REVIEW: “The Highwaymen”

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For me the allure of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson playing Texas Rangers sent to hunt down the notorious Bonnie and Clyde is undeniable. I’m a long-time fan of Costner who vanished from the screen for a while but seems to have nicely settled into a new stage of his career. And then you have Harrelson – always interesting, always entertaining.

The two pair up in “The Highwaymen”, a period crime thriller that was first pitched as early as 2005. Screenwriter John Fusco’s original vision was to have Paul Newman and Robert Redford play the veteran lawmen. After sitting in development for years with Universal Studios, Netflix acquired the rights in 2017 with two new leads and John Lee Hancock set to direct.

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“The Highwaymen” quickly sets itself up as slow-burning crime investigation thriller. The story starts in 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow having been on the run for over two years. The notorious couple carry out a violent jailbreak at Eastham Prison Farm in Texas. Lee Simmons (the always good John Carroll Lynch), head of the Texas Department of Corrections, urges an image-conscious Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to take drastic measures to finally end the murderous crime spree.

Simmons convinces a reluctant Ferguson to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Costner) to track down Bonnie and Clyde and “put ’em on the spot” (you can probably guess what that means). An interesting bit of history – Hamer and forty other Rangers resigned after “Ma” Ferguson won a second term. She had been proven corrupt and quickly fired all remaining Rangers replacing them with her own more ‘modern’ law enforcement. Simmons and Fusco use that internal tension several times during the film.

Costner shows us an abrasive, hard-edged Frank Hamer (love the performance). He’s a principled man clearly bitter over the dismissal of the Rangers but driven by the death of other lawmen to put an end to the Barrow gang. Hamer hesitantly brings along his old partner Maney Gault (Harrelson) and the pair begin studying the gangs patterns and following their blood trail through the lower Midwest. Harrelson is a nice complement to Costner, working at a different temperature and offering a needed balance to their mission.

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It’s not a stretch to call this an inadvertent companion piece to Arthur Penn’s beloved 1967 picture “Bonnie and Clyde”. Penn painted a somewhat romanticized portrait of the Barrow gang while “The Highwaymen” distinctly looks from the lawmen’s perspective. It allows for a critical view of the rogue couple’s cult-like following and of how cultural fame is often rooted in absurdity. Glamorizing news stories, skewed comparisons to Robin Hood, young women dressing like Bonnie Parker. “They’re more adored than movie stars” one character mutters.

Admittedly there is an old-fashioned flavor to “The Highwaymen” that is sure to push some people away. You see it in how it tells its story and even in how it’s made. I get the inevitable complaints of “too slow” and “not enough action”. Yet I found myself loving it – the slow burn, the prickly Costner, the subtle moral questions it tosses out there. It all works, like a cool flashback to a classic film style I’ve never grown tired of. But how will that play today? It will be interesting to see.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Playwright turned screenwriter Martin McDonagh is three movies into his feature film career – “In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths” and his latest “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. While each film has their differences they also also have their similarities. All three are black comedy crime pictures and each prominently feature McDonagh’s brash writing style. You can decide whether that last part is a good thing or not.

McDonagh’s inspiration for “Three Billboards” came as he was driving in southeastern United States and noticed some billboards speaking to an unsolved crime. He began filling in his own elements to the story and “Three Billboards” was born. As he began penning the script two characters were written with specific performers in mind. The lead character of Mildred was written for Frances McDormand and key supporting character Dixon was written for Sam Rockwell.

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The story begins seven years after the brutal rape and murder of a teenaged girl around Ebbing, Missouri. The girl’s mother Mildred (McDormand), angered by the sheriff department’s lack of progress on the case, rents three abandoned billboards just outside of town calling out the local authorities. The billboards read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Mildred’s billboards spark the ire of the townsfolk including Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), his dense and racist deputy Dixon (Rockwell), and even her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). But Mildred (a fitting reflection of McDonagh’s abrasive writing style) pushes forward which leads to a series of conflicts that make up a bulk of McDonagh’s problematic story.

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“Three Billboards” is such a mixed bag. McDonagh wildly swings from absurdly goofy to deeply emotional with no real gauge for tone. A scene of oddball humor can shift to a scene of startling violence on a whim. Often the characters are the biggest victims. One minute a man is brutally beating another man and punching a woman in the face. Only a few scenes later we are asked to buy into his moral transformation. Even Mildred suffers from McDonagh’s erratic treatment. She’s an inspirational crusader and a sympathetic mother. She’s also a verbally abusive, dysfunctional parent and can sometimes be needlessly hateful and vile. McDormand goes all in and her performance is solid, but her character (like most in the film) is all over the map.

Funny enough the movie is its most effective when it turns down the volume and focuses on the quieter dramatic moments. Many of these involve Woody Harrelson, an actor often known for big and showy. His Sheriff Willoughby is probably the film’s most tempered character but he’s not immune to McDonagh’s occasional jarring dialogue. And it seems we are meant to be at least a little sympathetic towards him, but to do so the movie ignores some gaping moral holes and expects us to do the same. Sorry, I can’t.

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Several other things keep “Three Billboards” from reaching the potential it teases. There’s McDonagh’s weird vision of small town America. He nails how the effects of a horrible tragedy can ripple through a rural tight-knit community. And visually the North Carolina location is a nice stand-in for the fictional town of Ebbing. But his wonky cast consists of racists, sexists, bigots, abusers, child molesters, and several other offensive classes of miscreants. Is this his rural perception? I’ll take a Coen brother’s version over this one any day.

And then you have McDonagh’s insistence on being blatantly and often pointlessly vulgar and crass. I get that it’s his thing, but forcing it into the bulk of the dialogue becomes annoying and distracting. I have no problem with a writer bringing their own style and sensibility, but it’s never a good thing when you can feel the writer constantly impressing himself on his material. Mix that with the seismic tonal shifts, uneven and often incomprehensible characters, and an overbearing desire to be as un-PC as possible regardless of how it effects the story. The result is a frustrating movie built on a good idea and featuring some strong performances yet undermined by problems too big to dismiss. Ultimately it’s a film that acts like it has something to say, but you quickly learn it’s little more than an empty hull. And for a movie about a mother seeking justice, it’s certainly has little to offer.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Glass Castle”

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While walking out of my screening of “The Glass Castle” I immediately pulled out my phone and began perusing opinions on a certain red vegetable movie review aggregate (or fruit depending on your culinary or botanical lean). I had avoided reading reviews but knew reactions were all over the spectrum. Sure enough some have heralded it as “one of the best films of the year” while others have called it “unpleasant”, “lumbering”, “tiresome”, and so on.

So where do I land on “The Glass Castle”, a film based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her nomadic childhood and the family dysfunction she endured. I never found it lumbering, tiresome, or even unpleasant outside of when it was meant to be. At the same time its inconsistencies and messiness keeps me from embracing it as one of the year’s best.

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The movie is co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton whose previous film was the intimate and tightly-made “Short Term 12”. “The Glass Castle” is much more wide-open in its attempt at covering a lot of ground. It hops back-and-forth in time stopping at significant points in Walls’ childhood and mixing them in with her  story as a young adult out on her own.

Brie Larson plays the twenty-something Jeannette living in 1989 New York City. Her determined quest for independence took her away from her harsh family situation and she now writes for a newspaper and has a fiancĂ© (Max Greenfield). But despite her new life, she can’t completely escape the scars from her past and the internal connection to her family inspires a longing for the idyllic life she dreamed of as a child.

Woody Harrelson plays her father Rex and through every time hop we see the same complex and deeply flawed man. Harrelson is given the bigger, louder role and his performance is spot-on. But it’s the movie’s depiction of Rex that’s problematic. There’s an effort to sell him as both a charming free spirit and a despicable father. The problem is most attempts at a positive reflection simply don’t work. In fact many of the tender moments are found in scenes where Rex is feeding his children’s imagination in order to hide their poverty and/or lawbreaking – situations he is responsible for.

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To go further, the negative reflections of Rex are profoundly more prevalent and overpowering. I found it difficult to see him as anything other than a violent, abusive alcoholic and a generally repugnant human being. Naomi Watts plays the Jeanette’s mother Rose Mary and she just seems along for the ride. She does nothing to curb Rex’s behavior and at times is just as abusive and negligent as her husband. There are moments where Cretton creates some genuine sympathy for these two characters, but I found myself too repulsed by their actions to be sympathetic. They are appalling individuals.

Here’s the thing, I’m fine with the movie presenting them this way especially if it’s key to the story being told. But the ending undercuts the rest of the film and it asks too much of the audience. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s here that the film’s earlier attempts at creating a compassionate side of Rex simply don’t hold weight. If more time had been given to his complexity over his repugnance it could have worked. Instead we have an element of the story that feels short changed and a final act that needed much more attention to be effective.

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There is also a general problem with tone. At times it’s wildly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there are some very disturbing and effective scenes that deal with abuse. But there are also these jolts of humor, mostly involving the Rex character, that are hard to figure out. It works when portraying him as an eccentric, but not so much when the humor crosses over into the abusive scenes. At my screening I’m not sure the audience knew when to laugh. There were several instances where some people were laughing and others groaning in disgust all during the same scene.

“The Glass Castle” is a tough experience to define. It’s depiction of the dark side of Janet Walls’ painful childhood is clear-eyed, visceral and hard to watch. But it badly undersells a significant part of this profoundly penetrating true story. Larson and Harrelson are excellent and the movie’s boldness in tackling the subject matter is commendable. Despite the tonal shifts I was onboard for most of the way. But reconciling the bulk of the film with the tidy ending is something I still haven’t been able to do. I can’t help but believe the book offers up a better, more emotionally satisfying balance.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

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Why, why, why? Oh who am I kidding? The reason is obvious – money. That’s the reason they chose to split the final chapter of “The Hunger Games” series into two movies. It certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen this done. Following the profitable but not narratively beneficial blueprint laid out by “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is the first part of the much anticipated series finale.

The first Hunger Games movie was pretty good although it didn’t convince me that this was a franchise worth following. It was the second movie, “Catching Fire”, that won me over. The characters grow, the stakes are raised, you gain a firm understanding of where the franchise is going, and it ends with a bang. Now enter “Mockingjay – Part 1”, the first part of the final chapter, and a film with nowhere near the pop of its predecessor. It’s not that this is an inherently bad movie. Several interesting things happen. But it is stretched past its limits in order to make this a two-movie ending and the film suffers for it.

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All of the cast of characters return led by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Recuperating from the chaotic conclusion of “Catching Fire”, Katniss wakes up in District 13, the home of the burgeoning rebellion. After a brief reunion with her mother and sister, her is introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore) who wants Katniss to be the face (AKA the Mockingjay) of the growing rebellion. Old friends Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) encourage Katniss to take on the role and inspire the people.

But Katniss remains unsure, that is until she see is taken to see the carnage and ruins of her home district left behind following an intense bombing by the Capitol. She eventually accepts but only if President Coin agrees to send a rescue team to free a captured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol city. Peeta is being used by the noxious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as a propaganda piece to quell the rebellion. Several other familiar faces return. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is given a bit more to do this time around. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) pops up in a couple of scenes to offer sage-like counsel. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) appears in what is basically a tag-along role. And Stanley Tucci’s wacky Caesar gets very little screen time.

 

“Mockingjay – Part 1” doesn’t offer a lot in terms of thrills and excitement. Instead it gives us speeches and debates. Then it gives us more speeches and debates. We have long moments of indecision, lots of pondering, a bunch of planning. We visit a few locations (one of them twice where we get the exact same camera shots) and we get a couple of random scenes featuring inspired rebels. But very little spans beyond Katniss’ reluctance in becoming the Mockingjay and the political wrangling by both the rebellion and the Capitol.

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To be fair, I did enjoy a lot of the political back-and-forths. I also still like spending time with most of these characters. And Jennifer Lawrence is once again superb. There is nothing glamorous about her role. She attacks it with such conviction and delivers genuine raw emotion. There are also great performances from Hoffman, Wright, and Sutherland who is so playfully vile as the the chief antagonist. Moore was the biggest new addition and she serves the part. But her character is pretty straightforward and generic and she is isn’t asked to show much range.

I know “Mockingjay – Part 1” is considered a part of a greater whole, but as a single movie it disappoints. It felt like a gradual meandering buildup towards a climax that we never get. Even the cliffhanger (if you can even call it that) was shockingly underwhelming. And you can tell that numerous scenes were stretched as far as they could go in order to make this a two-picture conclusion. Yet still there are enjoyable moments, good characters, strong performances, and the knowledge that this is just a set-up to what should be an action-packed final film. But as a single standalone movie, I was definitely hoping for more.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

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The 2012 film “The Hunger Games” launched a new movie franchise to the tune of almost $700 million at the box office. It was based on Suzanne Collins’ equally popular book series – one that I had never heard of prior to the film’s announcement. The story is dystopian science fiction and it examines themes such a class disparity, oppression, and the infatuation with reality television. It wasn’t a perfect movie but it stood head and shoulders above other popular film franchises aimed at this age group. With a good cast locked in and the groundwork laid for a fairly interesting premise, the inevitable sequel had a lot of potential and expectations.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” hit theaters with even bigger fanfare than the first film. It raked in over $860 million and received hearty praise from critics. Personally I felt there was room to improve from the first film, but I didn’t expect to find a significantly better movie. I really enjoyed “Catching Fire” and I was impressed at how many trappings it avoided. So often movies of this type and sequels in general make the same mistakes which more often than not lowers the quality of the film. “Catching Fire” does several things better this time around and it starts with the story.

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This film begins shortly after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The two have returned to District 12 where Katniss has convinced her local boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that her “love” for Peeta was just an act to survive the games. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who informs her that she and Peeta will be going on a victors tour to the other districts. He also expresses displeasure in her defiant actions during the games which have fueled a rising underground rebellion against his Capitol. He intends to use the tour to influence public opinion but in secret he feels the only way to solve his problem is to kill Katniss.

Woody Harrelson returns as the goodhearted boozer Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks is back as Effie, the queen of gaudy fashion overkill. The two clearly have affections for Katniss and Peeta and they both understand the danger and intensity of their situation. They try to prepare the two victors for the tightrope they must walk between energizing the revolution and bringing the wrath of President Snow to their home district. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job of ratcheting up the tension during this part of the story and the stakes are raised particularly when some of the tour stops to oppressed districts don’t go as planned.

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The story then takes a sharp turn with the out-of-the-blue announcement of the Third Quarter Quell. Basically ever 25 years the Hunger Games are “celebrated” with a special set of rules that normally serves the Capitol’s interests. President Snow decides that the 75th games will consist only of past winners. Since Katniss is the only female to win from District 12 she is automatically put into the games which Snow hopes will take care of his little problem. For me this is where the movie does spin its wheels a little. In what felt like a slight retread from the first film, we go back through the glitzy chariot presentations of the players, their appearances on Stanley Tucci’s whacky talk show, and the showcase of their skills before the bigwigs. It doesn’t play out as long as it did in the first film but I did find myself anxious for things to movie along.

But once the games do start the film gets right back on track. There are a number of interesting twists and angles that come from a variety of different directions. That is what provides the film with its own identity. “Catching Fire” maintains the grand scope and ominous threat of the first film, but it magnifies it and then takes it into its own place. A lot of it has to do with the progression of Collins’ story, but I give a lot of credit to Francis Lawrence’s direction and the screenplay from Simon Beaufoy and Michael duBruyn.

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It also helps that the acting takes a step up. Lawrence is fabulous and I would take this performance over her good but generic work in “American Hustle”. She is the heart and soul of the film and her abilities to sell her character both emotionally and physically are vital. I also think Josh Hutcherson make significant strides. His acting was a weakness in the first film but both he and Liam Hemsworth make obvious improvements. It was also great seeing some new characters played by really talented actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in what is one of his final roles) shows up as Snow’s new Gamemaker. I also really liked Jeffrey Wright as a studious fellow games participant.

I enjoyed the first film of this popular franchise even though I didn’t think it was great. That alone was enough to make me curious about “Catching Fire”. What I didn’t expect was to be completely enthralled in it from start to finish. “Catching Fire” is a big budget franchise entry that manages itself well and pulls off what many are incapable of doing. It not only adds to the groundwork laid by its predecessor, but it improves on it in nearly every area. And perhaps this movie’s biggest trick was to make ME thoroughly interested in what happens next. That of itself was a major accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Now You See Me”

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I have to admit, the idea behind “Now You See Me” is pretty intriguing. As silly as it may sound, a group of magicians working together in huge elaborate bank heists is loaded with potential. The movie also puts together a pretty impressive cast featuring some fresh young talent, fun and reliable veterans, and a French actress that I’ve become a big fan of. So the ingredients are there for a fun an entertaining little thriller. That’s why it’s so sad that the movie stumbles all over itself and ends up being an unfortunate disappointment.

The story goes something like this – Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco are small-time magicians working the streets and house shows. They’re all brought together after being slipped a mysterious tarot card and address by a hooded stranger. We then leap forward to find that they have a fancy new stage show and perform under the name The Four Horsemen. After their first big show in Las Vegas rains down stolen money on the jubilant crowd, the FBI immediately get involved. Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) teams up with a French Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (MĂ©lanie Laurent) to head the case. Their initial interrogation with The Four Horsemen leaves a sour taste in Agent Rhodes’ mouth and he makes in his goal to stop them before their next big show.

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Michael Caine shows up as a wealthy insurance man who sponsors The Four Horsemen’s act but who may not be the ultimate brain behind their operation. We also get Morgan Freeman as a former magician who now makes his money debunking and discrediting magic acts. Both are tossed into the mix of what becomes the movie’s big question – who is the person that’s really behind The Four Horseman? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that twists and misdirections are a big part of this film. When the story stays focused on that it can be entertaining. Unfortunately this thing goes all over the place and by the time the twists do finally come, their effects on the convoluted story pack little punch.

There are numerous structural and narrative problems with “Now You See Me”. First, there are so many enormous plot holes many of which you could drive a truck through. There are also hugs gaps in logic that no amount of magic can explain. The pacing is good enough that you can overlook some of these things while watching the film. But if you take even a second to think about some of the things they completely fall apart. The story has holes. The characters have holes. The explanations and revelations have holes. We also get bits of mumbo-jumbo about some mystical magical force called The Eye which honestly I still don’t understand nor do I even care to.

Then there is the magic. With the exception of Eisenburg’s cool card trick during his first scene (a trick which got me), most of the magic and illusions were underwhelming. Most of the time they felt more like movie trickery than actual magic tricks. Also I can’t say I ever fully bought into any of the Horsemen as serious magicians. Some may blame the actors or it may be because we hardly spend any time with them. Most of our time are spent with the FBI trying to piece together what’s going on. That leaves The Four Horsemen feeling pretty flimsy.

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Personally I felt the performances were decent enough. Some where able to overcome the lackluster writing while others were smothered by it. Caine and Freeman were rock solid as always and Eisenberg was also quite good. But it was Laurent, the fine French actress I mentioned above, who gave my favorite performance. Like every other character, she has to deal with some occasionally clunky dialogue but she handles it very well. Not so with Ruffalo. He has his good moments but he also has a few stumbles. But once again, the script does him no favors.

“Now You See Me” is a real toughie for me. I was never bored. I never checked my watch. I enjoyed some of the performances, particularly from Laurent. But there are just too many stinking flaws to give the movie a recommendation. The story is riddled with plot holes. Some characters are so poorly written. The magic, which should be a strong point, won’t blow anyone’s socks off. In the end all of these problems sink the movie and keep it from being the film it should be. That’s a shame because the parts were in place. There just wasn’t a good enough story to work with.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS