“Where’s my phone?”
Those three words, in today’s age, are enough to send collective shivers down most of our spines. They’re our lifeline to everything and everyone. In Matt Spicer’s darkly funny Ingrid Goes West, those words have a considerably more sinister meaning when uttered by its central character Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza). We may feel useless without our devices. Yet it provides her with her only feeling of usefulness and takes that in uncomfortable directions.
Ingrid is a lonely and mentally disturbed figure who finds solace through Instagram scrolling and fixating on certain profiles. We first find her ❤️ing the endless wedding posts of someone we assume is her friend. When she crashes said wedding (these things happen in real-time nowadays) and frighteningly confronts her for not being invited, it turns out they’re not really connected at all.
The second part of the title comes into play when Ingrid’s next fixation is Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a Venice Beach native who’s essentially a professional Instagram poster. Ingrid uses her inheritance from her mom’s death to move across the country with the idea of making her acquaintance. It works and it takes a dognapping to do it. She actually does befriend Taylor and her starving artist hubby (Wyatt Russell).
There’s not an action taken here by Ingrid that isn’t directly a result of her considerably loneliness and need for friendship, no matter how fake or manufactured it is. Her Batman obsessed landlord (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) becomes a love interest, but only for Ingrid’s self-serving purposes. The character of Taylor’s brother (Billy Magnussen, memorable here) is a sleazy loose cannon, but he’s the only one that manages to see Ingrid for who she is.
Spicer and his co-writer David Branson Smith have certainly concocted a screenplay for its time. While there are laughs present, Ingrid goes into Single White Female territory (that quarter century old pic is name checked).
Plaza is a gifted performer who seems to be in a constant state of ambivalence in many of her roles. Ingrid gives her an opportunity to show a more varied range of emotions. She creates a character that is sympathetic to a point, but she also serves as good reminder to not talk to strangers. Even on Instagram.
The film also cleverly shows what we all kind of already know. These social media platforms are a way to create yourself in many instances and not be yourself. In the conclusion of Ingrid Goes West, our title character has a rare moment to be herself. That might be a moment of triumph in many pictures. In this jet black comedy, we’re left uncertain just how well or badly that could go.
*** (out of four)
In his version of Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh allows himself a part as big as his glorious mustache. The supporting players are often relegated to bits as small as the crumbs that might fall out of said mustache if his character didn’t maintain it so fastidiously.
That character is famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Don’t pronounce it Hercules or he will correct you in the exacting fashion he orders his eggs. That precision extends to his career. There’s right and wrong and nothing in between. Poirot’s worldview is challenged when he boards the Orient Express circa 1934, which happens to be the year Agatha Christie’s source material was penned.
Booking passage from stunning Istanbul to Paris, Poirot looks forward to a break from his work, but his powers of detection are utilized when a murder occurs. Nefarious character Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is stabbed multiple times during the night. Everyone onboard is a suspect and there’s about a dozen of them that Poirot must consider.
A lot of familiar faces are among the possibilities. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s flirty and dramatic Caroline. Daisy Ridley’s mysterious Mary and her connection with Leslie Odom Jr.’s Dr. Arbuthnot. Judi Dench’s domineering Princess Dragomiroff and her quiet assistant (Olivia Colman). Josh Gad is the victim’s right-hand man and Willem Dafoe is German professor Gerhard. Penelope Cruz is there as the faithful Pilar who hints at a more sinful past. And there’s more.
Yet even though Branagh has assembled a fine troupe of actors, this is the Poirot show. He dominates the running time with his outsized personality and facial hair. The character is introduced as a bit of a caricature but he becomes more sympathetic as the details of the murder and those who may have committed it are slowly revealed.
For those who’ve never read the book or seen any of the other filmed versions (the most notable being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation with Albert Finney as Poirot in a considerably smaller ‘stache), Murder might keep you guessing. A lot of other audience members, I suspect, already know the outcome.
Branagh brings a visual style here that is grand and sweeping. There’s some complicated and impressive tracking and overhead shots to behold. We also have the train careening through the wilderness and into tunnels that often look a bit too digitized for my taste.
Truth be told, this Murder doesn’t add much fresh to Christie’s story. Viewers who are fans of the 1974 pic might deem this unnecessary. It’s still an often fascinating whodunnit with a talented director, albeit one who hogs the spotlight a bit. Poirot may eventually change his views by the closing credits and it mirrors my reaction. It doesn’t get it totally right or totally wrong. There’s an in between.
**1/2 (out of four)
Thor’s just wanna have fun sometimes and it’s a feeling that runs through a solid portion of the third film in the franchise’s running time. Ragnarok, more than most Marvel Cinematic Universe entries these days, feels less like it’s building toward next summer’s Avengers free for all where all their characters will join forces. Instead it feels more like director Taika Waititi got a chance to bring an often weird, humorous and outright loopy vibe to the proceedings. And there’s a lot to dig about it when it’s working on those terms especially.
The subtitle here refers to the destruction of Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) beloved planet of Asgard. That possibility is raised with the return of a previously unknown sister to Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) named Hela (Cate Blanchett), aka the Goddess of Death. She’s got a gnarly headdress and daddy issues like her siblings had. Of course, daddy is Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the king of Asgard who behaved like Hannibal Lecter when he raised Hela but now is basically a vegan in comparison. His daughter preferred the former.
All this business could be described as the main plot line in Ragnarok. And it’s all perfectly acceptable and visually impressive stuff that we’ve seen before. That said, Blanchett is a notch above most MCU villains because… well, Cate Blanchett is just a fantastic actress.
Yet the picture also spends lots of time on the planet Sakaar. It’s a land ruled by the flamboyant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), whose idea of entertainment is creating Gladiator like battles for his prized possession. Turns out that possession is none other than the Incredible Hulk himself! He’s stuck in his perpetually giant green angry self for a while and not in the Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) scientist mode. It’s also where Thor meets Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a bounty hunter who happens to hail from Asgard.
Sakaar is where the best moments happen in Ragnarok and the bulk of them contain a lot of comedy that lands. Goldblum is simply a joy to watch. We have a ball watching the Hulk trapped in these surroundings. And Loki (forever the best MCU bad guy/sometimes sort of good guy) gets to display his charm coupled with Hiddleston’s always delicious work as the character.
When the first Thor premiered in 2011, I considered it a mixed bag. The Avengers and proper sequel The Dark World did more to hammer home Hemsworth’s effectiveness in the part. On a side note, the absence of girlfriend Natalie Portman is briefly addressed and all it did was remind me that her character even existed in the first place. Director Waititi imbues Ragnarok with a winky face emotion that is most entertaining when it’s away from Asgard and the familiar familial dynamics. In its own strange way, it’s the most pure fun Thor feature of the bunch.
*** (out of four)
The latest iteration of the Planet of the Apes saga that began nearly a half century ago concludes on a major franchise high note. What Rupert Wyatt began in satisfying fashion with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves continued with success in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is elevated even more so with War for the Planet of the Apes. Mr. Reeves returns behind the camera with an epic and sorrowful tale of Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) constant battle between his species and the humans remaining to fight them.
The third installment also continues the perfection of the motion capture wizardry that brings the apes to life. It’s been enormously impressive in parts 1 and 2. It’s taken another leap forward in War. That said, we’re grown accustomed to legions of these characters being seen in our blockbusters. A compelling story must follow and it’s present.
When Dawn concluded, Caesar had dispensed of treacherous right-hand ape Koba but knew what was left of the human race’s army would hunt him. War opens two years later with Caesar, his family, and the other apes dwelling in the woods. Their nemesis here is a demented colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his devoted military men. Tragedy strikes and it pits Caesar on a revengeful mission against the Colonel, who isn’t too far removed from the character of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Harrelson is a great villain here with his own backstory in this dystopian world.
War introduces us to some new characters – both real and generated. There’s a mute young girl (Amiah Miller) who joins the apes on their joinrney. Series aficionados will reocognize her signifance quickly. Steve Zahn also brilliantly brings “Bad Ape” to life, a former zoo inhabitant who provides some much needed comic relief to the proceedings.
Yet this trilogy has focused mostly on Caesar and Serkis’s absolutely astonishing portrayal of him. The effects team goes even further in making him seem so very real. The writing and the actor’s commitment succeed in making his arch very emotional.
War for the Planet of the Apes is the best of the three and the other two were both quite solid. This is the end of this particular Apes chapter, but Reeves and his team leave us with the possibility of more and wanting it.
***1/2 (out of four)
For his first directorial effort, Taylor Sheridan has taken cues based on his past acclaimed screenplays to effective order in Wind River. Like his written work the year prior in Hell or High Water, this picture concerns a group of citizens who feel invisible and cut off from society in many aspects. In High Water, it was West Texas dwellers in the hot desert sun who saw the American dream pass them by. In River, it’s the inhabitants residing in sub zero temperatures on an Indian reservation in Wyoming that bears the film’s title.
As Sheridan has brought the issue of crime into both Sicario and High Water, it’s a homicide that awakens the characters sense of injustice. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a fish and wildlife officer who discovers the body of an 18-year-old girl in the frozen tundra. His job typically consists of hunting predators eating the livestock. This new discovery means he’ll assist in hunting a different form of predator. It’s young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who gets the call to provide federal assistance and she finds herself out of her element in the seemingly constant snowstorm elements.
Much like High Water, there are genre aspects that are familiar. What sets that movie apart and the same holds true here is a fascinating landscape to watch it in. Not every character that Lambert and Banner investigate is involved in the grisly crime, but they all seem bonded by the consequences of their far-off existence in this remote world.
It’s a pleasure to watch the talented Renner in a role that doesn’t involve assisting The Avengers or Ethan Hunt. His backstory is the emotionally charged one as his own young daughter suffered a similar fate to the victim here. There are moments where Renner reminds us of his significant dramatic abilities. Most of the other players exist to advance the plot (Olsen’s role is rather underwritten), but solid support is provided by Graham Greene as the sheriff and Gil Birmingham as the grieving father. Jon Bernthal turns up briefly as the victim’s boyfriend in a sequence that goes from sweet to horrific in a matter of seconds.
Wind River is a visually striking experience that easily proves Sheridan’s abilities behind the camera can match his writing. The West Texas residents of High Water may have been troubled and outraged by their lot in life, but they also had a sense of pride of where they came from. The people of Wind River feel the same. And our time spent with them is worthwhile.
*** (out of four)
I’m not sure if I’m “spoiling” anything here, but Jeremy Renner takes a break from franchises and shows up in the final third of The House. Playing a bad guy, the mere fact of his presence is meant to elicit laughter because… well, I’m not entirely sure why. That’s emblematic of the film itself. You have have a lot of famous performers (most known for their comedic skills unlike Renner) trapped in a flimsy concept that only manages to wring less than 90 minutes of material. And there certainly isn’t an hour and a half’s worth of funny.
Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler are Scott and Kate Johansen, a middle-class couple about to become empty nesters as their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is about to enter college. It’s the summer before her exit and her folks are trying to maximize their time with her. They’re a bit of the overprotective type who smother their kid and guilt her into Walking Dead nights instead of visiting her friends. Alex’s higher ed plans take a hit when the Johansens learn a long-planned for scholarship is kaput because a corrupt city councilman (Nick Kroll) would rather spend it on a community pool.
With the need to make some fast money, what’s this seemingly normal couple to do? In this high concept exercise, the answer is teaming with down on his luck divorcee neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) and opening an illegal casino. The scheme yields dollars but other complications that come with the high roller life. Criminal elements enter the mix and this new job also gives the Johansens a personality transplant into a hard partying couple who start to believe their dangerous notoriety.
Bottom line is that we see Ferrell do his goofy Everyman type turned goofy comedic hard ass. If you find that irresistible, maybe there’s enough to sustain you here. Yet this effort from director Andrew J. Cohen (who co-wrote the much more satisfactory Neighbors) hits its marks with infrequency. Adam McKay is a producer here and he’s done better work with Ferrell. I couldn’t help but wonder if the sometimes sharp political commentary McKay brings to his work would have helped here. I’m pretty sure the script is trying to say something about the plight of the middle class and their earning power, but it’s buried in spurting blood gags and believing Jeremy Renner turning up will work as a gag on its own terms. There’s humorous moments peppered throughout, but nowhere near enough to recommend it.
** (out of four)
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is a more satisfying exercise in atmosphere than in storytelling. A remake of an early 70s Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood production, the film sets us three years into the Civil War in Virginia at a nearly abandoned girls school. The inhabitants consist of just five students, head teacher Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), and other instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
Their quiet existence is jolted when wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) seeks refuge to recover from his injuries. This is when a series of ulterior motives plays out over an hour and a half. Miss Farnsworth runs her enterprise with an exacting demeanor that the Corporal’s presence alters. Edwina is looking to escape the confines of the Southern mansion’s trappings and sees the Corporal’s presence as that chance. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the feisty student and the Corporal’s presence awakens her desires for further rebellion. As for the Corporal? His motives are an ever-changing guessing game as he charms his way through the lonely home and the people in them.
The Beguiled is ultimately a tale of empowerment told in a melodramatic and brisk manner. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, writer/director Coppola hits the mark creating the claustrophobic setting. There may be a massive war going on around them that’s affecting their lives, but the picture sets its sights solely on the drama in the home. That said, the action happening inside is only somewhat intriguing. That may just be a matter of a rather simple concept that can only go so far in dramatic weight.
The performances are uniformly fine, but it’s Kidman who has the best material to work with in shaping her character. You question where her actions come from and how her back story informs them. Not so much with the rest of the players. Ultimately The Beguiled is a bit of a disappointment that still evokes an often interesting sense of time and place.
**1/2 (out of four)
American Made is fun while it lasts and the same can be said of the characters living through it for the most part. The film tells the true-life story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a TWA pilot in the late 1970s who’s grown quite bored with his job. Early on, he creates turbulence on a flight just to break the monotony. Life perks up considerably when his services are utilized by the CIA to deal with Manuel Noriega’s Panamanian government and run guns to the Contras in what would become the biggest scandal of President Reagan’s administration. Seal’s shady interactions with the U.S. government aren’t the only item in his new job description as he starts a lucrative side business bringing cocaine back to the states from Columbia. This brings him front and center with Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Meija) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda).
For most of Made‘s fast moving running time, Gary Spinelli’s screenplay creates a world where Seal is gloriously ambivalent as to the dangerous decisions he makes. He moves his family from Louisiana to the tiny town of Mena, Arkansas where the piles of money he’s earning is buried in the backyard and at new banks that miraculously pop up in the community. His wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) doesn’t ask too many questions, but she also makes it humorously clear that she doesn’t trust a thing her hubby is doing.
The tone of American Made can be slightly jarring if you really think about it. We’re dealing with real-life events that spawned real-life tragedies like illegal arms deals and the drug epidemic that swept the 1980s. However, that’s not on Seal’s mind or the picture’s for that matter. He’s too busy creating his own version of the American Dream and his journey through actual history casts him as a Forrest Gump like figure if Forrest had no moral compass.
For this decade, Cruise has mostly concentrated on starring in a mixed bag of action and sci-fi efforts. Made reunites him with his director from one of the better ones, Edge of Tomorrow. It also gives him one of his best roles in years and a true change of pace as far as material. Domhnall Gleeson is his CIA contact Schafer, who’s endlessly energetic about the chaos his agency is creating. One of the most memorable performances comes from Caleb Landry Jones as Seal’s creepy loose cannon of a brother-in-law. You may recognize him as the creepy loose cannon brother from Get Out and Jones has that character nailed in 2017.
American Made doesn’t necessarily bring much new to the table. Some of its story lines have been covered in much more serious works. Yet it’s got a lot of energy and it’s certainly entertaining, with Cruise’s presence a big factor as to why. By its conclusion, we’re aware that its central figure is creating his own turbulence again and he probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
*** (out of four)
It Comes at Night is a bleak, brisk, sometimes effective horror thriller that’s well-acted and filmed. The decision to not overly explain the events causing the characters to be holed up in a house together seems wise. However, when the credits roll, you might find yourself asking it that’s all there is.
Trey Edward Shults writes and directs this tale of a world gone to hell. A nasty and unexplained outbreak has seemingly wiped out a hefty portion of the world’s population. If you become symptomatic, you need to be put down. That’s how we’re introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and 17 year-old boy Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they do what they have to with Sarah’s ill father.
The family lives in their boarded up home with one entrance/exit. Days are spent rationing food and water. Their sad existence is interrupted one evening by intruder Will (Christopher Abbott), who assumes the house is vacant. He’s seeking shelter for his family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their toddler son. The family ends up moving in and for a brief time everything seems ok.
Deserved kudos go out to Shults for crafting a screenplay that doesn’t burden itself with explaining the plague that’s put everyone in that house. This story is more about how the characters function in that claustrophobic existence. Travis is a teenager with attractive young woman Kim all of a sudden present. Paul is always cognizant that you can’t trust anyone beyond family.
Night is a slow burn of distrust and eerie atmosphere that eventually reaches a conclusion you both dread and suspect. Shults is clearly a talented filmmaker, but I can’t deny the feeling that the picture ends up feeling a bit slight and too simplistic. It’s not without its cliches (there’s a family dog that you just know will factor in). There’s a dream sequence over reliance. No fault belongs with the actors who are all solid. Edgerton again proves he can nail an intense performance.
Genre fans will probably find enough to admire here, but Night comes in effective spurts and not a totally cohesive whole.
**1/2 (out of four)
It’s deeper and more relatable fears that allow It it’s most effective scares. That is the truth emanating from the Stephen King source material. Yes, clowns are creepy. Yet the other items that frighten our kid cast here are creepier – those of loss, innocence, bullying, and even free will to just be a young teen.
Andy Muschietti’s version of the King classic moves the book’s actions from the 1950s (when the author was a boy) to 1989, making those Stranger Things comparisons apt. It’s summer in Derry, Maine where the rate of missing persons – especially kids – is astronomical. The prologue shows us how poor little seven-year old Georgie earned his milk carton status. It involves a meeting with demented clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), luring the child into the sewer. Eight months later, Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is desperately trying to find him. He’s part of a group known as The Losers. They include Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who’s got an undeserved reputation at school for being loose but whose real circumstances are far more terrifying and sad. There’s Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight new kid on the block who coincidentally and humorously is a fan of New Kids on the Block. Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things) is the nerd who can’t keep his foul mouth shut. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac, Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the doubter of the bunch, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the homeschooled orphan. All of The Losers soon experience their own visions of Pennywise and come to realize they must defeat him since no one else seems willing to.
Pennywise’s reign of terror seems to occur every 27 years in Derry, but there’s other issues the kids must deal with each day. Sophia with her abusive dad. Eddie with his overprotective mom. A nasty bully named Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who’s nearly as dangerous as the title character. Ben having to admit his affection for both Sophia and those five crooners from Boston. And so on. Pennywise (with credit to Skarsgard’s performance) does have his moments of heebie jeebie glory, but they usually come with a simple facial expression and most of them are early on. The clown loses a bit of luster when an over reliance on CGI with “It” comes into play. What remains is the genuine creepiness happening with some of the kids daily lives. That trumps the increasingly milder scares involving Pennywise.
It helps tremendously that the performances of the young actors are all first-rate. Sophia Lillis has a young Amy Adams vibe and Lieberher (who already showed his chops in St. Vincent and Midnight Special) is an effective Loser leader. Stephen King was able to subtly write a coming of age story filled with heart that just happened to have a demented circus freak in the mix. Muschietti and his screenwriters pick up on that with this adaptation to mostly satisfying results.
*** (out of four)