Monday, December 4, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Um, Yeah

Listen, I love Martin McDonagh. The Irish playwright and filmmaker is responsible for In Bruges, one of the best black comedies ever, and he also wrote the marvelous Cripple of Inishmaan, which I was fortunate enough to see on Broadway three years ago. So when I heard that he had a new movie starring Frances McDormand that was Fargo-esque except even darker, I was 100% on board. However, as much as I have revelled in McDonagh's ability to create really dark comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is officially too dark for me.

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who is furious that the local police have done nothing to find the man who raped and killed her daughter seven months ago. When she sees three empty billboards along a lonely stretch of road, she decides to rent them and plaster them with a message accusing the Sheriff of inaction in her daughter's case. Naturally this causes a ruckus in town, with the police officers enraged and townspeople taking sides on whether to support Mildred or the well-meaning Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Complicating matters are the actions of Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) a man with serious anger and racism issues.

Based on that description, you must be wondering how on earth this even gets categorized as a comedy. And that really is owing to McDonagh's brilliance with dialog. There are moments throughout this movie where you will burst out laughing at the blistering language (like when Mildred sets down a priest) or a twisted action that is so weird and out of left field that you simply have to laugh. There's absolutely nothing predictable about this movie. From start to finish, you will have no idea what to expect next, and by the time you get to the end, you will leave the theater in a bit of a daze.

The trouble with this film, as opposed to McDonagh's previous work, is that he is poking at some very sore subjects here. A teenage girl has been raped and burned alive. Racism, domestic abuse, and police brutality have been hot button issues for years now, and the film's treatment of them seems gravely misjudged. No amount of filthy banter and camaraderie is going to make me feel OK about how certain white characters get a redemption arc and others are just stereotypical hicks. The film is violent, graphic, and jarring, and while every single performance is incredible, I'm surprised so many critics love it without reservation. Yes, these are talented actors, working off a surprising and novel script, but oh man. This is a problematic movie.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is up for a lot of awards and people seem to be in two camps about it. I really wanted to love it, but I shall be putting it aside as one of McDonagh's lesser works. Call me a snowflake if you will, but I cannot in good conscience recommend something that lets white people get away with so much in the name of "black comedy."

Saturday, December 2, 2017

American Vandal: Profound Satire

Who knew that an eight-part true crime mockumentary investigating who was responsible for spray-painting 27 penises onto cars in a high school faculty parking lot could be so profoundly delightful? Certainly not me. And yet, I defy anyone to watch Netflix's American Vandal and not walk away with a sense of giddy glee.

The show purports to be shot by two high school boys, Peter and Sam, from the Hanover High School's AV club. They are investigating the aforementioned act of vandalism, and whether the accused, and subsequently expelled student, Dylan Maxwell, really did it. Following the footsteps of recent true crime fare that captured the public's imagination, like The Jinx or Making a Murderer, American Vandal is an intricate and precise satire that manages to both mock the format and glorify it at the same time. The genius of this show lies not just in the fact that it will make you laugh: it's true accomplishment is that it will genuinely make you care and eagerly binge eight episodes to discover if Dylan Maxwell really was guilty. It's genius television.

I don't want to go into further details because it's honestly a wonderful mystery that is plotted to perfection. You have all your standard high school cliques - the deadbeats, the hyper-accomplished, the nerds, the jocks. You have messy relationships that give people alibis and motives, student-teacher conflict that leads to much speculation and a breakthrough involving "splatter," and the gradual over-involvement of the documentarians with their subject as they become increasingly convinced that Dylan is innocent and must now find the true culprit.

The opening titles instantly indicate how well American Vandal understands the shows it's satirizing. From the mournful music to the perfect overlay of pictures of the crime, the potential perpetrator, and inexplicably, the ocean, it immediately sets the scene. And the actors know exactly how to portray people who know they are on camera, but are also regular people who don't actually know how to behave on camera. It's always a tricky feat to pull off (think of Jim's asides to the cameras on The Office) and these actors do an admirable job of appearing self-conscious but also excited to be interviewed about this ridiculous crime.

American Vandal gets all the details right. The characters and the way they lean into stereotypes and biases only to have their preconceived notions thrown back in their faces is spot on. The ramifications of being accused and how that affects your status in the wider community is captured beautifully. The animations to determine vantage points and the painstaking piecing together of Instagram and Snapchat footage to construct detailed timelines is riotously funny in its precision and ultimate silliness. And the emotional toll that this project takes on the filmmakers and the notoriety they gain throughout Hanover High encapsulates everything that happens when documentarians gets too close to their subject and must struggle to regain their objectivity.

I know the premise seems beyond insane and you cannot fathom why this show is becoming one of those word-of-mouth sensations that Netflix is so adept at creating. But believe me. Once you start watching American Vandal, you will buy in to the hype. This is by far one of the funniest things created in 2017, and I think we can all agree, we've never needed a laugh more.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Deuce: It's Hard Out There For...Everyone

David Simon gave us The Wire, arguably the greatest television series of our time. In that show, he spent five series painstakingly exploring different aspects of Baltimore, from the drug trade, to the education system, to the police, to observe how all of these areas intersected and led to crime and disenfranchisement. So it makes sense that The Deuce, his series about the seedy Times Square area in 1970s New York that was overrun by prostitutes and porn purveyors, would be a meticulous look at exploitation, corruption, and good old fashioned capitalism.

There are multiple storylines that converge over the course of the first season's eight episodes. We start with the "traditional" pimps and hookers, watching how experienced prostitutes get through their day-to-day existence as well as seeing how the pimps scout girls fresh off the bus at Port Authority who can be lured into their dark line of business. However, we are also introduced to the somewhat unconventional Candy (played to perfection by Maggie Gyllenhaal), an independent hooker who prefers to watch out for herself and keep all her earnings instead of relying on a pimp to handle her finances. Her storyline proves particularly fascinating over the course of the season as we watch her struggle to figure out how she can transition out of her uncertain lifestyle and find a more stable career in the adult movie industry.

Then there's James Franco, playing a double role as Italian twins Vincent and Frankie Martino. Vincent is the most responsible one, trying to run a bar and move on with his life after being tied to an erratic wife for too long. Once he gets financing from the mob, he is able to own his own establishment and make his business dreams come true, but as he quickly discovers, that patronage comes with a price. In the meantime, his much more corruptible brother has no qualms about engaging in all manner of shady deals and helping the mob advance their ambitious agenda to transform the Deuce. We also have the NYPD patrolmen, Chris and Danny. While not particularly corrupt themselves, they take their orders from headquarters, and as they patrol the streets and deal with differing instructions from week to week, we quickly learn how the NYPD might be in cahoots with the mob, and the people on the street are mere pawns in a vast endgame to transform Times Square from a seedy intersection to a booming adult business.

The Deuce unfolds carefully and intriguingly, bringing in a host of characters from all walks of life and demonstrating how they all have their unique part to play in a clever conspiracy of greed. The fate of multiple people hangs in the balance, and it is only as you hurtle towards the first season's climax that you realize just how much they are puppets and the people at the top hold all the strings. Much of this show is dark and brutal: the women aren't treated well, the men are terrible, and just as often the women are terrible to each other and the men try to help. But if you take a step back, you will end up in awe of society's interconnected grand design. Seemingly unrelated spheres of influence can become enmeshed to have a ripple effect through multiple realms and you marvel at the ingenuity of human beings whilst simultaneously bemoaning the many ways in which they use their power for greed, instead of good.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lady Bird: What It Feels like for a Girl

Sometimes you don't realize how much you needed a movie until you see it. Lady Bird is that movie. Following a summer filled with loud, action-packed entertainment, Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a funny, affecting, and incandescent wonder.

A tale about a teenage girl navigating her senior year in high school in 2002, Lady Bird is perhaps the most profound look at female relationships I've seen on screen. The always magnificent Saoirse Ronan plays Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Christine is her given name, but Lady Bird is the name she has given herself). Like all teenage girls, she has a contentious relationship with her mother, Marion (played by a startlingly brilliant Laurie Metcalf). At school, Lady Bird's best friend is Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing the most adorable and warm best friend you could hope for). They both attend a Catholic high school, and one of the side characters, the nun Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) immediately reminded me of the nuns who ran my school when I was a child. It is so easy to mock Catholic high schools and their stereotypes, but instead, Lady Bird strives to portray both the silliness and grace in this environment. Yes, the girls might be secretly snacking on Communion wafers and complaining about skirt checks, but the nuns and priests are also kind teachers, who strive to do right by their students within the confines of a religious education.

It's hard to describe this movie any further because it would just devolve into a listing of all of my favorite scenes (which is pretty much all of them). Over the course of one year, the immature Lady Bird slowly grows up, making many mistakes along the way. There are encounters with boys (Lucas Hodges and Timothee Chalamet, playing two very different characters to represent the typical spectrum of teenage boyhood). Lucas Hodges, in particular, has a scene that is Best Supporting Actor-worthy in itself. There are the challenges with Julie, and the desire to get in with the cool kids that puts a strain on their friendship. And there is that turbulent relationship with her mother, a woman who has such a big heart, but simply does not know how to talk to her daughter without pissing her off. Their relationship will resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere - the moments when your mother just doesn't get it, the moments when you wish you could confide in her but don't, and the moments when you simply crumble and she knows exactly what to do. I will be shocked if Metcalf doesn't nab every nomination (and hopefully award) for Best Supporting Actress this year.

And of course, this brings us to Lady Bird herself, Saoirse Ronan. She is clearly writer-director Greta Gerwig's muse, and her every action and expression is reminiscent of Gerwig herself. Ronan commands the screen, making Lady Bird the most lovable weirdo I've seen in some time, and somehow, even though we led completely different lives, I still found myself relating to every moment in her life. That is a testament to Gerwig's storytelling ability. Even though the world and characters seem so specific to this time and place, the situations are universal, and you will find yourself remembering all the stupid things you did as a teenager (and continue to do now as an adult). If you're a parent, you will wholeheartedly relate. If you're a teacher, you'll understand. If you're a nun, you'll cheer at the portrayal of your fellow Sisters as something other than joyless harridans. And if you're a woman, you will rejoice at this acknowledgement of all the complex emotions and frustrations that make up your life and challenge you on a daily basis.

Greta Gerwig has stated that she wanted Lady Bird to serve as a female counterpoint to all the movies about male adolescence. She has triumphed in her endeavor. This movie is a pitch-perfect depiction of what it's like to be a teenage girl, and I promise you, even if you are reading this in some deeply conservative country or region where you would never get up to half the things that Lady Bird does, you will still understand this girl and what she's going through. I should know - I was a Hindu who went to Catholic school in the Middle East and am now an atheist in New York who still loves visiting churches. Lady Bird made me tear up at multiple moments and say "oh yes, I know what that feels like." It also helps that the use of Dave Matthews Band's "Crash into Me" was so perfect, it nearly destroyed me.

Lady Bird is a movie that sneaks up on you, starting off as a light comedy and gradually unleashing its tentacles into your heart until it has a strong grip and won't let go. I loved it and I have a feeling it will become a classic, the movie that teenage girls and adult women quietly revel in for years to come. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thor Ragnarok: Cosmic Comedy

The Thor franchise has always been regarded as a bit of a weak link in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Thor is fun as part of the ensemble cast in the Avengers movie, he tends to not dazzle critics in his standalone films (please note, I say critics, I have always been just fine watching Chris Hemsworth swashbuckle around the universe). However, this time around, Marvel handed the reigns for Thor: Ragnarok over to New Zealand director, Taika Waititi (if you haven't seen his remarkable Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you're really missing out). And in his weird and wonderful hands, we've gotten a light and comic masterpiece that is easily the best Marvel movie this year.

The premise is that Asgard (Thor's homeland) is under siege from his elder sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), whose existence was hitherto a secret. Thor must team up with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is not the most trustworthy person -- God of Mischief and all that -- as well as the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who has been going through some stuff for the past two years, and a Valkyrie, played by welcome addition to the MCU, Tessa Thompson. From start to finish, this movie is crammed with jokes. It opens with a standoff between Thor and a fire monster that is silly and satisfying, and somehow manages to make every fight seem both urgent and hysterical at the same time.

A lot of this movie was improvised (Waititi's previous directorial efforts include episodes of Flight of the Conchords) and that is evident in every scene where this extraordinary cast is allowed to play off each other and come up with inane quips. The tension between Thor and Loki has never been more amusing, the Hulk has never had more lines that he has in this film, and there are a bunch of oddball characters and delightful cameos to constantly tickle your funny bone (shoutout to Jeff Goldblum, being his Goldblum-iest). And there are a lot of random Kiwi and Aussie actors who pop up, so at times it feels like a Lord of the Rings reunion (the team of Galadriel and Eomer is quite the delight). It's a shame Cate Blanchett was the villain because I could easily watch five more movies starring her, but one can't have everything.

While the cast and storyline have much to recommend them, the most compelling feature of this movie is its artistry. Certain scenes look like a psychedelic Hieronymus Bosch painting (I mean, just look at that poster). It is absolutely gorgeous, whether we're talking about Hela's costumes or the chaotic set design of the alien planet Sakaar where Thor is stranded for most of the movie. For a man whose previous movies cost less than $10 million to make, Waititi really cracked the code on how to spend Thor's $180 million budget. And let's pay homage to that Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack. It sets the tone for this entire film, a sort of disco, electronica wizardry that is only amplified by the incandescent use of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" at pivotal moments.

Thor: Ragnarok is what a superhero movie should be. Funny, action-packed (but not overwhelmingly so), visually arresting, and worth every penny to watch in a theater with surround sound. I wasn't bored for a second. So dive right in and start gearing up for the Infinity Wars.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What Happened: Political Postmortem

A year ago (dear God, how has it been a year?), Hillary Clinton lost the election and I was upset. Now she has written a book about it, entitled What Happened. I genuinely thought I was never going to read this book. Why would I re-live the horror of that day and the subsequent months? But I finally bit the bullet and ordered the book. And shockingly, it was not as devastating as expected.

What Happened is a policy book. It is a clear and articulate description of the kind of President Hillary Clinton would have been. This is a woman who loves to solve problems and chapter-by-chapter she dives into the various internal and external challenges her campaign faced and examines where it all went so heartbreakingly wrong. She keeps re-stating how responsible she felt and how ultimately, she was the one to blame as she was the candidate. But then she lays out a brilliant case for how everyone from the FBI, to Russia, and Facebook, screwed her over. It is an incisive and frankly frightening book about how American democracy was compromised during the 2016 Election, and a wonky but honest dissection of the many, many, many ways in which that glass ceiling proved to still be shatter-proof. 

To be perfectly honest, I'm a little surprised by my reaction to this book. I was convinced I would be in floods of tears, but instead I found it to be a fascinating political memoir that was easy to read and provided substantive food for thought. I don't read much non fiction, especially not about politics, but for the first time, I understood why someone might find this subject so fascinating. Rather than get upset about the election itself and the emotions it engendered, readers will probably be most devastated to read about the future we could have had. Clinton was all set to launch a major infrastructure program, create jobs, fight for a public option to get us closer to universal healthcare, protect women's right to choose, introduce campaign reform, and tackle climate change. But her progressive ideals and basic decency were drowned out in a sea of misinformation and biased reporting that insisted her e-mails were a legitimate scandal while Trump's Russia connections were swept under the rug. 

I voted for Clinton because of her policies. But also because of her overarching message of "Love and Kindness." In the book, her desire to help others and fight for those who don't have a voice is a constant theme. Even in the aftermath of the election, she spent so much time comforting the people who campaigned for her and worrying about how women and girls around the country might be feeling instead of just wallowing in self-pity. That quality is what I personally find so admirable about women in general, and Hillary in particular. The importance of empathy, putting yourself in another's shoes, and trying to feel another's pain so you can come up with a solution is evident over and over again in every single one of her policies. She talks about how a line in one of her speeches was taken out of context and made it appear as though she didn't care about coal miners. But she did care, and she went to West Virginia to talk with people who disagreed with her face-to-face and tell them about her economic plans for them. However, she acknowledges that one of her faults might be her desire to go straight to problem-solving instead of just letting people vent. And perhaps that was her biggest mistake. She tried to help America, when all America wanted to do was whine. I wish the people who didn't vote for her would read this book and properly understand what it is that she wanted to do for them. But alas, I doubt they will. 

What Happened is not a sad book. It is a defiant (occasionally sarcastic), intelligent, and hopeful one. The final chapter ends with Hillary's return to Wellesley College to deliver the 2017 Commencement speech, and in those moments, she is hopeful for the future of our country. It isn't blind optimism; she states, "Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us." That sentiment is why she would have been a great President. That sentiment is why she is a great woman. 

We are going to be okay. Because after all the events of last year, Hillary Clinton is back. She is frustrated and unhappy about how things turned out. But she is not going to back down and she is still going to help America with that big, wonderful brain of hers. As well as her big, wonderful heart.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

It: Nostalgic Horror

I saw It last month (like most of the world) but never got around to writing a review. However, this weekend, after bingewatching Stranger Things 2, and with Halloween just around the corner, it felt like the perfect time to remind anyone who hasn't seen this movie to watch it immediately for a nice warm dose of nostalgia and creepiness.

I'll confess I'm not a horror enthusiast. I've seen my fair share of horror movies but mostly due to coercion and peer pressure, and the type of horror I prefer has a satirical bent (like The Cabin in the Woods) or underlying social commentary (like Get Out). The only reason I went to see It was because of a colleague who repeatedly told me it was awesome (hi Phil!) and a friend who said I was the only person she could persuade to go with her (hi Elizabeth!). Having never read the original Stephen King novel or seen the iconic TV series, all I was prepared for was some sort of gory slasher film with a creepy clown. Instead, what I got was a Goonies-esque 80's adventure with a bunch of preteens riding around on bicycles and trying to piece together what was happening in their town. It was a joy.

Yes, there's a creepy clown (played to spectacular effect by Bill Skarsgard). And he gets up to a number of creepy things and terrorizes the kids in a myriad ways. But the terror tends to be mostly psychological, albeit with some bloody bits strewn about to keeps things traditional. There are terrific set pieces in underground sewers and abandoned buildings where all you can do is shout at people for being dumb enough to go into the dark, but then breathe a sigh of relief when they emerge unscathed (well, maybe not all of them). But the true joy of the film is in seeing the main cast of children interact and learn how to navigate a world in which the adults are useless and they are the only ones with the wherewithal to protect their town from a horror of epic proportions.

The movie is rated R, probably less for violent imagery and more for the language - there's nothing more delightful than hearing a preteen swear. This is how kids talk when they're away from adult ears (sorry to break it to you parents), and watching their petty squabbles and eventual reconciliation in the face of true evil is a super entertaining ride. Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard is one of the kids, playing completely against type, and it is wonderful to slip back into the glory days of movies when children actually played outside, spoke to each other, and had fabulous adventures, instead of staying indoors playing videogames.

It may be a horror movie, but I would class it more as an 80s movie. It has weird tonal shifts and is just as funny as it is creepy. It has its bloody and violent moments, but most of the time, it is a thoroughly engaging piece of entertainment that will transport you back to the summers of your childhood and make you glad that you were only playing with your friends instead of being murdered by clowns. If you haven't seen it, go to the movies this Halloween and indulge. You won't regret it.