A Bitter Harvest (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017)

three_billboards_posterWhen grieving mother Mildred takes the drastic measure of renting three billboards asking the local Police Chief Willoughby why he has not arrested anyone in the rape and murder of her daughter, the town is thrown into strife. Many believe it is unfair to call out Willoughby. Officer Dixon (an abusive racist cop) is especially incensed, because he feels she has attacked a great man. Add to that, Willoughby is facing a death sentence with cancer.

Three Billboards is a very good film. I want to get that out of the way.  The film is heartbreaking, angering and funny.  Frances McDormand’s Mildred is both sympathetic and a bit infuriating. In one scene, on a date, she is forced to face that she can be quite insensitive. You understand she is in a lot of pain, but she is remarkably out of touch with the world around her, even when people reach out in kindness.  And Woody Harrelson turns in a solid performance as the exasperated Willoughby, a man who seems to believe everyone in town is basically good, including racist Dixon.

And this is kind of the problem the movie has. See, Dixon is a violent racist, one scene plays it up for laughs. In another he violently attacks a the owner of the billboards and punches the man’s secretary in the face. And he just gets fired. Yet the film wants us to see this as a lead up to his redemption. And the film never earns that. There is no evidence he has seen the light for his racism. And even when he has a noble moment, in the end, he and Mildred go on a mission that…well…is morally dark.

I think this was best addressed by video essayist addressed it best in his video “How (Not) To Discuss Racism In Film.  I am including it here, but please note there are massive spoilers.

All By Myself (Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018)

Solo_PosterIf you have ever wondered why the Millennium Falcon looks like tuning fork or how Han Solo got the name Han Solo? Solo a Star Wars Story will leave you giddy.

Han Solo is a young man enslaved by a brutal crime lord and in love with fellow slave Qi’ra. When their escape attempt goes awry, and they are separated, Han joins the Empire.  Not to good at it, sees an opportunity with Beckett and his crew.  They find themselves forced to pull off a dangerous heist to get back in the graces of the crime syndicate Crimson Dawn.

It probably sounds at this point like I really disliked Solo. But actually, I had a lot of fun.  When the film focuses on the *story* (in other words, the heists) it is a whole lot of fun. But when it starts doing the whole “gotta show this thing the original trilogy referenced” it tends to feel forced into the story. And yeah, if you are making a Han Solo movie, you need Chewbacca.

The performances are largely quite good.  I mean, Bettany’s Voss actually kind of made me curious about his background. Woody Harrelson gives a dependable performance as a weary smuggler, hoping to retire.  Of course, Glover is a standout.  He manages to channel the swagger of Billy Dee Williams without merely imitating him.  The droid L3-37 is highly entertaining as a snarky co-pilot for Lando and a droids rights activist (When Lando asks if L3-37 needs anything, she responds “Equal rights?”).

Alden Ehrenreich is not bad in the role…but he does not quite have the self assured cockiness of Ford’s portrayal. The film plays Han as more of a “good guy optimist” who is on the path to the self centered cynic of a New Hope.

And while the film features many double and triple crosses, very little  of these come as a surprise.  The film tries to make you think you should be surprised…but stuff is telegraphed from afar.

I would say this is my least favorite of the New Star Wars films, but I still had a good time with it overall.

Fear of Growing Up (The Edge of Seventeen, 2016)

edge-of-seventeen-posterThe Edge of Seventeen opens…well, over-dramatically.  Nadine sits before her teacher, telling him she plans to kill herself.  She simply felt  an adult should know.  The response is…unexpected.  This leads to a recounting of Nadine’s life.  She has always felt in the shadow of her brother.  Kids in school were mean to her.  She met her best and only friend in second grade.  And then, one night her family is ripped apart.

The film has a slew of cliches.  The seemingly indifferent teacher who secretly cares about his student.  Nadine is misunderstood by her cold and distant brother and her flaky mother.  She swoons for an over romanticized boy.  She has a good friend who is totally into her, yet she is uninterested in.  And yet…

This movie does it all so very, very well.  Nadine is, at times, absolutely insufferable.  She is traumatized by the idea of her best friend Krista dating her brother that she cuts Krista off.  She shares with her brother a moment after their father died she saw him weeping…and turns it into a knife to stab him with.

But Nadine is also painfully sympathetic.  Her heartache is real.  She is self absorbed not because she is a narcissist who thinks she is special.  Maybe I am a sap.  Maybe it is because these characters connect for me on an emotional level.  I have walked in friend Erwin’s shows.  A cartoonist longing for the attention of someone who does not seem interested.  And one of the things I like about the character is, he never whines about the “Friendzone”.  The idea of just being friends does not repulse him.  He still wants to be her friend.  There is one scene where he is embarrassed and hurt, yet it is understandable.  And he takes being mocked in stride.  I also understand the feelings Nadine expresses about herself.  Looking and the mirror and hating yourself.  Nadine and Erwin actually embody my early years quite well.

The performances are fully engaging.  The snarky interplay between Nadine and Mr. Bruner is nicely played.  All the performances fit exactly what the story needs.  The story does not justify Nadine’s negative traits, but rather bring her towards expanding her world.  This is the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig, who has a whopping previous two credits.  She also wrote the film and has woven a heartfelt exploration of growing up and facing the seemingly insurmountable hammer blows life can throw at you.

Everybody’s An Orphan in Zombieland (Zombieland, 2009)

zombieland_posterI cannot be objective about this film.

The main reason is that I had way to much fun.  Visually, the movie has a great style.  The humor is spot on.  The performances are terrific.  I had a terrific time.

The first thing that stands out is that the credits are as inspired as Watchman’s opening credits.  As we see slow motion zombie carnage, the credits are appearing on the screen, they get knocked off the screen by the zombies and their victims all to Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.  It really sets the tone for the film.  Wait, no, it is the sequence in which Jesse Eisenberg explains his rules, which pop up on the screen.  His main for rules are Cardio.  You better be able to run.  I am going to give them a pass on the fat joke here.  Because I don’t care how you cut it…we fat people can run quickly in short bursts, but we would likely be the first to get picked off in a zombie apocalypse.

Then, avoid bathrooms (demonstrated humorously in a bit featuring Mike White).  Next is seatbelts.  Always wear your seatbelt.  Finally, there is the double tap.  This means you do not want to be stingy with the bullets. If you shoot a zombie-take em out in the head to be safe.   Technically, Eisenberg’s list is comprised of 32 rules.  The recurring of the rules popping up on the screen is both funny and a helpful reminder.

A great bit is the film’s emphasis on how people have survived by not forming new attachments and how this has actually been damaging.  Nobody knows the names of the characters.  They are referred to by where they are from.  So Woody Harrelson is Tallahassee, while Emma Stone is Wichita, Eisenberg is Columbus and Breslin is Little Rock.

The cast really sells the movie.  Personally I really like Emma Stone, who has been entertaining in even crappy films like the House Bunny.  And Abigail Breslin is great as her younger sister.  I cannot say too much about these two, because it will spoil some great moments in the film.  Eisenberg is a self described shut in who has survived because he really had no earthly attachments before the zombie apocalypse.  He gets joined by Tallahassee, a rather anti-social guy with a morbid sense of humor and a real hatred of zombies.  And a Twinkie fetish.

This is a strong horror comedy, not unlike Shaun of the Dead, although Shaun of the Dead was much  gorier.  This surprised me, I mean, Zombieland is not…bloodless.  But outside of the very beginning, there is not a lot of grizzly, gory deaths, since it is pretty much all zombies being taken down.  The humor on tap here is at times morbid, but it works in the context of the film.   Trying to describe the jokes just won’t work outside of seeing them in context.  But if you liked Shaun of the Dead?  You will more than likely enjoy Zombieland.

The soundtrack is a fun mix of heavy metal, alternative and country and it works.

I think my only real criticism?  Jesse Eisenberg.  Don’t get me wrong, within the movie, his character is effective.  But there isn’t that much difference between, say, Columbus and James from Adventureland.  Or Jimmy from Cursed.  Eisenberg seems to be playing slight variations on the quirky loner who seeks love persona over and over.  Schwarzenegger has had more range than this.  But all in all?  Zombieland is a keeper.

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