Even when he “phones it in,” Ridley Scott, a film director at the height of his powers, brings compelling dimension and scope to his movies. His latest, All the Money in the World (B-) chronicles the kidnapping, ransom and attempted rescue of the heir to the Getty family, notorious for wealth generated through oil and a legacy from the accumulation of exquisite paintings and antiquities. An exploration of the art of a deal and the heart of a family should lend this crime thriller even more gravitas, but it’s largely a straightforward procedural. The stakes should also feel higher throughout the film, but the story and script give short shrift to its collection of characters. Michelle Williams as mother of a kidnapped teen, Christopher Plummer as the oil magnate himself, Mark Wahlberg as his negotiator and deal maker and Charlie Plummer (no real-life relation to his co-star!) as the teen in turmoil all turn in serviceable performances but far from their collective best. The action is occasionally gripping, and it’s a story that hasn’t been told. But this falls in Scott’s category of solid thrillers with vivid period detail but little amazing to grab you (his American Gangster falls squarely in this breed of his films). It’s notable as both a meditation on the price of wealth and a cinematic master class in how to erase and re-cast an actor’s central performance just weeks before a film’s release (bye bye, Kevin Spacey in the now Christopher Plummer role). All the talent in the world doesn’t always add up to a masterpiece.
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s crime drama Molly’s Game (B) is a crackling showcase for Jessica Chastain’s formidable acting skills as she portrays a woman who teeters dangerously close to the edge commandeering an underground poker league. Sorkin’s brilliant level of detail about the shady activities shines throughout, and Idris Elba is strong as the protagonist’s patient attorney. Kevin Costner adds a fine turn as her demanding father. The film doesn’t quite live up to its intriguing premise, but Chastain fueled by Sorkin dialogue is a crackerjack of watchability.
Martin McDonagh’s unconventional revenge drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (A) is one of the finest films of the year, upending expectations about a collection of well drawn characters in Small Town, America. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell give rich performances as a grieving mother of a murdered teenage girl and the seemingly incompetent local policemen she coerces into action to solve her daughter’s cold case. McDormand in particular delivers a performance for the ages, showcasing an indomitable spirit as she waged a grassroots campaign to right her family’s fissure in a world that’s gone out of its Ebbing mind. Lucas Hedges and John Hawkes are superb as her son and ex-husband, and Peter Dinklage adds a droll turn as a mysterious townsman. McDonagh maintains a dark comedic tone as he plumbs thorny issues in a shadowy microcosm of the justice system. For folks who enjoyed Hell or High Water, Fargo or this director’s own In Bruges, this will be your film to see this awards season.
Four decades after Bandit’s criss-crossing car chases left Smokey in the dust of Georgia, Edgar Wright’s Atlanta-set Baby Driver (A) grafts grifts and getaways, criminally comic chase capers and manic musical syncopations that yield new song to this southern boomtown into a wholly original new entertainment. This candy-colored fantasia is an engrossing and involving tale from the get-go, propelled by a very charming Ansel Elgort in the central role as a go-to guy for driving armed robbers from scenes of the crime and plucky Lily James as the waitress who wins his heart and may just pull him away from his life in the shadows. Add to these great performances scenery chewing Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, and it’s off to the races. Wright has drawn his characters finely with clever quirks that pay off perfectly in episodes behind the crimes and behind the wheel. Because Elgort’s character has “a hum in the drum” and relies on an iTunes shuffle for the soundtrack to his days (including sweet, swift exit music), the film is laced with an electric and eclectic jukebox of joy ranging from Blur to The Beach Boys to the Incredible Bongo Band. The movie is faster, more furious and funnier than most anything in the marketplace right now because it sweats the details, cares for its characters, goes out on a limb for adventure and doesn’t mind crossing lanes between genres. It’s an ultracool summons into trippy territory. It’s the mix-tape and mash-up of summer that you didn’t know you were looking for, and it’s ready for a fresh spin.
David Mackenzie crafts his neo-Western Hell or High Water (A) with such methodical pace that he disguises how urgent a work it is for modern times. Yes, on the surface it’s a heist thriller about sworn “Comanches,” or enemies: a pair of bank robbers versus a duo of rangers facing off on stark Texas terrain. But a deeper viewing of the film finds a dramatic, elegiac tale about brothers surviving a cycle of poverty and abuse, about lawmen making a last stand to protect a land and a way of life and about a community coping in the shadow of institutional greed. There’s a sense everyone is playing their assigned role in a Western, down to the cowboys and Indians, but the pop psychology behind the characters is very much grounded in America after the devastation of recession, payday loans and foreclosures. Everyone is wounded in this unconventional oater that eschews constant shoot-em-up in lieu of rich character development. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are superb as the sibling protagonists, with Pine delivering the best work of his career to date as a man conflicted between duty to family and revenge against the bank that wrecked havoc on his homestead. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, playing a character of Native American and Hispanic descent, are also wonderful as the rangers. Bridges can add his colorful role to a series of late-career triumphs. It’s telling that the bank is ostensibly the real enemy in the film, but it is populated by low-level bureaucrats who seem unaware or indifferent to their effect on Main Street USA. Giles Nuttgens’ lived-in outdoor cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ plaintive score bring additional gravitas to the proceedings. There’s action too, but this movie is best in the quiet reflective moments that speak volumes about pockets of the country left behind in the march toward progress.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (B+) is an absorbing true crime drama featuring spot-on performances by Steve Carell as a paranoid multimillionaire obsessed with being an Olympic sports coach and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as gold medalist wrestlers grappling with the limits of loyalty to their wealthy patron. A commentary on how power, wealth and influence can be used to advance twisted values, one can’t help but think of Michael Jackson or Joe Paterno scandals as Carell’s John du Pont manipulates the world around him to support his megalomaniacal desires. Miller creates an austere and often bleak portrait with nary a false note and an underlying tone that traps viewers into an off-kilter lust for power without boundaries. Carell creates a fully unsympathetic portrait, and Tatum and Ruffalo physically and emotionally inhabit their roles with deft skill. Bennett builds on the autumnal tragedy he brought to Capote and the slackjawed sensationalism of sports drama Moneyball to create another modern-American stunner.