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:

 

 

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TOO LATE (2016)

April 7, 2016

too late Greetings again from the darkness. The first feature film from writer/director Dennis Hauck has a number of elements that are appealing to movie lovers on the lookout for something a bit outside the box. It’s the type of film that would be a festival favorite, as it provides no shortage of “talking points” for discussion afterwards.

Of course, casting John Hawkes is always a good start. Here he plays a Private Investigator named Sampson. The story is presented in 5 segments – each filmed in one extended shot. Oh, and it’s not presented in sequential order, so some assembly is required. The real end to the story is not the same as the ending of the movie, and the beginning of the story is actually in the middle of the movie. Confused yet? Well a loss of equilibrium is what makes this one so much fun to watch. Characters and story lines are intertwined – some accidentally, some secretly, and some surprisingly.

Hawkes appears in each of the five segments, and sprinkled throughout you will find such recognizable faces as Robert Forster, Jeff Fahey, Natalie Zea, Joanna Cassidy, Crystal Reed, Dash Mihok, Rider Strong, Vail Bloom, Sydney Tamilia Poitier and singer Sally Jaye. A strip club, the Hollywood hills, a Park Ranger, a suicide, and multiple murders all are key pieces to the puzzle … and none are presented exactly as we would expect.

With an unpolished 1970’s look and feel, the film offers a touch of Tarantino (including some of the actors who have worked with him), but mostly the vibe is refreshingly throwback. Even the music … Joe Tex, Cowboy Junkies, etc … is a bit offbeat, and of course, any movie that references Genevieve Bujold and Choose Me deserves a special place in my heart. It may not be the typically structured PI murder mystery that we have come to expect, but an unusual approach and the performance of Hawkes, makes this one to see.

watch the trailer:

 


LINCOLN (2012)

November 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie lover in me has been anxiously awaiting this one for months. On the other hand, as a citizen, the recent Presidential campaign antics put me in quite the political funk. Tired of the rhetoric and disenchanted with the current leadership, I was concerned my thoughts might poison the outlook on director Steven Spielberg‘s latest. Fortunately, both Lincoln and Lincoln allowed me to forget those in charge today, and instead witness the look and feel of true leadership and greatness.

Despite the title, this is not simply a biographical sketch of our 16th President. Rather, it’s an essay on back room politics … the key to Washington and democracy. Deal-cutting, horse-trading, arm-twisting are just some of the strategies involved in reaching compromise. When the stakes are history … abolishing slavery … the passion of those unseen actions is intensified. We see a man at the height of his power willing to do what is necessary to reach a goal in which he fervently believes – even though his views are not shared by a great many others.  Ratifying the 13th Amendment could have been quite dry in lesser hands, but Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are experts at what they do.

Some of the most fun in the film occurs during the House floor debates between Republicans and Democrats. These scenes serve as a reminder that the two parties are often at philosophical odds and, just as designed, debate and discussion lead to compromise and advancement. At least that’s the general idea and purpose. Next to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, err, embodiment of Lincoln, the script is what really jumped out at me. Loosely based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner’s screenplay serves up dialogue that is sharp, crisp, entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with message. This is a very talky film, not a Civil War film. We only get a couple of brief battlefield scenes, but the conversations never allow us to forget that the brutal war is always on the mind of the politicians and citizens. Some of the theatricality teeters closely to the look and feel of a play, though it is quite effective for the ongoing politicking. I hope Kushner’s work is remembered come Oscar time … especially for the way he worked in the full text for both the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.

I’ve always held a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln. Familiarity with with the legends, the icon, the monuments, the statues, even the automatronics at Disney World so many years ago.  It is with true awe that I recognize what Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. His presence is so powerful that I found it all but impossible to look at anything else when he was on screen. That will certainly mandate a second viewing, but I have no hesitancy in recommending a film that brings to life what a great man can be … what true leadership can be. This is a man who carries his burdens in his soul. He may have been self-educated, but in addition to Shakespeare and Euclid, Mr. Lincoln understood people. That knowledge allowed him to maintain his high principles through patience and reasoning and even (sometimes) humorous story-telling.

 We are never allowed to forget that this is a Spielberg movie. The scenes with Lincoln and Mary Todd (Sally Field) are somewhat distracting to the greater stories, but perhaps that’s the point. These discussions were distractions to him as well. In fact, Spielberg is quite kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Other tales have not been. Either way, Ms. Field is effective, though I wish for the sake of the film, she had less screen time.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors. Most won’t be named here but Tommy Lee Jones is a key player as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist; David Strathairn as Sec of State William Steward has Lincoln’s trust; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son; and Jackie Earle Haley plays the Confederate VP Alexander Stevens. There is also a tribunal of political lobbyists or fixers that add quite the element of dirty-politics: James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.  Appomattox is handled with class – a quick scene showing a prideful General Robert E Lee departing, and we get a couple of scenes with General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris).

 Lastly, the score from the great John Williams excels and compliments the mood and pace of the story … he is careful to never overwhelm. Williams is probably in line for his 48th Oscar nomination (second only to Walt Disney). Though I wish it had ended with the scene depicted at left, this is a film about political process and the people who made that process work – even at a time when everyone thought the choice had to be made between ending the war and abolishing slavery. Choose one, you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln proved that sometimes the right man is in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, those times come around very rarely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too want to be mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln OR you like your history lessons to be entertaining and easy on the eyes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your history to come straight from the textbooks with little more than a few photographs for prosperity OR you don’t like Sally Field.  You really don’t like her.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJVuqYkI2jQ


THE SESSIONS (2012)

November 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1997, director Jessica Yu won an Academy Award for her documentary short entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was a poet and journalist who attended Cal Berkeley. His story reaches the level of remarkable once you understand that he suffered the harsh effects of polio, was almost entirely paralyzed, and was confined to an iron lung for all but 3-4 hours per day. Director Ben Lewin (a Polio survivor) has taken a specific part of O’Brien’s story and turned it into a very entertaining and intimate film that explores the challenges faced by the disabled in leading a full and sexual life.

In 1990, O’Brien had an article published: “On Seeking a Sex Surrogate“. It detailed his desire to overcome the obstacles and experience a sexual relationship. He did so by working with Cheryl Cohen Greene, a Berkeley based sex surrogate … also a wife and mother of two. This is the very touching, and quite funny, story of how Cheryl (played here by Helen Hunt) worked with O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) to overcome his fear and anxiety. These sessions occurred after O’Brien “cleared” his plan with his Catholic priest (William H Macy).  All three of these actors deliver, and Hawkes is especially fascinating as his voice and eyes must convey all emotions.

This story is as frank and honest as you might expect, and it avoids sinking into Hollywood sentimentality for the sake of the story. The truth is plenty powerful. O’Brien’s caregivers are played progressively by Rusty Schwimmer, Annika Marla and Moon Bloodgood. Cheryl’s husband is played by Alan Arkin and Robin Weigert plays Susan, the woman with whom O’Brien had a loving relationship until his death in 1999.

There are some similarities to the wonderful film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but this story and these characters are much more accessible to the viewer … more in line with this year’s highly recommended The Intouchables. These are people with whom we care about and connect. It’s a vivid reminder that living a full life regardless of one’s constraints should always be the goal. Incidentally, Cheryl still works as a surrogate these days … at age 68.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are inspired by the true stories of remarkable people OR you just want to see Helen Hunt get nekkid.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are uncomfortable watching an adult come to terms with sexuality in spite of the obstacles stemming from his disability.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy2y7UIpgP4


MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

August 27, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one has been on my radar since the Sundance Festival and all the raves about Elizabeth Olsen‘s performance. After attending a screening last evening, I find myself at a loss to adequately describe not just her stunning turn, but also this unusual film from writer/director Sean Durkin.

On the surface, this sounds like just another movie peeking inside a dreadful cult that brainwashes, and psychologically and physically abuses women, and is led by a charismatic and creepy religious style figure-head. There are many similarities to the Manson-family story of which much has been published, but Mr. Durkin takes the film in a much different and very creative direction by focusing on what happens to Martha (Olsen) AFTER she escapes the cult.

 In the Q&A, Durkin stated he did much research and found the most fascinating story to be that of a cult escapee and what she went through during her first three weeks of freedom. Martha sneaks out early one morning and places a panic call to her older sister, whom she hasn’t communicated with in two years. Settling in to the lake house with big sis and new brother-in-law, it becomes quite obvious that Martha doesn’t know how to fit in society, and has absolutely no interest in discussing her recent past.

The sister is played very well by Sarah Paulson, and her husband is Hugh Dancy (so very good in Adam). This seemingly normal yuppie couple is trying to do right by Martha, but the fits of paranoia, outbursts of anger, and societal goofs are just too much for them.

 The genius of this film is in the story telling. The cinematic toggling between today and moments of time at the cult farm house leads the viewer right into the confused mind of Martha. We don’t get much back story but it’s obvious she was “ripe” for cult world when she was chosen. We see how Patrick, the quietly charismatic leader, sings her a song and steals her heart … she wants so much to belong. We also see how she bonds with the other women at the farm house, and ends up in a frightening situation that seems to snap her out just enough to find the strength to leave. The editing of scenes between these two worlds is outstanding and serves to keep the viewer glued to the screen.

 Last year I raved about an independent film called Winter’s Bone. I chose it as one of the year’s best and it ended with some industry award recognition. I am not willing to say this film is quite at that level, but I will say that the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth, delivers an incredible first feature film performance, and Sean Durkin deserves an audience for his first feature film as writer/director. Another bond between the two indies is that John Hawkes plays the cult leader Patrick, and Hawkes is once again captivating, just as he was in Winter’s Bone.

There will undoubtedly be some debate about whether this is cutting edge independent filmmaking or just another snooty art-house mind-messer. All I can say is, I hope the film grabs enough audience for the debate to matter … it deserves it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you liked Winter’s Bone OR you want to see a breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the most talented of the sisters).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you struggle with methodically paced films that are designed around specific moments of insight OR your motto is “enough with the films on cults”.

watch the trailer:

 


WINTER’S BONE (2010)

June 28, 2010

Greetings again from the darkness. A double award winner at the Sundance Film Festival, this film is based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel and is directed by Debra Granik. It’s opening sequence slaps the viewer with the bleak unforgivingness of life in the backwoods of the Ozarks. This is land of people that time has passed by – a true community of isolation.

The basic premise of the story is that 17 year old Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is responsible for raising her brother and sister and caring for her dementia-addled mother while maintaining a mostly positive outlook on the present and future. Reality strikes again when the local sheriff arrives to inform that her missing, meth-lab running father has an upcoming court date. He used their land and house as collateral for his latest bond. If he fails to show, they will lose their home. Instead of breaking down, Ree pledges to find him and starts out on a hazardous journey, unlike we have seen on screen.

This community of mountain people are distrusting of outsiders, but stunningly, are just as paranoid around insiders and even family members. Their way of life seems to depend on pure independence, even though they all seem intertwined in the same illegal activities and daily quest for survival. Some kind of odd code exists – ask nothing, give nothing and get rid of any obstacles.

The driving forces of the story are Ree and her constant hope and courage, and her shaky bond to her dad’s only brother, Teardrop, played chillingly by John Hawkes. Teardrop tries to toughen up Ree and get her to accept her plight, while Ree constantly shows him there is reason to plow forward.

The film is very well written and the local filming brings a harsh reality that was crucial to the film’s success. Additionally, I was stunned at the fierceness displayed by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. Her performance reminded me of my first exposure to the talents of Meryl Streep (The Deer Hunter) and Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen). Talk about powerful and exciting … what she did with this role vaults her immediately into a very small group of actresses who can carry a movie with their presence. I am anxiously awaiting her next appearance – a Jody Foster project.

I also want to mention the music in the film. The vocalist, Marideth Sisco, is also the vocalist in the living room band who makes an appearance in one scene. Her voice truly captures the balance of hope and acceptance of plight. This is not a movie for everyone, but it is fascinating and truly cuts to the bone.