VOYEUR (2017, doc)

November 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are watching the final product of filmmakers watching a reporter watching a man whose hobby is watching those who don’t know they are being watched. Lacking a single redeeming individual, the film’s creep factor slithers towards 11 on the (“SPINAL TAP”) scale.

It’s understandable if you assume this is the story of a pathetic and disgusting Aurora, Colorado motel owner who, for many years, quietly leered at his guests from a self-constructed perch in the attic. Gerald Foos methodically documented the sexual actions of the Manor House Motel guests, which numbered 2000-3000 per year. If his actions aren’t remarkable (not in a good way) enough, Mr. Foos actually married not one, but two women who were complicit in his hobby.

In 1980, renowned reporter and author (“from age 15 to 80”) Gay Talese received a letter from Gerald Foos, kicking off a three decade relationship culminating in a controversial feature article in “The New Yorker” and a book entitled “The Voyeur’s Motel”. Once Mr. Foos agrees to have his name published, co-directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury jump on board to document the final steps in Mr. Talese’s writing and research process. It’s here that we enter the oddest man cave you’ll likely see. In the basement of Talese’s immaculate Manhattan brownstone is not just his writing office, but also a lifetime of research and writing … boxes and shelves of material that will surely one day be part of a museum or university collection.

The unexpected parallels between writer and subject are made clear. Both are voyeurs and both are collectors. As a journalist, Talese observes the actions of people, while Foos is quite obviously the definition of a Peeping Tom. Talese collects the years of research for his writings, while Foos shows off his extraordinary sports memorabilia collection (also in his basement). Beyond these similarities, what stands out most are the unbridled egos of these two men. Both seemed most focused on getting or keeping their names and stories in the headlines. Of course, Talese has built a career on his name and reputation, while the aging Foos simply sees this as his legacy that somehow deserves historical prominence.

The filmmakers remain more focused on Talese than Foos, and that takes us inside “The New Yorker” where the editors are justifiably concerned about a single-source story – one that without Talese’s name attached would likely have never made it past an initial perusal. The aftermath of publication reminds us that we’ve seen con men before, and there is little joy in being taken on a long ride of deceit. Perhaps the best description of what we see on screen is that it’s a sideshow of ego and the need to be seen (watched).

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THELMA (2017)

November 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joachim Trier continues to deliver projects with his frequent writing partner and collaborator Eskil Vogt that cause us to take note of their intriguing and always (so far) interesting filmmaking. They may not be the fastest workers – OSLO, AUGUST 31 came out in 2011 and it has been over two years since LOUDER THAN BOMBS – but we can’t help but appreciate their original stories and unique vision.

A chilling opening of a father/young daughter hunting trip sets an uneasy tone for the rest of the film. We then flash forward to that young girl heading off to college. Eili Harboe is excellent as Thelma, a quiet young woman leaving home and her protective parents for the first time. Thelma has had a restrictive Christian upbringing and she’s now a withdrawn, socially inept college student, simultaneously anxious to explore her new freedom and guilt-ridden with every new experience.

The school library is the setting for the first chance encounter between Thelma and Anja (Kaya Wilkins). We witness Thelma’s blushing and uneasiness, and soon birds are crashing into the windows as Thelma writhes on the floor in full seizure. The girls cross paths again and the flirtations are followed by a heavy dose of Thelma prayers. This independence and sexual attractions leads Thelma down the ever-progressive road of dancing, booze, drugs (sort of), and sex – the only thing missing is rock ‘n roll. An awkward dinner with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Peterson and Henrik Rafelsen) leads to more guilt and more seizures, as the two appear connected.

Director Trier’s film is not easily categorized. It’s part drama, thriller, romance, supernatural horror, and religious commentary. There are some supernatural similarities to two films from the 1970’s – CARRIE and THE FURY, and the abundance of religious imagery leans heavily towards the former.

Some unusual camera angles and shots add visual interest to what for much of its runtime is an amorous courtship between the two leads. There is an always present cloak of uncertainty courtesy of the extreme helicopter parents and Thelma’s unpreparedness in dealing with adult feelings. We instinctively realize there’s more going on than the parents let on, but these are essentially quiet people who hold much inside. That theme carries over to the movie as a whole, which is a quiet, but sneaky film on the power of thought … both positive and negative.

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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 Anna Murphy is Tara, 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!

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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.

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BIG SONIA (2017, doc)

November 18, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some people anxiously await the day they can retire and spend their days fishing or reading, while others put it off as long as possible since they find their identity through work. The diminutive subject of this terrific documentary is 91 year old Sonia Warshawski. Her reasons for maintaining a 6 day work week (and doodling) are both heart-warming and chilling, and make for a fascinating story.

Filmmakers Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski (Sonia’s granddaughter) do their part in allowing the charming and fiery lady to deliver her own message and recount the horrors of her childhood. Sonia is a Holocaust survivor. As a 13 year old in 1939 Poland, she and her family were taken. She never again saw her father or brother, took multiple beatings while being shuffled through 3 death camps (including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen), and ultimately watched her mother led into the gas chamber. In her own words, she says she “was in hell”, and it’s “a miracle” she made it out.

You might assume that anyone who has experienced so much pain would be bitter and cynical, but that’s not Sonia’s way. In addition to running her tailor shop for 35 years, she is also an inspirational speaker at churches, schools and prisons. We get to see her in these presentations and we are struck by how her words carry such weight with the audiences – young and old. One of the convicts provides insight when he states, “It takes people who’ve been through something to reach those going through something”. We also witness the way she connects with teenage students … something most of us have little success with.

Of course, Sonia has embraced her story, but the emotions and pain are never far from her. She stays busy to keep the memories at bay, and finds the idea of retirement somewhat frightening. We meet her 3 children and hear stories of their childhood and her husband John, also a Holocaust survivor. John died from Alzheimer’s complications, but he is remembered fondly by all. It’s so touching to watch as Sonia shows us her mother’s 75 year old scarf which she keeps under her pillow, and we are mesmerized as she recounts the incredible story of her liberation day.

An NPR radio interview provides some structure throughout, but it’s not necessary as we would follow Sonia wherever she leads. It’s so much fun to watch her Overland Park customers greet her in the now-defunct shopping mall, and it’s downright hilarious as she sports her favorite animal prints on her coat, shoes and purse … and even the cover on the steering wheel that she can barely see over! Mostly this is a life lesson from a master who teaches us “don’t carry hate” … even though she admits to being unable to forgive. She leaves that to a higher power. She is the best example we could have for keeping history alive and spreading love and goodness.

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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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