The Greatest Showman (B). This musical has done only so-so with the critics (Metacritic.com score 45/100 last time I checked), but I must say that I was entertained. The versatile and (to me) eminently likable Hugh Jackman (Logan) stars as P.T. Barnum in a film that is apparently very loosely based on the real Barnum’s life. It is exceptionally sentimental, setting up all sorts of underdogs for us to root for—the impoverished child Barnum in love with the daughter of a rich meanie, the slightly less impoverished adult Barnum hatching his first scheme to entertain the masses, the gaggle of differently abled people (unkindly called “freaks” by some characters) Barnum recruits for his show, and even an inter-racial potential couple. There are lots of songs, and I must say they mostly sounded kind of the same to me. And the big song-and-dance numbers featuring Barnum’s performers resemble the big song-and-dance numbers you might see on “Dancing with the Stars,” and the lights and noise pretty well bludgeon you into submission. Michelle Williams (Oz the Great and Powerful) isn’t given much to do as Barnum’s wife, but Zac Efron (Neighbors) and the formerly unknown to me Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) have nice supporting roles and a nice musical number together. If you don’t mind a little sap and a little schmaltz, I say give The Greatest Showman a chance.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (B). This is a tense, Coen-esque drama/black comedy from Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges. Frances McDormand (Fargo) stars as Mildred Hayes, a small-town divorcee who is consumed with grief over the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter Angela several months earlier. Frustrated with local law enforcement, she rents three billboards just outside of town and posts an inflammatory message aimed at police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, War for the Planet of the Apes). Willoughby is offended but understanding; his violent, racist underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell, Laggies), on the other hand, is infuriated and liable to lash out in any available direction. The ripples spread through the small town of Ebbing as Mildred persists in keeping the billboards up, and secrets are gradually revealed. Great performances from the three main actors, and nice supporting work from some others as well, including Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), Abbie Cornish (Limitless), and Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom). But a couple of noticeable flaws (such as Willoughby’s weird use of extreme profanity not just around but at his two adorable little girls) keep this movie out of the top tier, in my opinion. Still, worth checking out. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
Lady Bird (B+). Indie actress Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) wrote and directed this indie dramedy about a high-spirited girl’s tumultuous senior year in a Sacramento Catholic school and her rocky relationship with her mother. I enjoyed it, and it moved along with a brisk 94-minute run time. Saoirse Ronan (The Way Back) shines as the title character (she’s named Christine McPherson, but she insists on being called Lady Bird), and we follow the ups and downs of her experience in Drama Club, her crushes, her relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Neighbor 2: Sorority Rising), her college aspirations, and most of all her relationship with her mother, a hard-working and long-suffering psychiatric nurse (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s Roseanne). Based on Ms. Gerwig’s IMDB biography, I’d say this movie has a strong autobiographical component. It also has a 94 score over on Metacritic.com, so what are you waiting for?
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (D). OK, this art-house flick had a couple of things going for it. Number one, it was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed the surpassing weird 2016 flick The Lobster. And really number one, it stars the luminous Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!). Unfortunately, the movie left me cold. Colin Farrell (who was in The Lobster and recently appeared with Kidman in The Beguiled) plays Steven Murphy, a successful heart surgeon who is married to a successful eye doctor (Kidman) and has a beautiful house and two nice kids. But as in The Lobster, everything is just a shade off; everyone is stiff, and every conversation is stilted. And Steven has a mysterious relationship with an odd sixteen-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), who imposes himself on Steven more and more as time passes. I can say no more without committing spoilers, but suffice to say there are elements of suspense, horror, and black humor that get ratcheted up the deeper into the movie we go. The performances are good (accepting that the director wanted his actors to act like strange, semi-anesthetized human beings), and none other than good old Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) pops up as Martin’s mom. But at two hours the weirdness went on a little too long for my taste, and I didn’t think the ending was great.
Brad’s Status (B-). Hm, Ben Stiller plays a guy facing a midlife crisis. Didn’t he just do this a few years ago in While We’re Young? Well, he’s at it again in this new dramedy, with fair to middling results. Here it’s not just middle age that’s getting to Brad Sloan (Stiller), but also Facebook. Brad, you see, has a perfectly decent middle-class life in Sacramento with a cute, loving wife (Jenna Fischer, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and a musically talented teenage son (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns). But his best friends from college (played by guys like Luke Wilson, The Skeleton Twins, and Michael Sheen, Passengers) are all (according to Facebook) wildly successful in various ways, and some 25 years after college they’re starting to leave Brad out of their get-togethers. This eats away at Brad something fierce, and we hear his neurotic thoughts in frequent voiceovers. And his unhappy thoughts provoke some awkward and embarrassing behavior when he and his son go tour some colleges in the northeast. I didn’t think it was bad, and I particularly enjoyed a scene in which a perceptive Harvard student calls Brad out on his very First World problems. Worth a look if Blade Runner 2049 is sold out.
Columbus (C). Here’s an artsy little film for you. It’s about a couple of lost souls whose paths cross in the little town of Columbus, Indiana. (I assumed it was Columbus, Ohio the whole movie, but what do I know?) One is a middle-aged Korean guy named Jin (John Cho, Star Trek Beyond), who is there only because his famous-professor father happened to be in Columbus when he had some kind of severe health crisis. Now he’s lingering in a coma in the local hospital, and Jin is kind of stuck. The other is a Columbus native, a recent high-school grad named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, The Last Survivors), who is stuck there because her mom is a recovered meth addict and Casey’s afraid she’ll relapse if she goes off the college. Having met over a cigarette, and having a lot of free time, they hang out together and have intimate but awkward conversation about things—like Columbus’s renowned set of modernist buildings designed by famous architects I had never heard of. The set-up is kind of like Lost in Translation, now that I think about it—older guy, younger woman, thrown together for a while by fate. Anyhoo, the movie has gotten good reviews, but I’ll confess I was mainly interested in seeing if Richardson, a fresh new face I noticed in small roles in Edge of Seventeen and Split, has any acting chops. She and Cho were both good, but the movie is v-e-r-y slow and artsy, and it did start to feel a little long after a while. Parker Posey (Waiting for Guffman) pops up for a couple of scenes as a former student of Jin’s father (and Jin’s former crush).
Wind River (B-). Writer–director Taylor Sheridan wrote two recent movies I liked quite a bit (Hell or High Water and Sicario), so I had fairly high hopes for this one. I didn’t like it as well as those two movies, but it’s not bad if you like crime stories (and have a strong stomach for pretty graphic violence). Jeremy Renner (Arrival) plays Cory Lambert, a federal game & fish commission guy out in rural Wyoming. He hunts wolves and mountain lions when they get out of hand, but then one day he discovers the body of a young Native American woman out in the snow. This really hits Cory hard because his own teenage daughter died under mysterious circumstances some years before. He teams up with Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Captain America: Civil War), the lone FBI agent sent out to work on the case. They get into some tight spots. There is an intense flashback that shows the crime they’re investigating. The movie is rated R for “strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language.” You’ve been warned!