THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Valeria Bandino is Tart, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

watch the trailer:

 

Advertisements

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017)

November 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Denzel Washington is one of our most iconic actors and he’s put together a remarkable career, including 8 Oscar nominations and two wins. He’s had his Al Pacino SCARFACE comparable with TRAINING DAY, his Robert DeNiro GOODFELLAS comparable with AMERICAN GANGSTER, and here he gets his Dustin Hoffman RAIN MAN as he plays the titular Roman J. Israel, Esquire. It’s a role that lacks Denzel’s usual cool factor, but it’s one in which he dives head first.

‘Esquire’ rates “above gentleman, but below Knight” as described by Roman. He has spent more than 30 years as the wizard behind the curtain of a two man law firm run by his mentor and partner William “Bulldog” Jackson. We never really meet Mr. Jackson, as circumstances force the closing of the firm and shove an uncomfortable-with-change Roman into the high profile and high dollar firm run by George Pierce. Mr. Pierce is played by a strutting Colin Farrell – and no actor peacocks better than he.

It’s here we must note that Roman appears to have a touch of Asperger’s and/or be some type of legal Savant. He’s kind of a Dr. Gregory House for the legal profession – remarkable on the details, while lacking in the delivery. His long held idealism and belief system were in fine form while he was the back office guy, but Pierce forces him into the front lines and it’s a bumpy transition with sometimes comic and sometimes tragic results.

The film bookends with Roman crafting a legal brief, that while somewhat convoluted, is actually more of a confession, with himself as both plaintiff and defendant. Much of the film focuses on Roman’s idealism and revolutionary beliefs, and what happens when that crumbles. There is an odd quasi-love interest with Maya, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA). We never really grasp why she is so taken by him, other than his seemingly solid belief system reminds her that a mission of goodness and justice is always worth fighting for.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy is one of the quiet secret weapons in Hollywood these days. His last project was the terrific NIGHTCRAWLER, and he’s also written the screenplays for this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and one of my favorites from 2006, THE FALL. Here he teams with Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) to deliver a stylish look that feels unique to the story and characters … the frumpy look of Roman, the ultra-slick look of Pierce, and the various textures of the city. It’s really something to behold – especially when accompanied by Roman’s ringtone of Eddie Kendrick’s “Keep on Truckin’”. A couple of cast members worth mentioning: for you NBA fans, Sedale Threat Jr (son of the long time player), and simply for catching my eye in the closing credits, an actor named Just N. Time. There is plenty to discuss after this one, but mostly it’s a chance to watch Denzel chew scenery.

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:

 

 


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

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:

 


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.

watch the trailer: