Part poetic elegy for an America of old, part sunset-tinted road trip, part condemnation of economic fragility, part character study of a lost soul who prefers wide open spaces, Nomadland is a small indie trying to say a lot but in as few words as possible. Consider writer/director Chloe Zhao’s film a mixture of the compassionate, languid colorful character-driven slice-of-life Linklater movies and the romantic, spiritual hymns to nature and the universe from Terrence Malick. It’s ultimately about Fern (Frances McDormand) as a woman who travels the American southwest from season to season in her van, going from one temporary job to another. The temptation would be to make it about her running away from her past, her pain, and need to finally process her grief in a transformative way before she can settle down and make herself a home. Zhao’s movie rejects that easy formula; there are several moments where characters implore Fern to plant roots, to have a comfortable life with a man who adores her, but she can’t. She has to keep moving, from job to job and state to state. It’s not like a rejection of privilege and standing like 2007’s Into the Wild. If Fern could be rich, she’d happily not have to crap into a bucket in her van or sleep in parking lots or scrounge for food. She’s one of millions on the fringes of society because of how disposable so many corporations view their laborers. The opening text tells us that within one year of the factory in Fern’s hometown closing, the chief employer of the town, that its zip code was dissolved. Nomadland doesn’t ever feel like a preachy movie but it definitely has points it wants to raise about how we treat people in need, how business exploits them and their lack of options, and how others view these itinerant Americans and their plight. Really, though, it’s a movie of moments and there are some that are beautiful and powerfully poignant, like a woman stricken with cancer talking about her final desire to return to a lake frequented by birds, or another character discussing the death of his son and how that has informed his view of God and an afterlife. It’s these moments where a character just seems to take center stage and become fully developed, adding to Zhao’s humanist thesis about how every person, no matter their circumstances, is worthy of compassion and consideration. I enjoyed McDormand (Three Billboards) and thought she was a fine entry point into this under-seen world. I also think she was better served as a sort of living journalist letting us discover non-professional actors that open up their hearts and lives and feel like genuine human beings with a wealth of life inside them just waiting to be learned. That gracious, affirmative spirit hangs over every lovely frame and moment in a movie that could be described as Frances McDormand Tries All the Jobs. Still, it’s a movie of moments, and some of them truly sing and others just sort of go by without leaving as much of an impression. Nomadland is a pretty, thoughtful, meditative movie about persistent, stubborn creatures, namely us.
Nate’s Grade: B
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.
Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.
The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.
The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.
Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.
Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.
It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.
The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.
Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.
Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.
Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.
Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.
This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.
Re-View Grade: A
A rather warm but ultimately meandering tale of Michael Douglas as a college professor going through one crisis after another, Tobey Maguire as a creepy kid (again?!), and Robert Downey Jr. as an editor who seems to have a taste for transvestites. Though likable, Wonder Boys goes nowhere and nowhere slow. It carries the feel of a novel that was never intended to be brought onto the screen because of what it would lose in transition and it does. Douglas’ performance is sincere and syrupy but Wonder Boys is not a night out on the town.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was another film that I was curious to revisit because I was wondering whether or not I would find more of value than when I was 17-years-old and seeing Wonder Boys at a rare promotional screening with my good pals Kevin Lowe and Natalia Riviera (I recall none of us being particularly taken with the movie). It’s based upon an acclaimed book by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), starring the eventual first big screen Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the first Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). It was director Curtis Hanson’s follow-up from his 1997 masterpiece, L.A. Confidential. The screenwriter, Steven Kloves, would go on to adapt every Harry Potter movie minus one. The studio even re-released the movie later in the fall of 2000 under new more ensemble-focused marketing to push for awards consideration (to my surprise, it was nominated for three Oscars: Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and winning Best Song for a craggy Bob Dylan tune). Maybe my indifferent review earlier was just a young man unable to connect with this brand of middle-class ennui. Now two decades later I can finally say… I still don’t connect with this ennui.
Wonder Boys is one of those shaggy dog stories where it’s not so much the destination but the journey, so you better enjoy the characters or else it will feel like a long ride. The problem with this story is that its protagonist feels so self-pitying and yet the universe seems designed to cheer him up. Grady Tripp (Douglas) is a celebrated creative writing professor just going through his days in a pot-fueled haze to dull the pressure of living up to his big breakout novel. It’s been over seven years and his next novel has no end in sight, already clocking over 2000 pages. Grady thinks he’s a has-been but every other character in this tiny bourgeois universe tells him how great he is. His publisher (Downey Jr.) is eager to peek at Grady’s next surefire literary hit. His students adore him and hang on his every word. He has multiple women throwing themselves at him, including McDormand, who wants to have his baby, and Holmes as his infatuated student/boarder. Everyone tells him how great he is as a writer. James Leer (Maguire) confesses that it was Grady’s book that inspired him to even be a writer, and he seems poised to become a great one. It’s exhausting for every other significant character to proclaim repeatedly how great our lead is and to have him repeatedly respond, “Yeah, but I just don’t know, you guys.”
Self-doubt is already relatable enough, on top of imposter syndrome for an artist or even just an adult, so the material is there for an introspective story about the struggles of creativity and responsibility, but that’s not what Wonder Boys presents as a movie. It’s filled with zany mishaps to fill up those meandering two hours. There’s Downey Jr. and his wandering eye, first with a trans women and then with James. There’s a man incorrectly labeled “Vernon” who stalks Grady demanding what he says is his car back. There’s also a dead dog that gets carried around for almost the entire movie, even though the plot covers days and it would seem like a very bad idea to continue hauling a decaying animal in one’s car. There’s no real reason why this dog’s corpse is even held onto. It belongs to Grady’s boss, the chair of the English department, and the husband to his mistress (McDormand). Why not dispose of the evidence especially with the personal connections? It’s yet one of several signs of the movie trying to be quirky and edgy over the consequences of character actions. Much of the plot beats follow retrieving a stolen coat once owned by Marilyn Monroe. Does the coat represent something of time gone by? A promise never fully able to be fulfilled? America’s innocence? Does it even matter? If Wonder Boys was going to explore the inner turpitude of Grady, why does the movie need so many dead ends and loping storylines as a means of distraction?
It’s not a terrible viewing experience but it feels like the movie is definitely missing material that made the book so effective. As I stated in my early and remarkably on-point review in 2000, it feels like a novel that would lose its appeal in translation and it has. The plot is treading water until Grady finally makes a big personal decision at the very end. He even gets a happy ending where his next great book is the recollections of the film’s events. The many supporting characters are not as interesting as the actors might make them appear. Even Maguire’s wonderkid writer, where the title is derived from, is a walking awkward quirk machine, an early representation of an autistic student before many of the characteristics were wider recognized. He provides a detached sense of comedy with his bluntly direct approach, like his encyclopedic knowledge of famous Hollywood suicides (fun fact: the home video versions edited out Alan Ladd’s name at request from his family estate). The problem with James as a character is he’s meant to represent promise to Grady, further compounding his sense of inadequacy. He’s the shiny new up-and-coming talent headed for great headlines, the kind Grady might have enjoyed but might now be too far in the rear view mirror. James has his own mini-arc of “cutting loose” but he wasn’t tightly wound from the start, just antisocial and aloof. He’s a symbol by design and an impenetrable autistic mumbly sidekick for offhand comedy observations, not so much a person.
Curtis Hanson’s direction is fine, the acting is fine, and even when relatively uninspired, the story is fine as it meanders and goes in self-defeating circles. It’s a movie that I think will be more remembered for weird little trivia, like a scene where future Iron Man and Spider-Man are in bed together. I don’t regret re-watching Wonder Boys but I didn’t get much more out of the experience than when I was 17. The main character is hard to fully embrace, especially his self-pitying problems of middle-class privilege, and the story is more a collection of chapter-based anecdotes and hasty character resolutions. Even if the two hours is amiable enough, it’s hard to connect with the characters and their conflicts, and it’s a prime example of an adaptation that can’t replicate its specific authorial charms. If I were 17 again, I’d make a pun on the word “wonder” but I’ll refrain. After all, I’ve grown.
Re-View Grade: C+
The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.
Nate’s Grade: B
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
Actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski co-wrote Promised Land, which has been labeled as the anti-fracking movie. I wish. While it does take a suspicious view of the practice of extracting natural gas via high-powered underground water jets laced with chemicals, the movie feels too timid to really land home its points, settling on a familiar narrative of the redemption of one man working for The Man. The character development feels like it happens overnight rather than through a gradual process. Damon begins as a corporate raider, a guy selling false hope to the economic downtrodden, and ends up an altruistic environmental fighter. I mostly found him to be a pompous jerk. The scenes with Damon squaring off against Krasinski, an environmental activist, are easily the best, giving the movie a bristling energy it otherwise lacks. Krasinski provides a fine foil and some snappy competition until a late preposterous plot turn muddies everything up. I feel like the writers, as well as director Gus Van Sant, wanted to lure in wary moviegoers with something more broadly appealing (the evolution of one man) versus a more alarmist, message-heavy movie. That’s fine, but at least give me a better story. Promised Land even falls into the trap of having he Damon/Krasinski competition come down to a woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) they both fancy. Because otherwise it wouldn’t feel serious, right? It’s a solidly acted movie, with some nice turns by veterans like Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost), but the movie just doesn’t live up to the promise of its potential.
Nate’s Grade: B-
After the obnoxious, oafish mess that was 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel that took everything good from the first flick and undermined it and took everything awful and magnified it, I wasn’t expecting much. True, low expectations have benefited this franchise built upon merchandizing, product placement, and giant freaking robots that fight. I still remain a fan of the first film back in 2007, and I do feel like director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armegeddon) is a natural fit for this material. But after another overlong, overblown, and overloaded Transformers film, I’m starting to think that the franchise’s best days left with Megan Fox and her cut-off jean shorts.
Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from college and is now perusing a job in Washington D.C.’s vast center of government contracts. He’s living with his new girlfriend, Carly (Rose Huntington-Whiteley), the assistant to a rich billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and his fleet of collector cars. Sam gets a job with at a military private contractor run by a angry loon (John Malkovich). But Sam’s post-collegiate journey once again runs afoul with killer alien robots. The villainous Decepticons are plotting to steal a spaceship that crash-landed on the dark side of Earth’s moon. Inside that spaceship are teleporter orbs and a sleeping robotic giant known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, hooray). Optimus Prime, leader of the noble Autobots, revives his predecessor. Together, the group attempts to thwart the Decepicons, lead once again by Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving).
The Transformers films have been getting larger and larger in scope and destructive power; the first film messed up some L.A. streets, the awful second film trashed Egyptian pyramids (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), and now the third film pretty much obliterates downtown Chicago in stunning and overblown fashion. The climactic Windy City beatdown lasts a solid 50 minutes and may just be the greatest thing Bay has ever put onscreen, which admittedly might be faint praise to many. Perhaps the city of Chicago thought this would make for good tourism: ”Hey kids, come see the buildings that were turned to rubble in your favorite summer movie!” The impressive special effects are uniformly terrific, and the integration of reality and fantasy seems seamless. That goes without saying. I must credit Bay for creating sustainable action that is, here it goes, actually coherent. I know that “Bay” and “coherency” rarely go together, so I’m as shocked as everyone. No longer does geography become a hindrance to understanding. During this climactic Chicago onslaught, the locations are established, the objectives are clear, and the audience has a crisp understanding of the different teams, their paths, and their organic roadblocks and setbacks.
There’s a strong set piece within this 50-minute assault where Sam and company enter into a crumbling skyscraper that then teeters on its side. The organic complications allow for some nifty, almost ingenious, split-decisions utilizing a specific location, the hallmark of good action sequences. One moment they’re climbing up the floors, the next moment they’re tumbling through the floors, then sliding down the sheer glass wall, then firing at the glass to fall back inside and tumble some more. All the while a giant worm-like robot is churning through the foundation of this collapsing building. The scale of the sequence is quite thrilling for the time being. And yes, the 9/11 imagery is undeniable and relatively unearned without even a nod to solemnity or anything less than brainless summer spectacle. Sure the “cool-ness” of the individual parts never really materializes into something greater, and yeah maybe the action would have more impact if you actually felt for the characters, or knew who some of them even were, but you take what you can get in Michael Bay world. The extended climax for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is relentless and will beat you into submission, admiring the intrinsic beauty unique to Bay’s epic, albeit mind-numbing, demolition of the senses.
But Dark of the Moon is also the most visually coherent of Bay’s troika of Transformers flicks because the man has finally settled down when it comes to editing. Now no one will confuse this movie for Rope or Russian Ark (look it up, Transformers geeks), but the edit/panic button is given a slight reprieve. The shots last longer; the editing is far less frenetic and chaotically ADD-addled, and no longer does a Transformers action sequence look like jumbled, mechanical scrambled porn. Image A and Image B make a logical connection, at long last. You can tell which robot is which, for the most part. Perhaps this editing epiphany was a result of Bay’s corporate betters insisting that the film be shot in 3D (I chose to see the film in good old boring 2D, feeling that 150-minutes of Michael Bay with headache-inducing glasses was not worth the extra dough). Perhaps Bay had to consciously think about his audience’s well being so his shot selections lasted longer than his usual whirlwind of cuts. Perhaps the secret was loading Bay with cameras that weigh the same as couches. Maybe a little extra weight was all the man needed to formulate lucid action sequences.
And yet Dark of the Moon is just as stupid, outlandish, and tonally disjointed as the other movies, particularly the abysmal Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy remains at a puerile, sophomoric level. Bay’s sensibilities have always somewhat mirrored that of a snickering 14-year-old boy; the love of destruction, the fascination with things that go “boom,” the ogling of lithe feminine bodies. No joke, the first image seen directly after the film’s title is a close-up of Huntington-Whiteley’s ass ascending a staircase. I imagine there were plenty of men spasming in their 3D glasses trying to reach out and grab the circumference of a Victoria Secret model’s talents. I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.” Huntington-Whiteley’s character certainly leaves much to be desired, outside aesthetics. At least Megan Fox’s character had, you know, some character traits. I also wrote: “Amazingly enough, [Fox] manages to lose more clothes the more she runs in slow-mo, allowing the male audience members to follow the nuance of her bouncing breasts. She’s clearly not the next Meryl Streep but this girl deserves more than being wordless arm candy.” Seems apt to me. Carly is as bland as she is blank-eyed beautiful, just the way Bay likes ‘em.
The first 90 minutes of the film is spent with the humans and it’s like being trapped inside a bad comedy. There has always been a strong comedic bent to the franchise ever since the first film in 2007; however, the latter films have taken to grotesque caricature. In Dark of the Moon, the comedy is so deeply unfunny but so consistently antic, trying to overwhelm you with its bad taste. There’s a scene where Ken Jeong (yes, you read that right) corners Sam in a bathroom stall to distribute his crackpot manifesto. Then Sam’s boss walks in and, oh boy, he overhears and thinks they’re having a homosexual liaison in the men’s stall. What a hoot. Then Sam’s mother gives him dating advice, stating there’s no earthly way her son is going to nab a third “hottie” unless her boy has a giant…. and trials off (wouldn’t a mother kind of have an idea about that subject?). And then there’s the little Autobots, the size of remote control cars (perfect presents for Christmas mom and dad), who wheel around spitting smart-alecky backtalk. The entire Malkovich portion could have easily been cut from the film without damaging a soul. The Ken Jeong stuff should have been eliminated first. There’s something to be said when John Turturro’s returning Agent Simmons is the least annoying comic sidekick in this movie. But hey, at least there aren’t any overt racist depictions and jokes about robot scrotums. Nope, there’s only infantile humor and nonchalant misogyny. The comedic pit stops and non-sequitors never allow the movie’s tone to gel.
Before the movie descends into an all-out series of explosions and shrapnel, the setup actually has some genuine interest. Then it just all goes nuts at warp speed. The fact that the space race to the moon had a sinister ulterior motive, investigating alien technology, is an intriguing start. Bay even shoots the 1960s sequences like he’s ripping off Oliver Stone, swapping film stocks and black and white film to showcase his historical reinactors (three presidents get represented, including Obama). Apparently after this film and X-Men: First Class, the breakout star this summer is archived footage of JFK (man did he have a full plate, mutants and robots, and the man still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe). There’s even a cameo by the real Buzz Aldrin, which served to make me remember his better cameo on TV’s 30 Rock (“Would you like to yell at the moon with me?” he politely asked Tina Fey). The space race was a pretense for getting our human hands on some alien technology. Of course we were warned years ahead of time via Pink Floyd but nobody could put the pieces together. But there’s more alternative history to be had. Turns out that the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl was caused by the Russians trying to operate alien/Transformer technology. I’m sure modern-day Ukrainians will adore having their deadly tragedy turned into a plot point in a stupid movie about fighting robots. The Decepticons wicked plan is to open a teleportation portal and bring their dead planet, Cybertron, to Earth. Then they will use Earth’s human population as slave labor to bring their dead planet back to life. My question is this: when you’re a huge robot the size of a building, wouldn’t puny little humans make for a terrible labor force with their stunted little legs and feeble muscles? I know there’s billions of them, but there’s a reason human beings have never turned on ants and forced them to become a labor force for our construction projects. How many more deadly things from Cybertron are secretly going to be hidden on Earth? And yet none of this is even one-tenth as stupid as Transformers’ heaven in Revenge of the Fallen.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a “popcorn movie” can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too. Dark of the Moon is saved by its long Chicago-set climax, which gives way to some staggering action set pieces. The newest Transformers movie is just as stupid as the rest (what the hell is up with the weird Igor robots tending to Megatron that just seem to grumble and grunt?) but, unlike the previous installment, it’s not offensively stupid. Dark of the Moon is an exhaustive experience whose thrilling high points even feel mechanical and pre-programmed. Is this the future of Hollywood? Bay and his army of robotics and excessive spectacle have taken over the world. When it comes to big-time summer entertainment, the machines of Hollywood are going nowhere fast and even louder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The movie seems to float on the effervescent air of 1930s screwball comedies, and in truth it does possess some of that snappy allure. Francis McDormand travels into the inner circle of the upper social classes in London and befriends a bubbly lounge singer, played by bubbly actress Amy Adams. The film moves at a ridiculously fast pace, sometimes too fast as it tries to pile on complications and setbacks. This day-in-the-life confection is sweet and well natured but rather too digestible. Once the movie is over I do not see myself ever dwelling upon it once again. It’s a pleasant and entertaining experience even if it dances right out of your memory.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Coen brothers tend to follow serious works with silly, and now that they have a heap of Oscars from 2007’s No Country for Old Men audiences can expect extreme silliness. Burn After Reading is a farce in the best sense of the word; it’s a send-up of the spy thriller where morons inhabit every role. The incompetent characters repeatedly act impulsive and the whole movie’s tone is cranked to outlandish heights. The score by Carter Burwell is like a continuous thundercloud that underscores the ridiculous and faux ominous atmosphere. The Coens have been accused of ridiculing their characters and being too detached and clinical as screenwriters. I do not believe this for a moment. Anyone who watches Burn After Reading can tell that the Coens love their characters, especially Brad Pitt’s ebullient personal trainer. Pitt is a comic joy and brings fresh life to his fun character, a highly cheerful doofus who can’t stay still. Even the funky way Pitt walks is worth a giggle. Burn After Reading takes some surprising twists and turns and could have been much longer than 96 total minutes. The Coens go to such terrific lengths establishing great oddball characters and great comedic scenarios, and then the whole movie just comes to a close when it feels like it’s hitting another gear. Still, Burn After Reading may be no masterpiece but its yet another unconventional and mostly entertaining comedy from the reliably quirky Coen brothers.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Coen brothers dark, twisty entry to the world of film noir looks mind-blowing with its black and white lensing. And the story is great too. Billy Bob Thronton plays a barber who gives new definition to the word passive. One day a customer lets him in on an up-and-coming financial project and if Thronton were to provide some dough then surely he would rake it in. As with most film noir, the normal man is thus pulled into the web of intrigue and crime. The ball gets rolling after Thornton blackmails his wife’s tryst (James Gandolfini), who also happens to be her boss and his friend. Things get far more complicated from there and nothing seems to go right as Thornton makes one bad decision after another. The Man Who Wasn’t There is an engaging and smart drama with game bits of comedy strewn at key moments. The Coen brothers are a pair not very easily topped when it comes to excellence in films, and this latest entry is a wonderful addition to their resume.
Nate’s Grade: A-