movie reviews Nov. 2017


suburbiconThor: Ragnarokthe florida projectJustice leaguewonderlast flag flying

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Last Flag Flying
Reviewed byBruce Rodgers

Art lends itself to many interpretations, as the saying goes. But if we consider filmmaking a quest for art then most times we will be disappointed. The main gestalt of film is entertainment. But when a film is artful in its entertainment by being truthful to its sentiment, natural in its presentation and revelatory in what the characters are saying, then the film approaches the symmetry of being art. Last Flag Flying, a film by director Richard Linklater, takes the most universal of human emotion, loss, and magnifies the familiarity of it into art, relying on the simplest way of delivery — human interaction.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) lost his son in Iraq. It’s 2003. Before that, his wife to cancer and before that a Vietnam War experience topped by two years in the brig for failing to ease a wounded Marine’s pain as a Navy Corpsman. But Doc isn’t bitter; he just wants to bury his boy.

With an envelope filled with contributions from his fellow employees at a blue-collar job in New Hampshire, Doc heads to Norfolk, Virginia to find Sal (Bryan Cranston). Sal along with Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), were with Doc in Vietnam when the three of them watched the wounded Marine writher in pain because they had taken all the morphine Doc carried. Doc took the fall, and after the war Sal and Mueller went their separate ways.

Sal owns a working class bar edging toward skid row status. He drinks a good portion of his inventory himself, which seems to fuel his quick wit and devastating tongue where raw honesty, like any cynic, is his fearsome weapon against normalcy and hypocrisy. Sal is also bored. So after he celebrates his recognition of Doc in his bar, a request to hit the road without explanation by Doc requires little forethought.

They travel to a church. At the pastor’s lectern is Mueller, minister’s collar and all, delivering a sermon to the faithful. Sal is incredulous and thus begins Sal’s long and extremely humorous attempts to wring God away from Mueller and return Sal’s Vietnam history to its rightful place in his memory of Mueller as a drinker who enjoys the company of whores.

Mueller declines Doc’s request to help bury his son. Mueller’s wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster) thinks otherwise even after Rev. Mueller intones how “that was a dark period” in his life to which Ruth counters that he must go to protect Doc from the “that awful Sal.”

Thus the journey begins. But it’s more than just a funny and sentimental road trip of three divergent characters that the Marine Corp brought together in a war. Last Flag Flying is a statement of grief and anger at war and at government, artfully delivered within the confines of the sorrow of one man having lost his son. Also, it celebrates the humanity of men having been damaged by war and points to the continuation of wars’ insanity and its transformation of individuals through someone like Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), the young Marine ordered to accompanying his dead friend and fellow Marine to the burial site.

There are many messages, subtle and overt, at play in this film. They pop up sometimes as a finale to Sal’s outrageous and, at times, hysterical commentary on Mueller or Doc or the Marine colonel Sal hates. This is very much Cranston’s best performance since “Breaking Bad” or LBJ in All the Way. Only the pacing of the film and the sharp contrasts in character by Carell and Fishburne keep Sal’s maniacal ways in check as to not overplay the humor.

Those who have been to war will understand the human bonds being shown. They may bleed a little again, feel loss, feel anger but like always, those who have experienced war may wonder why murderous ways play such a role in humanity and when that reactive choice would end. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 11/26/17)


Wonder
Reviewed byBeck Ireland

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) likes Star Wars, Minecraft and his dog, Daisy. In other words, he's a typical 10-year-old, if just a bit nerdy. What sets him apart, however, is the genetic disorder, Treacher Collins Syndrome, that even after 27 surgeries leaves his face looking underdeveloped.

To spare Auggie the inevitable stares and cruelty, his mom, Isabel (Julia Roberts), has been homeschooling him in a corner of the kitchen in their Brooklyn brownstone. His dad, Nate (Owen Wilson playing his usual silly, people-pleasing golden retriever of a person), thinks continuing this arrangement would be easiest for Auggie, but Isabel wants Auggie to start fifth grade with the kids at a prep school.

It's at this point that writer/director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) begins the story, based on R. J. Palacio's 2012 bestseller, and it follows Auggie from the first day of the school year to the last. Of course, Auggie is bullied, but he also makes friends. His best friend is a sweet scholarship kid named Jack (Noah Jupe), whose easy-going nature also makes him a target for the school bully through peer pressure — less aggressive but just as damaging.

Auggie is a singular kid, and under the prosthetics Tremblay plays him with a careful inhibition. But thankfully, the film expands to reveal not just Auggie's point of view, but also that of Jake and Via (Izabela Vidovic), Auggie's older sister who, because of Auggie's great needs has her own, smaller yet no less significant to her, overlooked by their parents.

This provides an important lesson in perspective, even coming as it does in a film in which the family's privilege makes their greatest concern about a serious medical condition about the public's reaction to visible differences and not access to healthcare. By comparison, in the 1985 film Mask, starring a young Eric Stoltz under his own prosthetics as the real-life Rocky Dennis, director Peter Bogdanovich upped the stakes; his condition was life-threatening so as a result Rocky and the motorcycle gang he considered his family weren't nearly as concerned about how people would react to his face.

Still, Chbosky infustes a contagious tenderness into his scenes that even his use of Daveed Diggs as the boy's teacher and the platitude-spouting moral authority of the film can't dampen. Roll your eyes if you must but keep your heart open. Sometimes rich white people problems are still problems. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 11/21/17)


Justice League
Reviewed byMike Ireland

Just when you thought DC finally had gotten a grip on how to put together a superhero flick, along comes Justice League to prove they still don't have a clue.

The fifth film in DC Comic's "Extended Universe," Justice League is supposed to be a culmination of the four features that preceded it, drawing together narrative strands that began with 2013's Man of Steel. Unfortunately, with one exception, these films were rather resounding duds. Last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in particular, was criticized as a dark and joyless mess.

Yet the excitement, the hope, the light amid the darkness captured in Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman earlier this year suggested that DC might have tapped into something powerful and genuine.

Justice League, however, feels like the result of a corporate edict: Emulate the feel of those Marvel films that keep breaking weekend box office records. Accordingly, the darkness is toned down and the quips are cranked up, but the result is a generic imitation of a modern superhero movie.

Picking up where Batman v Superman ended, with Superman dead and the world in mourning, Justice League finds Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) gathering together a group of meta-humans to protect the world from yet another scenery-chewing, Teutonic helmet-wearing berserker from another dimension, in this case, a second-tier extraterrestrial named Steppenwolf, who commands an army of creepy-looking flying armored drones.

Seeming more like an insurance salesman than the Dark Knight, Wayne begins paying calls on potential teammates. He turns to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) for help, and then for almost an hour, we are introduced to three new superfriends: a rock 'n' roll Aquaman (Jason Momoa); a nerdy teen Flash (Ezra Miller), who channels more than a little Peter Parker in his shtick; and Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a withdrawn former high school football star who, on the verge of death, was rebuilt by his scientist dad (Joe Morton).

True to form, director Zack Snyder, who established much of DC's cinematic quagmire with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, seems more comfortable fetishizing his characters' appearance than actually developing their personalities. Aquaman is defined as much by his abs, ‘80s rocker hair, and fish-scale tattoos as by anything he actually does. And damned if Snyder doesn't squander the goodwill generated by Gal Gadot's Amazon warrior by reducing her here to a sort of glorified den mother, chiding her adolescent charges and pronouncing simplistic aphorisms as Snyder finds ways to keep her posterior in frame.

Early on, when alter ego Barry Allen pronounces that he just doesn't understand people, it appears as though the Flash is going to be portrayed as being on the autism spectrum. And it's hard not to see Cyborg's African-American teen Victor Stone, his hoodie pulled up against the world, and not think of Trayvon Martin. Yet the script by Chris Terrio (Argo, Batman v Superman), and punched up late in production by Joss Whedon, settles for a Flash who's merely an awkward motor-mouth and a Cyborg who's just another sullen teen.

But who has time for any of that when there are interminable CGI fights and empty exposition about all-powerful "Mother Boxes" to plod through?

Perhaps DC needs a few less female derriéres in front of the camera and a few more female eyes (and brains) behind them. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted on 11/21/17)


The Florida Project
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In writer/director Sean Baker's latest film, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) runs riot at the Magic Castle, a garish lavender monstrosity subsisting in the shadow of Disney World. The place is kept from total squalor through the grudging but persistent labors of manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). A few tourists, who call it "a welfare slum motel," check in by mistake, but there's really just one reason anyone, including Bobby, ends up there – they have nowhere else to go.

The last time a kid had the run of a hotel in a movie was in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and he was terrorized by visions both real and paranormal. In Baker's script, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, Moonee and her gang, made up of a sensitive kid called Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), the new girl from a neighboring motel, are the terrors. This ragtag crew plays at a lot of the usual kid stuff: hide-and-seek, cartoons. But they also trespass in foreclosed houses and start fires.


Moonee’s mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is supposed to be watching over the kids while Scooty's mom waitresses at a nearby diner (she sneaks waffles out the back door for their lunch). Halley's not absent but she's not engaged either. Viewers quickly learn she's the source of Moonee's brazenness as well as her mature vocabulary. Anytime either of them feels threatened, they unleash a stream of angry vulgarity, sometimes warranted but never helpful to their cause. Still, you can't help but root for them.

It's a testament to his acting skills that to see Dafoe appear on screen means not knowing right away whether he'll be playing savior or menace. But with this project, Baker and Bergoch have handed the veteran actor the role of a lifetime. Much like any sympathetic member of the audience, Bobby is allowed to remain conflicted.

Baker shot the entirety of his previous feature film Tangerine using only iPhone cameras. Far from a gimmick, the photography created a sense of intimacy and an insider's familiarity with place as the camera closely followed the two transgender friends as they hustled – figuratively and literally – around L.A.

The action in Florida takes place in a more confined area; Halley and Moonee never venture farther away from the motel, located near Seven Dwarfs Lane (the street sign is one of the few actual references to their proximity to the Magic Kingdom) than they can walk. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé shoots the local off-brand landmarks in colorful widescreen, as if to not just reveal the tackiness of the strip mall but to elevate it.

The fruit market in the shape of an orange, a gift shop lorded over by a giant wizard and the cone-shaped soft-serve ice cream stand, where Moonee and friends beg for money for ice cream and when they can't get that they beg for the ice cream, exemplify the once delightfully novel now discarded. It's revealing the hidden realm of the déclassé, and Moonee is its queen. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 11/12/17)


Thor: Ragnarok
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Over the last decade, in response to ever-darkening portrayals of big-screen super heroes, Marvel has leavened their cinematic installments with healthy doses of self-aware and self-deprecating humor. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Deadpool proved that a healthy dose of humor wouldn't necessarily undermine the gravity of its storytelling (Of course, Spidey had made that point in the comics decades ago).

With Thor: Ragnarok, however, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's use of comedy may have reached a breaking point. Credit goes to Marvel for trusting another big-league property to an up-and-coming indie director, but the comedic sensibility that made successes of New Zealand comedian/actor/director Taika Waititi's vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and comedy-adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople here undermines any chance for true suspense or a genuine emotional response from viewers.

Granted, no superhero in any universe could use loosening up more than Thor. But even for an ageless god given to archaic locutions, a bit of self-deprecation goes a long way. Rather than humanize its hero, the Ragnarok screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost makes Thor into an Iron Man-lite goofball, bumbling his way from narrow escape to narrow escape with grade school banter such as that in his opening encounter with the fire demon Sutur (voiced by Clancy Brown). When Sutur hails his captive, "Thor, son of Odin," our quippy hero replies, "Sutur, son of . . . a bitch!"

If that is your idea of wit, this Thor's for you. Later, a wormhole necessary for escape is repeatedly referred to as "the Devil's Anus," presumably for the sniggering effect of uttering the a-word to a theater filled with pre-adolescents.

As far as story goes, Ragnarok is no great shakes, adding little to our understanding of its central characters beyond the appearance of a heretofore unknown elder sister of Thor and Loki: Hela, played by Cate Blanchett as a strutting raccoon-eyed dominatrix whose long black tresses have a habit of twisting themselves into huge black antlers when she is perturbed.

Of course, Hela has arrived in Asgard (portrayed yet again as a generic Heavy Metal magazine-inspired backdrop for a lot of green-screening) determined to unleash Ragnarok, or "the end of days," just as Thor drops from space onto a landfill planet ruled by a sort of global game-show host, the Grandmaster (a mascara-ed, prancing, hilariously over-the-top Jeff Goldblum), who keeps his subjects docile with a steady diet of bread and circuses in the form of Thunderdome-style gladiatorial contests. Captured and sold into gladiator service, Thor finds himself facing off against the planet's long-time champion and people's favorite, the Hulk.

The film briefly finds a footing as it develops the always-rocky relationship between Thor and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). In the two years he's reigned as champion, the Hulk has not transformed back to human form. Why? First, constant fighting keeps him angry, and second, he likes it here. Unlike his troubled experiences on Earth, here he is treated as a hero. It turns out that Thor's greatest battle isn't physical; it's his struggle to reach the human soul inside his raging green teammate and enlist him in the battle for Asgard.

Thor is helped in his mission by bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), whose traumatic history, briefly glimpsed in flashback, suggests the sort of rich mythological story that should be powering the entire movie. Left undeveloped along the way are Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), in a brief comic cameo, and Heimdall (Idris Elba) who is reduced to a glorified usher as he shepherds dislocated Asgardians from cave to cave. Worst of all is the demotion of Tom Hiddleston's Loki from a threat to Earth's very existence in Marvel's Avengers to mere comic sidekick.

The film's jokey tone, however, is ultimately its undoing, undermining any sense of suspense when viewers are asked to care about the thousands of Asgardians being attacked by Hela astride a colossal wolf. This final battle feels endless yet surprisingly rote and weightless. Even the widespread destruction left in its wake seems inconsequential.

The real question Ragnarok raises is how the MCU powers that be plan to rescue Thor from his comic makeover. Because when everything and everyone is a joke, nothing that happens really matters anymore. PG-13
Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/8/17)


Suburbicon
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

George Clooney is one of a dwindling breed: the earnest Hollywood liberal. Directorial efforts such as Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March, and The Monuments Men have placed Clooney consistently on the right side of history and morality, conveniently sidestepping, after the fact, such pesky stumbling blocks as historical and cultural ambiguity.

His latest, Suburbicon, seeks to expose the racism festering beneath the facade of manicured lawns and white picket fences in post-war suburban America. While certainly, and unfortunately, topical again in the wake of events such as those in Charlottesville, VA and Gainesville, FL, Clooney's film comes off as tone-deaf moralizing that is both obvious yet strangely dehumanizing of its black characters.

The film introduces its eponymous enclave as the quintessential mid-century engineered suburb filled with literal white picket fences and smiling neighborly faces. Within minutes, however, the smiles fade with the sudden appearance of a black family, the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and Tony Espinosa). The reactions of their new neighbors quickly escalate from murmurs to rancorous town meetings to angry mobs.

At which point, the story’s focus switches from the Mayers to the Lodges, a white family living on the other side of their backyard fence. And with this move, the film abruptly shifts genres — from allegory to noir comedy-thriller — only returning to the Mayers’ household for occasional ironic contrast.

At the Lodge house, a home invasion robbery has left wheelchair-bound Rose Lodge (Julianne Moore) dead, with husband Gardner (a jowly Matt Damon) and 10-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe) now being cared for by her all-to-willing twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore).

Why the conflicting plots?

The home-invasion story is an old script drafted by the Coen Brothers in the wake of 1984’s Blood Simple but abandoned in favor of producing Raising Arizona. Dredging up the Coens’ script, Clooney and longtime writing and producing partner Grant Heslov grafted on the Mayer family story (based on real-life events that occurred to the black Myers family in all-white Levittown, PA in 1957). Apparently for Clooney and Heslov, the time period and setting seemed to be in continuity enough to hold it all together.

Regular Clooney collaborators Production Designer James D. Bissell, Art Director Christa Munro, and Set Decorator Jan Pascale create an, if not convincing, then appropriately artificial and fetishistic version of mid-century luxury. Unfortunately, most of what transpires on screen feels just as contrived.

Matt Damon brings little to Gardner Lodge beyond a few extra pounds and a constant glower. Julianne Moore has more fun with her parallel roles (including a Vertigo-inspired makeover), and the Coen Brothers' casting director Ellen Chenoweth populates the rest of the town with the sort of broad character actor-types that have come to typify the Coens’ cinematic world, including Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell as two inept thugs who feel like a dry run for the Fargo home invasion perpetrators.

As an angry mob coalesces around the Mayer home, it becomes clear to young Nicky that his mother’s death may not be a random event, and that his father and aunt may be at the center of it all. And for a couple of inspired scenes, Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) steals the film as a cynical and relentless insurance claim investigator, exactly the sort of charismatic reprobate that will populate future Coen Brothers’ films.

When Gardner’s attempts at self-preservation finally spin out of control, we are confronted with the stylized comic brutality for which the Coens’ are known juxtaposed against very real, very unnerving images of torches and Confederate flags at the Mayers’ home.

But where are the Mayers?

Strangely, the Mayers barely register. We learn nothing of their story or their internal lives. For Clooney and Co., they seem to exist solely as a concept — the long-suffering, dignified black — against which to contrast the uncivilized behaviors of the white folks all around them. Mrs. Mayer is limited to just a couple of scenes, and Mr. Mayer doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue, his role reduced entirely to looks of noble forbearance.

These may be a “positive“ portrayals, but they are ultimately just as dehumanizing, just as unrealistic and confining, as the negative stereotypes embraced by the residents of Suburbicon. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 11/8/17)

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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