THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE
EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)
This film takes a simple act and turns it into a humorous, thoughtful film mostly on the back of a memorable performance by Frances McDormand. What it does best is spotlight the accepted corruption, racism and favoritism that permeate life in small town America.
McDormand plays Mildred, a fed-up, angry mother in mourning after her daughter was raped and killed by an unknown assailant. At wits end, she rents out three billboards outside of town and, on them, calls out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his department for failing to find the perpetrator.
This causes an uproar in Ebbing, mostly against Mildred, especially since everyone in the community knows that Willoughby is gravely ill.
The messy plot flits all over the place, getting sidetracked at least two or three too many times before it settles down. But writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”), the sharp-eared Brit making just his third feature, fills the story with enough interesting characters for a couple of movies.
Weaved into this colorful quilt of middle Americana are priceless turns by Peter Dinklage (maybe the best character actor working in Hollywood), who has an unlikely crush on Mildred; John Hawkes, her white-trash ex-husband, and Samara Weaving as his much younger, sweetly dumb girlfriend; Lucas Hedges, an Oscar nominee last year for “Manchester by the Sea,” as Mildred’s confused son; and Caleb Landry Jones as a slightly crazed, but stubborn man who rents her the billboards despite facing the wraith of law enforcement.
While McDormand offers just the right amount of madness and righteousness and should score an Oscar nomination, the performance of the film for me is given by Sam Rockwell, as unapologetic, ignorant racist police officer Dixon.
I’ve written before about this under-the-radar actor who should have been acclaimed for his portrayal of a loony loner in “Box of Moon Light” (1996), an unlikely hit man paired with Joe Mantegna in “Jerry and Tom” (1998), TV innovator Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), as a water park worker in “The Way Way Back” (2014) and tons of smaller roles in between.
His unkempt look and wildly expressive eyes serve him well in roles as a lovable nut, but in “Three Billboards,” he’s both hateful and sympathetic, struggling to break free from the love of alcohol and his controlling mother. It’s one of 2017’s best performances.
THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY (1964)
It could be argued that Jerry Lewis, who died in August at age 91, is the most divisive figure of 20th Century cinema, as critic and fans continue to view his films as either unwatchable idiocy or satirical masterpieces. Unquestionably, he was among the most famous entertainers of the century, starting with his overnight nightclub stardom as the silly prankster opposite straight-man Dean Martin in the 1940s and 50s to his film success in the 1960s and then as the beloved man of charity, interminably hosting the multiple sclerosis telethons.
Though he directed just 14 films (two of which have been deemed unreleasable) many film scholars, and not just those from France, do their damnedest to position Lewis as one of the great auteur of his time. Most of the acclaim focuses on the five films he directed and starred in from 1960 to 1964 and his dubious claim that he “invented” the video assist, a camera/monitor that allows directors to see playback of the scene they’ve just shot.
But in their efforts to prop up his artistic credentials, devotees usually awarded him creative credit for the many films in the same period he in starred in directed by Frank Tashlin, including “The Geisha Boy” (1958), “Cinderfella” (1960) and “The Disorderly Orderly.”
Re-watching “Disorderly Orderly” was sobering; they just don’t make bad movies like they used to. Lewis plays a hospital orderly who can barely walk straight and screws up pretty much everything he’s asked to do. And then—you’d never see this in a 2017 film—he falls for a comatose patient, kissing her while she sleeps. Though he acts like an eight-year-old most of the time, he can suddenly turn into a serious, semi-lucid man when trying to win over the young lady.
As a child, I assumed Lewis was portraying cognitively disabled men (not the phrase we used back then); now it’s hard not to see his films as making a joke of those who struggle to do the simplest tasks. Also striking are the many overtly sexist references to women’s attractiveness (or lack of such), but that’s something that was rampant in most comedies of the 1950s and ‘60s.
But even if you think “Disorderly Orderly” is a masterpiece of physical comedy (there are some fast-motion sequences that were probably cool back in the day, but now look cheap), the credit should go to Tashlin, an innovator who went from Looney Tunes cartoon director to making Bob Hope comedies and farcical Jayne Mansfield pictures.
If we start giving performers creative credit beyond their acting, please welcome Tom Hanks and Leonardo Di Caprio to the list of America’s greatest filmmakers.
Much of Lewis’s rep rests on “The Nutty Professor” (1963), his pretentious take on the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde tale (with personal implications as Buddy Love comes off as a caricature of his former comedy partner Martin). To me, it’s a shrill, often offensive vanity project that never attempts to make a point or humanize the characters.
But somehow he found success playing this man-child with an irritatingly high-pitch voice and googly glasses. I never got the humor—was he saying we should root for this clueless every-boy or laugh at his ineptitude?
Lewis was never more than a clown, in the most pejorative sense, until Martin Scorsese cast him as Jerry Langford, the object of obsession for Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy” (1982). He’s perfect as the self-absorbed Johnny Carson-like talk show host who’s kidnapped by a pair of sycophants. Scorsese taps into the show biz nastiness at the heart of stardom, personified by Lewis.
In a lesser known, but equally fine, performance, Lewis plays another unsympathetic comic legend, rediscovered by his son in “Funny Bones” (1995), one of the best comedies of the decade.
In the late 1980s, he had a reoccurring role on the TV crime series “Wiseguy,” playing an owner of a garment company under pressure from gangsters, again showing that he could have made a nice living as a supporting actor in his later years, when he stopped acting like an overgrown juvenile.
In many ways, Lewis was the ultimate show biz star, taking a minimum of talent and adding plenty of self promotion and moxie to turn himself into a legend. In some ways, he’s the model for what passes for celebrity today.
But even as a first-ballot member of the Overrated Hall of Fame, he was a fascinating figure, who always found a way to maintain his spot on the big stage long after his relevance seemed to be an anachronism.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)
I’m not sure if this film was made to wrap up loose ends and answer all the unanswerable questions from the 1982 original or to baffle another generation of sci-fi cultists.
Denis Villeneuve is a very talented director (his “Arrival” is 10 times the film this is), who, with 13-time cinematography Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, brings to the screen an unending visual buffet of the most astonishing film-scapes you are like to see (at least in the CGI era). But the plot and script cannot, and don’t even seem to try, match the look. In fact, the characters and their dialogue often seem muted, unworthy of attention next to the visuals.
K (Ryan Gosling) is the part of a new generation of blade runners—androids created to “retired” the older non-humans. After ending the quiet existence of a soy farmer in the middle of nowhere, evidence is unearthed of an android birth. Apparently that’s a bad thing, spurring corporate overlord Wallace (a laughably evil Jared Leto) to make it priority No. 1.
Needless to say, in a 2 hour and 30 minute picture there is much more plot, but most of it adds up to little until Gosling tracks down the original blade runner Deckard (the enduring Harrison Ford) who, 30 years after slipping out of town, is holed up in a deserted Las Vegas casino. If you are going to live in a post-apocalyptic world, Deckard seems to have found the sweet spot to hang out; amusing, as he’s the most wanted man in the West.
Written by Hampton Fancher—who penned the 1982 film from the Philip K. Dick novel—and Michael Green, the script remains cryptic enough to effectively follow the pseudo-noir veneer copped in Ridley Scott’s original (he’s executive producer on this film).
Re-watching the original a few weeks ago, I was taken aback by how laborious Deckard’s pursuit of the androids plays out, along with the existential gibberish offered by the menacing Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) that is passed off as intellectualism. Ford doesn’t play Deckard like a tough veteran of tracking runaways he should be; he seems like an amateur compared to the heartlessness of Gosling’s K.
“2049” is slightly more interesting than “2019,” but the look of the original, still spectacular 35 years after its release, remains the “Blade Runner” brand’s most important legacy.
THE BIG SICK (2017)
Let’s face it, most romantic comedies are not made for those over 40, let alone those of us from the Watergate generation. Once Meg Ryan was too old for the genre, so was I.
But there is something retro—cynical, realistic and not obsessed with sex—about this offbeat, autobiographical look at modern love written by Pakistani-American actor and comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon.
Nanjiani plays himself in the story of his courtship with his future wife, centering on a real illness that nearly killed her. It’s the combination of tragedy and humor that boost “The Big Sick” above the purposely offensive movies that pass for comedies these days.
Kumail and Emily (smartly portrayed by Zoe Kazan) meet when she heckles him during his performance at a comedy club; though they hook up immediately, she seems to have no interest in an involvement. But a little persistence by Kumail and they are a couple, even as his parents continue to bring in a parade of possible Pakistani brides to the family’s weekly Sunday dinners. He keeps his relationship with Emily secret, knowing that he’d be ostracized for being involved with a non-Muslim.
His foolishness of trying to keep his “American” life and “Pakistani” life separate eventually leads to the couple’s breakup.
Then the film takes a turn you are not expecting—Emily is hospitalized with an unknown viral infection, leaving Kumail to alert her out-of-town parents and serving as their host as she remains in a medically induced coma.
The arrival of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter (I didn’t recognize either at first) as her anxious, bickering parents energize the film; she confronts a bigot during one of Kumail’s gigs (ruining it, of course) while the father seems to be stumbling through life and a marriage that isn’t working. Both give perfectly calibrated comic performances by playing their characters rigorously serious.
On the other hand, Nanjiani isn’t much of an actor, but his sincere awkwardness works well in the film as do his lame standup routines and his even worse one-man show he’s work-shopping. I’m not sure if he wrote flat routines for the film or if he’s a mediocre standup in real life, but it works.
Romano, who I hadn’t seen in a film since his TV show went off the air, is a revelation, creating a nervous Nellie of a father who can’t quite figure out how to deal with his daughter’s illness. It should earn him an Oscar nomination.
Without him and Hunter, I don’t think I’d be writing about this film; the script is good but the poorly paced, sitcom-like direction by TV actor-director Michael Showalter nearly sinks the picture. He lingers over scenes that don’t propel the characters or plot forward and fails to milk scenes that are working, cutting away from Romano and Hunter just when they seem to be getting started.
But somehow “The Big Sick” pulls off its unlikely tale convincingly and manages to offer a bit of insight into what it takes to stay together, circa 2017.
CRIME WAVE (1954)
This legendary low-budget picture had been on my “see soon” list for 20 years when it finally popped on Netflix. For once, my expectations were exceeded.
Gene Nelson plays Steve Lacy, an ex-con pulled back into the world of crime by his former prison mates after they kill a policeman during a gas station robbery. One of the men shows up at his apartment just in time to die there.
Lacy and his spunky new bride Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) are trying to go straight, but no one believes them—not the ex-cons forcing him to cooperate in a planned bank heist or a permanently irritated Los Angeles police detective, Sgt. Sims (Sterling Hayden at his menacing best.)
Playing both sides of the law in hopes of clearing his name, Lacy also has to worry about protecting his attractive wife from the clutches of henchmen played by a young Charles Bronson and the dangerously twisted Timothy Carey. Ned Young plays the over-dressed brains of the outfit.
But it’s not the plot that makes this quickie noir (reportedly shot in 12 days) so memorable but director André De Toth’s use of location shooting in and around Los Angeles—from Chinatown, the old L.A. police headquarters and downtown Glendale. Veteran cinematographer Bert Glennon (“Blonde Venus,” “Stagecoach” and a hundred others) makes the film look like it’s an LAPD documentary.
The highlight is a bank robbery shot on the main street of Glendale that clearly was staged without close streets or stopping local traffic. I re-watched the sequence about six times attempting to recognize any buildings that may still exist—but only the bank building, now a Men’s Warehouse, still stands.
At the end of the robbery-gone-wrong, Lacy is shown driving from Glendale toward Chinatown, where the bad guys are holding his wife. (For L.A. residents: he drives by Philippe’s restaurant and it hasn’t changed in 64 years.)
The picture, at 73 minutes, is intoxicating, with every scene bursting with energy and biting dialogue (the script is by Crane Wilbur from a magazine story by John and Ward Hawkins), shining a light on the thin line between good and evil.
Nelson’s only other notable film performance as Will Parker in “Oklahoma!” He spent most of his career as a TV actor and director. Kirk gives an impressive performance but it never led to anything; her most famous roles were in the 3D picture “House of Wax” (1953)—also directed by De Toth—and later as Nora in the 1950s TV series “The Thin Man.”
And then there’s Hayden, who struts through his scenes as if he’s late for an appointment and everyone is getting in his way. He growls every line and seems to be pissed off at his co-stars for just being there. His excuse is that he’s trying to stop smoking; I kept waiting for him to shoot someone for giving him wrong directions. You won’t see a more volatile cop in a pre-1960s film.
Unfortunately, the Hungarian De Toth never delved into the noir genre again (he previous made “The Pitfall”), though he continued to be an inventive B-movie director during the 1950s.
His “Day of the Outlaw” (1959) is easily the most film noir-like Western I’ve ever seen, a brutal, nihilistic tale of a gang on the run that takes over a small isolated town (I’d put money that Quentin Tarantino saw it before writing “The Hateful Eight.”)
Robert Ryan is an angry cattleman who takes on a commanding Burl Ives in a psychological battle of men who see little hope in the world. This bleak, cynical picture is summed up by Ryan’s response to Ives as they ride through a snowy mountain pass.
“I feel better, like I’m going to make it,” the wounded Ives says.
“Nobody’s gonna make it,” Ryan snaps at him, as if he’s just finished reading Camus.
WONDER WHEEL (2017)
Strangely, all I could think of while watching the annual Woody Allen picture was whether Kate Winslet, seven-time Oscar nominee and the finest actress of her generation, ever imagined herself playing opposite Jim Belushi. Though she’ll never come clean, it’s hard to believe it didn’t cross her mind during filming that the finished product could go directly to DVD like most of the erstwhile Blues Brother’s films.
If the opening credits didn’t end with “Written and Directed by Woody Allen” I doubt it would have been released to theaters, certainly not in December. This is your classic February release; good cast, horrible script.
In an essay in the October issues of The Atlantic, senior editor Christopher Orr argued that Allen is lazy, showing “a fraction of the labor customarily expected of a director,” resulting in second-rate work year after year.
But as every wannabe writer knows, just to put words to paper, even cliché dialogue and a shopworn plot, takes extreme discipline and grit. To create beautifully looking cinema that regularly features superb acting (18 acting Oscar nominations, and seven wins, to date) doesn’t happen from neglect.
No, this 82 year old isn’t lazy—he needs to deliver a film a year as much as he needs another unhappy step-child—he’s just run out of good ideas.
In “Wonder Wheel,” he’s back in the post-war era, trotting out gangsters as looming danger and unhappy marriage as the root of life’s sorrows. But it sure is cool to see Coney Island in all its 1940s glory—thanks to astonishing work by Allen’s longtime production designer Santo Loquasto and the glorious cinematography of the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Last Tango in Paris,” “Apocalyse Now,” “Reds”), who fills the screen with bright, oversaturated primary colors, similar to what he achieved in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy.”
But then there’s the plot. Ginny (Winslet) and Humpty (Belushi) live in a cramped apartment upstairs from the boardwalk, where both work. The joyless, bickering couple and their perfectly dumpy apartment are right out of a bad road show of a forgotten Tennessee Williams play. When his grown daughter (Juno Temple) from a previous marriage shows up, the drama over-heats as she’s being pursued by mobster associates of her estranged husband.
Meanwhile, Ginny, looking for a way out, is in the midst of a desperate affair with a much younger lifeguard (Justin Timberlake). His low-key character provides relief from the histrionics and makes him the picture’s only likeable character.
Belushi tries so hard to be gritty and real that it’s impossible not to sympathetic with him—not only is he out of his league, but he’s stuck with the most shopworn dialogue ever heard in an Allen film. Winslet nearly matches Belushi’s over-acting, but she does have a few moments in which she finds some real pathos in Ginny. Few performers could have found anything meaningful in this script to latch on to.
But just when you’re ready to give up on Allen, he teases you with his next film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” already in post-production and starring the hottest young actor in movies, Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”).
THE LATE GEORGE APLEY (1947)
I DVR’d this film off TCM because it was the only Joseph L. Mankiewicz-directed film I’d never seen. I know, I’m nuts. I’m not even a big fan of Mankiewicz, but he’s responsible for “All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives” and “Julius Caesar.”
I had low expectations, especially as it stars Ronald Colman, one of the most pretentious, over-acting performers of the Golden Age. Turns out, to my surprise, this is his finest film performance (forget his Oscar for “A Double Life” that same year), playing the patriarch of a snobbish Boston family, who just may be the most uppity, self-delusional man in history.
The story takes place in 1912, just as society is starting to change from Victorian standards—even in America. Both of George Apley’s children are rebels; the daughter (Peggy Cummins, three years before her very different role in the film noir classic “Gun Crazy”) is dating a professor from New York and the son (Richard Ney) is secretly seeing a girl from Worcester, a working class neighborhood. Oh, the scandal.
This is the rare 1940s Hollywood drama that isn’t afraid of adult issues; daringly, he talks to his wife about you know what after reading a bit of book by Sigmund Freud. And then he decides to accept his children’s decision on mates before having second thoughts. He can’t give up his traditional beliefs (he likes to quote Emerson), or admit that everything he’s learned from his father and 19th Century values are passé.
Based on a stage play by John P. Marquand (from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) and George S. Kaufman, Philip Dunne’s script offers a sarcastic tone and social commentary that didn’t usually get past the Hollywood censors of the time. Dunne retains Kaufman’s biting satire while bring the family dynamic alive as he did in his script for “How Green Was My Valley.”
The film’s best lines are given to Uncle Roger (a marvelous Percy Waram) who has something cutting to say about almost every one of Apley’s stuffy, self-righteous pronouncements, while commenting on his hopeless marriage to nebby Aunt Amelia (Mildred Natwick).
Outside of “All About Eve,” one of the great melodramas of the American film, this is now my favorite Mankiewicz picture. With a little updating, it could easily have been part of the late 60s, early 70s changing-of-the-guard Hollywood. I’m not sure how I missed it all these years.
WIND RIVER (2017)
There have been a handful of good films set on Indiana reservations, most revolving around a crime that pulls an outside lawman into the Native American world. But no movie before this has offered better insight and understanding, without ignoring the crime/action requirements, into life on the reservation.
While it seems to have been forgotten amid the end-of-year Oscar-bait releases, this low-key, superbly acted picture deserves consideration, especially for the low-keyed, unpretentious script by director Taylor Sheridan (Oscar nominee for “Hell or High Water”), who has quickly become one of the most exceptional screenwriters in Hollywood.
Jeremy Renner, in what may be his best performance, plays local Fish and Game tracker Cory Lambert, who helps out the sheriff because he knows the terrain of the reservation so well, expertly gliding through the white banks and trees in his snowmobile. After he discovers the body of a young woman, FBI agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) flown in from Las Vegas with orders to wrap up any investigation quickly, requests his help.
Together they ferret out the mystery along with providing a guided tour of the horrid conditions and systemic drug problems that make life for those who stay on the reservation so difficult. Sheridan’s script is so good at unearthing these two characters’ personalities that you almost forget it’s a crime film.
But when the unexpected flashback of the crime plays out, it is shocking and brutal, and provides the film its metaphor for 300-plus years of the white man’s dealings with the Native Americans. The easy criticism of this film is that it is yet another film set on an Indian Reservation starring white people (Renner’s character was married to a Native American), with the natives filling supporting roles. For the foreseeable future that will always be the reality, reflecting pure economics and the race of those who make and finance movies.
It’s not perfect, but “Wind River” offers a view of Native Americans that is both clear eyed and respectful, steeped in the atmosphere of the Wyoming setting and the antagonism between the law and the residents.
WONDER WOMAN (2017)
The most interesting aspect of the latest DC entry in the superhero genre is the title character’s relentless naivety even as she finds herself in the midst of the horrors of World War I. But no matter how hard director Patty Jenkins (best known for her dark, powerful “Monster”) tries to humanize this cartoon character, she’s neither as complex as Batman nor as sympathetically simple as Superman.
Drawn into the European conflict after an American pilot (Chris Pine) crashes into a “hidden” island where the mythic world of Amazon women still exists, Diana, princess of the Amazons (Gal Gadot), follows the pilot/spy back to England to help stop this real-world fight. She’s convinced that she just needs to crush Ares, the god of war, to restore peace.
She’s baffled by the destruction that humans are inflicting upon one another along with the foolishness of the British leadership, who seek an armistice.
Other than a few memorable action sequences—most notably when Wonder Woman sprints into No Man’s Land on the French front line and wipes out the Germans. Idiotic? Of course, but vivid cinema.
But these scenes are separated by long stretches of dull plotting. For all the hoopla Gadot has received for her “groundbreaking” female empowerment role, she struggles with simple line readings, not even venturing into what would be classified as actual acting.
Just as bad is Pine as the American spy working with the British and falling in love with Diana. Admittedly, both actors get little help from a clunky script by Allan Heinberg.
And don’t even get me started on how easily normal humans accept the superpowers that Wonder Woman, and her mortal enemies, possess. Who knew that British generals could shape-shift and fly?
Every time I read glowing reviews for superhero movies, suckering me into spending 150 minutes of valuable time in front of the TV or in a theater, I question of sanity of movie writers. Are they just attempting to be cool, showing younger readers (an oxymoron, fyi) that they “get” modern Hollywood or do they really find something of value in these overblown video games?