Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh, the Irish writer and director behind the outstanding 2008 black comedy “In Bruges,” first came to prominence as a playwright. Keep this in mind during his latest, the equally marvelous “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It is a film that, in the grand tradition of theater, eschews subtlety and favors narrative coincidence, traits not always associated with great cinema. But some of the greatest accomplishments in film history have arrived by a heavy hand; have shook foundations. It’s a space wherein the deep-rooted characterization and shocking, acerbic humor of “Three Billboards” thrives.

McDonagh’s livewire screenplay and true direction make the pic a must-see; two Oscar-worthy performances from Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) and Sam Rockwell (“Moon”) rocket it into the heavens. McDormand headlines as Mildred Hayes, a grieving single mother on the warpath. It’s been less than a year since her teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered on the outskirts of Ebbing. The local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has shown no inclination to meaningfully dig in to the case, leaving Mildred no choice but to incentivize his sorry ass.

She rents three billboards on a desolate stretch of road outside of town. Once finished, they read sequentially:

RAPED WHILE DYING

AND STILL NO ARRESTS

HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

Mildred means fucking business, lest her epic potty mouth and proclivity for physical confrontation not give her away. McDormand is electrifying, not only in Mildred’s righteous anger but in her sensitive side, too. This is first seen in an early cutaway in which she assists a struggling, supine insect, a goodness that’s also reflected in her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). He is cut from the same cloth, a tender soul beneath a callous exterior, willing to resort to anything to get his point across. To wit, threatening his abusive father Charlie (John Hawkes) with a butcher’s knife. Robbie and Charlie are small parts in the movie but still fully realized, two of nearly a dozen supporting players that manage to make an impact in McDormand’s significant wake.

As striking a character as Mildred is, her fury requires big foils. Do Harrelson’s prickly Willoughby, and more essentially, Sam Rockwell’s racist cop Jason Dixon ever provide. Harrelson does near career best work here, imbuing Willoughby with a slippery mix of well-mannered hatefulness and traces of compassion. The screenplay has a compelling plan for him and the actor uses his familiar drawl and twinkling eyes in impressive service of its twists and turns.

Meanwhile Rockwell, having carved out a terrific career playing unusually sly class clowns, is as close to revelation as a known commodity can be. Jason Dixon’s arc might be the most stirring thing McDonagh has to offer here, which is no small praise. Although Dixon’s path is overly reliant on some of the aforementioned narrative coincidence, Rockwell plays his dialogue and physicality perfectly in every scene, keeping us guessing as to where this maniacal stooge will end up. McDonagh loves Rockwell; this is evident enough in returning the actor from his previous film “Seven Psychopaths,” crystal clear in the thematic tightrope walk he gives him. The actor makes it seem like a picnic.

To further divulge any of the story would be reprehensible. Just know that the comedy and drama don’t merely co-exist; they are one and the same, arriving in an endless stream of surprising story beats that concurrently shock and dazzle. For instance, Mildred unloading on a skeptical public figure in her dining room is as discomfiting and hilarious as movies get, McDormand pushing a great movie to greater heights, the scene’s searing uncomfortability a testament to the sterling work happening on all sides of the camera.

All involved have cooked up something at once disturbing and rousing and funny, a surefire awards contender that’s one hundred percent not for the faint-of-heart. If “In Bruges” was Martin McDonagh’s opening statement and “Seven Psychopaths” an aside, “Three Billboards” is his thesis – a startling supposition on our better angels and the demons that needle them. It is a fresh and relevant work that will remain that way for as long as humans remain complicated creatures. “Three Billboards” finds uncommonly high poetry in those complications.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Samantha Weaving, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)

Daddy’s Home 2

When “Daddy’s Home” reunited “The Other Guys” co-stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in late 2015, its oddball mix of banal family comedy and PG-13 edge made for a surprisingly sturdy hit for Paramount Pictures. It even outgrossed “The Other Guys,” almost guaranteeing its writer-director, Sean Anders, a shot at a sequel. But even by the modest standards of the narratively challenged original film, it’s difficult to imagine any moviegoer not being better off without “Daddy’s Home 2,” an unfunny, unpleasant, unabashed cash-in.

Buttoned-up stepdad Brad Whitaker (Ferrell) and rugged nomad-dad Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg) have worked out their issues, settling in comfortably as co-dads to Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez). Even Sara Whitaker (Linda Cardellini) marvels at the blooming relationship between her children’s two father figures, basking in a seemingly workable family life. A speed bump appears when Megan complains of having two separate Christmases, but Brad and Dusty agree to one big holiday celebration – a “together Christmas.”

Enter Brad and Dusty’s dads, the nebbishy Don Whitaker (John Lithgow) and mean weirdo Kurt Mayron (Mel Gibson), and a whole new batch of issues for all parties involved.

Chalk Lithgow’s painfully broad performance up to screenwriters without a single idea in their heads and Gibson’s to his increasingly creepy, unwelcome screen presence. Don is bookish obnoxiousness weaponized, while Kurt seems imported from an equally crummy R-rated comedy, left to crack wise about hookers and womanize on the film’s fringes. The duo’s screen time is uniformly uncomfortable, stealing away from what worked in the first film: Ferrell and Wahlberg’s chemistry.

But they don’t get much do to here either. Aside from a few instances of inspired physical comedy – a typically hapless Brad unwittingly chewing up many reels of Christmas lights with a snowblower is modestly funny – Anders and co-writer John Morris leave their four leading men to limp their way through one hundred minutes of listless, episodic slapstick punctuated by a soul-crushing cover of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

The handful of punchy laughs that salvaged the last go-round have melted to cruel, icy gags here, with gags like kids getting drunk on Eggnog and jokes about incest sure to make every viewer uncomfortable at one point or another. Whereas Anders walked a fine line of age appropriateness last time, here he thinks he’s sharpening his edge only to dull it to a broadsword. It’s reminiscent of the kind of rapid-fire anti-comedy he perfected in the dire “Horrible Bosses 2.”

More in line with recent Ferrell debacles like “Get Hard” and “The House” than its predecessor, “Daddy’s Home 2” comes dangerously close to teetering into the Adam Sandler family film basement. Re-watch “Daddy’s Home” or don’t. But be sure to stay away from its fetid follow-up.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: November 10, 2017
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Sean Anders
Screenwriters: Sean Anders, John Morris
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, Owen Vaccaro, Scarlett Estevez, John Cena
PG-13 (for suggestive material and some language)

Thor: Ragnarok

“Thor: Ragnarok” arrives as the third film in the “Thor” series and the seventeenth in the nearly decade-old Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The bulk of the MCU’s offerings to date have been confectionary treats, dealing in pop iconography both ubiquitous and obscure. Nevertheless, creases have begun to appear, most notably in last year’s torpid “Doctor Strange.”

“Ragnarok” also arrives as writer-director Taika Waititi’s third film in as many years. The previous two – “What We Do In The Shadows” and “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” – came in under the radar but weren’t there for long, doing solid indie comedy business and rightfully winning over millions of fans on home video.

A union between Disney-owned Marvel and Waititi should be a match made in Valhalla, akin to James Gunn’s outside-the-box success with the formerly arcane Guardians Of The Galaxy comic books. But Gunn had toiled in Hollywood for decades. Waititi has never made a studio picture before. Accordingly, “Ragnarok” proves a peculiar tug of war between an indie comedian and a multinational conglomerate, one unprepared to indulge a man whose most successful film required a Kickstarter campaign just to secure a platform release in the United States.

Even without a writing credit though, Waititi steals the show in a small cameo as a sociable rock monster named Korg. With respect to Chris Hemworth’s best performance yet as Thor and Jeff Goldbum’s delirious turn as an intergalactic dictator called Grandmaster, it’s Korg and his five minutes of screen time that abscond with the lion’s share of the film’s laughs; five minutes that allow Waititi to indulge his sharpest comedic instincts.

The rest of “Thor: Ragnarok” is agonizingly uneven terrain.

We pick up two years after the events of “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” Odin (Anthony Hopkins), former king of Asgard, is dying. In a scene marred by some sinfully ugly green screen work, Odin’s sons Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) locate him overlooking a seaside cliff in Norway. He informs his children that his imminent death will result in the release of Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death. Her reprisal will be swift and complete, potentially resulting in the end of Asgard as they know it.

This is exactly what happens. Hela (Cate Blanchett) appears, destroys Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, and casts Thor and Loki into space where they remain until an inevitable last-minute attempt to save their homeland from its new leader and her army of ancient dead warriors. In the meantime, Thor crash lands on Grandmaster’s planet of Sakaar, forced to fight to the death with an undefeated warrior who turns out to be co-Avenger Hulk aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Sakaar is where nearly all of the film’s fun goes down. Goldblum is a walking party, Tessa Thompson (“Creed“) turns in a slick supporting performance as an Asgardian bounty hunter named Valkyrie, the aforementioned Korg appears, and Thor fights his long-lost green frenemy. It’s all undoubtedly satisfying, Hemsworth finally slotting into the title role like he was birthed to play it.

And yet, the pacing is deadly throughout.

Thor’s time on Sakaar is drawn out beyond reason (the character’s station as a fish-out-of-water is sorely missed) while Blanchett’s corner of the film calls to mind the last time she played a villain in a big-budget film. Every time we’re jerked back to Asgard, every time a heavily computer-generated Hela delivers another ominous monologue, the weight of the Disney-approved screenplay hangs heavy. How James Gunn pulled off $200 million hangout movie “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” seems all the more impossible with the generic plot machinations at work here, Waititi going about his duties as a hired gun with only occasional spikes of excitement.

The trippy visuals are agreeable but don’t bring much to the table that Kenneth Branagh didn’t already do in his origination of the “Thor” series in 2011. (His film remains vastly underrated.) Only Mark Motherbaugh’s score stands out among the cacophony of audiovisual pomp, coming out as one of the few memorable musical experiences in the MCU.

Perhaps Taika Waititi will have the opportunity to make the next “Thor” film in his own image, but years from now “Ragnarok” will be remembered for what it isn’t rather than what it is: it isn’t much of a Taika Waititi film. Credit to the filmmaker for getting his star to expand on the comedic muscles he most noticeably flexed in “Ghostbusters” and for the brilliance that is Korg’s screentime. But the rest of the project exudes filmmaking-by-committee anonymity – a potential death sentence for a franchise approaching its twentieth movie.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 3, 2017
Studio: Want Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriters: Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle, Stephany Folsom
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Taika Waititi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material)

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

Can I have your mp3 player when you’re dead? Please? Please? Please?

Audiences familiar with Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” might assume the Greek filmmaker’s follow-up would to be some variation of bonkers. Accurate. Psychological horror pic “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” is a high concept blood relative, presenting a familiar but dreamlike unreality that, for two hours, becomes truth for characters and viewers alike. The two films also share star Colin Farrell. That’s where the commonalities end, though. Where “The Lobster” petered out in its second half, “Sacred Deer” – inspired by the Greek myth of Iphigenia, princess of Argos – ramps up and up, resulting in a mindwarp of a movie that shares DNA with a few surprising classics.

Some light spoilers to follow.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is a cardiac surgeon in Cincinnati, Ohio; a family man whose wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) depend on to be as steadying a presence at home as he is in the operating room. Their family unit is a strong but inconspicuous one, mother and children unperturbed when father invites an unusual guest over for dinner.

The invitee is a vaguely troubled teen named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whom Steven has taken under his wing for reasons that are not immediately clear. The boy is strange but charismatic, appearing to have some kind of brain disorder. He immediately ingratiates himself with Kim. A scene between the two teens is an early highlight, by turns stirring and faintly sinister – like a rumble of thunder in the distance. Leaning against a shedding elm tree, she sings an out of tune version of Ellie Goulding’s synthpop hit “Burn.” He looks on, expressionless.

Keoghan’s talents were evident in this summer’s “Dunkirk” but here they reach orbit. The 25-year-old Irish actor takes on the undesirable task of presenting a complete character whose motivations are bottled up for nearly half a film and makes him unforgettable – well before we’ve learned of his darkest desires.

Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou keep information to a trickle for nearly an hour, doing some muted but intriguing place setting for what’s to come. When the floodgates finally open – in one of the year’s most memorable scenes – it’s not with histrionics but a chilling, inventively sparse reveal and the realization that we’ve been watching a bevy of terrific performances. Farrell and Keoghan have a delicious anti-chemistry, Kidman is ideal for the brand of steely-eyed disapproval her character requires, and Cassidy and Suljic go on to do some tremendous physical acting in the pic’s second half.

If much of act three is outwardly unpleasant, keeping late ‘60s and early ‘70s horror in mind is a good entry point. Lanthimos is clearly drawing on the works of Friedkin and Polanski and Roeg for his themes and visuals, relaying his story in a rolling fog of anxiety as opposed to the on-demand thrills of the slasher era. The filmmaker saves his violence for the end, resulting in a climax that left this typically unflappable writer very much flapped.

Many will loathe Lanthimos’ temerity here. They will curse the relatively slow tempo at which he metes out his revelations and the ugliness with which his story concludes. But like similarly audacious 2017 highlight “mother!” the piece exists in a different class from its peers, high art on nearly all fronts (the soundtrack is a trip in its own right). The film unfurls on its own terms, commercial prospects be damned, offering arthouse audiences the kind of nerve-fraying thrills often reserved for multiplexes. Only ten times more potent.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language)

The Florida Project

Even for a film that kicks off with two of the most exasperating sounds in the world – screaming children and Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” – “The Florida Project” works up a remarkably thick sweat of misery.

Writer-director Sean Baker broke through with 2015 drama “Tangerine,” highly touted for being shot in its entirety with three iPhones, but most notable in that it centered on two transgender sex workers. The film’s sparse narrative and unlikable characters were made mostly immaterial by a fierce commitment to a world rarely seen on film. It was more important that the movie existed – more important that it impacted – than if it was any good.

“The Florida Project” is unmistakably from the same filmmaker. Baker is a master of making real life look evocative without sapping it of its grime, a trick he once again lands smoothly in his tale of impoverished children living just miles from Walt Disney World in Central Florida. Better yet, the pic’s uniquely colorful look comes with a rare warmhearted performance from the great Willem Dafoe.

The veteran actor pulls supporting actor duty as Bobby, the frustrated manager of an extended stay motel and something of a guardian angel to 6-year-old tenant Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her wild child mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Dafoe’s sturdy presence is nearly reason enough to check in to the film, his character’s watchful eye never straying from his overwhelmingly purple motel, the Magic Castle – and, most importantly, its children.

But after a reasonably engaging first act, the movie’s raison d’etre comes into focus. It intends to wear us down. Apart from Moonee’s ongoing medley of childlike shenanigans, all mother and daughter do is struggle, with Baker continually confusing despair for drama. The final product amounts to a hangout movie with characters you might very well not want to hang out with, where the only choice is emotional submission.

This world, or at least a version of it, exists in real life, but shading is left unconsidered by Baker. He wrings his characters’ grim little corner of America for all the pain that it’s worth, small incidences of joy be damned. The omnipresence of Orlando’s tourism industry and parade of smiley gift shop facades make for striking visual juxtaposition but add very little to the story, a fraudulence that unwittingly underlines the relative shortcomings of the lead actors.

The greenness of the cast outside of Dafoe and a few supporting players (Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair) is a considerable liability, not lending itself to Baker’s vérité style in the way that the cast of “Tangerine” did. Vinaite’s performance in particular lacks depth, ascribed to both a willfully thin screenplay and a dearth of acting experience that results in a lead far more unlikable than intended. Brooklynn Prince and her kid co-stars (Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto) are more convincing but none of them revelatory, owed to swaths of scenes that are cute but serve no larger purpose.

Even bigger than the issue of one-note unpleasantness and a 115-minute running time that feels twice as long is that in immediate wake of “American Honey” and Oscar-winner “Moonlight,” the movie is dealing in a currency far less than mint. Baker’s “lost youth drowning in oversaturated colors” bent pales in comparison to that of those 2016 films, the writer-director once again calling on viewers to appreciate the material for what it’s about over how it’s about it. But the material just isn’t as compelling as that of “Tangerine.”

There’s beauty to be found within “The Florida Project,” even as it’s swallowed up by a style-over-substance approach increasingly at odds with its subject matter. Baker’s gifts remain both evident and only half-realized. Dafoe fans are encouraged to pay a visit, but be warned: the rest of the film just might come off like one long chalkboard scrape.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: October 6, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Sean Baker
Screenwriters: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material)

Suburbicon

“Suburbicon” is Hollywood luminary George Clooney’s sixth film as a director. It plays like he’s never set foot on a studio lot.

An uncharacteristically limp screenplay from the Coen brothers – one they penned over thirty years ago – is a cruel starting point. But Clooney, who rewrote the script with creative partner Grant Heslov, bungles his would-be social satire every which way. What might have been a breezy takedown of segregation in post-World War II America ends up an unfocused, unfunny clutter whose level of comorbidities is off the charts. Nothing in it works, not the gimme murder mystery intrigue, not even a plucky Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) who goes to waste in an extended cameo that inadvertently doubles as a spotlight on the pic’s pitiable pacing.

Matt Damon headlines as Gardner Lodge, the head of a family whose existence is defined by their perfectly groomed, all-white neighborhood. Tumult comes to the self-congratulatory air of Suburbicon in the form of a black family moving in – and then an entirely unrelated home invasion that strips Gardner and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) of their wife and mother, Rose (Julianne Moore). Luckily, the Lodge family has a matriarch to spare: Rose’s sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore). Much to Nicky’s chagrin, Margaret slots in comfortably as a replacement to her late sister, raising suspicions of insurance fraud.

Curiously, the film is ceaselessly confused as to its protagonist. It’s not Gardner, a toxic puddle of a man who exists in the margins of the film until his actions are required to drive the narrative forward. It’s not the black father (Leith M. Burke), mother (Karimah Westbrook), or son (Tony Espinosa) whose skin color raises so much ire in their new neighborhood. (They’re used awkwardly as an ignition point and then a backdrop to the Lodge’s story.) And it’s definitely neither of Moore’s characters, the actress given precious little time to differentiate the sisters before Rose is killed by two hitmen.

Nicky is the closest Clooney comes to pinpointing a lead, but the boy isn’t onscreen enough – or given ample characterization outside of his relationship with his loving uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) – to qualify as a central figure. Consequently, scene after scene dies on the vine, a trend that becomes law, depriving viewers of anyone or anything to latch on to. We’re left with no choice but to sink further and further into Clooney’s quicksand of clunky moralizing, bitter violence, and gauche visual stylings.

The feeling at the outset of “Suburbicon” – that despite the ubiquity of digital projection, some dastardly movie theater lemming has played the film out of order – never really fades. After thirty long minutes, it sets in that this is, from head to tail, a conflagration of storytelling and tone, a film whose badness isn’t much worth discussing let alone enduring, and maybe even a career low for the man who starred in “Batman & Robin.” Call it a must-miss.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: October 27, 2017
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriter: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Gary Basaraba, Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Tony Espinosa, Alex Hassell, Glenn Fleshler
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language and some sexuality)

Jigsaw

James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s 2004 film “Saw” may have birthed a franchise, but it was Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Saw II” that lent the series its trademark temporal trickery. Audiences kept coming back every October for seven years not for the geysers of gore, but the hilariously head-spinning timelines, the preposterous twists, and the intractable pull of a long dead serial killer. John Kramer aka Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) perished at the end of “Saw III” – an imaginative horror pic tarnished by extreme violence done exclusively to women and minorities – but kept up his twisted brand of vigilantism from beyond the grave via protégés for a further four films.

Seven years after series nadir “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter,” Jigsaw is back again with Tobin Bell firmly in tow. Bell’s work in “Jigsaw” is uncredited but it would be disingenuous to pretend the now 75-year-old actor doesn’t figure heavily into the film. He is, naturally, the star attraction.

The writing team of Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg set off the pic’s big Jigsaw trap right out of the gate, one that immediately sends local law enforcement into a mad scramble. As detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett) helpfully point out, Jigsaw has been dead for ten years. And yet, bodies are being dumped methodically with taunting notes attached, a new batch of the killer’s famous instructional tapes have been matched to Kramer’s voice, and his blood even appears under the fingernails of a victim.

The trangressors playing this round of the antagonist’s wicked Fincher-meets-Hasbro game are a predictably uncharismatic bunch (only Paul Braunstein’s Ryan makes an impact), a far cry from the central group of character actors that elevated both “Saw V” and “Saw VI.” But directors Michael and Peter Spierig seem in the know about their movie’s shortcomings. They keep things moving at a cheetah’s pace throughout, cutting between Jigsaw’s game and the world at large with ferocity, obviously delighting in a refreshingly modern visual aesthetic that the series never previously enjoyed.

A subplot involving two enigmatic forensic pathologists named Logan Nelson (Matthew Passmore) and Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) ends up a shockingly fun bit of nonsense, one of them generating understandable suspicion when it turns out that he or she is a Jigsaw superfan. Meanwhile, Jigsaw’s game keeps ramping up, promising another in a series-long line of breathtakingly silly reveals.

This is where the film falters; where it’s likely to lose a large chunk of its target audience. Unlike in previous sequels wherein the twists remained loyal to a certain internal logic, “Jigsaw” is the first to actually hinge on fooling viewers. It’s lying to us, and then lying about lying to us, all in service of a garish left turn that’s as unnecessary as it is unsatisfying. Whether Kramer is somehow alive or not, it’s obvious for the entirety of the film that he’s found himself yet another protégé. When that person is finally unveiled, it comes in a flop sweat, tasteless and guileless.

Considering that Lionsgate had seven years to refocus their flagship horror franchise, the whole of “Jigsaw” is puzzlingly undercooked. For over an hour it mostly seizes the opportunity to pivot out of torture porn and into thriller territory – of the previous seven films, only the original was remotely scary – but faceplants in the homestretch, passing the baton from Bell to a performer unequivocally light years less charismatic.

Bell could certainly return in future sequels, but the chance to reclaim the series for its biggest asset is wasted here. All the laser cutter collars in the world are no match for John Kramer, the one and only Jigsaw.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 27, 2017
Studio: Lionsgate
Directors: Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig
Screenwriters: Pete Goldberg, Josh Stolberg
Starring: Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Matt Passmore, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Mandela Van Peebles, Paul Braunstein
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and for language)

Creep 2

“Creep 2,” the follow-up to Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’ fiendishly fun 2014 found footage horror pic, finds itself at an even greater disadvantage than the average sequel. The claustrophobic dread that permeated the original – the terrifying possibility of the unknown – is out the window here, the murderous proclivities of its title character no longer in shroud.

If “Creep” was two parts horror, one part laughs, “Creep 2” necessarily flips the script, pivoting to head-on jet black comedy. What results is enjoyably nutty even if the thrill of discovery has faded like a latex wolf mask in sunlight.

Serial killer Josef aka Peachfuzz (Duplass) has assumed the name of his victim from the original film: Aaron. Still trolling Craigslist for targets to befriend, stalk, and then kill, “Aaron” finds himself at a crossroads in his “career.” As he laments to a hapless victim named Dave (Karan Soni) at the film’s outset, the fire for murder and video documentation thereof that once burned inside him has gone out, putting him firmly in the center of a midlife crisis.

Enter a similarly crestfallen videographer named Sara (Desiree Akhavan). Her fledgling web show “Encounters” about the private lives of lonely men has failed to grow an audience. She, too, is on the cusp of abandoning her calling, but a last flicker of determination puts her on a path that seems to point to her destiny – an enigmatic Craigslist poster named Aaron. In true Peachfuzz fashion, Aaron is fully, inexplicably nude within ten minutes of meeting his new recruit.

It’s not a stretch to call the rest of the film a romantic comedy, albeit one of the darkest in memory. Aaron and Sara’s uneven rapport is unquestionably effective, Duplass’ ponytailed performance gloriously off-kilter, the screenplay’s surfeit of darkly hilarious moments coming off as rapid fire in the context of an 80-minute running time. Yet, unlike in the first film, something is off; disbelief hangs heavy.

It’s hard to take when Sara writes off Aaron’s claim that he’s killed thirty-nine people, harder still when she interprets his presentation of video evidence as elaborately staged fiction. Instead, she categorizes him as a harmless freak show, her ticket to the big leagues of web documentarians. We can feel the movie’s weight shift uncomfortably from straight found footage to ‘90s-esque self-awareness, torpedoing any remaining chance for real scares.

But ignoring Sara’s impaired logic – impaired even for a genre film – is vital to enjoying the twists and turns that Aaron has in store, so we nod approval and go along. The upshot isn’t as memorable as “Creep,” but it is funny. The already announced trilogy capper “Creep 3” has all the opportunity in the world to build on the creeping insanity of “Creep 2.” A little more believability – and a few more scares – could make for one hell of a finale.

See you again soon, Peachfuzz. We’ll bring the Juicy Fruit.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 24, 2017
Studio: The Orchard, Blumhouse Productions, Netflix
Director: Patrick Brice
Screenwriters: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Starring: Mark Duplass, Desiree Akhavan, Karan Soni

The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America” were, for this writer’s money, the two best films of 2015. Both found poetry in deeply self-aware characters with tragic blindspots, humor in cords of pithy, penetrating social observations. Moreover, Baumbach’s faculty for female-driven narratives shone in both, with “Mistress America” in particular standing up next to his 2012 film “Frances Ha” as two of the very best films about twenty-first century women. (Both were co-written by and starred his beau Greta Gerwig.)

The filmmaker’s latest, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected),” comes with none of these strengths, centered on a trio of neurotic male leads blithely unaware of their own insecurities and the outer world in general. It’s not much fun to boot.

In their first big screen collaboration since “Happy Gilmore,” Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play half-brothers Danny and Matthew Meyerowitz, maladjusted middle-aged sons of graying, grouchy New York City artist Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman). Sandler and Stiller are engaging in their roles and Hoffman is resplendent, but they’re playing less fully formed characters than one-dimensional canvasses on which Baumbach is clearly exorcising familial demons.

The tenuous bond between Danny and Harold is fleshed out first, with Sandler’s familiar temperamental manchild making for a decent father to 18-year-old Eliza (Grace Van Patten) but an otherwise eternally lost soul in a sea of stuffy artists. Harold’s significant but not ubiquitous reputation hangs in the air like sawdust, choking out Danny’s hope of living up to his family’s name, much less his real but underutilized musical talent.

Stiller’s Matthew, a successful Los Angeles-based money manager and family man on the brink of divorce, has an even stormier relationship with Harold. When Matthew arrives in New York City for a visit, there’s an immediate uneasiness between the two, the void between them unchanged by physical proximity. In many ways, close quarters exacerbate their issues.

Hoffman is still a disarmingly enormous screen presence in his old age, a perfect fit for Baumbach’s alternately frail and kinglike patriarch. The maddeningly mercurial acting careers of Sandler and Stiller make them snug fits for Danny and Matthew, too. And yet, nothing the screenplay gives them to say or do is particularly compelling, leaving a trio of born performers to hold our attention on charisma alone. It works for a while. Until it doesn’t.

The pic’s ultimate shapelessness is felt most in its female characters. Harold’s daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and Danny’s 18-year-old daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) are abysses of characterization, with Jean coming off like a leftover from one of Baumbach’s collaborations with Wes Anderson. Meanwhile, a dull subplot about Eliza’s provocative student films is left exposed like a fresh hangnail, failing to bring out anything at all but a few awkward glances between father and daughter.

The film’s biggest liability is that it isn’t very funny, bereft of the witticisms Baumbach perfected in his collaborations with Gerwig. Here he leans hard on jump cuts to elicit laughs, as if aware that cutting his characters off mid sentence is more interesting than letting them finish whatever room temperature tirade they’re in the middle of. None of this is to say that the picture doesn’t try to be more; a scene in which Sandler and Van Patten play the piano together is stunning in its simplicity and candor.

All the same, the whole of “The Meyerowitz Stories” is what it is – a middling dramedy that’s hardly more insightful than the saying “it is what is.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 13, 2017
Studio: Netflix
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Judd Hirsch, Emma Thompson, Grace Van Patten

Blade Runner 2049

Whereas Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of 1982 science fiction noir masterwork “Blade Runner” remains a cleansing rain of esoteric audiovisual immersion, Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” is a fire hose; a forcible stream of a sequel that climaxes not in a sparkling soliloquy, but in a fight scene with roundhouse kicks. The ultra-talented “Sicario” director capably traces the broad strokes of Scott’s hard-boiled, mostly action-free original, but he bungles the buttoned-up postmodernism. The strain of sweeping sentimentality that worked so well for the filmmaker in last year’s “Arrival” is an unwieldy fit here; emotionalism as an endgame rather than a side effect.

Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”) headlines as K, a replicant (bioengineered human) going about the same business as Harrison Ford’s Deckard did in the original film: retiring (i.e. killing) replicants. Deckard was, of course, nominally human at the outset of “Blade Runner,” but the starting point of “2049” is effectively the same: an austere thirty-something male traverses a misty, neon-lit Los Angeles dystopia, searching for elusive truths he’ll never be able to grasp. Even if he finds them.

Robin Wright (“Wonder Woman”) co-stars as K’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Joshi, effectively standing in for screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the 1982 film) and Michael Green (“Logan”) as a compass for our protagonist. Joshi puts K on a path through the story’s central mystery, a puzzle that involves a replicant who apparently – miraculously – expired during childbirth. Joshi orders K to locate and dispose of the resulting child, unsettling K as much as an android can be unsettled. Moreover, his mind, or central processing unit, visibly runs wild at the thought of a replicant giving birth. A reality-shattering notion. Even for a robot.

The former Tyrell Corporation, now the Wallace Corporation, led by the menacing, monologuing Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) figures into the mystery, and ultimately Deckard does, too, with Harrison Ford featuring heavily in the pic’s final hour. But the crucial sense that we’re flying blind never comes, with Fancher and Green’s increasingly pat screenplay holding our hands through each reveal of information. Little is left up to the imagination or interpretation. Supporting characters are introduced and then discarded, only useful as far as moving our hero along in his inevitable voyage towards Deckard.

The attendant love story between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) gobbles up screentime like a wayward Pac-Man, its digital mawkishness coming off as quaint in a post-“Her” world. The unreal Joi is an all-too-obvious halo around the not-quite-real K, their doomed courtship not even half as impactful as that of Deckard and Sean Young’s Rachael in the original film. And the admittedly impressive technology that went into bringing Joi to life underscores the CGI-ness that envelops the movie, flying in the face of the seemingly hand-made world from whence “2049” came.

At first, the sights and sounds of “2049” are absorbing, covering over a dearth of moral ambiguity. But by the hour mark cinematographer Roger Deakins seems to be crying out for our approval. His and Villeneuve’s are aggressive images that largely exist apart from the story being told, perhaps overcompensating for the lack of discovery inherent in a sequel. Ridley Scott’s film remains pure intoxication not because it bombards the senses; to the contrary. It unveils itself methodically, rarely peacocking, allowing us to drink in Jordan Cronenweth’s photography and Laurence Paull’s production design at a steady pace. Conversely, “2049” assails our senses throughout, the worst offender being Hanz Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s dreadful orchestration.

Even today, sitting down with Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” musical score and a good pair of headphones is a transporting experience, conjuring for the listener both images from the film and all new ones. What Zimmer and Wallfisch have dreamt up for “2049” is, at best, a pallid ode to Vangelis’ original work, at worst, a mockery of it. Indiscriminate blasts of sound and occasional Vangelis quotes comprise ninety percent of their score, the other ten percent nearly indiscernible from the pic’s equally, laughably forceful sound effects.

For all of its pageantry, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” endures as an inordinately refined film – almost impossibly so by 2017 standards. Its aim was not to move us, but it did anyway, on the back of its technical artistry and disarming moral relativism. Villeneuve’s version is loud, both figuratively and literally, its distended 163-minute running time exacerbating the pacing issues that often crop up in film noir. The cumulative effect of “2049” is reverberation instead of immersion, functioning well enough as its own thing but poorly as a “Blade Runner” sequel.

The ending of Ridley Scott’s Final Cut, in all its glorious ambiguity, nearly required that there never be a sequel. That “2049” doesn’t even seem to grasp the full magnificence of its predecessor is no help at all. Its ending is faded facsimile, a surprising “Tears In Rain” moment of its own well out of reach. There is consolation in where K and Deckard end up, but almost none in how they got there. Only the chalky outline of a classic.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 6, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Alcon Entertainment
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some sexuality, nudity, and language)

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