THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019)

April 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to complain (and many do) about how Hollywood usually explores racism. Sometimes the stories seem a bit over-simplistic, as with THE HELP, GREEN BOOK, and HIDDEN FIGURES; however, rather than criticize, perhaps we should be thankful for any effort to prod. Often getting the conversation started is the best first step. That’s really the message from Robin Bissell’s directorial debut of a script he adapted from Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”. Mr. Bissell has previously been Executive Producer on THE HUNGER GAMES and SEABISCUIT, and Mr. Davidson’s book was previously adapted for a stage production.

Based on a true story that took place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the film portrays the remarkable events that led to the integration of public schools and a stranger-than-fiction friendship. Taraji P Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and community organizer, while Oscar winner Sam Rockwell co-stars as Claiborne “CP” Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops (basically the Chapter President) of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems the previous stranger-than-fiction description is aptly applied here when an aggressive black woman known as “Roughhouse Annie” can effectively sway the long ingrained beliefs of a KKK leader, and forge a friendship that would last 3 decades.

A school fire that partially gutted the elementary school attended by the black children in the community was the proverbial spark that kicked off the chain of events. When the white folks refused to share their school, the black children were forced to hold classes in the areas least affected by the fire … while demolition and renovation was being carried out. This led to the NAACP getting involved, which resulted in a judge ordering a “Charrette” – a blend of a committee and a civic debate – to determine how the community would move forward. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay, FREE FIRE, 2016) was charged with organizing the Charrette, and he named Ms. Alexander and Mr. Ellis as co-chairs. Keep in mind this was 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled in favor of school desegregation, but many pockets of the south were slow to come around.

The story structure offers synchronicity between the lives of Alexander and Ellis, as they each struggle with poverty and family challenges. It’s just one of the ways of trying to show they were more alike than different, and much more of the time is devoted to how the transition slowly occurs for Ellis. Of course, even though each side dislikes the other, it’s Ellis whose eyes must be opened as he clings to the only way of life he’s known. Because of this, Mr. Rockwell has the meatier role, but it’s Ms. Henson (and her fat suit) who draws the most laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

As you would expect, it’s a strutting Mr. Rockwell and boisterous Ms. Henson that dominate the film, however, some tremendous actors fill the supporting roles: Wes Bentley (as a Confederate soldier hat-wearing Klansman), Anne Heche (as Ellis’ wife), Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr, and Caitlin Mehner.

The film is a most entertaining (though a bit lightweight) look at an historic chain of events, and it’s right up there with a black cop infiltrating the Klan in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BLACKkKLANSMAN believe-it-or-not points. In 1980, Studs Terkel conducted an interview with Mr. Ellis, and it’s worth a read to gain a bit more insight into a man that truly changed his evil ways. The ending of this film leans heavily on the “feel-good” and “can’t we all just get along” approach, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The end credit sequence features some tremendous clips of the real Ms. Alexander (who died in 2016) and Mr. Ellis (who died in 2005), making it a bit easier to understand how the two opposites connected for the greater good.

watch the trailer:

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

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:

 

 


The sun sets on JUSTIFIED

April 21, 2015

 

justified2 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason I don’t typically write about television shows is that very few justify (sorry!) the effort .  However, the series finale of “Justified” aired last week, and it’s a series I will definitely miss.

Many people disregarded it immediately assuming it was just another western – you know, since the lead character wears a hat and holsters his gun. But at its core, it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys … only the good guy had some flaws and the bad guys were anything but the backwoods hillbillies they appeared to be. The three categories that elevated the show above typical TV fluff were: Writing, Characters, and Acting.

WRITING

Let’s start with Elmore Leonard. His novella “Fire in the Hole” is the source material for the show, and provided the emphasis on character and dialogue that was so crucial to its unique feel and style.

Ahh yes … those words. The majestic verbosity was spread across all characters – lawmen, judges, and the hardened criminals. Heck, even the teenage girl, bartender, BBQ pitmaster, and hired gunslinger were loquacious in their ability to turn a phrase.

For those of us who strain and sweat over the use of a particular word or the structure of a sentence, the show humbled us weekly through the apparent ease with which the English language was played like a finely tuned instrument.

As for the story, it was remarkable that the battle of guns and wits between Raylan and Boyd endured for the entire series run; and it was fascinating to see how each season brought a new criminal element and challenge … some tying into current characters, while others were more standalone.

CHARACTERS

justified A few of the characters managed to stick around for the series run … some more regular than others. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder will both go down as iconic TV characters, but it’s important to note the other regulars such as Raylan’s boss and father figure Art Mullens, the other two Deputy U.S. Marshals Tim and Rachel, and of course, Ava Crowder whose character arc was broader and more diverse than any other on the show.

There was also a group of recurring characters who felt like regulars, which speaks again to the sterling writing: Raylan’s on-again-off-again squeeze Winona, the smarmy Wynn Duffy, Boyd’s cousin Johnny, the comical Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett, and the memorable Arlo Givens (Raylan’s shifty father).

The third group of characters to mention includes those that had a dramatic impact on only one or two seasons: the isolated pitmaster Limehouse, Loretta the teenage survivor, the good-hearted hooker Ellen May, smooth talking Ty Walker, the lovable Constable Bob, the not so lovable Bo Crowder (Boyd’s dad) and criminal masterminds such as Robert Quarles from Detroit, Katherine Hale and Avery Markham who sometimes worked together and other times not, and most importantly Mags Bennett – the driving force behind the peak of season two.

Twenty two. That’s how many characters are named in the previous three paragraphs. And it’s pretty easy to name another 15 or more characters that played key roles. It’s not just the sheer quantity of characters, but rather the fact that they were so well written that we felt like we immediately knew them … plus they were fun to watch.

ACTING

Every actor dreams of being cast in a well written show. Take those extraordinary lines of dialogue and really good actors never have to over-do it … in fact, they can let the scenes breathe. As filled with tension as any show you’ve seen, it still managed to have a slow pace that matched what we expected from Harlan County Kentucky.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullins (Nick Searcy), or smarmy Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). All four of these actors embodied their particular characters so completely that we viewers fully accepted them. A similar comparison would be James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. It’s rare for TV shows, but “Justified” had four!

The supporting roles never disappointed, though the survival rate varied immensely. Joelle Carter as Ava saw her screen time grow as the show progressed, though Erica Tazel (Rachel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim) are probably the only two who could offer up any kind of argument that they had to work to get noticed. Natalie Zea as Winona bounced in and out from season to season, and her presence never failed to bring about a change in Raylan just when he most needed one. Raymond J Barry as Arlo Givens was one of the show’s most colorful figures, though Damon Herriman and Jeremy Davies, as Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett respectively, gave him a run for the title.

As each season brought focus to a new criminal lead, the acting was varied and spectacular at times thanks to Neal McDonough, Michael Rappaport, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, and of course, the final season with Garrett Dillahunt, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott. Special mention goes to Margo Martindale for her Emmy Award winning performance as Mags Bennett in Season Two.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Hand-in-hand with the importance of Leonard’s writing is the work of show creator, producer and director, Graham Yost. Wisely working with Leonard those first few seasons (Mr. Leonard passed away in 2013), Yost ensured the weekly scripts were packed with the expected lines of dialogue, and his feel for the material allowed him to never miss with his casting.

The brilliant first scene of the first season introduces us to Raylan as he squares off against a bad guy while poolside in Miami. It’s this quick wit, quick draw and quick trigger that gets Raylan shipped back to the area of his youth, Harlan County Kentucky. The rest of the show taught us never to get comfortable around a hillbilly drawl, bring your own glass if someone offers you their “apple pie”, and the toughest bond to break is when you “dig coal together” with a buddy.

WWED