Alison Willmore

“Three Billboards” Channels One Kind Of Rage At The Expense Of Another

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are better movies in 2017 than Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but no performance this year has felt more rawly resonant than Frances McDormand’s turn as its caustic heroine, Mildred Hayes. You could put Mildred on a t-shirt, layering her scowling face over selected quotes from the ever-growing mountain of inadequate apologies from disgraced men. You could make her into a meme: Here’s Mildred in the pair of no-fucks-to-give coveralls she wears everywhere, except to bed, as she firebombs government buildings, kicks sniggering high schoolers in the crotch, and takes out a series of unignorable ads about how the rape and murder of her teenage daughter remains unsolved.

Mildred, who McDormand plays with a resplendent wrath and heartsick grief, is perfectly positioned to be the fictional patron saint of our current cultural moment. She is a woman who refuses to let the act of brutal sexual violence that tore her family apart be forgotten, to let it slide into the realm of regrettable but normalized tragedy. She insists on writing what happened in 20-foot-high type: “RAPED WHILE DYING. STILL NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Her singularly feminine rage glows so brightly that you could hold your hands up to the screen and warm yourself by its furious glow. Anger is destroying her life, but it’s also liberated her in a way that — on the heels of the first year of the Trump presidency and the continuing, Weinstein-fueled revelations of harassment and assault — is incredibly cathartic.

McDonagh, who wrote the part of Mildred eight years ago with McDormand in mind, has stumbled into something that reverberates deeply with 2017’s discourse about sexism — a tale of a small-town crime and cops that gets at what happens when a society runs out of patience for female pain. But while Three Billboards gets at something bitterly real in showing the turn that takes place when a woman’s outrage becomes genuinely inconvenient for the powers that be, there’s a less laudable way in which it also feels timely. The film tells the story of a woman pushing back against the ingrained misogyny of her town, and props it up with a remarkably lukewarm treatment of anti-black police brutality. Three Billboards is so sharp when it comes to depicting Mildred’s pain, and yet so clumsy when it comes to depicting the habitual racism of the place in which she lives, that it feels indicative of the terrible fallacy that we can only focus on one type of oppression at once.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) meets with Mildred (McDormand)

If an inadvertent side effect of “the reckoning” over sexual harassment and assault has, in fact, been that a conversation about gender has in some ways subsumed that of race (or, as Jay Z put it while addressing a young fan who’s surely going to have to deal with both, “at this very moment America is way more sexist than they are racist”), then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the film of a moment in more ways than one. It forces you, as a viewer, to decide whether its desultory treatment of the black characters on the movie’s sidelines is worth tolerating in exchange for the satisfaction of its protagonist’s burn-it-all-to-the-ground fury.

What the film gets right on all fronts is how power protects itself, via active threats but also through the unspoken push to maintain the status quo, to yield to the welfare of “good men.” That’s a very loaded term in the movie. Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head of the Ebbing police department and the person named on Mildred’s billboards, is a “good man,” as Mildred is reminded by her priest, and by the dentist who then tries to remove one of her teeth without anesthetic, and by Willoughby’s threatening cop colleagues.

Based on what we see of the sheriff, the beloved boss and married father of two girls has a sardonic sense of humor and is likable enough, even if he’s not a candidate for sainthood. Willoughby also has terminal cancer, which gives him a grim emotional advantage over Mildred in the war she instigates. Her daughter is dead and gone, whereas Willoughby is actively dying. The film portrays, with painful precision, how little Mildred needs to do to lose the town’s support, even as the mother of a murdered child. Their sympathies instinctively turn toward the prominent family man, the cop whose job it is to keep the peace (while turning a blind eye toward the occasional act of brutality committed by his employees).

The pressure to keep quiet about sexual misconduct and violence isn’t just about protecting perpetrators; it’s about not rocking the boat, not disrupting the structures that “good” folks benefit from the most, regardless of whether they’re abusers themselves or blithely oblivious. It’s not like the Ebbing community doesn’t know exactly what happened to Mildred’s daughter or considers it anything other than monstrous. But they’re also writing off the crime as a deplorable but occasional consequence of living in the world — women get raped and murdered, especially when they go out alone. What can you do?

The only move Mildred feels she has, as time passes and attention fades, is to place a series of giant ads on a local road that offer a reminder in stark, clear terms. It’s a revelation that comes with a price — not just because she can’t really afford the signs, but because she’s also reopening old wounds. She has to look at the billboards every day on her ride home; she can see them from her house. They are, in bright red with black text against the big blue sky, the movie’s second most eloquent image, after McDormand’s clenched jaw. They’re how her high school–aged son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) learns the details of his sister’s death, which he’d been trying to avoid.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Willoughby (Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) by one of the billboards

When Mildred takes out those ads, she also breaks an unspoken rule regarding who gets to speak out and who should be held accountable. Willoughby isn’t the man who assaulted and murdered Mildred’s daughter. But, as Mildred rightfully points out, the buck stops with him, as he’s the guy in charge. Yet this inconvenient truth causes everyone in town to recoil, her tragedy apparently only worthy of compassion until it threatens a prominent man. The ways in which the people of Ebbing form a protective layer around Willoughby provides an all-too-familiar demonstration of who instinctively gets public sympathy and how sexual violence gets smoothed over.

Mildred’s choices are not those of a “good woman,” who’d presumably retreat from view, accepting the fate of her daughter as just a sad but unavoidable casualty. But being “good,” in the film’s parlance, doesn’t seem to be available to Mildred in the same way it is to some of Ebbing’s men. It seems to have nothing to do with kindness or moral forthrightness and everything to do with who deserves to be given second and third and fourth chances, and who gets shielded from consequences.

Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), was presumably also “good.” He’s a cop, and he used to abuse her, and in the one flashback in which we see Mildred’s dead daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) alive, the girl spits at her mother in the midst of an argument that “we’ve only got your word” on whether the beatings really happened. So Mildred has intimate experience with a “good” man and how his word gets taken over yours — even by your own kid — because his reality is more convenient. It makes the incensed act that kicks off the film all the more powerful because it’s clearly a kamikaze move: the act of someone who knows that what she’s doing will likely cost her her place in the community, and doesn’t care.

The fictional Ebbing, Mo., is a setting that’s far afield for Martin McDonagh, who was born in London to Irish parents, and who was a four-time Tony-nominated playwright before he ventured into film (you can hear that in his dialogue, which is dense and determined to dazzle, sometimes at the expense of the characters tasked with delivering it). His 2008 directorial debut In Bruges was about Irish hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) trading profanely philosophical barbs while hiding out in a historical Belgian town. His self-referential 2012 follow-up Seven Psychopaths was set in the US, but had Farrell back as another Irishman, this time struggling to write a screenplay in Hollywood.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Dixon (Rockwell) confronts Mildred (McDormand)

But the characters in Three Billboards aren’t visitors or transplants. They’re spending their whole lives in Ebbing, and while the town may not be real, that area of the US certainly is. And Ebbing happens to be located in the same state where, three years ago, protests against police violence fueled an ongoing social movement after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

In striving to make Ebbing feel like a lived-in place, rather than just an idea of one, Three Billboards treats racism like it’s just another quaint regional detail — part of the local decor. Here’s the gift shop, here’s the bar, and here’s Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a violent, openly intolerant alcoholic who’s rumored to have tortured a black man in his custody. That’s a claim the other characters don’t deny so much as they defend on the basis of a lack of evidence. Dixon also gets declared a “good man,” if there’s any question of how little the term has to do with moral quality and how much it has to do with how many chances someone is given. Even Mildred herself is let off the hook for an assault she’s definitely committed. Dixon instead arrests Mildred’s black friend and coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) for possession, to use her as leverage (seemingly her only function in the movie). His colleague congratulates him for coming up with the idea.

Dixon’s behavior, and the way it’s tolerated by others, is depicted with a matter-of-factness that’s striking — but not nearly as striking as the disinterest the film has in actually engaging with that racism. It’s a disinterest that becomes clearer as Dixon becomes increasingly central to the last act of the movie, eventually starting to reckon with his anger and his brutality, but never with his bigotry. He doesn’t exactly end up redeemed, but while his character gets deepened and complicated and made miserable, there’s no further discussion of his horrifying past.

Rockwell, who leans mesmerizingly into the character’s sloppy self-loathing, has been getting Oscar talk since Three Billboard‘s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. But as the movie has started to play to national audiences, the glowing critical acclaim it’s racked up has been countered by other writers wondering why its flippancy — not just about racism, but about racist police brutality — hasn’t gotten the same attention as its acting has. In letting Dixon’s attitude skate by unchallenged, the film doesn’t just turn a vague Darren Wilson figure into this sad clown. Instead, like the New York Times’ much-criticized Nazi-next-door piece, it humanizes a hate-filled man without offering anything close to the same empathy to the people on the receiving end of that hate.

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Mildred (McDormand) and James (Peter Dinklage)

McDonagh certainly finds proximity to prejudice useful, at least in his Tarantino-esque tendency to pepper his dialogue with slurs in order to take advantage of their transgressive heft. When Mildred taunts Dixon, she drops the n-word in her description of his history of violence, and it feels like it’s there more so that McDonagh can try the term out than to give Dixon a chance to retort that “It’s ‘persons of color’-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.”

“Retard,” “faggot,” “midget” (aimed at a longsuffering local played by Peter Dinklage, who infuses the part with a poignant dignity) — Three Billboards is peopled with characters who’d use these words without thinking twice. But McDonagh doesn’t seem to have more than an abstract understanding of the impact this speech or the contemptuousness that spawned it can have. The word “cunt,” on the other hand, becomes the spine of an intensely bittersweet set of scenes involving Mildred’s relationship with her murdered daughter and living son. McDonagh seems to have no trouble comprehending that insult and the residual sting it carries, but he doesn’t get why putting an air-quotes n-word in his heroine’s mouth evokes the wrong kind of flinch. He has a solid grasp of how a woman can be dismissed as crazy, as a bitch. But when it comes to American racism, he’s playing tourist.

Three Billboards‘ failures of intersectionality do as much to make it a fitting capper for this year as its incendiary female ire. It’s a year that started with a presidential inauguration that was, to many, an admission of misogyny writ on a scale larger than any billboard.The election that led to that was (and still is being) messily re-litigated by different factions of the left, each intent on deciding which demographic failed to show up, or showed up in the wrong way. The marches that followed were energizing — women united in a show of force and solidarity! Except for the participants of color who struggled to feel welcome. This year’s highest profile feminist fare in pop culture has been rolled out with much fanfare but little diversity, from the action-heavy but comfortably fantastical Wonder Woman to the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, whose scariness was matched only by how unconvincing its blithe post-racialism felt.

And then there was Harvey Weinstein, who didn’t exclusively prey on white women, but whose downfall, it’s hard not to feel, came about because of just how many famous white women had the courage to speak out against him. Sexual harassment and assault aren’t experiences unique to white women in any sense, but it is apparently white women against whom it counts the most, and who have become the face of those fighting back against it. They’ve embraced public displays of anger in thrilling ways — like Uma Thurman, whose measured seething in an October Access Hollywood video went viral. At that moment, she could have been a sister in formalwear to Mildred, both of them ready to burn everything down. But while that is a rage that’s exhilarating to witness, it’s a rage that’s not available to everyone. Just as not everyone in Ebbing can claim the protection of being considering “good,” we still don’t live in a world where everyone gets to be angry. ●

Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox


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The Resurrection (LOL) Of The Dumb, Fun Teen Slasher

Tree Gelbman is not your typical final girl.

Final girls, those young female characters who have so often been the sole survivors of slasher movies, are usually also nice girls — in the sense that they’re both sweet and well-behaved. They’re resourceful and quite possibly plucky, and they don’t drink and they don’t have sex, and their reward for their unfussy wholesomeness is that they’re allowed to survive the story and the climactic showdown with the big baddie.

Tree, the time-looping heroine of Happy Death Day played by Jessica Rothe, is none of these things. She is (as she’d probably cop to herself) a bit of a bitch — a flaky, catty, blonde sorority girl who helps enforce a harsh social hierarchy in which she occupies a prime perch. In a scene the film repeatedly returns to like a save point in a video game, she wakes up in a stranger’s dorm room bed, irritatedly warns the guy (Israel Broussard) “not a word of this to anyone,” and hoofs it, in last night’s outfit, back to her sorority house, where she’s grilled by frenemy Danielle (Rachel Matthews), not about whether she’s okay, but about whether the guy she was with was of appropriate status.

Tree parties, she fucks, she’s mean, and she has a habit of wandering into amusingly sinister locations by her vulnerable lonesome, often in a primed-to-get-gore-stained white dress. She’s chosen an unforgivably annoying “it’s your birthday” ringtone for her phone. She is — at least by the rules of the genre so memorably made explicit in Scream and deconstructed in The Cabin in the Woods — doomed. And indeed, she’s murdered by a masked killer in a pedestrian underpass in Happy Death Day‘s first act, the kind of bloody end you might expect for a cheerleader type in this sort of horror film. Only she gets to come back, and to try to find a way to live on for another day.

Happy Death Day, which was directed by Christopher B. Landon and written by Scott Lobdell, is a welcome sign that the teen slasher might be returning to life (sorry) after getting pinned under the weight of the self-awareness that, on the plus side, did give us the meta humor of things like Scream and Cabin in the Woods. It’s a product of Blumhouse Productions, which leveled up this year with Get Out and Split, two legit cultural breakthroughs as well as box office hits; the company also deserves some attention for what it’s done to help resurrect (sorry) this shrieky, silly, and curiously satisfying subgenre for the smartphone generation. Blumhouse is behind, among other titles, 2014’s improbably good desktop found footage feature Unfriended and 2015’s improbably bad (but successful) theater found footage feature The Gallows. Happy Death Day falls somewhere between them quality-wise, eschewing the found footage concept for an equally high Groundhog Day–meets–House on Sorority Row one.

The result is something that’s just the right amount of ridiculous, flipping between legit scares and horror comedy. Happy Death Day‘s highlight isn’t a scene of dread, but a demented montage of Tree spying on suspects in order to solve her own murder like some inept, respawning Nancy Drew — only to get hunted down, again and again, by her dogged, baby-faced executioner. But the film doesn’t just find a clever way to refresh a maybe-calcified genre. It also overturns some of the genre’s more puritanical tendencies by focusing on the sort of character whose death would traditionally be presented as an extreme but deserved kind of comeuppance, because surviving these sorts of stories is a reward reserved for the nice, the pure, and — occasionally — the comic relief.

In that way, Happy Death Day represents a kind of reparation on behalf of conventional slasher fodder. Instead of moving on from Tree after she’s snuffed out, the film stays with her as she runs through her fateful birthday again and again, looking for a way out. She isn’t discardable: Her character gets filled out more and more as the day repeats, into a person with tragedy in her family life and a great deal of denial. She’s someone who sought solace in becoming a particular form of campus socialite, remaking herself in the image of the pretty, shallow, demanding sorority queen. In moments of self-reflection, she admits to having become someone she doesn’t think her mother would be proud of.

Tree isn’t just a type. And neither is the roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine), who’s placed in her immediate proximity for seemingly easy comparison. Lori works at a hospital, doesn’t wear makeup, and kindly gifts Tree with a homemade cupcake that the birthday girl promptly discards (too carb-heavy). Lori, in fact, is the kind of character who, from the outside, has the markers of a standard final girl (she’s even a brunette, in contrast to Tree), and the way that the film frees both her and Tree up from their expected destinies is witty and pointed. Because, really, why keep holding fast to the conservatism of those unspoken requirements for survival in these films, anyway?

Happy Death Day trades the moralism for a more palatable arc of self-improvement, with Tree peeling off the brittle veneer she’s acquired as the movie rolls on, shedding the phony friends and the casual cruelty and reexamining the life she’s made for herself. And though her self-examination — like the movie itself — is highly imperfect (in particular, in how it resolves the affair she’s having with a married professor), her sense of liberation isn’t. Tree doesn’t make it to the end of Happy Death Day because she’s somehow unspoiled or because she learns to clean up her act, but because she frees herself from the highly regimented persona she was using as armor. She’s not good, but maybe she’s better — and that’s the kind of final girl revamp worth rooting for.

One Of The Best Movies Of The Year Is Now In Theaters, And You Should See It


Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.

The Florida Project takes place a few miles and a whole universe away from Disney World, in a lavender-painted motel called The Magic Kingdom. Like the other businesses along its commercial strip in Kissimmee, Florida, it’s a clear attempt to catch tourist runoff from the nearby theme park. And travelers, like the dismayed honeymooners who arrive to see the lodgings they booked online aren’t remotely what they expected, do occasionally wash up in its lobby.

But most of the guests of The Magic Kingdom aren’t visitors, they’re residents, crowding into rooms they rent by the week because getting together the chunk of change needed to even begin thinking about an apartment isn’t tenable. The inhabitants of the motel are one wobbly rung above homelessness, many of them families whose children hang out together, a transient playgroup made up of members that come and go with little warning.

It’s a precarious situation that, you’d think, would make a name like “The Magic Kingdom” read as bitter irony. And that’s certainly a part of The Florida Project, which juxtaposes the rough realities of its characters with an awareness of the massive monument to corporate cheer and consumption lurking just down the road — the Happiest Place on Earth, ready and waiting, providing you can afford to get in.

But what’s so great about the film, so astonishing and so devastating, is that there’s some sincerity to that name as well, at least in the case of the day-to-day adventures of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), its kid protagonist. The motel and the line of buildings around it are the beautiful-seedy dominion she reigns over with a combination of impish curiosity and slowly fading innocence. Childhood can be its own kind of magic kingdom, though the instability of the life she and her young ex-con mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) share keeps threatening to burst that bright, unconcerned bubble.


Christopher Rivera, Prince, and Valeria Cotto.

The Florida Project is written and directed by Sean Baker, who’s made an increasingly prominent career out of chronicling existences eked out in economic gray zones, first in New York, then in Los Angeles, and now the Sunshine State. His 2004 movie Take Out centers on an undocumented Chinese immigrant scraping by as a deliveryman, while 2008’s Prince of Broadway goes further uptown to track an African man whose counterfeit bag hustle gets complicated when he has to care for a toddler. Starlet (2012) focuses on the friendship between an adult film actor and her elderly neighbor in the San Fernando Valley, and 2015’s Tangerine, Baker’s biggest breakout so far, follows two trans sex workers through a long day of dealing with johns and personal dramas on a block of Santa Monica Boulevard.

These are stories about marginalized lives that don’t get put on screen very often, but Baker’s greatest worth as a filmmaker comes not just from his interest in representation, but also from his understanding that he’s making movies about people, not poverty. That’s certainly the case with The Florida Project, which doesn’t pretty up its characters’ frequently miserable straits in any way, but is never miserablist, either. Moonee and Halley have good days and bad ones — mostly good for Moonee (it’s summer vacation) and starting to tend toward the bad for Halley, who’s come off a recent stint in prison, lost her job at a strip club for refusing to do extras in the back room, and is struggling to find another gig.

Since she’s not working, Halley watches over both Moonee and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), another Magic Kingdom kid whose mom Ashley (Mela Murder) is, for a while, a friend who works in a nearby diner and sneaks out food for free. But Halley generally opts to lounge, unconcerned, in front of the TV while the kids roam free. Baker cast Vinaite off of Instagram, and in her first role, with her tats and her brightly dyed hair, she’s as magnetic a figure as she is an alarming one, her character as prone to acts of reckless destruction and wild outrage as she is to ones of boisterous joy.

The film is startlingly good at showing echoes of Halley’s impulsive behavior in Moonee — or maybe it’s vice versa. While Halley has to reckon with some depressingly grown-up developments, she’s still half a kid herself, screaming “You’re not my father” like a rebellious teen when warned about her behavior.

When The Florida Project follows Halley, it shows her attempts to get by, hawking knock-off perfume or purloined MagicBands to tourists, and making a consequence-heavy, desperation-driven decision that’s hinted at long before it’s actually revealed. But when the film follows Moonee, it revels in play as she wanders, at first in the company of Scooty and then, when Ashley and Halley have a falling-out, with a nearby motel girl named Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Jancey’s a sweet sidekick who befriends Moonee after an initial confrontation involving shrieking and spitting, a development that speaks as much to their quickly shifting community as it does the unique capacity kids have to exist in the present.

The children beg for change for soft serve (Scooty’s pitch is that “the doctor said we have asthma and we gotta eat ice cream right away”), explore abandoned homes in a pastel-colored development, and pay visits to the motel’s long-suffering staff. Baker clearly turns extended sequences over to his child actors, ones that don’t appear to be scripted at all — letting them just be mischievous kids and occasional little shits who make their way through worlds of their own creation, closed worlds that are much more inviting than the one the adults in their lives have to deal with.

Marc Schmidt / A24

Vinaite, Prince, and Cotto.

Prince is, like Vinaite, a newcomer to acting, and her performance in the movie is enough to convince you that she has to be one of the planet’s most charismatic children. But some more seasoned faces make their way into The Florida Project as well, chief among them Willem Dafoe as The Magic Kingdom’s manager Bobby, a man who’s been around the block but remains invested in the well-being of the residents, despite it being a source of constant heartbreak.

Bobby starts out as a straight-man foil for Moonee and her gang, but becomes a grander, sadder figure as the film goes along, engaged in the impossible task of trying to ward off harm from people too vulnerable to be able to do much to evade it themselves. Dafoe is worry embodied, constantly harried, and a shorter appearance from (a surprisingly normal) Caleb Landry Jones hints that the motel is something that’s consumed whatever life Bobby once had.

But it’s Moonee and Halley to whom The Florida Project belongs, two troublemakers trying to keep all consequences at bay by denying they exist, stocking a shopping cart full of throwaway treats in a dollar store, laughing and whirling around like it’s a mystical playland. Which, in that moment, you can believe that it is. But while the power of imagination may be a savior in a Disney movie, it isn’t in the sun-washed reality of The Florida Project, which concludes with a touch of poetry that might break you in two. It’s not a happy ending, but it is, like the rest of the film, pretty much perfect.

The Beautiful Emptiness of “Blade Runner 2049”

Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049’s melancholy hero K, played by Ryan Gosling, has some things in common with his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), protagonist of the original Blade Runner. Like Deckard, K is a loner who likes a long coat, and whose job is to kill — though no one in this dystopian universe calls it that, preferring the euphemism “retire.” K, like Deckard, is a blade runner, a professional hunter of replicants. Unlike Deckard, whose origins were famously left ambiguous in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, K knows his nature exactly: He’s a replicant himself, and the targets he retires are his own kind — though older, wayward models who’ve attempted to escape the subservient existences for which they were created.

K is part of a new, more obedient line of replicants, synthetic beings primarily invented to bear the brunt of the dangerous labor of space colonization, the fruits of which are then enjoyed by humans who get to start anew in nicer off-world climes. The prime mindfuck of the Blade Runner universe is that replicants are so close in every way to humans that — superhuman strength aside — there’s no way to immediately tell them apart. In the first Blade Runner, a haunting test has been formulated in order to suss out who’s human and who’s not by highlighting the uncanny valley of a replicant’s not-quite-right emotional responses (they are, to quote their corporate manufacturers, “more human than human”).

By the year 2049, in the sequel, all K needs to do is check for a serial number embedded in the sclera of every replicant’s left eyeball. The opening sequence, in which he travels to a protein farm to retire Sapper (played by Dave Bautista), who’s been passing as human, makes it clear that this is easier said than done.

Stephen Vaughan, Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Harrison Ford

Replicants, as K puts it, don’t have a soul — though as his flinty boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) snaps when he uses the word: “You’ve been getting along fine without one.” So it’s maybe appropriate, if disappointing, that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t have a soul either. Like its main character, the film (very loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick and directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) coasts along perfectly well without one, until its cavernous hollowness becomes unignorable. The new Blade Runner is a gorgeous simulacrum of a meaningful movie, one that’s even more beautiful, if so much less resonant, than the classic in whose footsteps it follows. The best thing about it is the return to one of cinema’s most memorable and influential landscapes: a near-future Los Angeles on a dying Earth from which everyone fortunate enough has already left.

That LA, vast and dense, is the most compelling character Blade Runner 2049 has to offer, more interesting and more engaging than any of the people, familiar or new, replicant or human, who make their way onto the screen. The film, shot by Roger Deakins, is strenuously dazzling to look at, presenting detailed panoramas of an urban setting made up of dark, jam-packed blocks studded with the occasional pyramid-like mega-skyscraper. The visuals of the sequel are sharper and more self-consciously designed than the original, but the conceptualizing of that forward-tiling LA remains fascinating, the urban equivalent of a garden that’s been allowed to grow wild and untended for years.

It’s a city as a globalized, hypercapitalist hallucination, loomed over by buildings emblazoned with glowing brand names, signage more often in Cyrillic or katakana than English. Ads project holograms towering 40 stories high over packed streets teeming with vendors offering everything from black-market object analysis to automat food to sex. The expanded view presented in Villeneuve’s film includes San Diego as a garbage dump so substantial that it’s home to its own community of trash pirates, and also a giant wall that has been built to keep out an encroaching ocean boosted by rising sea levels. It’s too lived-in a future to feel alarmist — it’s our world, but worse, but also so alluringly cinematic.

Stephen Vaughan, Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks.

The existence K has carved out for himself in this urban sprawl beset by endless precipitation is a lonesome one. The presence of new-model replicants like him are apparently tolerated but disliked by the Earth’s remaining humans — he’s sneered at by his neighbors, and his non-replicant coworkers within the worn confines of the LAPD headquarters have a tendency to use the slur “skin-job” in his presence (then remember and apologize).

The only company K keeps is an AI companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), a biddable holographic fantasy who adores him with a unquestioning wholeheartedness that’s clearly her big selling point but, to us, is still disturbing. She sometimes disturbs K, too: “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” she croons to him; “You don’t have to say that,” he tells her, aware that she, in her computer-mandated ardor, is as compliant with his desires as he is with the humans’.

The uneasy scenes with Joi — this computerized receptacle for longing in the form of a beautiful, incorporeal woman — are K’s most intriguing. His character otherwise comes across as just a still point in an intensely art-directed world. Gosling plays K like a wan variation on the type of roles directors like Nicolas Winding Refn (in Drive and Only God Forgives) and Derek Cianfrance (in Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) like to give him — emblematic of a certain kind of romanticized masculinity, stylish and self-sacrificing and sad-eyed, hardboiled exterior with a gooey sentimental core.

And mostly functional, in this case — K questions his own existence, and his search for a purpose coincides with his execution of an assignment which eventually leads to him meeting up with Deckard. But not until after a long, long stretch that’s not meditative: It’s patience-testing. By that time, K’s gone from being the apparent key to the movie to its biggest piece of narrative baggage, a figure who looks great in that shearling duster but is an exasperatingly colorless presence.

Stephen Vaughan, Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Barkhad Abdi and Ana de Armas.

And the rest of the film looks so vivid, from the golden lighting that pools around K and sinister fellow replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) as they walk the Wallace Corporation halls to the glowering loiterers K must stride past in the cluttered halls of his own apartment building. The imagery of Blade Runner 2049 has a resonant grandeur the rest of the film can’t come close to matching. It tries, primarily with Jared Leto, whose appearances as blind industrialist Niander Wallace are mercifully brief. Wallace’s theatrical speeches about space expansion and how civilizations move forward are the movie’s equivalent of Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain” monologue from the original, and while they include verbiage that plays into the film’s religious parallels, they come nowhere near that splendid conviction, that pulpy power. They’re just Leto muttering about angels on his Zen island of a conference room, all surface and nothing there.

Which is the case for all of the film. It’s exquisite-looking and distant, inviting you into a painstakingly crafted world but no further — certainly not into any particular investment in K, or Joi, or Joshi, or even its older and embittered Deckard, whose presence is still easily the warmest to the touch of anyone onscreen. Ford’s character wasn’t necessarily sympathetic in the first Blade Runner, but he was one whose fate felt important, an individual trying to survive in a system run by giant, indifferent institutions, unwilling to consider the question of whether he himself was just a tool created by one of them. He was someone whose limited point of view was forcefully cracked open. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, manages to be prettier but far more prosaic. It might put on a convincing face, but you couldn’t ask it to pass a Voight-Kampff test.

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6 New Movies You Might Not Have Heard About, But Won't Want To Miss

1. Brad’s Status

Seacia Pavao / Annapurna Pictures

Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams in Brad’s Status.

Brad’s Status is a portrait of white middle-class male anxiety that’s so dead-on, it’s actually excruciating to watch. That might sound like a strange sort of recommendation, but the film is the work of writer-director Mike White, creator of Enlightened and scripter of Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl — a man for whom discomfort is an art form. In lead actor Ben Stiller, doing a more serious turn, White’s found an excellent collaborator with whom to create some truly exquisite cringy-ness. Stiller, with a trying, restless dissatisfaction, plays the Brad of the title — a Sacramento man who runs a small nonprofit and shares a nice suburban house with his wife (Jenna Fischer) and their teenage son, Troy (Austin Abrams). Troy’s a sweet, smart kid, but his likely acceptance into Harvard comes as a surprise and then seismic shock to his father, who hadn’t expected it, and who’s been busy grappling with fading idealism and a general sense of having already peaked.

By any rational measure, Brad’s life is a comfortable and happy one. But he can’t help seeing himself as a failure compared to his undergrad pals (played by Jemaine Clement, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, and White himself), who’ve gone on to wealth and fame. Plunged into turmoil in the midst of taking his kid on a college tour, Brad vacillates between elated hope for Troy’s future and a desperate desire for him to avoid what Brad perceives as his own lack of success, feelings that are expounded upon in claustrophobic voiceover. Until White softens up right at the end, Brad’s Status is a quiet but hilariously biting portrayal of earnest liberalism running up against lingering white entitlement.

How to see it: Brad’s Status is now in theaters in limited release.

2. Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness


Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Mainstream attention tends to turn to short documentaries only once a year, when their category presents a mystifying challenge of five unfamiliar titles to choose from when filling out Oscar pool ballots. But Clínica de Migrantes deserves to be seen and to be talked about beyond its awards potential. Director Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) has made a 40-minute movie that isn’t just emotionally wrenching, but remarkably timely, occupying territory at the intersection of our current, urgent conversations about health care and immigration. The film profiles Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit, volunteer-run clinic in south Philadelphia that offers free medical treatment to undocumented, uninsured, and financially insecure immigrants who otherwise don’t have access to it.

Clínica de Migrantes observes patients who come in, some in desperate need after having been denied health care elsewhere, or having gone without it as long as possible out of fear of deportation. In simply depicting the day-to-day operation of the clinic, it’s a powerful record of some of the difficult realities and vulnerabilities that come with being undocumented. But it’s also a resonant film about health care, about doctors who actually strive to understand their patients’ working and domestic realities, who try to earn their trust and to help them navigate bills from other hospitals. It presents, simply and movingly, a case for caring for those who need it as a moral mandate.

How to see it: Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is now streaming on HBO.

3. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers


Sareum Srey Moch in First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.

Angelina Jolie’s career as a director has taken a wildly unpredictable path. First she took on a fraught romance straddling different sides of the Bosnian War in In the Land of Blood and Honey, then made a staid bid for Oscar glory with the World War II movie Unbroken, and more recently offered up the 2015 lush, indulgent melodrama By the Sea, in which she and soon-to-be-ex-husband Brad Pitt played troubled (and childless) marrieds and also played peek-a-boo with promises of insight into their real-life relationship. And now, it’s back to war with a film based on Loung Ung’s memoir about what happened to her during the reign of the Khmer Rouge — a child’s-eye view on a devastating period in Cambodian history.

But despite Jolie’s seeming intentions here to use cinema as an extension of her humanitarian work, she’s too interesting a filmmaker to turn out the movie equivalent of vegetables, something to be consumed dutifully under the recommendation that it’s good for you. First They Killed My Father has worth as a work of art beyond its devastating subject matter, in particular in the way it approaches the atrocities it depicts through the perspective of someone whose understanding of what’s happening is limited. Young Loung (first-time actor Sareum Srey Moch) and her family have their world upended with dizzying speed, going from a middle-class existence in Phnom Penh to being scattered among work camps, where people starve and are executed. Aside from the jarring montage at the start, the film is freed from having to explain the whys of what’s happening, allowing it to be an act of sensory overload, a rush of unsettling images. It’s all the more powerful for being so experiential, a national apocalypse as seen by someone who’s only just grasped what death is.

How to see it: First They Killed My Father is now streaming on Netflix.

4. Lucky

Magnolia Pictures

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky.

Screen legend Harry Dean Stanton, who died in September, couldn’t have picked a more fitting swan song for himself than Lucky, the directorial debut of fellow character actor John Carroll Lynch. Stanton plays the title character, a ninetysomething man whose comfortable routine gets a jolt when he collapses one morning and is forced to confront his own (and everyone else’s) mortality. But Lucky is joyful, not mournful, a rambling opportunity to while away an hour and a half in the company of an actor who rarely got a leading role, but who delightfully fills out this one.

Lucky isn’t cantankerous so much as he is incapable of altering his behavior to accommodate anyone at this point in his life. He’s been pared down to his essential self, looping from the diner of his small desert town to the store to buy cigarettes (his doctor, baffled by his health, suggests he’d best never quit smoking), back home to watch game shows, and then off to have a drink. Different characters drift through to shoot the shit, including David Lynch as a bar regular whose tortoise has gone missing, Tom Skerritt as a fellow former WWII vet, and Ron Livingston as a lawyer urging Lucky to look into estate planning. It’s the kind of loose-limbed movie that you visit more than you watch, and it’s an awfully pleasurable stay.

How to see it: Lucky is now in theaters in limited release — here’s a list of locations.

5. Rat Film

The Cinema Guild

Theo Anthony’s Rat Film is an essay in the form of a convention-busting documentary that starts by recounting a creation myth (in which a rodent nibbles the world into existence) and then works its way up to another story of conception. It’s about rats — including the one shown trying to leap out of a trash can in one of the first shots — and the neighborhoods in which infestations have been the worst. But it’s also about the formation of an American city, and specifically about the forces of redlining that shaped Baltimore, where Anthony is from. His film flips from computer-generated images of streets as a video game landscape to historical maps, from a pest control specialist at work to an examination of how the area was split up into risk zones for homeowner loans that were, functionally, a form of segregation.

While the score, by fellow Baltimore native Dan Deacon, offers an enveloping whirl of electronic sounds, Rat Film adds layers upon layers to its dense argument about how acts of urban planning and engineering can conceal acts of racism and classism, and about how their legacy can be felt today. It’s a brilliantly ambitious and unapologetically odd movie that might be best summed up by philosophical exterminator Harold Edmond, one of the interviewees, when he says: “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. Always been a people problem.”

How to see it: Rat Film is now in theaters in limited release — here’s a list of locations.

6. Strong Island


Strong Island.

In 1992, filmmaker Yance Ford’s brother William was killed during an altercation with a local mechanic on Long Island, where the family lived. William was unarmed, but he was black, and the man who shot him was white, and an all-white grand jury decided not to indict the latter, to the shock and distress of the Fords, declaring the act one of self-defense. As an instance of racialized injustice, it’s a story that feels sickeningly familiar, but for Ford, it’s obviously also intensely and agonizingly personal. Strong Island, Ford’s directorial debut, is about William’s death, but it’s also about how his family contended with both grief and feeling so devastatingly wronged — how it fell apart in the wake of this brutal reminder of who was really welcome on the path of upward mobility their suburban town seemed to offer.

Ford’s film presents a heartbreakingly detailed portrait of his brother as an outraged counterpoint to the demonization done in court to present him as so dangerous he deserved to be murdered, sometimes punctuated by confrontational if formally distancing sequences in which Ford talks directly to the camera. But it’s Ford’s mother who provides the film’s most devastating moment when she reminisces about how she feels she failed her son: “I did William a great disservice in raising him the way we did. We’ve always tried to teach you guys that you see character, and not color. And many, many times I wonder, how I could be so wrong?

How to see it: Strong Island is now streaming on Netflix.

Here It Is, The Most Self-Referential Movie Tom Cruise Has Ever Made

In his new movie, Tom Cruise plays a hotshot pilot with a need for speed, a megawatt smile, and penchant for breaking the rules. Yup, just like he did in Top Gun, only this time around, he’s not an all-American hero: He’s an all-American fool. He’s Barry Seal, a fictionalized riff on the real man of the same name who ran drugs for Pablo Escobar, served as a DEA informant, and — at least in the film — did it all under the questionable protection of the CIA, who recruited him to run surveillance missions and, later, guns to the Contras.

Three decades after Maverick in Top Gun smirkingly fought baddies from an enemy nation the movie never bothered to name, Barry in American Made carelessly smuggles coke and weapons, and gets so rich off the venture that he runs out of space in his house to store all the dough he’s yet to launder. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world…” he muses, never giving more thought to the massive Cold War schemes he’s become a part of, or the consequences of what he’s doing.

American Made, which was directed by Doug Liman and written by Gary Spinelli, isn’t the greatest of Tom Cruise roles, but it is the most resoundingly self-referential. What’s otherwise a diverting but dismissible romp through some of the darker elements of the ’80s (including Iran-Contra, which Reagan nostalgists prefer to gloss over, revise, or flat-out ignore) becomes sometimes more with Cruise at the center, letting out familiar whoops of glee as his plane just barely clears a short Columbian runway. It becomes a referendum on the type of character that made him a movie star in the first place, in the Risky Business/Top Gun/Cocktail/Days of Thunder era — the underdog whose let’s-just-do-it-and-be-legends cocksureness is synonymous with his appeal.

Like a lot of the protagonists Cruise spent the better part of the ’80s playing, Barry is an American dreamer, a guy with a particular talent and an easy certainty that he deserves the good things that come his way. But these qualities are more amusing than charming on Barry, who takes up the CIA’s dangerous proposition like it’s the opportunity he’s been waiting for all his life. Barry isn’t portrayed as morally compromised so much as morally oblivious, treating every offer that comes his way as a new adventure, accepting the description of “crazy” as a compliment. He’s a man who thinks he’s the hero of the story, when in fact he’s the punchline.

It’s unclear how aware Cruise is of the way American Made plays off his own onscreen image, because the role depends on the actor playing it straight, with not a wink of self-awareness even when Barry crash-lands a plane in a suburban street, emerges covered in cocaine, and makes his escape by pedaling away frantically on a child’s bike. Barry’s lack of self-awareness is his foremost quality, really. At the start of the film, he’s a commercial pilot stultified by his TWA gig, to the point where we see him creating “turbulence” on a flight just for kicks.

When a CIA agent named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, playing his character as a frustrated cubicle drone just trying to get ahead) approaches Barry at a hotel bar one day, talking about “building nations down there,” it doesn’t take much to get him on board. A fast plane, a shell company, and a mission to take photos of rebel groups in Central America is enough to lure the pilot into dumping his stifling but stable job. He has no problem keeping this secret from his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), until bad timing sends them scurrying from their home in the middle of the night and off to a CIA-provided stretch of land in Arkansas that becomes the base of a larger off-the-books operation.

“I do have a tendency to leap before I look,” Barry confesses to a camcorder in one of the self-made videos the movie is punctuated with, a stylistic choice that’s more irritating than illuminating. Barry does a whole lot of impulsive leaping, from surveillance to drug smuggling to gun running to flying Contras back to the US for training, at which point most of them run away. He’s a fitting point person for an operation that no one on the government side seems ready to admit is a disaster — someone for whom self-interest and serving his country are one and the same. American Made doesn’t surprise with its arc of rise and fall, the apex being the glorious scene in which Barry and Lucy have temporarily weightless sex while flying a plane full of goods back from Columbia, giddy with illicit success. The inevitable comedown is hard, of course, but not that hard, because you’re never really invested in Barry, with his piles of cash overflowing from every cabinet and his blithe, unthinking participation in large-scale trafficking.

It’s Cruise who sticks in your mind, especially in scenes like the ones in which Barry shows off in the air, dodging rebel army fire or taunting the DEA agents trying to track him down. There’s one sequence in which he wakes up a fellow pilot who’s fallen asleep at the wheel by jostling the wings of their planes together, and it really is like a dirtbag version of the opening sequence of Top Gun. It’s as if Maverick grew up, settled down, got bored, and then went back to chasing the same hotdogging highs he used to in a queasier setting, his avowed patriotism exposed as an empty excuse. When Cruise, as Barry, laughs as he and his boys evade capture on the way back into the US with cargo holds full of coke, it’s with the same confident sparkle he’s always projected. But there’s no blockbuster cool to it — what you end up thinking is, God, what a dick.

Jake Gyllenhaal Isn't The Best Part Of The New Jake Gyllenhaal Movie

Jake Gyllenhaal is the star of Stronger, David Gordon Green’s film about Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. He portrays the trauma of losing both lower legs in the blast with startling frankness — the post-traumatic stress, the wait to heal, the slow and difficult process of rehabilitation, and what it’s like to contend with both depression and being made into an unwilling national symbol. Gyllenhaal may get an Oscar nomination for his work in the film, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But Tatiana Maslany is the reason the movie works as well as it does — as more than a chronicle of suffering and recovery in the wake of an act of terrorism.

It’s not just Maslany’s performance that’s remarkable, though she’s genuinely great as a woman trying to figure out if she can make a life with someone who seems, at times, unwilling to make a life for himself. The prominence given to her character, Erin Hurley, Bauman’s then on-and-off girlfriend, eventual spouse, and now ex-wife (a part of their relationship that doesn’t make it onscreen), is noteworthy in itself. Stronger, adapted from Bauman’s memoir and written by John Pollono, is as much Erin’s story as it is Jeff’s, and is a far better movie for it. More than anything, it’s a love story, and a difficult, intense one that’s not just about two people contending with catastrophe, but about how catastrophe doesn’t erase relationship problems that were already there.

What it’s not is an attempt to capitalize on still fresh distress, in that strange Hollywood tendency to put rough recent history onscreen as if reenactments of tragedies justify themselves, nothing more needing to be said. Stronger is the second Boston Marathon bombing movie to come out in the less than five years since the incident happened — not a giant span of time in which to accommodate two major movies featuring two big stars. It arrives less than a year after Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day, one of two ripped-from-the-headlines features Wahlberg and director Peter Berg released in 2016, and the kind of film that did solemnly serve up the attack and its aftermath as if it were a kind of public service.

To its credit, Patriots Day was a relatively restrained affair that resisted the urge to sensationalize. But it really didn’t need to, given how it jabbed at healing wounds in the name of prestige cinema, casting Wahlberg as a fictional police sergeant who ended up conveniently central to the all major events surrounding the bombing, its aftermath, and the subsequent manhunt. It was a movie about an act of violence, while Stronger is a movie about people whose lives were spun out by that act of violence, and who struggle to move forward in its wake. Stronger is, in some ways, the opposite of Patriots Day in its deep sense of humanity, its focus on recovery rather than revenge, and its interest in contending with the public’s habit of neatening complicated narratives into inspirational fables.

And Jeff and Erin’s story is complicated. They are, at the start of the film, a month into their latest breakup. A chance run-in at a bar makes how much they still like each other clear, as well as Erin’s reasons for pulling away. While Jeff is sweet and smitten, he’s also flaky, immature, tending to let his protective, raucous family dictate the terms of his life, including the place his outsider sometimes-girlfriend has in it. He’s a little too comfortable where he is, and, as Erin puts it, he doesn’t show up, and it’s to prove that he’s changed that he turns up as promised on the day she’s running in the marathon, staking out a spot by the finish line to cheer her on. When the bombing occurs, their nebulous relationship is made even more so by the guilt Erin knows she shouldn’t feel but can’t entirely shake off.

Jeff endures something terrible, and Gyllenhaal, looking especially boyish, transmits his shock and anguish so believably it’s sometimes hard to watch. But Stronger also stays alongside Erin as she sits in the hospital next to his family, distraught and uncertain, quiet in the corner while they grieve out loud. In those early sequences, Stronger sometimes unexpectedly recalls another, very different film from this year, The Big Sick. It, too, captures how it feels to be unsure of where you belong in someone else’s calamity, especially when romantic ties can be defined along so much more of a spectrum than familial ones. Erin lingers there by Jeff’s side, visiting and accompanying him through harrowing medical procedures. She’s there right up until he’s brought home to the apartment he shares with his mother (Miranda Richardson), to prepare for rehabilitation and a readjustment to an altered life that he dismisses her from. And she, having no excuse to stay, leaves.

The movie suffers whenever Erin’s not onscreen, not just because of how painstakingly present Maslany is in the role, but because as a solo show, Stronger can’t help but drift into the territory of so many past depictions of disability, in treating it as a kind of acting challenge, a technical feat. The film is careful and empathetic about Jeff’s experiences — how he contends with living in a space where the stairs, the hallways, and even the placement of a toilet paper roll in the bathroom no longer accommodate his body and mobility. There are rare moments when you’re reminded that you’re watching an able-bodied actor play a person with a disability, but they exist and are always uncomfortable. And all of them arise from scenes built around the idea of Jeff learning to overcome his disability, rather than exist with it.

Stronger is at its best when it’s a movie about allowing Jeff to live rather than needing him to triumph. Which means, at times, that he’s a jerk and a lousy partner, wallowing in self-pity and inertia, getting trashed with his hard-drinking mom or his friends from the neighborhood. The boldest thing Stronger does is trust enough in Maslany’s performance and in the writing of her character to allow Erin to do something that a lesser movie would never even attempt — to walk away, and not just once, when Jeff is ready to let himself go. When Stronger does find its way to a happy ending, it’s hard fought and hard won.

Gyllenhaal’s may be the showy part in Stronger, but Maslany’s is, in many ways, the more difficult one, and the one that affirms the movie’s subdued but undeniable worth as a relationship drama. When everyone is choosing to see Jeff as a heroic figurehead, an emblem of “Boston strong,” Erin looks as him as the flawed guy he’s always been. And Maslany exudes a heartbroken but confident certainty as her character calls him on his own shit, and grapples with whether they have a future together. It’s unbearably sad, and unbearably real.

The Definitive Ranking Of 2017 Movies (Based On Their Use Of John Denver Songs)

6. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

Daniel McFadden / Twentieth Century Fox

Jason Drucker, Charlie Wright, and Alicia Silverstone in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

The Wimpyverse returned to theaters after a five-year absence in May at the expense of a no-longer-age-appropriate original cast that got ruthlessly dumped like puppies that had grown into larger-than-anticipated dogs. The Long Haul‘s newer, spryer version of the Heffley clan was accordingly paired with a fresh, current topic — how to balance face time with screen time in the digital age. The road-trip comedy results were so dismal they might have killed the franchise for good, but in one aspect, at least, they were pretty on point: And that aspect is John Denver, whose music has bewilderingly been everywhere, at least at the movies, this year. At a low point for the Heffleys on their device-free, problem-plagued road trip to grandmother’s house, their luggage gets strewn all over the highway to the tune of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” But, like everything else in The Long Haul, its participation in 2017’s strangest soundtrack trend is just off: The movie opts for the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes cover instead of the Denver original. Get it together, Heffleys!

5. Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Giles Keyte / Twentieth Century Fox

Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Pedro Pascal in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

The greatest pleasure the underwhelming Kingsman sequel has to offer comes not from anything it actually puts onscreen, but from reading director Matthew Vaughn’s grumpy interview responses about realizing that his film is actually the sixth this year to feature a Denver tune. “I was like, fuck you, Ridley,” he (mostly jokingly) told Uproxx about discovering that his movie and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant share a song. “Not that he had any idea, but it did break my heart,” Vaughn said. And sure, it’s possible that The Golden Circle‘s incorporation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a scene of heroic sacrifice might have had more impact if audiences hadn’t heard it employed for a similar cornball-poignant effect so recently before. It’s also possible that the sequence would have fallen flat no matter what, given the only setup it got was a hurried earlier mention of a character’s unexpected fondness for country-western music. Like a lot of The Golden Circle, the moment plays like rough notes for a scene no one got around to actually writing.

4. Free Fire


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Armie Hammer, Jack Reynor, and Noah Taylor in Free Fire.

John Denver songs used: “Annie’s Song,” “It’s Up to You,” and “This Old Guitar”

Ben Wheatley’s feature-length firefight takes place in the ’70s, which at first seems mainly like an excuse to dress its stellar cast in outlandish period fashions and to liberate the plot from pesky “why don’t they just use their cell phones” questions. But as the film goes on, it starts to feel like Free Fire was really set in the ’70s in order to make sense of its heavy use of John Denver tracks. The cynical shoot-em-up may not have the year’s best use of Denver’s music, but it definitely has the most, incorporating three songs into its scenario of criminals cracking wise while killing each other in a Boston warehouse. Chief among them is “Annie’s Song,” the surprisingly mellow choice playing in the van of the hotheaded Harry (Jack Reynor) as he pulls up to an arms deal that’s about to go spectacularly wrong. When, multiple acts of violence later, someone gets back in the van and starts the engine, the song gets cranked up again, becoming the perfectly incongruous accompaniment to a sloppy, brutal skirmish that concludes with the crushing of someone’s skull just as the song reaches its peak — fill up your senses on that.

3. Alien: Covenant

Twentieth Century Fox

Danny McBride and Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant.

John Denver song used: “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

We never hear the original version of John Denver’s most famous (and the year’s most cinema-friendly) song anywhere in Alien: Covenant. We only hear it sung posthumously by a character who died offscreen between films: Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the scientist who was one of the few survivors of Prometheus, the previous film in Ridley Scott’s planned trilogy of prequels. The cracked recording of Shaw croaking out the lyrics to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is beamed into space like a beacon (or a lure), leading the crew of the colonization ship of the title to land on the planet on which she’d gotten stuck. The more we realize about what happened on the ground, the more Shaw’s song choice turns tragic and haunting, because going home to the place she belonged wasn’t an option.

2. Logan Lucky

Claudette Barius / Bleecker Street Media

Channing Tatum and Farrah Mackenzie in Logan Lucky.

John Denver songs used: “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone)” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

If any film on this list is entitled to revel in “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it’s Steven Soderbergh’s joyous heist movie. The characters in Logan Lucky live in West Virginia, the state the song is about, even if work and eventual crime frequently take them into North Carolina. Matthew Vaughn could take a lesson from how Soderbergh’s film sets up its extremely effective John Denvery payoff. Logan Lucky opens with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) telling his beloved daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) about the song, making the case for it as one she should sing in an upcoming pageant. While she’s a fan, she opts for Rihanna’s more crowd- and costume-friendly “Umbrella” instead. But when it comes time to perform, and she spots her dad in the crowd, she makes the last minute decision to sing his favorite tune instead, a cappella, imperfect, and absolutely wonderfully. It’s an irresistibly tear-jerking moment, sure, this act of child generosity to a struggling parent, but it also captures the bittersweetness lurking underneath what is, on the surface, a rollicking comedy. Logan Lucky‘s characters may identify fiercely with the place they’re from, but they’re also constantly made aware of the economic tenuousness and limited options that come with it. Theirs is a strong love, but a painful one as well.

1. Okja


Paul Dano in Okja.

John Denver songs used: “Annie’s Song”

Okja‘s John Denver moment comes in the midst of a scene of madcap chaos: The title character, a genetically engineered superpig being hunted by malevolent global conglomerate Mirando, has been on the run with her owner, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the giant animal wild-eyed and panicking as she tramples through the crowded and unfamiliar urban territory. But just as Mija and Okja hit a dead end and Mirando’s men come blundering in, they’re rescued by the forces of the Animal Liberation Front, who’ve come to attempt to save the day. The action slows, “Annie’s Song” starts, and as K (Steven Yeun) helps the bruised Mija up, the rest of the ALF clash, amusingly, with the corporate employees, fighting them off with umbrellas and tablecloths. The camera holds on Mija’s face as she watches J (Paul Dano) tenderly pull a shard of plastic from Okja’s foot. How is this scene so silly and so profoundly moving at once? Maybe it’s director Bong Joon-ho’s astounding skill with balancing tonal juxtapositions, or the aura of serene kindness that Dano projects. Or maybe it’s Denver, singing that ode to his wife, the sweetness of his voice used not quite for irony or for pure sentimentality, but somehow both at once. There’s no more perfect accompaniment for this moment of grace in a movie that portrays the world as increasingly cold and cruel — it’s not just the best use of a John Denver song in 2017, it’s one of the best scenes of the year.

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“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” Can't Sell You A Good Time

The new sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a far better-behaved movie than the first Kingsman. Yet somehow, this makes it so much worse.

Say what you will about the first installment of what’s now a whole secret agent–spoofing action franchise — but at least it had the guts to commit to the snickering nihilism that emerged as its defining quality. 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service gleefully massacred the Westboro Baptist Church for kicks, blew up the head of then-president Obama as part of an apocalypse-averted punchline, and concluded with a gag about anal that didn’t skewer the sexual politics of vintage James Bond flicks so much as just restate (and relish) them in blunter terms. The film began as an energetic, rude riff on the sacrosanct brand of Britain’s most famous fictional spy and ended up somewhere in the realm of South Park humor, except crueler and more horny. Whatever good times it offered were the good times of drinking with fun strangers at a bar who are almost certainly going to beat you up later in the night.

The new movie doesn’t want to sell you such uneasy entertainments. Subtitled The Golden Circle, the sequel is more intent on selling you some movie tie-in whiskey instead, and maybe also some movie tie-in shaving products. Like the first film, The Golden Circle is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who cowrote the script, based on a Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons graphic novel, with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman. And like the first film, the new Kingsman stars Taron Egerton, engaging and always a little too sweet-faced for the material, as Eggsy, a gifted working-class kid who shakes up the upper-crusty traditions of a secret spy ring, hidden away behind a London tailor shop and operating conveniently unfettered by government oversight.

Not that the secret spy ring gets much screentime as a functional organization in The Golden Circle. Like The Secret Service, the sequel is less interested in showing how Kingsman operates than in exploring what happens when it gets blown up — literally: The new baddie, a ruthless drug kingpin and dedicated ’50s nostalgist named Poppy (Julianne Moore, in what’s just one of her two unhinged retro housewife roles this fall), wings a bunch of missiles at the facilities early in the film, forcing Eggsy and chief tech support Merlin (Mark Strong) to seek help from a sibling organization in the US, a group that turns out to be called, appropriately, Statesman.

Statesman is based in Kentucky, and their cover operation is considerably more expansive than a bespoke tailoring operation — it’s a bourbon distillery that happens to be massively successful (a convenient plot development). Their members, Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and Champagne (Jeff Bridges), eschew the tailored suits for more casual wear, falling stylewise into a blurry area between “cowboy” and “oil baron,” and wielding shotguns, bullwhips, and electric lassos.

If Kingsman was an institution delineated by class, Statesman is an institution delineated by…nothing in particular, at least as far as The Golden Circle‘s toothless take on US iconography and social realities goes. When, for example, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), Statesman’s equivalent to Merlin and the lone black and female member we see, talks about how she gets blocked whenever she tries to become an active agent, the movie never bothers to explain why.

Then again, it doesn’t really have time to. The Golden Circle all but invites the audience to speculate as to how few days some of its cast members actually spent on set. Elton John appears in an extended cameo as himself, and it feels like he racks up more time onscreen than some of the actual higher-billed actors. Famous faces show up onscreen and then vanish for long stretches; surviving characters from the first film get offed with barely a shrug; and one who died gets resurrected in just as desultory a fashion.

It’s not a spoiler that Colin Firth’s Harry Hart turns up alive in The Golden Circle (he’s in the trailer) and it’s not worth spoiling how it happens, simply because his killing gets undone with the screenplay equivalent of a hurried hand wave. Firth, with his crisp accent, the crisper line of his suits, and his surrogate-father air, was a highlight from the first film, and his presence is felt at the start of the second. But his return plays like a haphazard and undisguised act of fan service, just as the incorporation of Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) into a larger role comes off like an awkward attempt at fan appeasement — an attempt to fend off anger at how this woman was turned into a butt-fucking punchline in the first film by having the main character now ready to put a ring on it in the second (what a wealth of meanings the movie’s title holds!).

If the first Kingsman was a work of lol-nothing-matters provocation with a real mean streak, the second is a work of lol-nothing-matters laziness, a follow-up that fits in a few stylish action set pieces, but can’t be bothered to invest in its own fictional world. The developments that do have potential, like Polly’s devious plan to make herself a legitimate businesswoman by forcing an end to the war on drugs, become all the more frustrating because the way they unfold is so slapdash, especially in line with the movie’s merchandising aims.

And nothing else is given the attention the branded liquor receives. Statesman bourbon is already available to purchase and was apparently chugged by Berry at Comic-Con as part of a promo stunt. It’s given loving attention in multiple scenes throughout the film, to the point where its existence is important to the confusing final act of the movie, in which there’s a betrayal that seems to take place only to skirt having to put Moore in a fight scene. It’s all in service of what Vaughn told the New York Times he considers “the future of advertising,” “authentic storytelling with the product in there,” not real-life products being wedged into a fictional movie but a fictional product making its way to real liquor store shelves. Maybe this would feel less egregious in a more coherent movie — like the first Kingsman, which, in all its misanthropy, didn’t play like a clothing ad despite the fact you could buy its clothes. But in The Golden Circle, the sales pitch feels impossible to ignore, a development more cynical than any of the first one’s juvenile jokes.