As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.
The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.
I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”
However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.
On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.
Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.
The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.
This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.
Nate’s Grade: B
It was halfway through Roman J. Israel, Esq., a soggy legal thriller and morality play, that I got up and took an extended bathroom break and felt no guilt. At that point I had just sat through a solid hour of set up, establishing Denzel Washington as a frumpy, super autistic, super awkward, out-of-time civil rights lawyer but I kept waiting for the plot to engage. And I kept waiting, and waiting, and finally writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (Nightcrawler) movie seemed to connect some relevant plot events, Roman doing something unethical to profit personally and suffering the consequences. It was here I thought now things will start to ramp up, now there will be a stronger sense of urgency with what was already a loping, ungainly film that felt more like a collection of scenes with little cohesion. Whatever it’s meant to be, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a tedious process, a movie fumbling for an identity. It’s hard for me to believe this is from the same creative voice that gave us the entrancing Nightcrawler. Washington is agreeably playing against type and always worth watching. There are ideas here that could have worked had they been refined and reworked. It just all feels like anything rarely matters or adds up to anything significant. Take for instance Roman’s brief he plans to file that will, by his admission, change the very criminal justice system. He mentions this mission when it appears that his new boss (Colin Farrell) may fire him. It looks like this brilliantly composed legal brief will seem like a pretty big deal. Well Roman doesn’t do anything with it for the rest of the movie, though it does serve as his legacy anyway. Farrell’s character can wildly fluctuate between a lawyer hungry for exposure and high-paying clients and a guy who wants to be like Roman, helping the little guy and advancing civil rights causes. This is a movie that just feels listless, bumping around from one disjointed plot point to another, and the only thing keeping me in my seat was Washington’s acting prowess. But even that couldn’t hold me forever.
Nate’s Grade: C
Back in 1994, popular culture was rabidly obsessed with figure skating thanks to Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the “bad girl” who was accused of coordinating an attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya’s skuzzy husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), had hired a friend to “intimidate” Kerrigan, and the end result was a broken knee and the world-famous outcry of, “Why?!” I, Tonya takes a look at the players of this media circus and lets them tell their own stories in their own words.
I,Tonya feels brazenly like a Scorsese movie populated with kooky Coen brothers characters. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) cribs from the best and uses all those propulsive camera moves, voice over leading to fourth-wall-breaking, and music needle drops to draw an audience into this crackling crime story. The biggest decision made by screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) is the dueling perspectives of Tonya and Jeff being given equal treatment. They both sit for a series of on-camera interviews and will even interrupt the flashbacks to object. Jeff will recount a time Tonya chased him around with a loaded shotgun, and then Tonya will turn to the camera and argue that this moment never happened. I, Tonya doesn’t tell you who to believe and who to doubt. The account will purposely contradict one another, often demonizing the other party and painting themselves as a larger victim of fate. The movie is steadily entertaining as it mixes moments of light and dark. Tonya breaking the fourth wall to talk about her domestic abuse is another way of showing just his disassociated she’s become to a life of abuse. It turns fourth wall break into coping mechanism. I was laughing at the buffoonery of Jeff’s goons and moved by the relentless torment of Tonya. It’s a story that’s worth revisiting and is given an invigorating sheen of inept crime thriller. Gillespie goes a little too hard with the Scorsese speed ramp zooms and quantity of literal song selections, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment impact.
This is a film about reassessing preconceived notions about who the characters are, what the story exactly is, and where the truth lies amidst all the madness. Tonya scoffs, “There is no such thing as truth,” as if she were channeling the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. This becomes a foundational thesis of the movie as we’re presented with conflicting personal accounts where characters will break the fourth wall to criticize the validity of what they are doing or saying. All of these conflicting accounts force the audience to constantly reconsider what we are seeing and being told. We have to consistently think about the source and how there might be bias at play. As expected, Tonya and Jeff’s differing versions of events paint the other as more knowingly duplicitous. Tonya flat-out accuses Jeff of years of physical abuse, the kind of relationship Tonya’s vicious mother had primed her for. LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would say all of her cruel hostility was valuable in an ends-justify-the-means crucible. Through fighting to earn the approval of an abusive authority figure, Tonya became one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, the first to achieve the vaulted triple axle. LaVona shouts that “nice” doesn’t get you anything in this world (her own mother was nice and LaVona became a waitress). People throughout I, Tonya are reshaping worldviews, angling for sympathy, and spinning history for personal advantage. Everyone wants to be a victim, a martyr, or at least the person who was right in the end. By the end, you don’t know what exactly to believe and whose truth is closest.
This was a media scandal that the public gladly gobbled up every new morsel, bringing out the knives to carve up a villain served up on the Olympic stage, but I, Tonya is a very empathetic portrayal that still doesn’t take the edge off of its title heroine. She grew up poor and scrappy and had to make her own costumes for her skating performances. From a technical standpoint, Tonya Harding could out skate anyone, but she didn’t fit into the cookie cutter beauty pageant image of what a wholesome girl should represent. The same bias against her, the trailer trash girl who couldn’t catch a break, was still dragging her down even when her skating was superior to her competitors. It definitely helps to paint a sympathetic portrayal for the woman, and that’s even before the years of abusive relationships, and a husband she may have returned to in order to appear more “wholesome family.” It’s easy to castigate Tonya Harding as a villain, but it’s even harder to see the person inside the caricature that was sold for mass media consumption.
The use of humor has to be very delicate because of all the controversial material. We have naturally offbeat characters doing incredibly stupid things, and then we have a husband repeatedly hitting his wife. This seesaw of tone means that the comedy needs to be precise or else it will undercut the drama or, worse, cross into gross mitigation of abuse. LaVona is a popular source for verbal abuse, and it’s meant to be shocking, but at no point do I think the film trivializes the conditions of Tonya’s childhood for ironic comic fodder. It’s presenting an abnormal treatment of an abnormal upbringing, and the later detours with “The Incident” are highlighting the naturally cracked criminals. These people were not good at what they were doing and were easily caught. The nimwits-try-their-hands-at-crime subgenre is ripe for laughter, in particular Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and his self-professed masterful skills at counter terrorism planning. The Tonya Harding scandal is so inherently sensational and with so many bizarre, colorful characters that to treat it without its penchant of natural humor would be a disservice. Crazy people doing dumb things are going to tend to have some humor value. Where the film falls short is in the realm of media satire. There are a few tasty morsels sprinkled throughout, like LaVona forcing reporters to stand behind a rope line if they wanted to snap her picture, but overall the media satire feels flat. Bobby Cannavale (Spy) feels completely wasted as a Hard Copy reporter/exposition device. He offers few insights and fewer colorful anecdotes. The most pointed the film gets with media commentary is when Tonya looks directly into the camera and accuses each person of being her abuser. It’s a stark turn that stops the action cold, and the audience has to think about their own tacit approval through media consumption. By rewarding this coverage and the easily packaged version of events, have we all played a part in Tonya’s suffering and shame?
Robbie (Suicide Squad) is sensational in the role, eliciting so much emotion that it can instill whiplash. One moment you’re impressed by the depth of her vulnerability and the next you’re whistling at her hard-as-nails persona and sheer tenacity. It’s an unapologetic performance that goes dark places and serious places, but Robbie doesn’t stoop to pander. Tonya wants your empathy but she doesn’t want your pity, and she sure as hell isn’t going to pretend to be somebody she’s not. The tricky part is the question over who is Tonya Harding. With Robbie, she’s a profane firebrand who is impatient with a world that refuses to accept her and her talents. The scene where Tonya is stripped of ever competing again in professional figure skating is a dazzling piece of acting on Robbie’s part. Tonya has sacrificed much of her own life for this sport, and by her own admission she doesn’t know how to do anything else. To see it all go away with the pound of a gable, she pleads for jail instead as a more humane punishment. This feels like Robbie marking her grand entrance into the next acting echelon in Hollywood.
The supporting roles nicely serve their purpose, with Janney (The Girl on the Train) being the obvious standout. Her hellish mother is overpowering in every sense. Janney is abrasive and fierce and a crutch for the screenplay when it needs something shocking. I do not doubt the voracity of what the Tonya and other participants have said about LaVona, but the filmmakers don’t know when to leave enough alone. There are insights to be had through LaVona’s relationship with her daughter but it’s too often one-note. She’s the angry older woman berating people for shock, comedy, or a transition.
I, Tonya might change your mind about Tonya Harding. She’s definitely unrepentant in the movie while at the same time asking you to view her with an empathy that was lacking during the parade of 1990s tabloids. She’s an abuse survivor who had to claw for every advantage she could earn. You might not like her, or maybe you’ll grow to appreciate her, but you will understand her better. Robbie is outstanding, Janney is highly memorable and perfectly cast, and the direction provides plenty of jolts, from electric camerawork to the energetic propulsion through its diverging viewpoints. The dark comedy works, the serious drama works, and the domestic violence is not trivialized with so many ironic winks. I, Tonya is an unflinching expose that forces you to question the validity of everything. It’s a movie that dares you to question your perceptions while you’re keenly watching. Perhaps twenty years later, Tonya Harding will get whatever she is due.
Nate’s Grade: B+
You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.
From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.
The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.
The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.
The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.
While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.
Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.
When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
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
Taking a cue from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pixar’s newest animated wonder is a leap into a fantasy world with a young protagonist trying to get back to his family through trials of courage. A young boy wants to be a musician but his older grandmother forbids it, blaming music for luring away her grandfather and almost ruining the family. He steals a famous celebrity’s guitar from his crypt and is transported to the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The boy is able to meet his departed family members but if he can’t make it home by the end of the night he’ll stay there forever. This is a pretty dense film with a lot of rules to remember and yet the movie’s wonderfully structured story doesn’t give you more than you can handle. One rule leads to another organically, and you’re fully invested in the world and the characters. The Mexican culture and heritage is portrayed with extreme reverence while still being playful. This is a movie about death that treats it seriously but can still have fun when it counts. It’s lively, joyful, and sneaks up on you emotionally, as all great Pixar movies seem to do. I was wiping away tears by the end, and I’m sure fathers will be wiping away even more. The screenplay takes staid concepts (power of dreams, importance of family, respect for elders) and finds meaningful ways to personalize them. It’s ultimately a story about sacrifices and relationships between generations, how we honor and remember those we cherish. The visuals are colorful and gorgeous, though I didn’t feel the world of the dead was as memorable in its various locations and developments as the characters. Coco is a funny, charming, heartfelt, poignant, and vastly entertaining movie that soars with great imagination, story development, and an enrichment of characters to fall in love with.
Nate’s Grade: A
Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.
Nate’s Grade: A-
After years of rumors, highly influential comedian and television guru Louis C.K. has admitted that the sexual allegations against him are indeed true. Several women recently came forward in a New York Times article citing C.K. as asking them to watch him masturbate, forcing women to watch him masturbate, or masturbating over the phone with an unsuspecting woman. Right now in the new climate of Hollywood, it appears that C.K.’s comedy career is at a standstill if not legitimately over. And strangely amidst all this was the planned release of a little movie he wrote, directed and stars in called I Love You, Daddy, about a famous Hollywood director with rumors of sexual indecency. The movie has been pulled from release but not before screeners were sent to critics. I don’t know when the general public will get its chance to watch I Love You, Daddy, but allow me to attempt to digest my thoughts on the film and any possible deeper value (there will be spoilers but isn’t that why you’re reading anyway?).
Glen (Louis C.K.) is a successful TV writer and producer. He’s starting another show and Grace (Rose Byrne), a pregnant film actress, is interested in a starring role and perhaps in Glen himself. His 17-year-old daughter China (Chloe Grace Moritz) takes an interest in a much older director, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), with a troubled past. Glen idolizes Leslie Goodwin but isn’t comfortable with the interest he’s shown in his underage daughter.
It’s impossible to resist the urge to psychoanalyze the film especially considering it’s otherwise a fairly mediocre button-pushing comedy. The biggest question that comes to mind is why exactly did C.K. bring this movie into existence? He hasn’t directed a film since 2002’s blaxploitation parody Pootie Tang. It didn’t even come into being until this past June, when C.K. funded it himself and shot it over the course of a few weeks. What about this story was begging to be brought to life, especially with C.K. as its voice? He didn’t have to make this. He brought this into the world. Given the controversial subject matter, C.K. must have known that the film would at minimum reignite the long-standing rumors of his own sexual transgressions. So why would he make I Love You, Daddy? This is where the dime-store psychiatry comes in handy, because after viewing the finished film, it feels deeply confessional from its author. It feels like C.K. is unburdening himself. I cannot say whether it was conscious or subconscious, but this is a work of art where C.K. is showing who he is and hoping that you won’t realize.
This is very much C.K.’s riff on Woody Allen movies and Woody Allen’s own troubled history of sexual impropriety; it’s an ode to Allen and a commentary on Allen (C.K. had a supporting role in Allen’s Blue Jasmine in 2013). It’s filmed in black and white and even follows a similar plot setup from Manhattan, where Allen romances a 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway. It’s about our moral indignation giving way to compromise once our own heroes are affected or whether or not our own lives can be benefited. The stilted nature of human interaction among a privileged set of New Yorkers is reminiscent of Allen’s windows into the world of elites. It’s an approach that C.K. doesn’t wear well, especially coming from his much more organic and surreal television series. The movie is trying to find a deeper understanding in the Woody Allen-avatar but never really does. I grew tired of most of the conversations between flat characters that were poorly formed as mouthpieces for C.K.’s one-liners and discussion points (and an N-word joke for good measure). Leslie is an enigma simply meant to challenge Glen on his preconceived ideas. Leslie isn’t so much a character as a stand-in for Woody Allen as stand-in for C.K.’s own fears of hypocrisy and inadequacy. And that begets further examination below.
In retrospect, looking for the analysis, there are moments that come across as obvious. C.K. has generally played a thinly veiled version of himself in his starring vehicles. Here he’s a highly regarded television writer and producer who seems to keep making new highly regarded television series. There are too many moments and lines for this movie not to feel like C.K. is confessing or mitigating his misdeeds. One of China’s friends, a fellow teen girl, makes the tidy rationalization that everyone is a pervert so what should it all matter? Sexuality may be a complicated mosaic but that doesn’t excuse relationships with underage minors and masturbating in front of women against their will. Glen says that people should not judge others based upon rumors and that no one can ever truly know what goes on in another person’s private life. There’s a moment late in the film where Glen is irritated and bellows an angry apology with the literal words, “I’m sorry to all women. I want all women to know I apologize for being me!” I almost stopped my screener just to listen to this line again. In the end, Glen has a fall from grace and loses his credibility in the industry. He’s told by his producing partner, “So you were a great man and now you’re not.” And the last moment we share with Glen before the time jump that reveals his fall from grace? It’s with China’s “everyone’s a pervert” friend and after she confesses that she once had a crush on Glen when she was younger and that she finds older men sexy. After a few seconds, he slightly lurches toward her like he’s going to attempt to kiss her and she recoils backwards. Glen interprets the moment very wrong and tries to make an unwanted move on a much younger woman. Yikes.
There’s also a supporting character that twice visually mimes masturbating in public. Yeah, C.K. literally included that gag twice. For a solid twenty minutes I didn’t know if Charlie Day’s character was real of a Tyler Durden-esque figment of Glen’s outré imagination. Day plays an actor with a close relationship with Glen. He’s not like any other character and seems to speak as Glen’s uncontrolled sense of id, urging him into bad decisions. During one of those furious masturbatory pantomimes (not a phrase one gets to write often in film criticism, let alone the plural) Day’s character is listening to Grace on speakerphone. This is literally the same kind of deviant act that C.K. perpetrated on a woman detailed in The New York Times expose. It’s gobsmacking, as if Bill Cosby wrote a best friend character that would drug women at a party he hosted, and Cosby wrote this after the rape allegations already gained traction. Double yikes.
As a film, I Love You, Daddy feels rushed and incomplete. The editing is really choppy and speaks to a limited amount of camera setups and shooting time. Locations are fairly nondescript and the entire thing takes on a stagy feel that also permeates the acting. C.K.’s television work has revolved around a very observational, natural style of acting and a style that absorbs silence as part of its repertoire of techniques. I Love You, Daddy feels so stilted and unrealistic and it’s somewhat jarring for fans of C.K.’s series. The actors all do acceptable work with their parts but the characters are pretty thin. You feel a lack of energy throughout the film that saps performances of vitality. There’s a method to the reasoning on presenting China as an empty character until the very end, which speaks to Glen’s lack of understanding of who his daughter is as a person. The overall storytelling is pretty mundane, especially for C.K. and the topic. He seems to open conversations on topics he believes don’t have easy answers, like age of consent laws, statutory rape, and judging other people based upon their reputations, and then steps away. The film wants to be provocative but fails to fashion a follow-through to connect. There aren’t nearly enough nuances to achieve C.K.’s vision as saboteur of social mores.
It feels like C.K. might have anticipated having to come forward and accept the totality of his prior bad behavior, and maybe he felt I Love You, Daddy was his artistic stab at controlling the reckoning he knew would eventually arrive. I would only recommend this movie as a curiosity to the most ardent fans of C.K. comedy. I Love You, Daddy delivers a few chuckles but it’s mostly a mediocre and overlong Woody Allen throwback companion piece. It’s harder to separate the art from the artist when that artist has complete ownership over the vision. As of this writing, I can still watch Kevin Spacey acting performances and enjoy them for what they are, mostly because he is one component of a larger artistic whole. In C.K.’s case, he writes, directs, stars, and it’s his complete imprint upon the material. I consider 2016’s Horace and Pete to be of nigh unparalleled brilliance that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a modern American theatrical masterpiece that could sit beside Eugene O’Neill. So much of C.K.’s material was based around his brutal sense of self-loathing and now the audience might feel that same sensation if they sit down and watch I Love You, Daddy. Unless you want to do like I did and unpack the film as a psychological exercise of a man crying out, there’s no real reason to watch this except as the possible final capstone on C.K.’s public career.
Nate’s Grade: C
The young author sub-genre has become an awards season cottage industry. We’ve seen recent stories about J.M. Barrie, Jane Austin, P.L. Travers, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole assortment of the Beats. Even in 2017 there have been stories about a young J.D. Salinger (Rebel in the Rye), the creator of Wonder Woman (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and soon Charles Dickens (The Man Who Invented Christmas). We seem to relish watching the formation of brilliance, or at least watching a recognizable creative voice find their flights of inspiration. Goodbye Christopher Robin is meant to be another in the tradition of young author movies served up on a platter for season-ending awards and recognition. Goodbye Christopher Robin is so serious, clumsy, and tacky in final execution that it enters awards bait self-parody.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is coming to terms with his PTSD after his experience sin WWI and trying to re-enter the literary and theatrical world of London. He finds inspiration through the imaginative play dates with his young son, Christopher Robin a.k.a. “Billy Moon,” and in time the formation of Winnie the Pooh’s world. The book is met with immediate success and Alan and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), are all too ready to ride the wave of fame. Christopher is raised by his kindly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Eventually, Christopher grows to resent his parents, the public’s assumption about himself, and the very name of Pooh itself, so much so that he volunteers to go to war as a means of just escaping the overbearing attention of the spotlight.
The opening act of this movie is the best part, and it’s all pre-Pooh. It also helps that it focuses more on Alan Milne rather than his son, who will take a far larger role later. Milne is already a slightly prickly character who doesn’t exactly fit in with the British upper class. He’s also trying to process his PTSD and return to some semblance of a normal life. He’s also struggling artistically, and this is where the film is at its most interesting because it has the most focus. We get to really delve into the triggers and emotional state of a character in a way that feels engaging. We spend time establishing a person, a trauma, and how it impacts his relationships. It’s not the most singularly compelling drama but it’s still more effective than what regrettably follows.
Where things start to go irreversibly downhill is the exact emergence of Pooh. While Milne is spending more time with the son he doesn’t fully know how to relate to, he’s also pumping his boy for ideas during their play for a children’s story. We get the expected but still lazy moments of all the little signifiers in their lives that connect with future characters. Then one Pooh gets published it becomes an international best seller and the movie just zooms through plot. It goes from releasing the book to everyone in the world loving it literally in a minute of screen time. The Milne family, and especially Christopher Robin, can’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded by fans. This is also where the film makes a sharp turn and reveals Alan and Daphne Milne to be really terrible parents. As soon as success appears, they’re actively exploiting their child at every opportunity, including such stunts as a radio station also listening in to father wishing his son a happy birthday over the telephone. If there’s a chance they can sell more books, get extra publicity, or simply parlay their fame into something, they take it, and often Christopher Robin is left home alone with his nanny while mom and dad lap it up. Rarely have you seen childhood neglect made to appear so strangely whimsical.
Even this abrupt plot turn could have worked as an interesting and unexpected portrayal of a literary family that lost the “family” sensibility once fame and fortune arrived. Unfortunately, this is not really a movie about consequences being felt because we’ve got to speedily move onto the next plot point in order to fulfill the formula. After Olive has her big speech about how the Milnes have been mistreating Christopher Robin, it’s literally two scenes later where Alan comes to agree. Lot of internal turmoil there, huh. Christopher Robin’s life gets so bad he’s practically begging to go to war. Even his fate during the war is something the film doesn’t leave unanswered for long. Why dwell on the consequences of decades of bad parenting when we can still careen into a feel-good ending that will attempt to poorly wipe clean the slate? Everything is resolved so rapidly and without larger incident that rarely does the story have time to register. We’re never going to feel great insights into these characters if the film doesn’t give us time. Who cares about hardships and betrayals if they’re just going to be erased in the next scene or if some life lesson will be ham-fistedly learned, but not earned, in short succession?
This is not a subtle movie by any means. The second half of Goodbye Christopher Robin is all about how the boy’s life is awful and how much he dislikes the spotlight. The father comes up with the solution of sending Christopher Robin to a boys’ home way out in the country. As soon as dad leaves, the boys instantly start bullying and harassing Christopher Robin, literally throwing him down flights of stairs while chanting insults. Dear reader, the next part astounded me. It is during the shot of him being pushed down the stairs that the movie uses this sequence as a transition device. By the time Christopher Robin stumbles to the bottom of the stairs he is now a teenager. It’s as if he has been falling down the stairs for a hellish decade. Then there’s the moment where dad sees his son off to war at the train station. As he looks back, for a brief moment it’s not teenage Christopher Robin boarding that train but young child Christopher Robin. I laughed out loud at this moment. It’s too earnest and too clumsy not to.
The acting cannot save this movie. Gleeson (The Revenant) gets to be that kind of aloof where the actor pronounces words with great care. His acting style is a bit too removed and opaque to really feel much for his character, especially when he cedes the spotlight to his neglected and exploited son. Robbie (Suicide Squad) is just completely wasted. She might be the film’s biggest villain and her disapproving stares look like they should be accompanied by cartoon steam coming out of her ears. Macdonald (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fares the best mostly due to her genuinely appealing nature. It also doesn’t help matters when it appears that our young Christopher Robin, newcomer Will Tilston, was hired for his toothy grin and dimples. This is not an especially good child performance. It’s powerfully winsome but in an overly cloying manner. It was hard for me to work up much empathy for Christopher Robin because the performance kept left me cold.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a feel-good movie that made me feel like checking my watch. It’s tonally off with its mixture of sentiment and indifference, zooms through important plot points rather than dwell on the impact of decisions, and looks for any opportunity to bludgeon an audience rather than deliver something genuine and subtle. If you’re a major fan of Winnie the Pooh perhaps you’ll get something out of it knowing its author was a terrible parent. This wasn’t a movie that made me feel authentic emotions. It felt too clumsy, too mechanical, and ultimately too miscalculated. The only awards this might be contending for at the end of the year are not the kind it’s going to want.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I’m in a movie. That’s a pretty vain opening sentence but I wanted to get it out of the way. I was one of the very fortunate horror fans to attend the Nightmares Film Festival, which in two short years has already vaulted to being one of the top film festivals in the nation. I came to see the premiere of Bong of the Living Dead, a stoner zombie comedy that filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio back in 2013 (oh what a simpler time). I had the good fortune to be a zombie extra, and wouldn’t you know, my shambling, bloody, stupid self made the final cut. I mention this not out of braggadocio but out of a desire for transparency. I am friends with many of the people in front of and behind the camera on this movie. I have personal connections to the production, Backwards Slate, and I’ve worked with several of the actors on other projects and plan to work with them again. I am going to write the most objective review I can for the film, as you would expect of me dear reader, but you should know of my potential personal biases. I was really dreading writing a review if the movie sucked. Happily, Bong of the Living Dead is still an enjoyably fun comedy even if you regrettably don’t happen to know anyone involved.
The zombie apocalypse is coming to Clintonville, Ohio, and our group of stoner friends has been waiting their entire lives for this moment. Childhood friends Hal Rockwood (Dan Alan Kiely), Christ Moser (Eric Boso), Tara Callahan (Laura E. Mock), and Jon Lance (Dan Nye) spend most of their time smoking pot and pontificating on the minutia of zombie pop culture. Christ is trying to hook up with a spacey new girl, Danielle DeWitt (Cat Taylor), and Tara and Jon seem to have something unspoken between them. Dr. Kate Mitchell (Tiffany Arnold) has been hearing strange cases of an infection passed through biting. Sure enough, the dead rise up and feast on the flesh of the living, and our stoners barricade themselves inside their house and gear up for the onslaught to come.
This feels like it was plucked out of the 90s, and I do not mean that as a criticism at all. It feels like the kind of movie Kevin Smith would have made in his geeky prime (a mischievous recitation of randy porn titles seems wholly inspired from Smith). The core idea allows genre satire as well as genre self-indulgence: what if a group of pop-culture savvy potheads became embroiled in the zombie apocalypse? They speak in rapid-fire, hyper-verbal references because that’s how they process the world, as one long catalogue of pop-culture footnotes and influences. These characters are downright giddy with the prospect of finally getting to live within the realm of some of their favorite horror cinema, plus the added bonus of violence without a wider set of consequences. They get to be the stars of their own movie now. Except, to the credit of writers Tim Mayo and Max Groah, they don’t even know that they’re still the bit players. They oversleep a zombie cleanup mission and wake up late into the morning to discover much of their neighbors having already taken care of the task (one of them makes the entrepreneurial step of starting a zombie-aided car wash). Hal can’t hide his disappointment: “The whole point of the zombie apocalypse is that there’s not supposed to be any people around.” The apocalypse isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and so the characters retreat and sulk, their knowledge of pop-culture raising their expectations to a level that could not be fulfilled.
It’s this clever undercutting of genre expectations where Bong of the Living Dead breaks from the mold of other zombie comedies. These characters are obsessively aware of zombie lore, and it’s a safe bet that a majority of the audience will have a loving knowledge base as well. They quickly accept their world-ending situation and it barely fazes them, perhaps still too inured by the inoculating effect of comparing it to the movies. It keeps the reality of the horror at a safe distance. Even while boarding up windows they can’t help but argue the merits of fast zombies versus slow zombies. A character makes a meta reference to breaking out a weapon that has never before been mentioned, and it was a big gut-busting laugh. Another clever undercutting is when the film transforms into more of a drama in the last act. I don’t know if enough has been established to make the leap from the Act One cartoon versions of the characters to the Act Three dramatic versions, but it was an interesting and unexpected development.
There’s one scene in particular that really exemplifies this dramatic pivot best while still undercutting the genre expectations (some spoilers). After all the close calls and zombie bashing, a character collapses and convulses not from having been bitten but simply from an ordinary and common medical emergency. The other characters are helpless and we watch the fear permeate the scene as everyone comes to the awful realization that this person is going to die from and there’s nothing that can be done. The panic in people’s eyes is genuine. This moment is without setup but I think it works better that way, placing the audience in the same confused and helpless position as the other characters. Groah, as director, gives the scene its necessary breathing room. In this world people can still die in ordinary, everyday ways, and death is not something that’s cool and distant. It’s terrifyingly real.
The loose, genial vibe of the overall production seeps into the script as well, especially during the lackadaisical second act that involves a lot of our characters just sitting around. Bong is a movie that finds time for little comic arias that other movies would blithely skip over. The loose feel allows the movie to find extra weirdness. There’s an ongoing run of silly media satire that reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s social commentary. There’s a glib news anchor (Ralph Scott) trying to make the most of the dour news cycles, an opportunistic politician (Vidas Bardzukas) already promising to protect his constituency, a spookily spastic exercise host, a Spanish shopping channel host making love to the camera with his eyes, and a series of cheesy barbarian movies called Swords and Bitches with an evil whip-wielding arachnid queen (Brianne Jeanette). Bong of the Living Dead is chock full of little comical asides that you wouldn’t expect to be so good.
Though it’s also during the second act that I wish more had been going on. I wanted more examination on the difference between their perception of a zombie apocalypse and the reality they’re stuck with. I wanted a bit more setup for the payoffs, like maybe revealing that smoking pot slows down the zombie virus, etc. I wanted more of the VHS-quality flashbacks with the perfectly cast younger versions of the main gang. There aren’t as many central plot elements to make the bridge from start to finish. For much of the middle period, our characters kind of just sit around. They hang out, debate cereal superiority, and even go to the last remaining video store on Earth. It feels a bit like the movie is stuck in neutral, which might have also been the point to communicate the characters’ general malaise. I understand the absurdity of asking for more plot in a stoner comedy but this isn’t any ordinary stoner comedy, as its dovetail into heavy drama indicates. The first act is a lot of fun, the third act is effectively dramatic, but I wanted a bit more connective tissue. The characters could have been better developed (what exactly do they do when not smoking?) but I still cared when things got serious.
The performances across the board are good to great, with every actor, no matter how small the part, finding their specific comedic lane to work within. The biggest breakout performer is definitely Kiely (Axe Giant, Horrors of War) who is, to put it in a topical and never-to-be-dated analogy, the Tiffany Haddish of this particular Girls Trip. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep you entertained. Hal is the character that gets the most excited about the zombie apocalypse. The other characters are interesting but fairly subdued for the most part, as one would expect prolific stoners to behave. When Hal first sees a confirmed zombie, his wide-eyed expression is like a child on Christmas morning, and it’s the biggest applause moment for the film. Kiely is a live wire of energy that jolts every scene he’s in. His eyes speak a devilish madness. He reminded me of Jason Lee’s raucous debut in Mallrats, a full force that sweeps you away. After watching Bong of the Living Dead, you’ll wish every movie had a Dan Kiely in it.
The rest of the ensemble find their moments, giving all the other moments to Kiely and his glorious beard. Arnold (Born Again, Seven Hells) is playing the most straight-laced of all the characters, a doctor trying to make sense of the irrational. Arnold has an instant screen presence and poise that causes you to sit up and pay attention. Her softer moments shared with Hal also help provide a nice antidote for the no-nonsense doctor. As much as Kiely is the draw of our attention, it’s Arnold that is often the one who grounds the picture. Boso (Underground 35) relentlessly pushes his character outside the box of socially awkward outcast. There’s a heaviness he feels from the consequences of getting close to others, and he doesn’t know fully how to deal with his frustrations with himself and the apocalypse, so he embraces his darker, nihilistic impulses. Boso is such a memorable film presence that it feels like he stepped off the set of a Richard Linklater film. Cat Taylor has a charming sense of daffy innocence to her. You can’t tell whether she’s dazed, cheerful, or not altogether there, and it fits very well for her character joining the group. She reminded me of Hannah Murray from the BBC’s Skins series. Nye (Harvest Lake, Dark Iris) is movie star handsome and has some sharp moments of comic aloofness. The romantic undercurrent he shares with Mock (The Tribunal) allows both of them something at stake that the audience can invest in. Nye and Mock have good heated exchanges that wake up the audience and allow each actor to effectively broaden their character range.
And then there are the little performances that make the most of their abbreviated screen time, like Ralph Scott’s (Stitches) wonderful clench-jawed bravado, Bardukas’ (The New Mr. Phillips) hilarious loose-elbow springiness in front of a green screen, Bill Koruna’s (The Shoes) crotchety neighbor, Ben Brown (After) as a powerfully self-loathing jock jerk who is wonderful fun to hate, Sarah Starr as a ditzy and easily bored sex object prone to gratuitous nudity, and the entire team inside the Conan-esque barbarian videos are a hoot for how committed they are to being silly. Just thinking about the Spanish home shopping host and his faces makes me smile and giggle to myself.
Bong of the Living Dead is a shaggy, scrappy, loose and lively zombie comedy with a charm all its own. It’s reliably fun and finds hidden gems of comedy from its deep supporting cast of oddballs. The main characters do fine work pushing at the boundaries of their stock archetypes, with Kiely as the wild man standout. There’s a definite love for the material here, over zombies and dumb comedies and the bonds of friendship. It’s evident in the care taken to creating a movie that doesn’t seem like it was churned out of a Hollywood assembly line, or something calculatingly checking the genre boxes (though the nudity does seem to linger a bit long…). Not everything always works but it’s a movie that tries a multitude of options. Bong of the Living Dead zigs instead of zags, undercutting the characters and our own expectations, finding ways to surprise as well as elate, and that includes going all-in on drama toward the end. It’s a silly movie that just might make you feel something by the time the credits roll. I don’t know what the release plans are for this homegrown horror flick, so stay alert for it on the horizon. Toke up, Backwards Slate Productions. You’ve earned it.
Nate’s Grade: B