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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WONDERSTRUCK (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you know an adolescent who is ready to step up from comic book movies, this would be a terrific introduction to more emotionally dramatic and narrative-driven cinema. That’s certainly not meant to imply that director Todd Haynes’ latest is only for kids, or even that it’s aimed at that demographic. Instead, it’s the rare opportunity to follow two intersecting story lines over two different time periods with kids as the main focus, and have some very interesting post-movie discussions related to characters, eras, and filmmaking techniques.

We follow the stories of two kids who are separated by 50 years. Although the time boundary exists, the similarities between their journeys are many. Each is running away from home in search of their roots and identity. They are both hearing-impaired and living in less than ideal family environments. Additionally, their footsteps cross many of the same places in New York City as two museums play key roles.

Ben (Oakes Fegley, PETE’S DRAGON) is a 12 year old living in Gunflint, Minnesota. It’s 1977 when his mother (Michelle Williams) dies unexpectedly and a freak accident takes his hearing. Convinced an odd bookmark is a clue to finding the father he’s never met, Ben sets off for New York City. Rose (remarkable first time actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey and is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore in a dual role). Rose is an artistic child whose domineering dad has little time for her, so she hops aboard the ferry and heads to the big city to track down an idol – who may be more closely tied than we first imagine.

Brian Selznick adapted the screenplay from his own novel (he also wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which was the basis for Scorcese’s HUGO), and some may find the two story lines muddled or difficult to follow. However, for those who connect with the characters and their adventures, it’s a fascinating and entertaining ride. Director Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, CAROL) has established his expertise in visual stylings, and here he gets to present two distinct looks for the separate eras. Ben’s 1977 world is filled with the polyester and neon colors of that era and it’s even given the washed-out look of 1970’s cinema. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rose’s 1927 world is presented in black and white as a silent movie. The lack of dialogue allows us to focus on her facial expressions and body language, which tell us what we need to know.

The American Museum of Natural History plays a significant role in both stories, and the Queens Museum is central to the finale which ties up the two pieces for us. The contrasts of the two eras are as vital as the similarities. Along the way, each of the kids gets a bit of help. Ben befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose connection to the museum and the city provides Ben a boost, while Rose’s much older brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith) also has a connection to the museum and helps put Rose on the right track. The distinct photographic styles help us easily switch between eras, and much credit goes to cinematographer (and frequent Haynes collaborator) Edward Lachman and editor Affonso Goncalves.

Oscar Wilde’s quote, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, takes its shot as the theme for the two stories, and really it’s a heartfelt film with interesting storytelling and unusual cinematic effects. The set design is terrific throughout, and especially vital during the silent movie segments of Rose’s story. Carter Burwell’s prominent score also effectively shifts styles between stories and eras. The ties that bind us – a core need to understand our roots – do so regardless of age and time period. This is a nifty little film that provides much to discuss and consider.

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THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

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ANOMALISA (animated, 2015)

January 1, 2016

anomalisa Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing Charlie Kaufman’s work described as “strange”, “weird” or “bizarre” makes me cringe a little because most of his films hit my sweet spot of curiosity, insight and expression. I easily relate to his creative vision and commentary in films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York. His characters are always searching for something and trying to discern the meaning of life … or at least of their own life. This latest has Kaufman adapting his own stage production, and collaborating with co-director Duke Johnson for what is likely (for the vast majority of us) our most startling existential stop-action animated puppet cinematic experience.

The unusual opening of the film is a black screen with only background noise and voices, and the first chuckle occurred within about a minute thanks to one of my favorite cultural references of the year: “Kojak, not Kolchak”. Slowly the screen evolves to show clouds in the sky, and soon an airplane appears and our first peek at Michael occurs … he’s a passenger on a flight. The vast majority of the rest of the film takes place inside the Fregoli Hotel – aptly named because Michael seems to suffer from a twist on Fregoli Delusion (a person believes those around him are all the same person in disguise).

We soon notice that Michael appears beaten down, even exasperated with life. He is an author in town to give a presentation on his specialty … Customer Service. The story continues along familiar lines of a business traveler in the midst of a mid-life crisis, until things change for him when he stumbles on a couple of his fans who are in town for his presentation. One of them is Lisa, whom Michael is attracted to thanks to her innocent energy and wonderful voice. What makes her voice so wonderful? Well, it turns out that Michael is voiced by British actor David Thewlis, Lisa is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and EVERY other character in the film (male or female) is voiced by Tom Noonan. Lisa and her voice are the anomaly that makes up the film’s title … Michael is smitten with her because her voice is not like all the others – providing a spark of hope.

Mr. Kaufman seems intent on making us realize how easily we can slip into a rut and simply go through the motions in life … every day and every person being pretty much like the rest. Michael has learned to wear his Customer Service mask – one who pretends to care about the issues of others. It’s a terrific metaphor for someone refusing to face the responsibility for their own happiness. His awakening occurs at the hands (and in bed) with Lisa. Yes, you should be prepared for the uncommon and slightly unsettling site of Puppet Private Parts. The clumsy passion of the first encounter between Michael and Lisa does wonders for each of them … restoring her self-esteem and awakening him from his daily slumber of hopelessness.

While the story itself is quite simple, the use of puppets prevents us from getting overly personal or judgmental with the characters, and forces us to deal with the emotional and mental aspects of what keeps so many from leading happy lives. Lisa’s acapella version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ignites the fuse in Michael, and just like that, both he and Lisa are jolted from their own self-imposed limitations. No longer able to just go through the motions, Michael’s overreactions at breakfast and during his presentation are all part of his re-awakening … the most profound puppet awakening since Pinocchio. Perhaps Mr. Kaufman thought we might be more receptive to his message and observations if delivered by a non-threatening puppet, and perhaps he’s correct. The message is delivered loudly and clearly … though I will probably hear Tom Noonan’s voice in my nightmares. The look of the movie and the puppets is fantastic, and Carter Burwell provides yet another spot-on score.

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CAROL (2015)

December 26, 2015

carol Greetings again from the darkness. When Patricia Highsmith first wrote her novel “The Price of Salt”, she had it published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Claire Morgan). This was a sign of the unforgiving social conventions of the era, which also play a key role in the story. At the time, no author would publically admit to writing a book about lesbian lovers, much less admit their participation in such an affair. Highsmith’s novel is the source material for director Todd Haynes’ bookend to his stellar 2002 film Far From Heaven. In that film, Dennis Quaid’s character struggles with his secret life as a gay man while married to Julianne Moore. In this new movie, Cate Blanchett is a married upper class socialite trying to deal with her true feelings for the opposite sex, while fighting to not lose custody of her young daughter.

Haynes has a real feel for attraction … what causes two people to be attracted to each other, and how do they handle it? He re-teams with cinematographer Ed Lachman to create yet another beautiful film with camera work, sets, costumes and a score (Carter Burwell) that complement the romance depicted by the two outstanding lead actresses: Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese). Ms. Blanchett is a 2-time Oscar winner (5 time nominee), and has become one of the few actors who make each of their films a must-see. She is a true force here as she sweeps into the captivating first sequence (a wonderful long take) and has her first interaction with wide-eyed shopgirl Therese as the two dance together through words and innuendo. It may be the best scene of the movie … at least up to the stunning final shot.

At its core, this is a pretty simple romance of two opposite worlds colliding at a time when their attraction was just not tolerated. 1950’s social conventions, being what they were, meant Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) could use her sexual preferences as evidence of immorality in his fight to gain sole custody of their daughter. Cinematically, it’s much more about style. Carol is a beautiful mink-wearing work of art, while Therese is seeking her place in the world, while trying to make sense of her feelings. Every scene drips with style … the cars, the clothes, the restaurants; even cigarettes become a fashion accessory between the fingers of Carol.

Carol and Therese take a road trip, and it’s not until Iowa that the relationship is consummated – a scene that finds neither actress shying away from the moment. Fittingly, this occurs in a motel located in Waterloo … leaving little doubt the turn this story will take.

Supporting work is provided by Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) as Carol’s friend and ex-lover, Jake Lacey (“The Office”) as Therese’s would-be suitor, John Magaro (The Big Short) as her friend and supporter, and Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as a double-life salesman. But this show belongs to Blanchett and Mara. They are terrific together – capturing the unspoken, subtle gestures required by the repressive era they find themselves.  Mara’s character is difficult to describe, but most intriguing to watch and absolutely vital to the message.

Phyllis Nagy adapted Ms. Highsmith’s novel (which was re-published in 1990 under her own name), and her care for the material is clear. Todd Haynes then worked his magic with the look of the film, and the two lead actresses deliver a clinic in nuance and dealing with oppression. As it plays, the strength of the film is with the internal struggles faced by the two lead characters. It leaves us to wonder if the film might have been more powerful had it delved a bit deeper into what the characters would have faced from the outside world.

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