiency of creativity.
The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they’re watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. Maya Rudolph as a cheerful secretary and the behind-the-scenes end credits were the best parts. What they’re really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you’re stuck with the story, and that’s not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn’t deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone’s time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child’s voice behind me and thought, “Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?” That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The Ocean’s movies, with the exception of the too-cool-for-school 12, have glided by on their charm, style, and a knack for having fun with cool characters and satisfying twists and turns. After 2007’s rebounding Ocean’s 13, it looked like the franchise was going back to dormancy, and then writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) resuscitated it with an all-female team, following the exploits of recently paroled Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock). Like her (recently deceased?!) older brother, Debbie has a big score in mind, the New York Met Gala, but more specifically a $150 million diamond necklace to be worn by self-involved acting starlet, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Debbie gathers a team of specialists and, with the help of he best friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), the assembled eight schemes to get rich off the neck of Ms. Kluger. Like its predecessors, this movie glides on by thanks to fun characters to root for and a fun heist that packs enough setups, payoffs, and reversals. The heist formula demands a protracted setup but this gives way to a bevy of payoffs, when done correctly, and even more payoffs when complications must be dealt with in a rapid time. Each of the ladies get a significant part of the heist, though not all of them have the same level of memorable involvement in the movie itself. Ocean’s Eight is a slick crime fantasy given a feminine twist, dipping into gaga fashions, killer jewelry, and celebrity worship. Bullock is a strong lead but it’s Blanchett that won my heart, so confidant in her wardrobe of striking men’s wear. Hathaway is a cut-up as a flaky actress needing constant validation. Part of the allure of the movie, and the heist itself, are the high-end clothes and accessories. Its prime escapism for the target audience to “ooo” and “ahhh,” as my theater did. Ross follows the house style of Steven Soderbergh closely with lots of tracking shots, zooms, and a consistent sense of movement. The pacing is swift and thankfully there’s a significant resolution after the heist that still finds time for even more payoffs. It’s not quite on par with the original, but I’d declare Ocean’s Eight the best of the sequels. It’s fizzy fun, but what happens if there are three more of them?
Nate’s Grade: B
Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.
In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.
For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.
However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.
Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.
The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.
Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.
On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.
Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).
Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.
Nate’s Grade: C
Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced single mother working in the small town gift shop of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. It’s also been seven months since her teenage daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire. She rents out three billboards on a rarely used side road to advertise her frustrations with the slow pace of law enforcement. The billboards say, “Raped while dying,” “Seven months and no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief (Woody Harrelson) tries to pacify the grieving mother while keeping his loyal officers in check from retaliation. Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is trying to apply pressure to get the billboards removed by any means. The small town loves their sheriff and turns on Mildred, which suits her just fine. The more people that disagree with her the more it helps fuel her sense of righteous indignation. Mildred engages in an escalating series of battles with the police and town that might just make justice impossible.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a Coen brothers’ movie played straight, and it’s borderline brilliant in its depiction of homespun characters allowed tremendous emotional latitude. These are people with complex depth who are allowed the power to be contradictory. They can be vicious one moment and kind the next, wise one moment and impulsive and self-destructive the next, capable of great acts of mercy and cruelty. This achieves two things: 1) making the characters feel far more convincingly drawn, and 2) making the characters consistently surprising. This is a messy movie but I don’t mean that as any intended insult. It’s messy in scope, messy in tone, and yet it thrums with the messy feelings and messy complications of human tragedy. What happened to Mildred’s daughter is utterly horrifying and her rage is righteous; however, that doesn’t sanctify her. She makes mistakes, pushes people away, and can be cruel even to her own family. I was expecting Harrelson’s police chief to be a sort of villain, either incompetent or conniving, willfully ignoring the murder investigation. This is not the case at all and he is full of integrity and rightfully beloved in his community. As happens in many criminal cases, the trail of evidence just ran cold, but Mildred would prefer every male in the city, state, and even the country be blood tested to find a culprit. Her demands are fundamentally unreasonable and Willoughby points out the many civil rights protections in possible violation. Just because Mildred has been wronged does not make her the hero, and just because Willoughby is the face of local law enforcement does not make him the enemy. They are people with much more in common than they would ever admit. The awful circumstances of the plot have pit them against one another in an escalating tit-for-tat that serves as projection for Mildred’s blinding fury against a world that would rob her of her daughter.
The dichotomy of sweetness and terror is best exemplified in the transformation of Mildred and Dixon, one of the most satisfying and engrossing film experiences of the year. Thanks to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s deft handling, these two characters start at opposite ends and grow before our eyes. Mildred tests the limits of her resolve and anger and makes costly mistakes. Dixon begins as the screw-up with a badge (hat he literally misplaces) rumored to have tortured a black prisoner in jail. He seems like the dim-witted poster boy for unchecked masculine privilege. He feels like an enforcer of the corruption we (wrongfully) assume is at work in this small town. As Mildred descends into darker decisions, Dixon ascends and chases a redemptive arc, which is amazing considering the damning behavior he engages in at the halfway mark. These two characters start as adversaries and develop into begrudging allies in a completely organic way that doesn’t blunt either character. That transformation is thrilling to watch and terrifically satisfying on its own terms. By the very end of the movie, I was ready and willing to watch its hypothetical sequel setup, especially if it meant I got to spend more time with these carefully crafted people.
McDonagh’s film juggles many tones, effortlessly switching from laugh-out-loud comedy to crushing drama and back again. I was genuinely surprised how many times I laughed and how hard I was laughing. During my second theatrical viewing, there was an old woman in the back who was quite vocal in her bafflement about how anyone could be laughing. And if you were told the specifics of the plot and its heavy subject matter, I would tend to agree. McDonagh has a preternatural feel for how to find humor in the most unlikely of places. The humor dissipates as the film marches into its second half, a natural byproduct of having to raise the dramatic stakes and make things feel serious. This is the first grounded drama in McDonagh’s filmography (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). He doesn’t shortchange the impact of his drama by weaving in more heightened comedic moments. The characters feel realistically developed and portrayed and are allowed to exist in moral grey areas. There’s a minor character played by Peter Dinklage who is positioned as a romantic option and a bit of a fool, but by the end you feel degrees of sympathy even for him. Even this most minor of supporting characters (not a comment on Dinklage’s stature) has earned your emotions. That’s great storytelling but it’s also tremendous execution from the director. Another sure sign of McDonagh’s command for tone is that he undercuts his story’s moment of triumph. I’ll dance around spoilers but Three Billboards looks to end in a way where several characters would claim a hard-won victory, and McDonagh casually strips that away. Even though this is a movie, and even though there are moments of broad, irony-laced comedy, the complexities and disappointments of real life emerge. Even to the very end, Three Billboards doesn’t follow the expected rules of How These Things Go.
The excellent acting gives further life to these tremendous characters. McDormand (Fargo) is radiating with ferocious resentment and indignation. Her character is a walking missile that just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Her stares alone could cause you to shrivel. McDormand hasn’t been given a character this good in years. She opens up the full reserve of her deep acting reservoir, able to flit from great vulnerability to intense repulsion. She has plenty of big moments where she gets to tell off the disapproving townspeople and media members. It’s ready made for easy laughs, but McDormand is so good that she shades those moments with subtler emotional nuance. You get the laugh and you also get further character insight. It’s a performance of such assured strength that I imagine you’ll be hearing her name often during the awards season. Rockwell (The Way, Way Back) has also never been better. He has to play a similarly deep array of emotions, from idiot comedy to heroic dramatics, and at every point Rockwell is stunning. He makes every joke twice as funny. When Dixon becomes a larger focus of the story is when he undergoes more intensive introspection. He goes from buffoon to three-dimensional character. Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) also delivers a worthy performance as a proud yet wounded man who is trying to do right against a world of pressures and self-doubt.
Three Billboards is an impressive, absorbing, searing film gifted with some of the best-developed characters in 2017. The portrayal of the characters is so complex and given startling life from such amazingly talented actors. You’ll watch three of the best performances of the year right here. You get a really strong sense of just how life has been irrevocably altered from this heinous crime, not just with Mildred but also for the town as a whole. Things cannot go back to being the way they were. The characters you like can make you wince. The characters you don’t like you might find yourself pulling for. Thanks to the complexity and nuance, the film delivers a raft of surprises, both pleasant and painful. These people feel closer to real human beings. McDonagh’s brilliant handling of tone and theme is a remarkable work of vision, cohesion, and execution. This is a darkly comic movie that can make you bust out laughing and an affecting human drama that can make you cry. It takes you on a journey that feels authentic and wildly entertaining. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which should have simply been called Three Billboards) subverts typical Hollywood clichés by making sure, even during its wilder flights of comic fancy, that everything is grounded with the characters first and foremost.
Nate’s Grade: A