DREAMLAND (2020)

November 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Outlaws on the run have been fertile ground for movies over the years, and young director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and writer Nicolas Zwart give the genre their best shot (pun intended). The easiest comparisons are probably Sam Peckinpah’s THE GETAWAY (1972), Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD (1986), and Arthur Penn’s Oscar nominated classic BONNIE AND CLYDE (1969). However, given the style of this film, Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973) was likely more of an influence for the filmmakers.

Phoebe Evans (as voiced by Lola Kirke, GONE GIRL, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke) is our narrator, and from 1955 she recounts the story of her half-brother Eugene. Most of what she tells takes place twenty years earlier – 1935 Dust Bowl Texas during the Great Depression. Finn Cole (“Animal Kingdom”) stars as Eugene, and we pick up a few years after his dad left the family behind and headed for what he expected would be an easier life in Mexico. Mother Elizabeth (Kerry Condon, “Breaking Bad”) is now re-married to local Deputy George Evans (Travis Fimmel, LEAN ON PETE) and his bad haircut, and they now have a young daughter Phoebe (the magical smile of Darby Camp, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES). Eugene reads Detective stories and mostly tries to stay out of George’s way, while Phoebe is a curious little sister, easily the most intelligent of the lot.

One fateful day, Eugene’s beloved detective stories come to life. After a local bank robbery turns violent, he discovers Allison Wells (two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, I TONYA) hiding in his barn, with a bullet in her leg. Despite the $10,000 reward on her head, Allison sweet talks young Eugene into keeping her whereabouts secret, and helping her plot an escape. She swears she didn’t kill anyone and rationalizes the bank robbery by blaming the government for letting people suffer hard times. Eugene may or may not buy her story, but he recognizes this is the most excitement he’s likely to ever have in his life … plus, he’s smitten.

During the first half of the film, we follow Eugene as he helps Allison and holds the secret. When the second half kicks in, we find ourselves along for the ride as the two are on the run from the law, including Eugene’s stepfather George. Along the way director Joris-Peyrafitte includes some flashbacks to the botched bank robbery giving us a look at Allison’s “Clyde”, Perry Montroy (played by Garrett Hedlund). There are also numerous artsy flashes of coastline, supposedly representing Allison and Eugene’s landing spot should they escape. Of course, we know where this is headed – a shootout finale. Filmed in New Mexico, we do get the feel of the hard life fought by those during this era, including the powerful and devastating dust storms that require gas masks to prevent suffocation. The film is watchable thanks to the performances and atmosphere, though it’s not at the level of similar type movies listed earlier.

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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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DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

April 17, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

dom Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe I should apologize, but I won’t. This was hands-down my favorite from the Dallas International Film Festival. It was probably the least favorite of many others. With the most outlandish and uncomfortable opening scene in recent memory, the movie comes across a rough blend of early Guy Ritchie and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Given that description, no movie lover would expect Jude Law to be the star who dominates most every scene. Yes, pretty boy Jude Law has gone “ugly” the way fellow pretty boy Matthew McConaughey went “indie”. It’s a shock to see Mr. Law looking shaggy and paunchy … in his best moments! He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this vulgar, verbose ex-con so full of swagger.

Joining Dom is his old buddy Dickie, played by Richard E Grant – whose smooth comedic delivery is a terrific complement to the harshness of Dom. After serving 12 years in prison, Dom is on a mission to get the money he is due from a Russian mobster played by Demian Bichir (yes, Mr. Bichir is Mexican). Of course, nothing ever goes as planned in Dom’s life, so a coke-fueled night of celebration at a glamorous French château leads to one of the most startling cinematic car accidents, leaving Dom penniless.

The story now veers off the Dom’s attempt at redemption … reconciliation with his daughter played by “Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke. The bi-polar aspects of Dom’s persona comes through when comparing his “criminal” scenes and his “daughter” scenes. The contrast does provide relief from the relentless raucous dialogue delivered with the most extreme cockney accent possible. Still, the redemption story line takes away from what makes Dom such a force of nature and so much fun to watch on screen. Writer/director Richard Shepard gave a very enthusiastic and passionate Q&A after the screening, and it was quite obvious he “liked” this character, despite the flaws.  Mr. Shepard was responsible for one of my favorite little known gems, The Matador (2005).

This is a violent, vulgar character delivered in blaringly over-the-top mode by an actor that has previously shown no such tendencies. As with all comedy, and especially such raucous, irreverent black comedy, the audience will be divided by those who find this extremely entertaining and those who think it’s a waste of time and talent. Expect no guarantees from me on which camp you might fall into.

**NOTE: the movie contains quite striking primate art, as evidenced by the movie poster shown above

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