Lady Bird

(USA 2017)

“You should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and then back to City College. And then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything.”

— Marion McPherson

“Lady Bird always says that she lives in on the wrong side of the tracks, but I always thought that that was like a metaphor, but there are actual train tracks.”

— Danny

“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

— Kyle

Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig’s first time directing; she codirected an earlier film, Nights and Weekends, in 2008. I never heard of that one. However, Lady Bird is her first solo gig, as well as her first hit. I wanted to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it was impossible to get tickets.

I’ve now seen it in its commercial release. Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, an angsty, unpopular, and rather nerdy but self-assured Catholic high school senior who’s christened herself “Lady Bird.” She lives in a modest home literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her parents, her underachiever older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) who graduated from a “good” university but still works as a cashier in a grocery store, and his wife (Marielle Scott).

Christine wants a bigger life than the one she has in Sacramento, and she plans to get it by going away to college. Her perpetually crabby mother (Laurie Metcalf) is not exactly supportive, and her disposition gets worse when her father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

Set in 2002, Lady Bird is a string of funny and touching episodes about growing up in a lower middle class Catholic home: sex, fitting in, rebellion, and of course Catholicism. I laughed out loud, and did so a lot. Gerwig wrote and directed it, and it’s a solid film even it rings a little familiar. She’s more observant of her characters’ behavior than creating some big dramatic experience. Lady Bird is structured like a lot of teen comedies I’ve seen before, but the acting is good enough to elevate it to a higher level and make it a bit more interesting. More adult, too.

As some friends have pointed out, the main character — Christine — is a refreshing break from the Hollywood archetype of a teenage girl we’ve all seen for more than 30 years now: she’s not a mean girl, a witch, or a slut. This is true, and a big plus here. Still, as much as I enjoyed Lady Bird, I don’t get the awards buzz over it.

With Danny O’Neill, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, John Karna, Jake McDorman, Bayne Gibby, Laura Marano, Fr. Paul Keller, Myra Turley, Bob Stephenson, Joan Patricia O’Neill, Carla Valentine, Roman Arabia

Production: Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, IAC Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Elevation Pictures (Canada), United International Pictures (UIP) (international), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://ladybird.movie

I, Tonya

(USA 2017)

As crazy at it was, the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee just before the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and the resulting shit show that plagued her teammate Tonya Harding never occurred to me again after the media frenzy over it died down — like, by spring. Then one day this past autumn, I caught the trailer for I, Tonya. Oh, Lord!

I must confess, Craig Gillespie’s biopic ended the year on a high note — much higher than my expectations. Framed as a documentary with interviews interspersed throughout the story, I misjudged I, Tonya as mere fluff. It’s not. For all its lurid, sensationalist absurdity, it packs some jarring moments that hit…well, like a club.

While not a vital undertaking, I, Tonya is a very well done film. The screenplay by Steven Rogers is sharp, while Gillespie’s pace — cuts and jumps and all — moves nicely. What makes the whole thing fly, though, is the cast. Sebastian Stan as Harding’s sadistic twerp of a husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as her caustic mother LaVona Golden give performances worthy of gold medals. But the real showstopper is Margot Robbie, who makes Harding something she never was in real life: sympathetic. It’s no small feat.

I’ve heard some grumble that I, Tonya is a mean-spirited film that condescends to its subjects and gets laughs by making them look like fools. I don’t see it that way. Without absolving her, the film presents nasty circumstances that no doubt fueled Harding’s desire to win. The story and characters are culled from actual sources. Harding’s ultimate punishment was harsh. You can’t help but understand and feel for her, just a teeny tiny bit.

With Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Davin Allen Grindstaff, Daniel Thomas May, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert, Miles Mussenden, Jan Harrelson, Luray Cooper, Dan Triandiflou, Kelly O’Neal, Alphie Hyorth

Production: Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment

Distribution: 30West (USA), Neon (USA), VVS Films (Canada), Cinemex Films S.A. de C.V. (Mexico), California Filmes (Latin America), Mars Distribution (France), Lucky Red (Italy), DCM Film Distribution (Germany), Ascot Elite Entertainment Group (Switzerland), Nos Lusomundo Audiovisuais (Portugal), The Searchers (Belgium / Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Myndform (Iceland), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Fabula Films (Turkey), Gakhal Entertainment (India), Lots Home Entertainment (Taiwan), M Pictures (Thailand), Noori Pictures (South Korea), Shaw Organisation (Singapore), Showgate (Japan), Solar Pictures (Philippines), UA films (Hong Kong), Roadshow Films (Australia / New Zealand), Ster-Kinekor Pictures (South Africa)

120 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B

https://www.itonyamovie.com

Baby Driver

(USA 2017)

“You’re either hard as nails or scared as shit. Which is it?”

— Griff

“Streisand, now Queen? The fuck, what y’all gonna do, you gonna belt out show tunes on the way to the job?”

— Bats

“Don’t feed me anymore lines from Monsters Inc. It pisses me off.”

— Doc

A movie that starts with a bank robbery while the driver blares Jon Spencer on his headphones can’t be all that bad. And it’s not. Baby Driver calls to mind films like Bonnie & Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon, and my favorite, True Romance, yet it has enough going for it that it stands apart as a contributor rather than a ripoff.

Ansel Elgort is Baby, a young buck constantly plugged into his iPod. He works as the getaway driver for a rotating crew of bank robbers headed by kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey). He’s paying off a debt, and he wants out as soon as it’s done — like, in one more job. Baby’s plan is to disappear with cutie waitress Debora (Lily James). Unfortunately for him, other plans get in the way — plans he didn’t make.

Frankly, all the hype over this movie led me to expect more. A lot more. Admittedly, my expectations were high — too high. That said, I liked Baby Driver. It’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. I’d be lying if I denied that my mind wandered at points, but seeing a millennial Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is worth its weight in gold, or at least its weight in Bitcoin. If nothing else, all those hours I spent making mix tapes are now validated.

With Hudson Meek, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, Flea, Lanny Joon, C.J. Jones, Sky Ferreira, Lance Palmer, Big Boi, Paul Williams, Jon Spencer, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell

Production: TriStar Pictures, Media Rights Capital (MRC), Double Negative (Dneg), Big Talk Productions , Working Title Films

Distribution: Sony Pictures Releasing (International), TriStar Pictures (USA), United International Pictures (UIP), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (Netherlands), Big Picture 2 Films (Portugal), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Filmverleih, Sony Pictures Releasing

112 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) C+

http://www.babydriver-movie.com/discanddigital/

Psychos in Love

(USA 1987)

“A well hung hard man is good fun.”

— Girl in Toilet

“I guess that I thought that me being both a manicurist and a psychotic killer would turn a guy off.”

— Dianne

“I hate grapes! I can’t stand grapes! I loathe grapes! All kinds of grapes. I hate purple grapes. I hate green grapes. I hate grapes with seeds. I hate grapes without seeds. I hate them peeled and non-peeled. I hate grapes in bunches, one at a time, or in groups of twos and threes. I fucking hate grapes!”

— Joe

Hmmm. The first warning came from Aaron when Gorman Bechard’s Psychos in Love started to play, and I quote, “I don’t think this is supposed to be a good movie.” Well, there’s an understatement!

What sounded like a bizarre winner — two serial killers who find love over mutual hatred for grapes and mankind — turned out to be a dud. Sure, the weirdness and the DIY aspect of this movie are cool. Angela Nicholas emits a weird Molly Ringwald gone bad vibe that’s truly funny.

However, the whole plot is one dumb joke repeated over and over. It doesn’t go anywhere. Now that I reread the premise, I’m not at all surprised that this is so bad. Gory, cheap, boring, and stupid, this is an hour and a half that I’ll never get back. My only consolation is that I was half crocked when I watched it.

With Carmine Capobianco, Patti Chambers, Carla Bragoli, Carrie Gordon, Debi Thibeault, Cecelia Wilde, Robert Suttile, Lum Chang Pang, Danny Noyes, Herb Klinger, Wally Gribauskas, Peach Gribauskas, Ed Powers, Frank Christopher

Production: Beyond Infinity

Distribution: Media Blasters, Generic Films

88 minutes
Not rated

(DVD purchase) F

http://www.psychosinlove.com

Suburbicon

(USA 2017)

George Clooney’s Suburbicon probably isn’t going to end up on anyone’s “best” list, nor should it. Too bad, because it’s got all the right elements: an experienced director with a strong point of view and his heart in the right place, a story by Joel and Ethan Coen, and a solid cast. The trailer sold me.

I guess I can see where this was headed. Unfortunately, though, some bizarre calls from the director’s chair drive Suburbicon into the ground. What could’ve been a biting and clever comment about race and the postwar American Dream, isn’t. Instead, Suburbicon is a confused jumble of ideas that don’t seem thought out or placed very well.

Suburbicon, which gets its name from the fictional suburban housing development where the film takes place, involves two concurrent stories that play out separately in late ‘50s suburbia. The main story, the one that the Coen brothers developed over 30 years ago, follows the boneheaded attempts of daft Suburbicon resident Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) at covering his tracks in an insurance scam he perpetrates with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore, who pulls a Patty Duke and does double duty also playing Gardner’s wife, Rose). Gardner is also dodging two amateur hitmen (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) who are trying to reach him. To make matters worse, his grade school age son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), inadvertently threatens to blow his cover. It isn’t long before it’s clear that Gardner’s in way over his head.

Meanwhile, the Mayers, a black family, move into Suburbicon, right next door to the Lodges. This subplot is based on an actual event that happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957 (http://ushistoryscene.com/article/levittown/). In fact, the film uses what appears to be real-life footage from it. The residents don’t want a black family living near them, apparently because they think it will cause the neighborhood to go to hell. So, they stage a protest outside the Mayers’ house, chanting, playing instruments all night, and eventually trespassing and vandalizing. In the midst of this brouhaha, Nicky befriends the son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), who’s about the same age.

The residents get louder and more violent as the Coen plot develops into something darker and more violent.

Suburbicon has a few big problems. First, it clearly wants to make a grand statement or observation. It fails because it doesn’t integrate the two plots. We don’t get much about the Mayers. Whatever point this subplot was supposed to make is completely overshadowed by the main plot, and it comes off as merely an ironic parallel. It’s weird, manipulative, and simply doesn’t work.

Second, I have no idea how all that happens inside the Lodge residence does so with the huge mob next door. How does no one notice what’s going on right outside the door? How does everyone in that huge mob miss the people coming and going from the Lodge residence? Some of them are bloody. Hello?

Third, the plot twists are evident a mile away.

Fourth, neither Damon nor Moore pulls off the sinister vibe their characters call for. Somehow Clooney misses the mark on the sheer weirdness of the plot and the characters despite the sharp, exaggerated dialogue you usually get from the Coen brothers. Oscar Isaac is the only actor who nails it; his small part as an insurance investigator, regrettably short, stands out as the only bright spot here — although both Jupe and Nancy Daly as Gardner’s secretary deserve an honorable mention. Overall, though, the end result here is hopelessly flat and surprisingly lifeless. It’s frustrating to see.

I didn’t hate Suburbicon, but I didn’t love it. Its points are muddled. I expected a lot more, and there was so much to work with here.

With Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba, Michael D. Cohen, Steven Shaw, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Cathy Giannone, Allan Wasserman, Mark Leslie Ford, Richard Kind, Robert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Jack Conley, Frank Califano, Lauren Burns

Production: Paramount Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, Silver Pictures, Smoke House Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

105 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C-

http://www.suburbiconmovie.com

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(USA 2017)

Justice, like morality, is ambiguous. Accordingly, determining exactly how justice should be meted out is mired in a lot of grey. Translation: life is not black and white.

This old adage makes people uncomfortable, and it’s exactly the concept that colors Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It works so well because it acknowledges that there is no one right answer. Thankfully, as luck would have it, it’s also kind of funny.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is pissed off and tired. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire, though not necessarily in that order. The police have made no arrests, they have no suspect, and they haven’t uncovered a single lead. The case is precariously close to cold.

Driving down a rural road one morning, Mildred spots three abandoned billboards and gets an idea: she’ll shame Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. She rents the billboards for a full year and posts ads that attack him. The problem is, her idea doesn’t pan out as she plans — in fact, it works against her cause.

Not far off from a Coen Brothers venture, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a twisted and twisting nailbiter. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a sharp wit, a warped sense of humor, and an impeccable grasp of human nature. The cast is outstanding, with not one subpar performance. At times heartbreaking, this is all around a tightly assembled and enthralling film.

With Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Sam Rockwell, Alejandro Barrios, Jason Redford, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Abbie Cornish, Riya May Atwood, Selah Atwood, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Malaya Rivera Drew, Sandy Martin, Peter Dinklage , Christopher Berry, Gregory Nassif St. John, Jerry Winsett, Kathryn Newton, John Hawkes, Charlie Samara Weaving, Clarke Peters, Brendan Sexton III, Eleanor Threatt Hardy, Michael Aaron Milligan

Production: Blueprint Pictures

Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Warner Brothers

115 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/threebillboardsoutsideebbingmissouri/

Charleston

(Romania / France 2017)

With the title of his new film Charleston, writer and director Andrei Cretulescu seems to play on late actor Charleton Heston, who comes up during a dinner conversation between recently widowed Alexandru (Serban Pavlu) and his gay brother, Ludovic (Gavril Patru), while the latter’s silent and vacant German boy toy (Vlad Galer) plays a video game. It’s fitting for a movie that explores grief and masculinity.

It’s Alexandru’s birthday. His wife, Ioana (Ana Ularu), was just killed, run down as she crossed the street. A cut to him lounging nonchalantly at her grave, wearing earphones and big sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, raises doubt about how bad he’s taking it.

After his dinner with Ludovic, a surprise knock on the door brings Alexandru face to face with Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), a stuttering hipster metrosexual wimp who introduces himself as Ioana’s lover. A punch in the face starts a strange partnership in which the two men pair up to commiserate separately.

Cretulescu’s premise is promising, and it gets some solid mileage for most of the film. Alexandru’s cynicism and derision contrasts sharply with Sebastian’s unsophisticated neediness and angst. Drinking, stealing, playing records, and constantly bickering, the two lonely men get into some marvelously absurd situations. A certain dance during the “intermission” is out of nowhere. They also learn a few things about the woman who left them behind.

Unfortunately, the story peters out about two thirds of the way through, starting with a plainly weird road trip to a town on the sea that both associate with Ioana. The climax isn’t exactly satisfying. I wish Charleston ended up somewhere as interesting as it seemed to be headed.

With Victor Rebengiuc, Ana Ciontea, Gabriela Popescu, Dorian Boguta, Andreea Vasile, Adrian Titieni, Sergiu Costache, Claudiu Dumitru, Alina Berzunteanu, Letitia Vladescu

Production: ICON, Les Films du Tambour, Kinosseur, Digital Cube, Mille et une Films, WAG Prod, Wearebasca

Distribution: Kinosseur (Romania), Versatile (International)

U.S. Premiere

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with director Andrei Cretulescu

119 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.facebook.com/Charleston2017

The Line [Čiara]

(Slovakia / Ukraine 2017)

Director Peter Bebjak’s The Line is an Eastern European testosterone flick, a less cheeky sort of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels set at the Slovakia–Ukraine border. It’s a genre flick, and a good one: excellent performances all around boost Peter Balko’s tight, vigorous screenplay.

A lot is going on with Adam Krajnak (Tomáš Maštalír), the head of both his household and a gang of organized cigarette smugglers. His oldest daughter, Lucia (Kristiná Konátová), is about to marry a clueless petty thief (Oleksandr Piskunov) he doesn’t care for. His Ukrainian partner (Eugen Libezňuk) is going weird, possibly on the verge of going rogue.

Then there’s ruthless Ukrainian gangster Krull (Stanislav Boklan), who’s co-opted Adam’s crew for a new product, meth. Adam wants no part of it. Things are heating up to a show down that crooked police chief Peter Bernard (Andy Hryc) facilitates. It all comes to a head during Lucia’s engagement party.

With far and few still moments, The Line grows increasingly complicated as its story progresses. This is a quick and constant thriller loaded with curve balls. A scene where the police raid Afghans illegally crossing the “green border,” a wooded area, is a standout. So are a few at a ravine where Krull dumps bodies; Martin Ziaran’s underwater shots are beautifully eerie.

With Emília Vášáryová, Géza Benkõ, Zuzana Fialová, Filip Kankovský, Milan Mikulcík, Veronika Strapková, Rimma Zyubina

Production: Wandal Production, Garnet International Media Group

Distribution: RTVS

Screening introduced by and followed by a live Q and A with Andy Hryc

108 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.ciara.sk/en/

Mon Mon Mon Monsters [Bào Gào Lǎo Shī! Guài Guài Guài Guài Wù!]

(Taiwan 2017)

In his latest film, peer pressure horror comedy Mon Mon Mon Monsters [報告老師! 怪怪怪怪物!] [Bào Gào Lǎo Shī! Guài Guài Guài Guài Wù!], writer/director Giddens Ko takes us on a wild ride that leaves us pondering who the real mosters are. He subtly gives us his answer in the title.

High school student Lin Shu-wei (Deng Yu-kai) is a neo maxi zoom dweebie with a masochistic edge. Why else would he tolerate the constant flying bits of paper, chairs pulled out from under him, and general teenage tomfoolery directed at him?

Lin becomes the target of Bully Ren-hao (Kent Tsai), a closet psychopath who relentlessly dreams up new ways to torment him. Ren-hao has two flunkies, Liao Kuo-feng (James Lai) and Yeh Wei-chu (Tao Meng) who do his bidding. Ren-hao’s girlfriend, Wu Si-hua (Bonnie Liang), contributes to the hell — never removing her star-studded headset as she snaps photos with her iPhone.

A pacificst teacher (Carolyn Chen) has an idea to get the boys on common ground: she assigns the four of them to community service feeding senile elderlies at a decrepit old age home that looks like something straight out of Blade Runner. Lin has a bad feeling about it, and he’s right: in the process of robbing an old man, the boys corner and capture a flesh-eating female beast (Lin Pei-hsin) they find roaming around.

They take her to an abandoned recreation center, where they chain her up and torture her with light, fire, and starvation. Lin reluctantly goes along with it, but he reaches a point where he either has to put up or shut up. Meanwhile, the beast’s protective and pissed off older sister (Eugenie Liu) is looking for her. This is where Lin is put to the test: does he have any character, and can he stay true to it?

Despite inconsistent pacing, Mon Mon Mon Monsters is overall engaging. Ko has something to say about the moral fabric of today’s youth, but he says it in a mostly lighthearted way. The acting is solid all around, which is pretty amazing for a slasher flick. The “monsters” are sweet in their own way. It’s smart to show them right off the bat rather than let us wonder what they look like; they come off as more human than the teenagers in this movie.

The special effects are pretty good, and the way Ko plays with light and color is downright spectacular. Quite a few scenes here are magnificent even if they’re cheesy and gory (that scene on the bus is fabulous, as are the scene where the teacher ignites in the gym and pretty much any of the scenes in the recreation center). Underneath all the blood and hate is a truth about the social ladder.

With Kai Ko, Vivian Sung, Emerson Tsai, Phil Hou, Bruce Hung 

Production: Star Ritz International Entertainment

Distribution: Vie Vision Pictures

113 Minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

La Chinoise

(France 1967)

“Okay, it’s fiction. But it brings me closer to reality.”

— Véronique

Set in the context of the New Left movement in late 1960s France, Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is not really about the political ideas it raises — many of which seem relevant today. No, at its core is Godard satirizing the idealism of youth.

Structured as a mockumentary in what undoubtedly is an intentionally scrappy art school style, La Chinoise is a series of “interviews” of five middle class college students about their Maoist terrorist organization. Headquartered in a loft apartment in a suburb of Paris, they named their organization “Aden Arabie” after a novel by French communist Paul Nizan.

The apartment, all done up in primary colors like a Piet Mondrian painting, is owned by one of the members’ parents.

Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who sadly died exactly a week before the screening I attended) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/obituaries/anne-wiazemsky-french-film-star-and-novelist-dies-at-70.html) is the bossy leader, a philosophy student from a family of bankers. She’s involved with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a “theatrical actor.” Yvonne (Juliet Berto) grew up on a farm and works as a housekeeper and occasional hooker. She’s involved with Henri (Michel Semeniako), a writer who protests and publishes essays. Serge Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) is a Russian nihilist who is single and suicidal.

La Chinoise is dense with ramblings about social and economic philosophy, politics, and literature. However, Godard uses all of it to make his point: these are kids who are still naïve and don’t fully grasp what they say they stand for. He shows them running around with toy weapons, playing school, and acting out scenes from books in the apartment, often cutting to pictures of comic book and cartoon characters. The joke is pretty funny when you consider the bourgeois backgrounds of the kids.

A conversation between Véronique and French philosopher Francis Jeanson on a train best illustrates Godard’s point: he asks a series of questions challenging her proposal to blow up the university in an effort to expose the flaws in her plan — and maybe get her to question her motives and the depth of her conviction. It goes over her head. So much for carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.

Side note: Claude Channes’s song “Mao-Mao” features prominently here. It’s a nifty little earworm.

With Omar Blondin Diop

Production: Anouchka Films, Les Productions de la Guéville, Athos Films, Parc Film, Simar Films

Distribution: Athos Films (France), Pennebaker Films (United States), Kino Lorber

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/1111