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Out in Theaters: ‘THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI’ 

There are many words you can’t say on a billboard but in Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic and borderline brilliant Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri calling out the local sheriff for failing to bring to justice a rapist, arsonist and murderer is fair game. At least from a legal standpoint. This is the set-up for a crime saga unlike any other, McDonagh’s film a foul-mouthed mystery brimming with colorful characters, its jet-black tone and surprising emotionality capable of causing fits of laughter and bouts of urgent somberness in what is one of the best films of 2017. Read More

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Out in Theaters: POLTERGEIST

When a film foregoes the press screening circuit, only to play for a slim number of us amidst a general public promo screening just two hours before it opens its doors to the rest of the movie-going community, you enter with an expectation of a product hauntingly bad. Take Hercules for example, which screened under similar circumstances last year before landing at number five on my worst movies of the year segment. Just one month later, As Above/So Below (which was also largely critically derided) proved this model wrong by delivering an edgy horror throwback that I simply adored. Again at the Thursday night 6 o’clock showing. So going into Poltergeist, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and with low critical ratings – as of writing this, it stands at a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes and 48 on Metacritic – the writing was on the wall, thusly establishing the low expectations that allowed me to sit back and let this somewhat cruise-controlled remake take me on an enjoyable – if not great – horror thrill ride. Read More

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Sundance Review: DIGGING FOR FIRE

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Displaying the kind of laid back candor that sums up the mumblecore founding member, Joe Swanberg revealed that once you have kids, “life is a clusterfuck.” And so is Digging For Fire. Kinda. A lesser effort in the aftermath of two eruptively sweet victories (Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas), Digging for Fire takes on the humps and bumps of marriage and the battle of young parenthood with an enviable cast for any director.

 

Swanberg has never really made anything bad (though mediocre wouldn’t be a huge stretch with this one) but with all the talent gathered, Swanberg’s narrative wanderlust  oses focus, leaving Digging for Fire feeling the strain of Swanberg’s scriptless tendencies. According to the director, Digging for Fire had a more complete, “bigger” script than any of his other projects – mostly because he had so much talent involved and needed to schedule like a really Hollywood dog. In true Swanberg fashion, his final treatment was about ten pages. Famous for crafting just the barebones of a story before shooting, the mumblecore man demands his actors to make choices once the camera are rolling to get from an established Point A to an established Point B. All that middle ground is fair game for improvisation.

At times, his distinctive make of cinematic vagrancy allows for some great unscripted scenes – Jake Johnson‘s hindmost digging moment, Chris Messina‘s unscripted pool nudity, Sam Rockwell doing any and every thing, Swanberg’s adorable baby boy doing any and every thing – but also opens the door for some less compelling episodes – Rosemarie DeWitt‘s beachside interlude with Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson‘s casual disppearance from the action, unsatisfying relationship arcs.

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Digging For Fire opens with a familiar Swanberg platitude; stressed out adults talk about stressed out adult problems; strong women trying to gain the reins on their less-than-model husband; secret undertones of dreaming about the highlife of the young freewheeler. Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) have just arrived at a client of Lee’s to housesit their upper-decker mansion and get a vacation from their less-than-model home. In between bouts of nagging about preschools and taxes, Tim discovers a rusty gun and a human bone buried in the backyard (a story idea culled straight from an odd incident in Johnson’s life.)

When the couple soon after separate for a weekend, each decide to pursue a side of themselves that has seemed to snuff out in the face of marriage. After dumping their kid with Grandma and PopPop (Sam Elliot), Lee meets up with an old friend (Melanie Lynskey) to air out their marital snafus. Obsessed with the mystery of the gun and the rusty bone, Tim calls together a posse of friends old and new to put shovels to dirt over beers and a few lines of cocaine.

Each half of the couple contents with the ghost of their old selves, opening doors that uncover new demons. Problem is, those doors sometimes seem as random as briefcases on Let’s Make a Deal. Many of Swanberg’s characters work in their own right but don’t add enough to the makeup of the final product to legitimize all their erratic appearances. Although Swanberg seems to be dipping his toes in more mature, less jejune waters, he’s able to maintain his very distinctive voice and worldview. If only he could have equally inserted the tangy sharpness and sweet comedy of his last films in this creation by man at crossroads.

C+

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Out in Theaters: LAGGIES

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Take thematic elements of Joe Swanberg‘s Happy Christmas, distill it down, add paint-by-numbers rom-com structure, weed out the elements that distinguish mumblecore as such and replace the winning Anna Kendrick with the accent-jostling Keira Knightley and you have Laggies, a competently told but widely borrowed tale of arrested adolescence.

Knightley is Megan, a wanderer of the pathetic breed. In the years since her high school prom – which the movie unexplainably opens on – her besties have become more mannered, her boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) more tame. With her sign-spinning job, dependence on others, total lack of direction and joyless “drifting through life” attitude, Megan is the short end of the stick.

On the night of her best friend’s wedding, she discovers her father (Jeff Garlin) cheating on her mother and flees from the scene of the crime to encounter Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants teen-rager who asks if she’ll buy her and her underaged posse some brewskis. Shortly thereafter, Anthony proposes to Megan, sending her into an existential spiral that lands her back in the company of the teenaged Annika and her suave, divorcee father Craig (Sam Rockwell).

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As a film rummaging through underdeveloped ethos and aimless reckonings, Laggies seems like a freshman effort rather than the work of a seasoned pro. A marked improvement over director Lynn Shelton‘s last project, the wholeheartedly flat Touchy Feely, Laggies can’t help but feel like a director moving in the wrong director. After all, when everything is finally unpacked, there are no revelations we couldn’t see coming from minute 35, no statement that needed to explode out from the film.

All the asinine elements with which Shelton plays with have been done before and to greater effect. Look no further than the work of contemporary and mumblecore comrade Joe Swanberg to get not just one but many examples of this exact story done, quite frankly, far better. Both this year’s Happy Christmas and last year’s Drinking Buddies are perfect diagrams of how to make this brand of indie film. If Swanberg is dishing up fillets, Shelton seems content serving beef chuck. It’s the difference between medium rare and well done. Often less is more.

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Having said that, one of the things that most annoys me about the film is how tidy everything is. In a film about chaos and confusion, characters on the brink of breaking down and frozen with fear of commitment, by the end of the film, have recovered miraculously. Shelton has put a nice little bow on everything as if to deem it appropriate viewing for a mom and her teenage daughter. It’s a scramble of odds and ends that shouldn’t fit so neatly together but ultimately do. The storybook ending is boring. Life is a mess. Real humans don’t get resolution. These are the platitudes that the mumblecore movement were founded on. To revert back to the stepping stones of the uninspired linear dramedy is to miss the point of the genre. It sounds harsh but I hate to see the potential squandered.

In the acting department, most of the crew is doing fine work. Knightley scrubs some of the char off her namesake that she’s earned with her most recent effort, offering a loafer of a character who, at the very least, comes with a few extra layers attached. Even if her perpetual indecisiveness is more noxious than pitiable, it’s nice to see Knightley changing up her game and bringing something wholly new to the table. Her accent coach must have retired though as her on-again-off-again accent flubs are nearly as noticeable here as they were in grizzly Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

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Standing aside her, Sam Rockwell, as always, is a gift. And yet, again, his character seemed like a bit of a wasted opportunity on all fronts. I would have liked to see more to him; more comedy, more tragedy, more everything. If Laggies were from Sam Rockwell’s character’s perspective, it would have been twice as good. And not-so-little Chloe Grace Moretz holds her own as well, showcasing a skill for understatement that was sorely missing in her last endeavor, If I Stay.

From a purely narcissistic angle, I appreciated the drizzly Seattle setting, which opened the doors to some of the finer establishments in the Emerald City, establishments that I have otherwise not stepped within. Steeped in the nonchalance of a Pacific Northwest rain shower, Laggies has a throbbing sense of place to it, one of the finer components in a film that really needs that kind of specificity. Though Benjamin Gibbard‘s musical score is entirely forgettable, other resident Benjamin, Bejamin Kasulke‘s subtle cinematography accomplishes its goal of keeping the characters in the forefront and the atmosphere appropriately Seattle. And though there are bits to like here and there, Laggies is a movie sorely missing a point.

C

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