LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Once out of our teen years (though some take a bit longer), the vast majority of us accept the obvious truth to the adage “life is not fair”. Despite this, we never outgrow our desire for justice when we feel wronged. Uber-talented playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh delivers a superb drama blended with a type of dark comedy that allows us to deal with some pretty heavy, and often unpleasant small town happenings.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving mother whose daughter was abducted and violently murdered. With the case having gone cold, Mildred is beyond frustrated and now desperate to prevent her daughter from being forgotten. To light the proverbial fire and motivate the local police department to show some urgency in solving her daughter’s case, Mildred uses the titular billboards to make her point and target the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards cause quite the ruckus as the media brings extra attention, which in turn creates conflict between Mildred and the police department, the town citizens, and even her own son (Lucas Hedges). The film could have been titled ‘The Wrath of Mildred’ if not for so many other facets to the story and characters with their own layers. Her anger is certainly understandable, though some of her actions are impossible to defend. Things can never again be square in the life of a parent who has lost a child, yet vengeance is itself a lost cause.

Mr. McDonagh’s exceptional script utilizes twisted comedy to deal with the full spectrum of dark human emotions: managing the deepest grief, anger, guilt, and need for revenge. As in his Oscar winning script for the contemporary classic IN BRUGES (2008), his dialogue plays as a strange type of poetry, delivering some of the most harsh and profane lines in melodic fashion. In addition to his nonpareil wordsmithing, Mr. McDonagh and casting director Sarah Finn have done a remarkable job at matching many talented performers with the characters – both large roles and small.

Following up her Emmy winning performance in “Olive Kitteridge”, Ms. McDormand is yet again a force of nature on screen. She would likely have dominated the film if not for the effectively understated portrayal by Mr. Harrelson, and especially the best supporting performance of the year courtesy of Sam Rockwell. His Officer Dixon is a racist with out-of-control anger issues who still lives with his mom (a brilliant Sandy Martin, who was also the grandma in NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE). Caleb Landry Jones once again shows his uncanny ability to turn a minor role into a character we can’t take our eyes off (you’ll remember his screen debut as one of the bike riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Here he plays Red, the owner of the billboards with an inner desire to carry some clout. Rounding out the absurdly deep cast are Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (the epitome of a new Sheriff in town). Every actor has at least one moment (and monologue) to shine, and one of the best scenes (of the year) involves Nick Searcy as a Priest getting schooled on “culpability” by Mildred.

Cinematographer Ben Davis has a nice blend of “big” movies (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) and small (TAMARA DREWE) in his career, and here he really captures the feel of the small town and interactions of the characters. Also adding to the film’s excellence is the folksy, western score (with a touch of dueling gunfighters) by Carter Burwell. And keeping the streak alive … it’s yet another worth-watching film featuring a Townes Van Zandt song.

Not many films dare tackle the list of topics and issues that are touched on here: church arrogance, police violence, racism, cancer, domestic violence, questioning the existence of God, parental grief with a desire for revenge, the weight of a guilty conscience, and the influence of parents in a rural setting. The film is superbly directed by Mr. McDonagh, who now has delivered two true classics in less than a decade. It’s the uncomfortable laughs that make life in Ebbing tolerable, but it’s the pain and emotions that stick with us long after the credits roll. Sometimes we need a reminder that fairness in the world should not be expected, and likely does not exist. If that’s true, what do we do with our anger? McDonagh offers no easy answers, because there are none. But he does want us to carefully consider our responses.

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WONDER (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. What a pleasant surprise and crowd-pleasing treat from director Stephen Chbosky! Ordinarily, if you tell me a Julia RobertsOwen Wilson movie is opening, I would experience nightmares of Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with his eyelids forced open by metal prongs attached to a head immobilizer (Don’t expect any other reviews of this film to reference the Kubrick classic). It’s based on the New York Times bestseller and it’s a throwback to the days of sweet message films that don’t require explanations before recommending.

I can’t wait for Halloween!” exclaims Auggie. While it’s not difficult to imagine any kid looking forward to this big day, very few would share Auggie’s reason. Through narration, he informs us that he’s “not an ordinary kid”. After a startling birth, he’s been through 27 surgeries. Auggie has genetic facial deformities, and it’s not the Halloween candy he anticipates; it’s the one day with a level-playing field for him, as other kids wear their costume masks and he can simply blend in. Feel the tug on the heartstrings yet? You will.

Jacob Tremblay (ROOM) plays Auggie, and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play his loving parents. Until now, he’s been home-schooled by Mom, but it’s 5th grade and time for “real” school. Auggie’s older sister Via is played beautifully by Izabela Vidovic. This is very much her story as well. She carries a burden that few understand, and even briefly finds peace in her fabricated time as an “only child”. Previously, she had described Auggie as the sun, and the rest of the family as orbiting planets. Not only is it a wonderful performance from Miss Vidovic, but kudos to the filmmakers for casting a 16 year old actress as a high schooler. Typically these roles go to actors in their mid-20’s (a pet peeve of mine).

The film kicks into gear, and we really begin to get to know Auggie, once school starts. Mandy Patinkin plays the principal Mr. Tushman (a name he embraces), and we get the expected nice kid Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the rich bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), and the popular girl Charlotte (Elle McKinnon). Some of the characters have various segments of the film named after them, and though these are quite loosely told, they do provide some semblance of structure to the film and keep viewers focused on the diverse personalities. A Science Fair, field trip and school play (Our Town) each provide critical turning points, and of course, most of the film is based on Auggie’s impact on those whose path he crosses.

Although we are subjected to one of Julia Roberts’ patented cackles, it doesn’t ruin the sentiment or message that Auggie delivers. Daveed Diggs has a nice turn as a teacher, and the always wonderful Sonia Braga makes a much-too-brief appearance. Director Chbosky previously gave us the gem THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and this time out he allows us to explore the fragility of friendship and family, and the importance of toughness in an individual. The ending is pure Hollywood, but we should accept the crowd-pleasing cheesiness and be thankful for a pleasant, entertaining family movie.

“We need a renaissance of wonder. We need to renew, in our hearts and in our souls, the deathless dream, the eternal poetry, the perennial sense that life is miracle and magic.”

– E. Merrill Root (1895 – 1973)

American Writer

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MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

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SWEET VIRGINIA (2017)

November 15, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. Murders-for-hire evidently have a better success rate in real life than in movies, because cinematically speaking, they usually result in quite the mess for all involved (and some who aren’t). Fresh off the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts, the screenplay from twin brothers Benjamin China and Paul China offers up a neo-noir with a familiar enough premise in a not-so-familiar setting.

Director Jamie M Dagg offers little chance for us to settle in, as a violent and seemingly senseless triple murder occurs within the first few minutes. We get our Bang Bang, with the Kiss Kiss soon to follow. The usually friendly game of poker among friends goes south quickly thanks to Elwood (Christopher Abbott, IT COMES AT NIGHT), a stranger in town. We soon enough learn that he is in town on “business”, and now that the job is done, he expects to be paid.

Elwood not-so-patiently awaits his pay day while staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Motel. It’s a simple inn inherited by, and now run by, Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) – a former rodeo star who these days battles multiple physical issues with pain dulled only by his morning weed ritual, and an ongoing affair with one of the ladies recently widowed by the Elwood’s gun. Sam is shaggy looking, mellow and quite a pleasant fellow who seems like many in this quite small Alaska town … living here for the solitude and anonymity.

Imogen Poots plays Lila, and Rosemarie DeWitt plays Bernadette. Their unhappy marriages of 3 and 18 years respectively have ended abruptly, and while neither is much into grieving, they both have new problems with which to deal. There is an unusually scarce police presence given that a triple homicide of local citizens has just occurred, but the focus here is on the four main characters, and especially on the two men.

Elwood is exceedingly high-strung and prone to violent outbursts, while Sam is congenial to all, and generous with his time and advice to local high schooler and motel employee Maggie (Odessa Young). To ensure that no viewer is left behind, there is a diner scene that emphasizes the polar opposite personalities of Elwood and Sam. Rather than pack the intended punch, it mostly just comes across as obvious and unnecessary. And that in a nutshell, is what keeps the film from being a bit more intriguing.

While there is not a lot of excess talking, death hovers over most scenes and conversations. The connection between Sam and Elwood marks the sometimes easy bond of strangers, while the fractured marriages of Lila and Bernadette show how character flaws are unveiled over time. Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography and the slow pacing to match the setting are both to be admired, but the film lacks any type of artistic or stylish differentiation, and relies solely on the fine performances of the cast. It’s certainly no BLOOD SIMPLE or HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it’s interesting enough to hold attention for 90 minutes … despite the mess being all cleaned up and tidy by the end.

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DEAD CALM (1989) revisited

November 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For years, I considered this one of my favorite guilty pleasures; however, I now realize just how unfair that label is. After nearly 30 years, this arm-rest-gripping thriller from director Phillip Noyce (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, THE QUIET AMERICAN) deserves respect as a well made (except for the ending), well written and well acted film. It proves that two boats may not be enough for three people.

Terry Hayes adapted the screenplay from the 1963 Charles Williams novel, and the production team, including George Miller, is behind the MAD MAX franchise. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar a couple of years later for DANCES WITH WOLVES, and his eye brings us some terrific shots … none better than an early view of both boats and an expanse of sea.

Of course the film is best known for showcasing a young up-and-coming actress named Nicole Kidman. She began her career at age 16, and was still only 21 when this one was filmed. Her youthful features had yet to make way for the mature and stunning woman we know today. The following year she appeared in DAYS OF THUNDER, kicking off her Tom Cruise era. In the quarter century since, Ms. Kidman has reached the pinnacle of the acting profession and is a four time Oscar nominee, winning for THE HOURS. She has gained respect for never shying away from tough or controversial roles, and in 2017 has excelled in THE BEGUILED and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Earlier in the year she won an Emmy for her challenging role in “Big Little Lies“.

Ms. Kidman’s role here is as Rae, a mother entertaining her young son by singing “Eensy Weensy Spider” as she drives through a torrential storm that would eventually lead to an accident that tragically kills the boy. Soon Rae and her military officer husband John (Sam Neill) are off on a rehabilitation trip aboard their sailing yacht . Their peaceful time together is interrupted as they spot a stalled schooner off in the distance, and a man frantically rowing a skiff towards them. They help a dazed and profusely sweating Hughie (Billy Zane) on board as he explains how the other passengers on The Orpheus all died from botulism. When John goes to check out The Orpheus, Hughie commandeers the yacht from Rae and heads off leaving John seemingly helpless on the sinking vessel.

What follows is some extraordinary tension and psychological gamesmanship that keeps us enthralled with the three characters. The juxtaposition between the two boats is fascinating. As John’s resourcefulness meticulously brings the dying Orpheus back to life, Rae and Hughie are involved in a mental chess match of life and death between a sociopath and a mother in mourning. There is also a creative manner in which John (and viewers) picks up some of the bleak backstory casting doubt on Hughie’s tale.

Sam Neill was in his early 40’s, and this was four years before his Dr. Grant took the tour of JURASSIC PARK, where no expense was spared. In 1988 he had portrayed Meryl Streep’s husband in A CRY IN THE DARK, and recently his strong, silent persona has been key to the success of HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of the best from 2016) and TV’s “Peaky Blinders”. Billy Zane, age 22 at the time of filming, makes a wonderfully frenetic entrance in the film. He met his wife Lisa Collins on this shoot – she’s one of the unfortunate Orpheus passengers. He has also enjoyed a long and consistent career, with his most recognizable roles being from TOMBSTONE (1993) and of course as Rose’s jealous fiancé in TITANIC (1997). His cameos in the ZOOLANDER movies are legendary in comedy, and now in his 50’s, Mr. Zane remains extremely busy as an actor.

The tagline for the movie: “When you are in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to hide” is terrific, and the confines of a boat at sea set the stage for a life lesson – sometimes you just have to fight. Orson Welles worked on his version of the film for years, but the project was never finished. Instead, director Phillip Noyce and three excellent actors deliver a taut thriller that keeps our palms sweaty … at least right up until that ghastly ending that somehow leaves me annoyed and laughing in frustration.


 


DADDY’S HOME 2 (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s rare for a sequel to be a better film than the original, and we are entering unicorn territory when dealing with comedy sequels improving on the first film. So hearing that most of the original cast is back for material from the same creative team – director Sean Anders and his co-writers Brian Burns and John Morris – well, expectations would normally be pretty low. However, all of that changes when we learn of two cast/character additions: Mel Gibson and John Lithgow.

After the fierce daddy competition between Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) in the original two years ago, this film picks up with what looks to be a very healthy co-dad environment for all involved. In comedy-based cinema, the best way to disrupt a happy family synergy is to introduce the Christmas season and the sure-to-follow family turmoil. Enter Mel Gibson as Dusty’s estranged dad, and John Lithgow as Brad’s so-close-it’s-too-close dad … and let the holiday escapades begin.

At its core, this is an observational comedy about the contrast between old school and contemporary fatherhood – machismo vs emotionally open. Mel Gibson is key to the story working on multiple levels, and his performance is a reminder of his immense screen talent (in spite his personal life issues). His character’s idea of being a father has been around for many generations. Toughen up the kids and make sure they are strong and independent. Keep those emotions close to the vest. On the other side is John Lithgow and his over-hugging and blubbering true feelings approach.

The familiar supporting cast holds up their end admirably. Linda Cardellini and Alessandra Ambrosio are back as Brad’s and Dusty’s wives, respectively. Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, and Didi Costine are back as the kids – each with their own quirks and growing pains. Even John Cena returns as Adrianna’s biological father, and to deliver one of the film’s best punchlines, as well as a bit that might forever ruin Christmas caroling for you.

The trailer, as with most comedies these days, gives away too many of the funny moments, so don’t expect any additional spoilers here. There is some comedy brilliance mixed in with the cheesy, over-the-top slapstick (a snowblower scene that could have easily worked in CHRISTMAS VACATION almost 30 years ago). The brilliant moments are often the quieter ones, and they focus on parenting, family, and the challenges of childhood. There is a surprising and unusual cameo near the end, and the movie is well executed to satisfy its built-in audience, while also capitalizing on those who enjoy (and/or need) a good, clean comedy at Christmas time.

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