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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LBJ (2017)

November 2, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. More than 50 years after his death, President John Kennedy casts an ever-present shadow over Lyndon Baines Johnson’s career as a stellar politician and a President with significant accomplishments. Part of the reason is presentation – JFK was a story book leader straight from the fashion magazines, while LBJ was a vulgar-at-times comic book adversary who looked and talked funny. Each has been portrayed on film numerous times and from various perspectives.

Woody Harrelson and his facial prosthetics play LBJ, and Mr. Harrelson seems to be enjoying the swagger and emotional range of the titular man. What this film does that’s a bit different from others is embrace the comedic elements – enhanced by both the performance and the script from Joey Hartstone. It seems odd (a somewhat awkward) to have so many laughs in a movie where the infamous 1963 Presidential motorcade, and subsequent assassination, form the backdrop.

Director Rob Reiner presents LBJ in all his crude and gruff glory, but also shows the ultimate politician – a man who was constantly negotiating. Intimidation was always part of the LBJ motif, and the film effectively displays the tactics used by John and Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Stahl-David) to take the wind out of LBJ’s sails after the election.

There are reenactments throughout the film that place us back in the middle of iconic images seared into our memories … the motorcade after the shots, the scene at Parkland, and the swearing in aboard Air Force One with Jackie still wearing her blood-stained Chanel suit. This was an incredible time in our history, as the nation was emotionally shattered. It’s for this reason that much of the film seems disjointed or misguided. Too much (or maybe not enough) attention is on LBJ’s strained relationship with Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), one of the most racist men we’ve seen on screen. Their discussion of race relations while being served dinner by the black woman is beyond uncomfortable – yet still somehow too stagey.

Most of the film is spent on LBJ’s time as Senator and Vice President, with only the final act being about his famous networking upon ascending to the Presidency … after which the entire focus is on the Civil Rights Act. The flow of the film seems a bit off, though most will enjoy watching Harrelson’s performance – especially when paired with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lady Bird. Together, the two almost rescue the script.

watch the trailer:


THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have our stories. The stories that make up our life. Some of us dwell on the “bad” things, while others remember only the good times. A few even romanticize the past, which could also be termed embellishment. Where exactly on this scale that Jeannette Walls’ story falls is debatable, but the facts are that her life story is the foundation for a best-selling book and now a high-profile movie.

Ms. Walls’ memoir describes her unconventional childhood with bohemian parents who cared more for freedom and independence than for feeding their kids. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton (a ‘must-follow’ filmmaker after his powerful 2013 indie gem SHORT TERM 12) chose this as his next project, co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and wisely opted to work again with Brie Larson, who stars as the oldest Jeannette (from late teens through adult).

The film bounces around in time from Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s to her time as a New York gossip columnist in 1989. The timeline isn’t all that bounces, as we watch this family of six, seemingly always on the run, ricochet across America with all their belongings strapped to the top of the battered station wagon – usually on the run from creditors or following the latest dream from Rex (Woody Harrelson).

Rex is the type of guy who rants against most everything that makes up what we know as society. He can’t (or won’t) hold a job and fills his trusting kids’ heads with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow – going as far as drawing up plans and specs for the off-the-grid fantasy home referenced in the title. Rex then spends what little money the dirt poor family has on drinking benders which cause him to become a nasty, abusive threat.

Rex’s wife Rose (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited artist who somehow possesses even fewer parental instincts than her husband. Although she could be labeled an enabler of his abusive ways, she might actually be the more interesting of the two, even if the story (and Jeannette) focuses much more on Rex. The best scene in the movie is when mother and grown daughter share a restaurant booth, and the two worlds collide.

Of course the real story here is how Jeanette managed to rise above this less-than-desirable childhood and achieve her own form of freedom as a writer. The stark contrast between the squalor of her West Virginia shack and the million dollar apartment she later shares with her fiancé (Max Greenfield) makes this the ultimate depiction of the American Dream – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (even when you don’t have boots).

The acting is stellar throughout. Mr. Harrelson could garner Oscar attention as he manages to capture both the dreamer and failure that was Rex. Ms. Watts maximizes her underwritten role and turns Rose into someone we believe we know and (at least partially) understand. Ms. Larson embodies both the desperation of a teenager whose environment forced her to be wise beyond her years, and the iciness of a grown-up trying so hard to leave the past behind. In just a few scenes, Robin Bartlett manages to create a memorable and horrific grandmother – one whose actions explain a great deal. The most remarkable performance of all, however, belongs to Ella Anderson (the only good thing about THE BOSS). She captures our hearts as the adolescent Jeannette – the closest thing to a parent this family had.

There are some similarities between this film and last year’s expertly crafted CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. In fact, two of the young actors (Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell) from that film also appear in THE GLASS CASTLE. The biggest difference being that Viggo Mortensen’s character could be considered to have an over-parenting approach, while Woody Harrelson’s Rex never over-did anything, except drink and dream.

The movie probably has a bit too much Hollywood gloss and sheen to adequately portray the hardships of a large family living in poverty, though the top notch acting keeps us glued to the screen. By the end, we can’t help but wonder if some of Ms. Walls’ romanticism of her father and past might be due as much to her immense writing talent as to her childhood challenges.

watch the trailer:

 


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

July 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Counting the original in 1968, this is the ninth Planet of the Apes film (sourced from the Pierre Boulle novel), and the third in the most recent reimagining – including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). That’s almost 50 years of talking apes questioning the role, purpose and intent of humans. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) is back after ‘Dawn’ and clearly has an affinity for the characters and the continuing saga. This one is by far the most personal … if that’s the right term when applied to a species other than persons!

Opening with the film’s best battle scene (and perhaps the most superb and vivid of the franchise); the film stuns us with the realism of apes on horseback and searing violence that rivals any war film. We are immediately drawn in by the thrilling and intimate battle scenes, and the accompanying adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful and heart-pounding opening that will surely satisfy even the most demanding action-oriented fans. This is also when we notice that Michael Giacchino’s score as a complementary thing of beauty and not just more over-the-top action film music bravado.

The great Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and dare I say, one of the most exciting and dynamic recurring characters in the movie universe. This third film belongs to Caesar and we see his intelligence, personality and skills have evolved in each. His human nemesis this time is Woody Harrelson in Colonel Kurtz psycho-war lord mode. In the years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a simian virus has wiped out much of the human race and now the last two human factions (one led by Harrelson) are preparing for a final epic war, while at the same time, all remaining humans are united against apes.

Apes simply want to be left alone in the forest, but humans focused on their destruction are forcing the apes to fight. One particular attack causes Caesar to erupt in anger and strive for revenge, providing the foundation for a movie with less action than the previous two, and a more concerted focus on story and character. Some may be disappointed in this. Others (like me) will find it fascinating.

Joining Serkis/Caesar for a third round are Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice (orangutan). Also returning is Toby Kebbel as Koba – this time in a manner that really messes with Caesar’s mind. Steve Zahn steals his scenes as the comedy relief chimp known only as “bad ape”, with Judy Greer as Cornelia, and young Amiah Miller as Nova (same name as Linda Harrison in the original). Nova is a human girl who seems to fit much more with the apes than the warmongering humans. Fans of the original will also note Caesar’s son is named Cornelius (the same as Roddy McDowell’s ape in the original). Director Reeves delivers what would be a fitting end to a trilogy, but there is likely to be yet another if fans can appreciate that the series has evolved every bit as much as the apes.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

December 15, 2013

furnace1 Greetings again from the darkness. Who in the world thought this would be the right time to release this film? Between holiday shopping and the new release schedule chock full of Oscar bait, dropping this hard-edged little film into theatres was box office suicide. And what a shame that is because there is definitely an audience for this exceedingly well acted snapshot of 2008 Rust Belt misery (has quite the holiday ring to it, eh?).

furnace3 The steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania was once thriving, but is now on life support … just like the father of Rodney and Russell Baze. Casey Affleck plays Rodney, the brother who viewed enlisting in the Army as his way out of Braddock. When we meet him, he is about to leave for his 4th tour in the Iraq war. Russell (Christian Bale) is the more grounded, trying to do right brother. Russell dutifully works in the mill while trying to make a life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).

Since life never hands folks in these towns a break, Russell ends up in prison, Rodney’s fourth tour leaves him scarred physically and emotionally, the dad dies, the girlfriend bolts, and the sleazy drug and crime world congregate right on top of the brothers’ heads. Rodney goes deeper into the ugly world of bare-knuckle fighting in an attempt to pay off his gambling debt to a local crime head played by Willem Dafoe (in yet another reptilian role). If you think cockfighting furnace2is merciless, the bare-knuckle fights held in backwoods Appalachian Mountains make that look like child’s play … and no tamales! The film is at its best when the nastiest of all these characters is on screen. Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat (great character name!), the soulless crime and drug lord of the area, who also runs (and fixes) these brutal fights. Harrelson is at his most menacing here, and even has Dafoe’s character a bit jumpy. Harlan DeGroat has no redeeming values, and admits to having “a problem with everybody”.

The story itself is quite predictable, but Bale, Affleck and Harrelson keep us glued to the screen. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Dafoe have moments, but mostly their characters are underwritten here. Sam Shepard adds blue collar royalty as the uncle of the Baze boys. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) re-wrote Brad Ingelsby’s script, and it suffers from leaving us wanting more in regards to background and makeup of these characters. Still, the strong performances and the excellent score from Dickon Hinchliffe, keep us engaged and make this grimy, hopeless world something we can’t turn away from.

**NOTE: for a prime example of why so many of us consider Christian Bale one of the finest actors working today, check out the way he reacts to his release from prison … breathing fresh air for the first time, nervous energy that goes with freedom, pure joy in seeing his brother.

SEE THIS MOVIE: if you are looking for a movie that absolutely should not be viewed over the holidays, but you get a kick out of hillbilly evil

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the family is looking for a light-hearted, feel good flick for group viewing after a day of feasting on the Christmas beast and opening presents.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClzRVlMhU2E


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

November 24, 2013

hunger1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s quite clear I am not the target audience for Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy or the corresponding movies that are packing in the teenagers and young adults. Still, I’ll admit to enjoying the first movie … and am even a bit more impressed by this second entry. Having a female heroine that is young, strong, smart, loyal, and emotionally grounded is not just unusual, but also quite a welcome change of pace.

Any uproar over missing/adapted elements from the source books can be chalked up to the young readers who haven’t yet come to understand that a 2 hour movie cannot possibly relay all the details and imagination held within the written page. In fact, co-hunger3screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBrauyn (aka Michael Arndt of Toy Story 3 fame) do an excellent job of balancing the numerous elements contained within the story: a fascist government, the off-kilter romances, family bonds, and the early stages of a revolution/uprising. This sequel features a new and much better suited director in Francis Lawrence, known for I Am Legend.

What really makes this material click on screen is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Her Mockingjay becomes the symbol of hope for the many districts intimidated by the iron fist rule of the President, played by the menacing Donald Sutherland. Ms. Lawrence is an absurdly talented actress and is one of the rare few who can convey a multitude of hunger2emotions through facial expressions alone. Despite Katniss’ sometimes prickly personality, the audience connects with her in a most positive manner.

In addition to Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Sutherland, returning to the fold are Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (still lacking even an ounce of screen presence), Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (giving a bit more effort this time around), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother (seen recently as Abby in “Ray Donovan“), Willow Shields as Prim, Liam Hemsworth as Gale (his most exciting scene is washing his hands), and of course the instant electricity and energy provided by Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar – two of the most colorful characters this side of 1970’s era Elton John.

hunger4 New to this chapter are two of the finest actors working today: Philip Seymour Hoffman as game designer Plutarch Heavensbee, and Jeffrey Wright as “Volts” from the “nuts and volts” duo with Amanda Plummer. Jena Malone tries, but is miscast as Johanna, and Sam Claflin has a couple of worthy moments as Finnick. Two of the best additions are the frightening killer baboons and the Black Swan-style wedding dress. Both make eye-opening entries.

There is much to like about this series thus far, but of course, one must accept it for the genre it represents. And fair warning – see the two Hunger Games movies in order … or don’t bother. Regardless of your take on this franchise – may the odds be ever in your favor.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you have seen and enjoyed the first one OR you want to see some angry baboons take on a group who just escaped a fog bank that would make John Carpenter jealous.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you skipped The Hunger Games.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAzGXqJSDJ8