Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A BOLO for Justice

Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri

Guest blogger extraordinaire Bill Clark

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), takes us along Mildred Hayes’ journey as she deals with the unsolved murder-rape of her teenage daughter. Brilliantly played by Frances McDormand, bereaved mother, Mildred, decides to take on the avuncular police chief Bill Willoughby  (played by Woody Harrelson), after a year of apparent police inattention). She pays for three road-side billboards with provocative Burma Shave-like titles asking for justice from Chief Willoughby.

The billboards trigger a chain of events that sets Mildred at war not only against the Chief Willoughby, but also the citizens of Ebbing who side with him. The drama intensifies as Mildred becomes more and more frustrated in finding justice. She precariously veers into vengeance as she seeks answers for her daughter’s brutal death. [It is difficult not to mention spoilers here!]

The film’s sparkling dialogue lights up the dark corners of Mildred’s psyche, as we can visualize her torment, as well as offers a welcome counterpoint to the underlying suffering of her journey. Three Billboards navigates a mother’s necessary journey toward a place of hope that she doesn’t expect. Three Billboards is definitely a trip worth the price of a ticket, most especially for the astounding Frances McDormand, whose Oscar-worthy performance is favored to win.

The Beguiled–Bewitched and Possessed

 

The Beguiled

In Sophia Coppola’s reinterpretation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film by the same name, The Beguiled opens with an eleven-year-old girl gathering mushrooms in her straw basket deep in a quiet wood in Virginia. Conjuring an image of Little Red Riding Hood soon coming upon a big bad wolf, we see her discover the wounded John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier in the midst of the Civil War. The child decides to take him back to her girls’ boarding school. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is reluctant but feels a moral obligation to tend to him. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher locks McBurney in the music room, terrified of what could be a menace to their highly secluded and precarious lifestyle. In a series of lovingly erotic shots of headmistress Martha’s bathing Farrell’s chest, forearms, calves, and neck as she ministers to his injuries, the viewer sees a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Meanwhile, the students—especially the sexually blossoming teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), huddle by the door, to get at least a brief glimpse of probably the only man to ever visit the boarding school. Aware of McBurney’s sexual drive as well as their own (albeit sometimes subconsciously), each girl except the youngest who is eleven, preens in front of him: with pearl earrings, a formal dress, or bearing small gifts. Miss Martha looks at all of this in horror, but raging hormones are everywhere.

McBurney is a shape-shifter, and his foil are the two adult women: Martha and Edwina. At times respectful or seductive, compassionate or manipulative, sometimes earnest, McBurney manages to be both for each resident.

The Beguiled is just that: hypnotic, mesmerizing, and unsettling. With each scene– fleeting, things unsaid, –there are repressed emotions and dreams, a stultifying code of norms for girls and women. The drama is internal–expressed in the cinematography by the placement of scenes within the boundaries of the boarding school. Perhaps symbolic of the interior life of the female realm where women, confined by their circumstances, can only be independent when the male lies powerless, the viewer sees what happens when women, unaccustomed to this power, react. The mere presence of a man unexpectedly and violently alters their group dynamic.

The pacing for this historical drama is at times slow. However, The Beguiled is worth watching, especially for the originality of Sophia Coppola’s world view. Both Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst infuse humor and intensity into their roles, giving performances that are perfectly interwoven. This is perhaps Colin Farrell’s best performance yet. And Elle Fanning is a wonder, embodying teenage sexuality, giving heat through her languid gestures, evoking a boredom on the verge of explosion.

The Beguiled rages with what lies underneath the surface. This is Sophia Coppola at her very best.

 

Note:  Currently available on Netflix (DVD)

 

Lady Bird– A Girl’s Flight from Home

Lady Bird movie

by Guest Blogger Bill Clark, photographer, mixed media artist, and fellow movie fiend

“Lady Bird” should have another title. For those of us who remember LBJ’s wife, nicknamed Lady Bird, this title confuses a potential audience.]

Greta Gerwig (first-time director and screenwriter,) takes us on the journey of seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan (of Brooklyn fame; see my review of March 1, 2016 ) , as she navigates parent-child dynamics and the social complexities of her Catholic high school upbringing in Sacramento, California. Set in 2002-2003, the film’s warm colors cast a nostalgic look onto Sacramento, described by Lady Bird as the “Midwest of California.” but Gerwig does not let the film drift into a saccharine coming-of-age story.

We quickly witness sharply worded exchanges between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion McPherson, (the superb Laurie Metcalf, Tony award-winning actress for the 2016 Broadway play, “Doll House Part II” and the much older TV sitcom, “Roseanne”). Lady Bird wants to leave and “go where’s there’s culture, someplace like New York or New Hampshire.” So, they spar mercilessly over Lady Bird’s future after high school.

Her mother, tightly wound, overworked and the daughter of an abusive alcoholic mother, can’t let go of her past. Trying to keep her family financially afloat since the father (Tracy Letts, playwright of “August:Osage County” and actor in “Homeland”) lost his job, she tries to lower the bar for Lady Bird’s dreams but her communication is sometimes unintentionally brutal. Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) supports her through the tortuous teenage angst involving sex, popularity and parents.

Gerwig exposes the emotional sinew of an intelligent adolescent woman from a struggling working class family as she heroically wobbles through managing to be true to herself while trying to repair a tattered, tender relationship with her damaged mother.

Based partly upon her own Catholic upbringing in Sacramento, Gerwig has said that she hopes that, after seeing Lady Bird, viewers will call Mom or Dad, brother or sister, daughter or son. I did.

Mudbound–Mired in the Mississippi Delta

 

Mudbound the movie

Set in the Deep South in1939 and then fast-forwarding to World War II, Mudbound is an epic of two families–one white (McAllan) and one black (Jackson)–who are severely constrained by the Jim Crow laws and customs in Alabama. The two McAllan brothers, Henry and Jamie, epitomize Cain and Abel. The Jacksons are sharecroppers bravely facing the disconnect between their dreams and the dangerous obstacles set before them.

Mudbounds main plot focuses on Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedland) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), decorated war heroes who, upon returning, are misfits in their hometown. As their friendship grows tighter, so do the menacing threats surrounding them. One subplot moves into sibling rivalry between Jamie and his brother; another into Henry’s brutal and defeated temperament, which affects his marriage to Laura (Carrie Mulligan).

Mudbound challenges our concepts of friendship, family, and marriage. Sometimes the story is predictable, even clichéd. There are also difficult scenes to watch. Yet, the retelling of this story is crucial, lest we forget. The military, out of necessity, gave responsibility to both black and white soldiers, albeit in segregated troops. It is the “welcome home” racism that is portrayed in all its hypocrisy and disrespect for heroes of color. ln addition, the French and Belgian openness in attitude and behavior towards black soldiers are in stark contrast to what Ronsel Jackson has to face in Alabama.

A history to remember, Mudbound showcases superb acting from an ensemble cast of up-and-coming actors who engage us enough that we can overlook a script that should have been better. In an unexpected scene-stealing performance, Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop and soul, is virtually unrecognizable, as Florence Jackson. She gives as much soul to her subtle, heart-wrenching performance as the best, more experienced actresses.   A Netflix Original, this new addition to the genre focused on racial inequality deserves to be watched by all interested in history and family saga.

Goodbye Christopher Robin – The Story Behind Winnie the Pooh

Guest Blogger, Mary Marcus, is a movie lover and enthusiastic reviewer.

Repressed feelings and isolation are channeled through writing what would be a children’s classic about a young boy and his animal friends in this historical drama, Goodbye Christopher Robin.

England after the First World War had rigid social rules and manners for the upper class, in an affectless culture. A.A. Milne came back from the war broken but unable to talk about the trauma he experienced.

A writer (of the beloved Winnie the Pooh series) and playwright, Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson of Revenant), experiencing PTSD, moves to the country with his family. Caring for his son on his own, he and his son relate through a fantasy world of oddly named and imaginary animals. It is then that Winnie the Pooh and his magical world are discovered.

Post-WW I is a world of longing, deep emotion, unexpressed love, fear and anxiety, social problems, public school bullying, economic issues, and anti-war sentiment. It is this atmosphere that gives birth to an escape in the form of books about charming animals and a child, Christopher Robin.

A secondary theme is connection. The author’s son Christopher watches his emotionally distant father’s violent and traumatic reaction to noise. The boy wants to connect with his father but is fearful of him. Feeling abandoned he pushes his father to play with him in the woods. They build structures together for imaginary animals and through their creations, share a common reality and friendship.

The connection as well as disconnection alternate between Milne and his son. The private son-father moments become public with the publication of Winnie the Pooh. Christopher feels exploited that his name is used and that his favorite bear becomes Winnie the Pooh. The relationship starts to deteriorate when Christopher sees that the attention he receives from his father is tied to the book and its sales.

Winnie the Pooh
THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH

At the end of the Second World War father and son are reunited and the viewer sees what happens to the adult Christopher and how he related to his legacy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a gentle, beautiful, anti-war film and a narrative of a father-son bonding in difficult times.

NOTE: “The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 41 million: there were over 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. The total number of deaths includes from 9 to 11 million military personnel and about 5 to 6 million civilians…” Wikipedia

“What If”–She Doesn”t Understand?

What If the movie

What If  is a charming romantic comedy perfect for the holidays. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) as Wallace and Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”) as Chantry, What If is a well-written story about two millennials who meet at a party and unexpectedly decide to start a friendship. Wallace is emotionally damaged from a failed romance with a doctor while both were in med school. He dropped out, and now is languishing in an unsatisfying and boring job, still moping over a year later. Chantry, a quirky intellectual artist who works for an animation studio, lives with her longtime boyfriend who is a high-power international negotiator.

Both Chantry and Wallace are somewhat awkward socially and emotionally wobbly, but blossom in each other’s company, discussing arcane topics that no one else seems interested in.

Canadian screenwriter and novelist Elan Mastai has written a sharp and clever comedy, balancing laughs with heart. Suggesting the tentative sweetness of changing the territory of the “friendzone” and the “love triangle”, What If asks the question: What does it mean to fall in love with your best friend?

The romantic comedy genre seems to be criticized a lot. There are plenty of cheesy films but What If is a gem. It’s well-written and a romantic comedy done right. Like most movies of this genre, you know how this movie progresses. However, What If still has some fresh moments, including the near universal (?) awkwardness for the woman (and maybe the man) in using the bathroom in the friend’s apartment. The scene is hilarious and endearing at the same time.

The dialogue stands out, alive with surprising turns and turbo-charged zingers as honest conversations poured out stemming from love, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings.

There is an undeniable charm in the ensemble cast’s performances (including Adam Driver). Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan bring soul and chemistry to the human connection they both are afraid of but want so desperately. My only negative comments are that neither the subplot with Chantry’s mother doesn’t contribute to the story’s momentum nor does the intrusive clips of animation. The overall structure of the story, however, with a nice “bookending” of first and last scenes is outstanding.

What If is worth watching as delightful, feel-good entertainment. If you’re looking for an intelligent–not cheesy– comedy to watch during the holidays (don’t wait until Valentine’s Day), rent What If.

Note: Available on Netflix

 

The Florida Project: Finding the Magic Kingdom

 

The Florida Project

[Another great review by guest blogger:  Bill Clark,  award-winning photographer, printmaker, writer, political activist and proud grandfather of four wonderful grandchildren. See his first review: “Faces Places–A Journey of the Heart”, October 23, 2017]

My six-year-old granddaughter’s first e-mail complained that her older brother was telling everyone her “sekrids.” I wondered what kind of secrets a loved, well-cared for and healthy child could have. After viewing The Florida Project I now know secrets a child may have who lives in poverty near Orlando, Florida and Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The Florida Project is sad, funny, happy, heart-breaking and most of all, unforgettable.

Director Sean Baker deftly reveals the hidden world of six-year-old Moonee, the only child of her free-spirited single mom, Halley.   They live in an extended-stay motel, the Magic Castle Inn, targeting low-income families.

Moonee (brilliantly played by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) leads her pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valerie Cotto) through a series of adventures over the course of a summer – no summer camps for them. For example, they manage to cage money in front of a soft-serve ice cream joint so the three can share one ice cream cone. They thread their way through the garish souvenir stores that line strip malls along Seven Dwarfs Way until Moonee brings them to a pasture where cattle are grazing. “See! I brought you on a safari.”

Moonee takes her friend to a gigantic fallen cypress. Straddling the huge limbs, Moonee tells her friend a secret. “This is my favorite tree because it’s tipped over but keeps on growing.” This may be Moonee’s life.

Episodic without a traditional narrative arc, The Florida Project tracks the children from scene to scene demonstrating their resilience, independence, boredom and, occasionally, petty crimes. Moonee’s mother, Halley (a breakout performance by Bria Vinaite), loves Moonee, but unable to hold a job or manage her anger, Halley ultimately fails her young daughter.

Veteran actor Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, manager of the motel, who does his best to protect Moonee, and all the other impoverished residents. More the kindly innkeeper than harsh rule enforcer, Bobby desires to make the residents’ lives better, or at least bearable, as they live in abject poverty.

A beautiful ending sums up The Florida Project–an ending I won’t disclose.

 

 

The Staircase–A Fall to the Bottom

 

The Staircase tv series

The Staircase, about a cold case murder that is resurrected again and again, is a crime thriller rivaling James Patterson. Filmed by Academy Award-winning French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, we see a gripping courtroom drama, offering an intimate look at a high-profile murder trial and the family of the accused. Reminiscent of the groundbreaking “reality” series, An American Family, from the seventies, author Michael Peterson is arraigned for the 2001 murder of his second wife, Kathleen, whose body was discovered lying in a pool of blood on the stairway of their Durham, North Carolina home. The Staircase is not only an engrossing look at contemporary American justice that features more twists than a bestselling crime thriller, but also is an intimate glimpse into the world of the privileged and entitled, who seem bewildered by the entire judicial system. The filmmakers had unusual access to the Peterson family within weeks of Kathleen’s death. We are invited behind the curtain but we don’t know why such total access was given.

The court case generated widespread interest at the time, and continues to do so with a second documentary scheduled for release this year. The Staircase details Peterson’s legal and personal troubles in eight 45-minute episodes edited from more than 600 hours of footage. The trial seems to have centered on varying analyses of blood spatter by both the defense and prosecution. The character of Michael Peterson is also put on trial.

 The Staircase was just re-broadcast by Sundance and Netflix to target today’s audience interested in shows like Making a Murderer and The Keepers  (see my July 1, 2017 review). Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Michael Peterson, the novelist, is purportedly planning to write a book about his experience with the judicial system. See for yourself —The Staircase is almost impossible to believe!

 

Faces Places: A Journey of the Heart

 

[Guest blogger:  Bill Clark,  award-winning Photographer, printmaker, writer, political activist and proud grandfather of four wonderful grandchildren, not to mention their parents, living in Oceanside, North County San Diego, California]

“All beginnings are beautiful,” Agnès Varda, famed French New Wave director (Cléo from 5 to 7), tells JR, a much-admired French photographer, muralist and street artist, who also is her co-director and co-star in the new French documentary, Faces Places (Visages, Villages)

The two artists, although separated by over 50 years of age, take a road trip together through the rural villages of France, including a side trip to the huge port of Le Havre.

Their goal: to make images. Loading JR’s wide-format photos onto his truck, they paste images onto buildings, ship containers, water towers, railroad tank cars—virtually any outdoor space. Guided by Varda’s genius for choosing shooting locations and use of non-professional actors, the two artists memorialize the “ordinary” people they encounter along the way.

Varda and JR discover and celebrate the beautiful in the “ordinary”.For example, the shy young bartender at a local bistro, mother of two, has her full-length portrait pasted on the side of a three-story building, becoming an instant “star” in her village. Her little boy tells her she is beautiful. Similarly, when an elderly woman, the last holdout in a block of row houses scheduled for demolition, sees her face — a proud image of resistance,–covering the entire front of her home, she is moved to tears, speechless.

The genius of Faces Places is the evocative themes of memory and loss, the ephemeral embedded in the permanent. Varda examines the fate of the working class, the meaning of friendship, the impact of mechanization on rural agriculture with a subtle grace and impish directorial hand.

As they travel together, Varda and JR develop a warm caring friendship. She teases him about never taking off his dark glasses (“You see things in the dark”), and he gently helps her with her chronically blurred vision. Faces Places chronicles their visual placements with lyricism and humor, always grounded in the caring portraits of the ordinary people they meet along the way.

The movie ends with a visit to Jean-Luc Godard, the father of the French New Wave cinema, and Varda’s friend (perhaps her lover?) when she was in her 30s, some 50 years earlier. She brings a bag of his favorite brioches.

Faces Places is a true treasure to be seen and cherished.

“The Big Sick”–A Prescription for Love

The Big Sick is a winner. One of my favorite movies this year! It just may be the breakout comedy of 2017 as well.

Romance, cultural conflict, things unsaid–based on a true story, The Big Sick takes on the theme of how family bonds can break when their adult children’s relationships are not what the parents wish for. The Big Sick raises the question: What’s more important– your significant other or your family? Tackling complex issues of family obligation, The Big Sick also infuses humor and grace in much of the witty and well-written dialogue.

The central character is Kumail (played by Kumail Nanjiani of “Silicon Valley”), a Pakistani-born stand-up comedian struggling to become successful as he works part-time as an Uber driver while waiting to be discovered in a Chicago comedy club. In the audience is a psychology grad student, Emily Gardner, who is seemingly “white bread”. They begin a relationship, but seem not to be fully committed.

Will Emily’s parents have as much difficulty accepting Kumail as his parents have difficulty accepting Emily? The twists are surprising and unexpected. Kumail finds himself forced to decide between pleasing his parents who desire to arrange a marriage with a Pakistani girl or accepting his feelings towards Emily. The young couple’s situation spins out of control when Emily becomes extremely ill and Kumail has to deal with her parents.

Kumail is caught in a maelstrom of competing worlds: different cultural backgrounds and traditions, difficulties of interracial relationships and Islamophobia, sometimes unconscious but always hurtful. Kumail’s overbearing, loving family means well and so does Emily’s.   This makes The Big Sick no garden variety rom-com, but a refreshing comedy drama which confronts social and political controversies head on.

The script manages to balance the serious and the comedic without resorting to a hint of sentimentality. Emily (Zoe Kazan), Emily’s mother (Holly Hunter) and her dad (Ray Romano) and Kumail’s parents– Anupam Kher as the father and Zenobia Shroff as the mother– are all lovable, well-intentioned, and deeply flawed. The mothers especially tear up the screen with their fierce performances. The entire ensemble cast–including minor family members and friends–are simply extraodinary.

You will laugh, you will be close to tears and you might engage in own introspection after watching The Big Sick. Brilliantly written and beautifully acted, this one is from the heart. It works so successfully on many different levels and that is a rare achievement, especially for comedy, which in my opinion, is the most difficult to write.

You have to see this one!

Beauty and the Beast – Be Our Guest

Beauty and the Beast movieIn this 2017 live action remake from the 1991 animated film, both by Walt Disney Pictures, we see the familiar and delightful eighteenth-century fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.   Beauty and the Beast grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of 2017 and the 10th highest-grossing film of all time.

The cast for this “tale as old as time” is a dream one:  Emma Watson (“Hermione” from the Harry Potter films), Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”), the outstanding veterans Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson and the luminous voice and talent of Audra McDonald.

Of all the new additions to this version of Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle gives a winning performance as the intelligent, strong-willed, book-loving beauty, and has a surprisingly charming clear singing voice.  The Beast is so camouflaged, it is a shock when he is revealed as Dan Stevens after the curse is lifted.  (Liam Neeson would have been expected instead.)  And the other animated characters (a singing candelabra, tea pot, clock, clattering armoire, and a harpsichord) are humorous to behold as they appear as Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci respectively.

Beauty and the Beast is sheer enchantment with exquisite costumes, a few new songs, visuals and cinematography to support the  outstanding ensemble cast. Seeing the “Be Our Guest” musical scene in the large dining room has almost inconceivable CGI effects. How did they produce the details so seamlessly?  They are flat-out amazing and impeccably match the animated version with dancing candelabra, feathers, dishes, and a kaleidoscopic collage of all elements from the dinner table.

For the integration  of animated and live action scenes, this is a must for film buffs.

Note:  The realistic scenes of battle and mob psychology may be too frightening for those under eight years old, depending upon the child.  For adults, the disturbing mob will seem unsettling and unfortunately all too familiar.

Wind River — Chilling and Icy, Drifting in the Snow

Wind River movieA tense police procedural and neo-Western, Wind River opens on an icy, moonlit, Wyoming landscape. Writer, producer and director, Taylor Sheridan (the 2016 Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water as well as Sicario) has created another winner.

A terrified Native American teenage girl is running in the snow, barefoot and bleeding.  She falls face down, gets up, and runs for six miles before dying from blood filling her lungs.  That chilling scene is the opening scene in the true story of Wind River.

On the Wind River Arapaho Reservation we see the main character, Cory (played by Jeremy Renner), barely visible in his white camouflage gear tracking predators in glaring, snow-blinding bright sun. As a US Fish and Wildlife agent on the reservation, the last dead body he expects to find is that of a young woman.  He tracks wolves and mountain lions.   The lethal cold of Wyoming and the barren natural beauty of its landscape stand in stark contrast to each other:  a dangerous and forlorn but beautiful wilderness.

Cory is a man of few words and enormous pain. After losing a teenage daughter himself, he is now estranged from his Native American wife (Julia Jones) but remains devoted to both her and their son, Casey (Teo Briones).

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson from “Ingrid Goes West” ) flies in from Las Vegas in a severe snow storm to investigate the suspicious death. Sheriff Ben (the astonishing Graham Greene of “Dances with Wolves” and The Green Mile”) must arrange for Jane to  borrow winter clothes from one of the local Arapaho women. Jane soon becomes a quick-study in the harsh life on the reservation.

Wind River paints a searing picture of life on society’s margins. Renner and Olsen’s characters both realize that the sense of loss due to a young girl’s death is not the only loss.  The cycle of hopelessness and poverty desperately pile up, deep as snow drifts. Outsiders who exploit the natural resources on the reservation and the Arapaho, who feel trapped, reveal a part of society that has long since been forgotten, sometimes willfully so.

Life is tough and the people even tougher.  The characters are flawed but relatable. However, a fuller backstory could have created a  beating heart to Wind River that would have contributed to the whodunit plot.  As a  suspense thriller, the violence, revenge, and clues gear the reader for the inevitable dispensing of a frontier “cowboy” justice. It’s a harrowing movie to watch, especially the flashback to the crime itself, but a number of plot holes keep the ending from being entirely convincing or satisfying.  I still recommend this film for its  exposure to life on a  reservation and the tragedies that remain unreported.

Note:  At the end of Wind River, there is a note that thousands of Native American women go missing with no reporting or statistics maintained:  “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.”  Other research shows that the murder rate for Native American women is estimated to be as much as ten times the national average.