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I, Tonya (2017)

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+

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The Disaster Artist (2017)

As an avid devotee of The Room, and a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I have been looking forward to this movie for literal years. I’ve been fascinated by Tommy Wiseau’s movie ever since I first saw it in 2009, and I’ve since watched it over 40 times. In my review for the movie, I said if I had to pick only five DVDs to take with me on a desert island, I might just select five copies of The Room. It’s that rare form of bad movie that is a thousand brushstrokes of bad, where you can discover something new with every viewing, and you desperately want to have your friends discover this miracle of filmmaking. It’s become a modern-day cult classic and theaters have been playing rowdy spoon-tossing midnight screenings of Wiseau’s film since its initial 2003 release (humble brag: I’m responsible for it playing on a monthly basis in Columbus, Ohio since 2009, the only regular public screening in all of Ohio). From its successful re-branding as a “quirky new black comedy,” fans had burning questions that needed answering, and that’s where Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. One fan was multi-hyphenate James Franco, who purchased the adaptation rights, attached himself as director and star, transforming into Wiseau and tapping his younger brother to play Sestero. Who would have guessed all those years ago that these beleaguered actors would soon have Hollywood celebrities portraying their astonishment? The Disaster Artist might be one of the best films of the year by chronicling one of the worst films ever made.

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco when he meets the Teutonic acting force that is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Tommy doesn’t behave like anyone else, for good or ill, and it inspires Greg to become friends with him. Tommy says he’s the same age as Greg, though is clearly double, and that he’s from New Orleans, though he definitely sounds more vaguely Eastern European. Tommy also has a lot of money and elects to move to L.A. to make it in the film industry, and he wants his best friend Greg to join him. Greg finds some beginning levels of success but Tommy is rejected at every turn, determined as too weird and off-putting by casting directors. He doesn’t want to play a villain; he sees himself as the hero. Tommy won’t wait for Hollywood and decides to make his own movie. He’ll write it, direct it, and be the star, and Greg can be his onscreen best friend. The Room, Wiseau’s magnum opus, was a stunning document of filmmaking ineptitude that had to be seen to be believed, and many of the people involved were certain it would never be seen at all.

I was worried that the film version would simply be many painstaking recreations of scenes from The Room and watching characters snicker. Thankfully, the recreations are kept to a minimum and The Disaster Artist personalizes the story in the friendship between Tommy and Greg. If anyone has read the book, you’ll know there is a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the bizarre onset antics and about the human enigma himself, Wiseau. The film could have been three hours long and just thoroughly focused on all of the crazier aspects of the behind-the-scenes and I would have been satisfied. However, the ace screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars), have elided all of those crazy details into a story about a personal relationship. The most memorable tidbits are still there, like the 60 plus takes needed for Tommy to say one line, but the sharper focus allows the film to resonate as something where you can genuinely feel invested in these people as characters rather than easily mocked send-ups. Greg feels greatly put upon by Tommy but he admires his fearlessness, and deeper down he feels indebted to Tommy for getting him onto the road to his dream. Thanks to Tommy, Greg was able to move to L.A., find a place, become an actor with representation, and book commercial spots. Tommy is also an anchor weighing him down. Greg will routinely have to place his rising career opportunities at the mercy of Tommy’s capricious sense of loyalty. It’s a movie that explores the value of friendship and the lengths people will go.

This is also an extremely funny movie. Part of the allure of The Room is how it feels like a movie made by space aliens who didn’t quite understand human interactions. The head-scratching choices and dropped subplots and redundant, nonsensical plotting are all given examination, allowing the audience to be in on the joke even if they have never seen Wiseau’s actual movie. This is a film completely accessible to people who have never seen The Room; however, if you have seen The Room, this movie is going to be 100 times more fascinating and enjoyable. The sheer bafflement of what transpired is enough to keep you chuckling from start to finish. The Disaster Artist is wonderful fun, and the actors involved are here because they love Wiseau’s movie. The celebrity cameos are another aspect that helps to add to the film’s sense of frivolity, spotting familiar faces in roles such as Casting Agent #2 (Casey Wilson), Actor Friend (Jerrod Carmichael) and Hollywood Producer (Judd Apatow). Watching everyone have a good time can be rather infectious, but The Disaster Artist succeeds beyond the good vibes of its cast.

Rather than lap up the easy, mean-spirited yuks, The Disaster Artist goes further, following a similar point of view with 1994’s terrific Ed Wood by portraying these men as deeply incompetent filmmakers but also as sincere dreamers. Wiseau is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of being, let’s be generous, a traditional filmmaker, but he is also a person who set off to achieve a dream of his own. He was denied other avenues so he took it upon himself, and a mysterious influx of money he doesn’t like to discuss, and this self-made-movie star built a vehicle to shine brightest. Sure, ego is definitely a factor, though one could argue it plays some degree in all creative expression needing an audience. Wiseau didn’t let a little thing like ignorance of storytelling, film production, or how to handle cast and crew as human beings with needs stop him from plowing ahead to prove his doubters wrong. The filmmakers definitely find a certain nobility in this artistic tenacity, as did Tim Burton with Ed Wood. It’s natural to pull for the underdog, even an underdog that is so naïve it might be worrisome. You can laugh freely at Wiseau, and you will, but you may also start to admire his gumption. As the opening barrage of celebrity interviews posits, you could not make something like The Room even if you were the greatest filmmaker on the planet. It is nothing short of an accidental masterpiece. It is a movie that has entertained millions of people and one they feel compelled to share with friends and family, compelled to bring others into this strange, beguiling cult of fandom. While Wiseau may not have made a “good movie,” he has made one for the ages.

James Franco (11.23.63) deserves an Oscar nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau. I’m serious. He is channeling some Val-Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison lightning when it comes to simply inhabiting the spirit of another person onscreen. It’s crazy that a movie so bad could inspire another movie that might legitimately compete for legitimate awards. James Franco is entrancing with his performance as he fully channels Wiseau, an almost mythic figure that we have never seen the likes of before. The accent is pitch perfect and impossible not to imitate after leaving the theater. Wiseau can be manipulative and cruel but he can also be generous and selfless. He takes great ownership over his friendship with Greg, so he believes all of his actions are to help their unique bond, even when he’s pushing that same person away. He so desperately wants acceptance but seems incapable of achieving it on anybody’s terms but his own. Wiseau is a fascinating film figure, and the movie does a fine job of neither overly romanticizing him nor vilifying him. Even despite his missteps, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for Wiseau, and that’s a major credit to the screenwriters and James Franco’s magnetic performance.

The other actors, a.k.a. everyone in Franco’s sphere of friends, are committed, enjoyable, and plugged into why exactly audiences have grown to love The Room for years. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2) is effectively the perspective of the audience, deliberating how much of Tommy to put up with and when to walk away. Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) gets the most sustained comedic run as a script supervisor who is bewildered by Wsieau’s methods. Alison Brie (Netflix’s GLOW) is our chief source of confused expressions as Greg’s girlfriend. Ari Graynor (I’m Dying Up Here) wrings great laughs from her awkwardness with Wiseau as filmmaker and onscreen anatomically-challenged lover. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is Greg’s disapproving mother who worries about what kind of relationship her son has with a much older man. Zac Efron (Baywatch) is hilariously excitable as the inexplicable drug dealer, Chris R. Speaking of excitable, Jason Manzoukas (The House) and Hannibal Buress (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are a great team as the film equipment rental guys who can’t believe their luck with Wiseau. Even two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) gets some nice moments as an older actress who justifies in a heartfelt message why exactly everybody on set would go out of their way to work on such an awful movie.

If you’re a fan of The Room, then you’ll absolutely adore The Disaster Artist, and if you’ve never seen The Room, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment in Franco’s film. Wiseau’s 2003 film has to be experienced to be fully believed. The film-about-his-film provides the added extension of a coterie of characters to share in our bemusement and bafflement, providing a chorus of commentary. However, the movie isn’t all jokes at Wiseau’s expense. It evolves into a love letter for the power of art to bring distaff people together with a shared dream. Like Ed Wood, Wiseau might be incompetent by traditional measures of filmmaking but he ignored the naysayers and followed his artistic vision. Under Franco’s direction, he’s a modern-day Don Quixote, or just a really weird guy who lucked into a miraculous alchemy that gave birth to a cult classic. At the end of the movie, Tommy thinks he’s a failure. Greg reminds him to listen to the audience reaction. They are hooting, hollering, applauding, and having the time of their lives. He’s responsible for that and he should be proud of his accomplishment. I unabashedly love The Room. I introduce the theatrical screenings in Columbus. I loved The Disaster Artist book. This movie is everything I was hoping for, and it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most genuinely pleasurable films of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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

Lady Bird (2017)

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-

I Love You, Daddy (2017)

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 Florida Project (2017)

Director Sean Baker has become one of indie cinema’s most probing, humanist voices for the outliers of our society. His previous films looked at aspiring adult film industry performers, transsexual prostitutes, and now with The Florida Project, an assortment of low-income and homeless families. The film has been buzzed about by critics for months and has started to pick up some serious awards traction. The film does an admirable job of illuminating a childhood on the fringes of society. I just wish it had done more.

Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) is a young child living in a rundown motel miles from Disney World. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), relies chiefly upon hustling Disney tourists to make money. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel. He’s sympathetic to the families turning their stays into homeless residency, but he also needs rules to be abided and rent money paid. He’s concerned about Halley’s choices and how they are impacting, and will impact, the life of her daughter. Over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer, Moonee’s life will never be the same.

The Florida Project is a slice-of-life drama from the perspective of a young child, and to that end it’s quite immersive and empathetic. Little Moonee and her group of friends feel extensively real, so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if director/co-writer Baker just turned on his camera and simply said, “Go,” and sat back. Much of the movie, and perhaps even half, is watching Moonee and friends play, explore, and interact with a larger world that they don’t fully understand. There are heavier realities kept at the peripheral. Moonee doesn’t know that she and her friends are living in poverty. She doesn’t know that her fun mom is actually an irresponsible parent. She doesn’t know that the weird guy watching them play that Bobby forcefully removes is very likely a pedophile. She doesn’t know the illegal activities of her mother to make ends meet. This limited perspective is also the same given to the audience. A mother/daughter photo session that seems innocuous and a little sweet is later revealed to have seedier ulterior motives. We follow Moonee on her jaunts to investigate the rundown neighborhood, and somehow in that missing time Halley has gained money for rent. It’s not quite a whimsical, romanticized version of life in poverty like the misguided yet critically beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it’s more a selective perspective that focuses on the innocence and imagination of children but without romanticizing the reality of poverty. It’s like a different coming-of-age film where future versions of characters would look back and think about all the things they didn’t know when they were just kids.

Baker and his production do an excellent job of making you feel the day-to-day reality of modern poverty and the struggles of people to simply exist and without condemnation. Halley would be charitably described as a bad mom, and yet she finds ways to provide for her child even if they jeopardize her custody. Halley is far too immature to be responsible for another human being, but not all of the other women are that way. Other women in the purple motel find legal means to provide and they take a concerted interest in the well being of their children. Halley’s adult friend is able to hold down a stable waitress job. Halley is too unruly, immature, and careless to do the same. Halley’s last job was working as a stripper, though she never tries getting a job at what I have to assume are a plethora of competing strip clubs adjacent to the commercial Disney tourist empire. This is very much a visual document of systemic poverty that illuminates the hardscrabble lives of people on the fringes of society trying to stay afloat. It’s rich in details like the knowing swapping of residents between local motels for one day a month to skip past residency declaration laws. It’s an interesting hidden world that feels rarely given this kind of caring close-up.

Baker has a great talent at finding non-actors who have great acting potential to essentially play versions of themselves. From Starlet, Tangerine, and now Florida Project, Baker has a tremendous gift for discovering people. There is an absence of mannered performance tics; the characters feel real because the actors are acting very naturally. These unsupervised kids are behaving like bratty kids. Brooklyn Prince is phenomenal as Moonee and a born performer. She has an innate charm that left me laughing often. Her improvisation is terrific although some of her lines definitely out themselves as being the written ones (“I can always tell when adults are about to cry”). Vinaite (Harmony Korine’s upcoming Beach Bum) is aggravating and yet you still wish that at some point she would turn it around or come to some latent epiphany. Halley feels, infuriatingly, very authentic in every one of her moments. She is dooming her child to a comparable trapped life of limited appeal and escape, but she can’t help herself and only focuses on the immediacy of life when life is so transitory and pessimistic. Dafoe (Murder on the Orient Express) is the moral center of the film and you feel his genuine unease in every pained glance. He has to hold his authority but he’s still very sympathetic for the motel’s collection of people that modern society has easily forgotten about.

With that being said, I understood what Baker and The Florida Project was going for and I found it to be underwhelming because there wasn’t much more than an established world. This is a movie with a very loose definition of plotting. After a while, without a better sense of plot momentum, it all starts to blend together into redundancy. It doesn’t help when many of the scenes can be less than ten seconds long. Here’s Moonee and her pal eating ice cream. Here’s Moonee and her friend running in the rain. Here’s Moonee and her friend hugging. Here’s Moonee in the bathtub. It becomes a lower class triptych of establishing its world and mood, but a little goes a long way. All of that could have been established and sustained in the first act, and then the story could have launched into a greater sense of change. I may lose some hipster critic cred points but as it continued I was partly wishing that the movie had been more conventional. Perhaps Bobby becomes more involved in the life of Moonee, taking custody of her while her mother was missing or going through social services review. He’s already a quasi-surrogate father figure so why not better explore that dynamic? The characters lack a depth to them, partially because we’re following children just being children, partially because we have characters drifting through life. It’s still lacking.

This was another example of an indie film sacrificing character and story to the altar of realism. I wrote a similar complaint in my 2012 pan of Beasts: “But all of these setting details do not take the place of an involving story and characters we should care about. I felt sorry for the various residents and their lot in life, but I never felt attached to any of them. That’s because they’re bland and simplistically drawn, but also because Beasts doesn’t bother to do anything else other than create its rich, tragic, harsh world. It’s authentic all right, but what does all that authenticity have to add to genuine character work? Artistic authenticity is not always synonymous with telling a good story.”

Immersive and genuine, The Florida Project is awash in details for a way of life rarely given this much attention and empathy. The acting is very natural and the young children especially behave recognizably like young children. Keeping the perspective of the film attached to the child is an interesting gamut as it keeps some of the harsher aspects of this world and the people from the same kind of direct exposure. It allows the film to have a degree of innocence without romanticizing poverty as some kind of fairy tale. It was a perfectly fine movie that I just happened to want more from, in particular a non-redundant story with more significant plot events and characters that felt multi-dimensional and developed over the engagement. I kept waiting for more and was simply left waiting. Even the symbolism of being on the outskirts of Disney World, the materialistic “happiest place on Earth,” felt barely toyed with. The Florida Project is a good start to a good movie but it needed continued refinement and attention to be something more than an inquisitive magazine article brought to careful cinematic life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos might just be the most perversely ingenious creative mind working in movies today. After Dogtooth and The Lobster, I will see anything that has this man’s name attached to it, especially as a writer/director. Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a challenging revenge thriller, a macabre comedy, a morality play, and a generally uncomfortable watch that is just as alienating as it is totally brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon with a loving family that includes his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffrey Cassidy), and young song Bob (Sunny Suljic). Then there’s Martin (Barry Keoghan), the lonely son of a patient who died on Steven’s operating table. He won’t leave Steven alone and doesn’t understand boundaries, even trying to hook up Steven with his lonely mother (Alicia Silverstone, yep you read that right). Martin even takes an interest in Kim. However, once Steven’s son falls victim of a mysterious illness and becomes paralyzed, Martin makes his true intentions clear. He’s poisoned all three of the Murphy family members and they are destined to die slowly unless Steven kills one of them. He has to choose which family member’s life to take with his own hands, or else they all die.

It’s hard for me to think of whom exactly to recommend this movie to because it is so intentionally off-putting. It’s intended to make you awkwardly squirm and question what you are watching. This will not be a fun watch by most accounts unless you’re a very select person who has a dark sense of humor and an appreciation for something different. Lanthimos seems to be purposely testing his audience’s endurance from the start. We open on several seconds of black to test our patience and then an extended close-up of real open-heart surgery. My pal Ben Bailey had to shield his face from the screen. From there, the movie defies your expectations at most turns and digs further into its depths of darkness. This is one of those movies where you wonder whether it will go “there” and it most assuredly goes there and beyond. One minute you’ll be cringing, the next you’ll be cackling, and the next you’ll be deeply unsettled, and then maybe back to laughing if you’re like me. Much like Lanthimos’ other movies, his deadpan sense of comedy is his prescription for an absurd world. It’s a movie where you have to actively work to adjust to its bizarre wavelength, but if you can, there are rewards aplenty. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Unlike The Lobster, this doesn’t exist in a completely parallel universe but more of a cracked, heightened version of our own. Lanthimos’ breakout film, 2009’s Dogtooth, dropped the audience into a strange world and expected us to catch up. This is similar. The flatly comic conversations become a sort of absurdist poetry. Everyday moments can be given one extra strange beat and become hilarious. Scene to scene, I didn’t know what would happen. The movie allows its story to properly breathe while finding room for its characters to discover intriguing diversions and insights, like Martin’s recollection of how he and his father eat spaghetti the same way. There’s an unusual sexual kink that involves giving oneself completely to another that makes more than one appearance, enough to question the connection between them. The very geneses of that kink I think alligns with a character’s god complex, but that’s my working interpretation. It made me rethink about the aberrant concepts of sexuality in Dogtooth, a.k.a. the nightmare result of helicopter parenting. The handling of pubescent sexuality, and the idea of incorrectly applying information learned from other settings, is just one more tool to make the audience uneasy. Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a closer approximation of our world in order for there to be a better sense of stakes. Somebody is going to die, and if Steven cannot choose then everyone will die. This isn’t a fantasy world but a real family being terrorized by a demented and vengeful stalker. This gangly teenager is more terrifying and determined than just about any standard slasher villain.

This is a modern-day Greek tragedy literally inspired by an ancient one. Prior to the Trojan War, Agamemnon was hunting and killed one of the sacred deer belonging to Artemis. The angry goddess stranded Agamemnon’s ships and demanded a sacrifice in order for the winds to return. He had to choose one of his family members to kill, and Iphigenia got the short end of that one. Euripides’ classic work gets a fresh retooling and Lanthimos is not one to merely stand on ceremony. He smartly develops his premise and takes it in organic directions that feel believable even given the ludicrous circumstances. That is Lanthimos’ gift as a storyteller, being able to make the ludicrous feel genuine. After the half-hour mark, where Martin comes clean, the movie really takes off. Does Steven tell his family and how much? Does he take matters into his own hands to convince Martin to stop? Is he actually culpable for the death of Martin’s father? Once the reality becomes clear and people starting getting increasingly sick, the movie becomes even direr. Steven is given the unenviable position to choose life and death, though he frequently shucks responsibility and only continues to make matters worse. Once his family comes to terms with the reality of Martin’s threat, they each try different methods to argue their personal favor to dear old dad. They vie to be father’s favorite or, at least, not his most expendable loved one. It’s a richly macabre jockeying that had me laughing and then cackling from the plain absurdity. Lanthimos presents a tragedy and forces the audience to simmer and contemplate it, but he doesn’t put his characters on hold either. They are adapting and have their own agendas, mostly doing whatever they can to campaign for their lives at the expense of their family (Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious character would loath this movie with a sleeveless fury).

The end deserves its own mention but fear not dear reader I won’t spoil it. It’s a sequence that had me literally biting my own hand in anxiety. I was pushing myself backwards in my chair, trying to instinctively escape the moment. It’s the culmination of the movie and feels entirely in keeping with Lanthimos’ twisted vision and the depiction of Steven as a weak man. There’s a strange sense of inevitability to it all that marks the best tragedies. I don’t know if I’ll sit through a more intense, uncomfortable few minutes in 2017, and yes I’ve seen, and appreciate, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! of difficult 2017 sits.

As much as this is a thriller it also feels just as much a satire of overwrought Hollywood thrillers. The killer isn’t some shadowy evil genius. He’s just a very determined teenager in your neighborhood. There are several moments that are difficult to describe but I know Lanthimos is doing them on purpose as a critique of thrillers. At the end, a character shakes a generous heaping of ketchup onto a plate of French fries, and we’re meant to get the lazy metaphor of the sloshing ketchup as spilled blood. However, under Lanthimos’ heavy direction, the shot holds longer, the accompanying soundtrack becomes an operatic crescendo, and the whole thing turns comic. Lanthimos has to know what he’s doing here, commenting on the lazy symbolism of dread in overwrought thrillers. There’s another instance where Martin has severely bitten into Steven’s arm. Martin’s apologetic and promises to make it right and then proceeds to bite a chunk of flesh out of his own arm and spit it onto the floor as an offering. That would have been creepy enough but then Lanthimos goes one step further. “Get it, it’s a metaphor,” Martin explains. It’s one in a series of moments where Lanthimos goes a step further into pointed genre satire. It’s possible I’m reading too much into the rationale behind some of these oddities but I don’t really think so. It seems too knowing, too intentional.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie that invites discussion, analysis, and just a general debriefing in the “what the hell did I just watch?” vein. This is a movie experience that calls upon the full range of human emotions, and sometimes in the same moment. Lanthimos’ modern Greek tragedy serves up a self-aware critique of its own genre, as he puts his personal stamp on the serial killer thriller. This is also an alienating film that doesn’t try to be accessible for a wider audience. It almost feels like Andy Kaufman doing an experiment replicating Stanley Kubrick (and it was filmed in Cincinnati). Even if you loved Lathimos’ most high profile work, The Lobster, I don’t know if you’d feel the same way about Killing of a Sacred Deer. It wears its off-putting and moody nature as a badge of honor. I found it equally ridiculous and compelling, reflective and over-the-top, sardonic and serious. Dear reader, I have no idea what you’ll think of this thing. If you’re game for a demanding and unique filmgoing experience and don’t mind being pushed in painfully awkward places, then drop into the stunning world of Lanthimos’ purely twisted imagination. Killing of a Sacred Deer just gets better the more I dissect it, finding new meaning and connections. If you can handle its burdens of discomfort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the most memorable films of the year and also one of the best.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Bong of the Living Dead (2017)

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

It Comes at Night (2017)

Like an earlier harbinger of the potential pitfalls of mother! marketing as something it’s not, the vaguely apocalyptic drama It Comes at Night is a paranoid thriller that is so bleak and absent resolution that you’ll wonder why anyone bothered. It’s not a bad film, and actually writer/director Trey Edward Shults has a knowing command on how to raise and develop tension with very precise camerawork and visual composition. The slow inspection of offscreen noise is still ready to build tension. The story has promise. Joel Edgerton is the father of a family trying to eek out an existence after the spreading of a deadly plague. He has a strict series of guidelines to protect his family members and keep them secure. This is put into jeopardy when he meets another family and invites them into his home. The rest of the film follows the slow dismantling of trust and the rise in suspicion and how it ruins both families. That’s essentially the movie. There is no “it” of the It Comes at Night. The post-apocalyptic element is at best tertiary to the plot, and the titular warning seems odd considering sickness can arrive at all hours. I think the reason audiences seemed to froth wildly at the mouth over this movie is due to its grossly misleading marketing. I re-watched the trailer and all of the supernatural imagery, which is extensively highlighted, is from dream sequences, and one dream sequence within a dream sequence. There’s a moment where the grandfather’s dog runs off into the woods at barks at an unseen force. You hear strange sounds but you never see anything, and this becomes just another unresolved, underdeveloped element. This is more a Twilight Zone parable about the destructive nature of man. The look of the film is moody, the performances are good, but I felt underwhelmed by the end and questioned the point of it all. It Comes at Night is okay. I can’t see what people loved and I can’t see what people hated, though I can see more of the aversion.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Brigsby Bear (2017)/ Dave Made a Maze (2017)

One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.

James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.

I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.

It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.

As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.

The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.

With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.

The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.

Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.

Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.

Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.

Nate’s Grades:

Brigsby Bear: A-

Dave Made a Maze: C+

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