PHANTOM THREAD (2017) – Meticulous Period Piece Romance Tells Unusual Love Story


phantom thread poster

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) puts an exclamation point on the idea that you have to work hard to make a relationship last.

Make that two exclamation points.

In 1950s London, dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the top of the food chain for dressmakers.  He designs dresses for the most important people in England, from the wealthy to celebrities to royalty. They all come to the House of Woodcock for quality dresses. Reynolds is firmly set in his ways, loves his routine, and avoids all distractions in order to remain completely focused on his work.

He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who sees to it that his routine is not disturbed any way. He is also a confirmed bachelor, and we witness early on a scene over breakfast, where his current young girlfriend laments that she no longer has his attention.  He admits that she is right, and Cyril promptly dismisses the young woman to live somewhere else.  Thus is the daily life of Reynolds and Cyril.

But when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and brings her home, things are different. Alma is a strong-willed woman who, when inevitably asked by Cyril to leave, refuses. Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work, and she’s not ready to leave him. And when she realizes the main problem with Reynolds is that he doesn’t need her, she takes it upon herself to remedy that situation.  She takes a drastic action, with the intention of seeing to it that when all is said and done, Reynolds will indeed need her, and she will be there for him.

And it works. But for how long?

PHANTOM THREAD is one strange love story. It takes several twists and turns where you’re simply not sure where the story is going to go, how certain characters are going to react, and in doing so it’ll make you uncomfortable as you are going along for the ride. But by the time it is over and you see how it ultimately turns out, you kinda nod your head and acknowledge “I kinda liked how that all turned out.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson sets the tone early on with meticulous scenes of Reynolds at work. The dressmaker is so focused on his craft watching him work is akin to watching an artist painting a portrait or a master chef in the kitchen. The attention to detail is second to none.

The entire film looks great, from the sets to the costumes, Anderson brings 1950s London to life.

But the strongest part of PHANTOM THREAD are the performances.

Daniel Day Lewis is masterful as Reynolds Woodcock. He brings this eccentric character to life, and better yet despite Reynolds being a complicated person, Lewis makes him someone who the audience understands.  You pretty much know throughout what Reynolds is thinking and feeling.

And while I also enjoyed Vicky Krieps as Alma, her take on the character is less clear, and this may be a fault of the writing more than Krieps’ acting,  because as Alma, she’s fantastic.  Alma is this quiet unassuming young woman who Reynolds meets waiting tables at a restaurant, and when she comes home with him, she seems to absolutely love him.  She’s also very strong-willed in her own quiet way, and as such, she is not intimated by Reynold’s eccentricities or Cyril’s cold orders.  She more than holds her own.

But what’s less clear is when things go south, and Alma decides it’s time for action, is she still in love with Reynolds, or is she fed up with him?  Now, the movie eventually makes this crystal clear, but for a time, her intentions are murky, and that’s because unlike Reynolds who the audience knows very well, Alma is less understood until later in the movie.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as the icy cold Cyril, and in Manville’s hands she’s more than simply a one note cold-hearted enabler of her brother.  She’s a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and goals. In fact, one of the better sequences of the film comes when she admits to Reynolds that she’s “rather fond of Alma” and shortly thereafter shifts loyalties much to the surprise of her brother.

Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville have received Oscar nominations, Lewis for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Manville for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.  Both are deserving.

Paul Thomas Anderson has also been nominated for Best Director, and the film itself is up for Best Picture.

That being said,  I can’t say I really enjoyed PHANTOM THREAD all that much.  I loved the costumes, the cinematography, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ exquisite performance as Reynolds Woodcock. But the love story didn’t exactly work for me.

For a long time, close to two-thirds of this movie, while I knew where Reynolds was coming from, I was far less clear about Alma’s motives and intentions. Did she really love Reynolds? What would she do when he pushed her away like all his other girlfriends? These questions are not answered until late in the film, and when they are answered, the film is better for it, but as a result of this ambiguity the movie is rather uneven.

It’s also a rather bizarre love story.  If you have to go to the lengths which Alma does to get your lover to pay attention to you, is it really worth it? In this case, the answer seems to be yes, but it seems so far removed from reality that admittedly I had trouble completely buying into this plot point.

Also, for a love story, it’s not really that emotional of a movie.  In fact, it does a far better job of getting you to think than getting you to feel.  It’s the thinking person’s love story. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s the best formula for a movie romance.

At the end of the day, PHANTOM THREAD is a meticulously crafted period piece romance that also happens to be a very unusual love story. It leans heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance as Reynolds Woodcock, much more so than on Vicky Krieps’ Alma, the result being an uneven tale that gets better when it finally decides to let its audience into the minds of both its lead characters.




I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice



The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.







MOLLY’S GAME (2017) – High Stakes Poker Tale Plays Close to the Vest


Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

MOLLY’S GAME (2017), based on the true story of Olympic-class skier Molly Bloom who after a devastating injury which ended her skiing career went on to run some of the most expensive high stakes poker games in the world, and was subsequently prosecuted by the FBI, begs the question: are all “true stories” created equal?

The answer obviously is no, and most of the time movie makers get this right and don’t film stories not worth telling.  Here, in MOLLY’S GAME, I’m not so sure.

After a freak accident on the ski slopes ends her career and spoils her shot at making the Olympic team, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) moves to California to get as far away from her father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) as possible.  While he had always been hard on her, the main reason she can’t stand him is he cheated on her mom.

She lands a job as a cocktail waitress where she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) a shadowy guy who hires her to be his personal secretary, a position that opens up the door for her to assist him with his high stakes poker game he runs every week, a game that attracts all sorts of celebrities, including a popular actor named only in the movie as Player X (Michael Cera).

After a falling out with Dean, Molly sets up shop on her own, and suddenly she’s the one running the high stakes poker game. Under her guidance, the game continues to grow, but after she moves it to New York, to attract even wealthier players, trouble brews, as she runs afoul of the Russian mob, the Italian mafia, and illegal drug use, eventually catching the attention of the FBI.

The story is told largely through flashback, as she tells her story to her attorney Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba).

MOLLY’S GAME is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, known for his thought-provoking scripts for such films as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), to name a couple, and more so, for his classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006). It’s an impressive debut.

The writing is top-notch and is full of snappy quick-paced dialogue, which is no surprise since Sorkin also wrote the script, based on the book Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom.

The acting is also excellent.  Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are two of my favorite actors working today.  In the lead role as Molly Bloom, Jessica Chastain knocks it out of the park, and her performance is the best part of this movie.  She makes Molly Bloom a compelling character, and I was more than interested in following her story.

Chastain has already delivered a host of notable performances, in such films as ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE HELP (2011), INTERSTELLAR 2014), and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few.

Likewise, Idris Elba has also delivered a lot of excellent performances, although his best work is clearly on the TV show LUTHER (2010-2018) in which he plays DCI John Luther and he’s been phenomenal in the role for the entirety of the show’s run.

Strangely, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Chastain and Elba here.  Not that they were romantically involved, but in terms of plot, at first Elba’s attorney Charlie Jaffey wants no part of Molly’s case, but eventually he changes his mind, because he believes there’s more to her story than what he’s read in the tabloids, and it’s this part of the story that’s missing.  I was never convinced that Charlie would have changed his mind about Molly. I didn’t buy his change of heart because I never really saw him have that lightbulb moment where he realizes, I can defend this woman.  It’s supposed to be when he realizes that she’s had numerous opportunities to make lots of money off her story and has turned them all down, a reflection of her integrity as a person.  I understood this as a plot point, but I never felt it through Charlie’s character.

This was a major sticking point for me throughout the entire movie.  I understood it all, but all of it left me feeling rather empty.  The story worked intellectually, but not emotionally.

The cast is full of familiar faces who all do a wonderful job in their roles.  Kevin Costner is sufficiently cold and demanding as Molly’s psychologist dad Larry, who’s not going to win any father of the year awards.

Jeremy Strong is slimy and sexist as Dean Keith. Strong has been in a bunch of movies of late, including appearances in DETROIT (2017), THE BIG SHORT (2015), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

Michael Cera makes for a very unlikable Player X, while Chris O’Dowd makes for a rather likable Douglas Downey, a regular at the table who’s almost always drunk and who has affable conversations with Molly after the games. I like O’Dowd a lot, and he’s made similar impressions in films like ST. VINCENT (2014) and THE SAPPHIRES (2012).

Likewise, Brian D’Arcy James is memorable as Brad, nicknamed “Bad Brad” because he was the worst player at the table and lost regularly. D’Arcy James also appeared in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and most recently on the TV series 13 REASONS WHY (2017-18).

So, in MOLLY’S GAME, you have acting, writing, and directing that are all excellent, and yet, when it was all said and done, I found myself asking a big so what?

And that “so what?” refers to Molly’s story.  I enjoyed Jessica Chastain in the lead role, and I enjoyed learning about Molly Bloom, and her character is certainly interesting, but her story?  I dunno. For a while, it’s fascinating, and it’s certainly worthwhile learning about a woman who made it her mission to outwork powerful men and beat them at their own game.

All of this I liked, but the film, like some of the players sitting around the table, plays things close to the vest, and as a result it was difficult to gage just what people were feeling and why they were feeling it. And the story itself suffers for it, because it never really becomes alive or makes a compelling argument to its audience that this story needs to be told.  Ultimately, I agree with the judge at the end of the story who in making his ruling suggests that this whole case was much ado about nothing.

At the end of the day, there is just something missing here, and that something is heart. MOLLY’S GAME has little emotional connection with its audience. Intellectually, I understood and appreciated Molly’s story, and I enjoyed watching a story about a woman getting the upper hand over powerful and sexist men.  But emotionally, I never felt much for any of the characters, including Molly.  Molly should have been an extremely sympathetic character here, but she’s not.  The writing doesn’t allow her to be.

As such, I never felt a connection to Charlie Jaffey’s character, and I never believed his reasons for taking Molly’s case.  Moreover, I never felt the fear Molly should have felt being arrested by the FBI, or earlier the jubilation for a job well done running the high stakes poker game.  Maybe it’s because for Molly, there wasn’t much to feel.  The herculean effort it took for her to organize and run these games left her exhausted and got her addicted to drugs.

Or maybe it’s because in terms of stories, it’s just not one that pulls at the heartstrings.

I don’t know.

I do know that MOLLY’S GAME is a well-directed, expertly written, and professionally acted movie that held my interest for its 140 minute running time, but when it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just watched a genuinely compelling story, or if like some of the players at the table in the movie, I had fallen victim to a monumental bluff.




DARKEST HOUR (2017) – Gary Oldman Brings Winston Churchill to Life


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017)

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

And in England in May 1940, it sure was dark. The Nazis were poised to invade, and there seemed to be no viable solution other than surrender.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) chronicles Winston Churchill’s first few tumultuous days as England’s Prime Minister during this frightening time.

It’s the early days of World War II, and Hitler’s Nazi machine is stomping through Europe, and nations are falling like dominoes. The British leadership expresses zero confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose peace policies allowed Hitler to get this far undeterred. When Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is selected as his successor.

It’s a controversial choice as Churchill is not well-liked and is viewed with skepticism. He’s known to speak his mind, drinks daily, smokes a cigar, and is marred by his own controversial decision during World War I at Gallipoli which led to the deaths of thousands of troops. But he’s chosen for political purposes, as he’s the only candidate the opposition party would accept, or as he himself surmises, perhaps it’s his enemies’ way of getting back at him, putting him in power just as the nation is about to fall.

Churchill is under tremendous pressure. He views fighting back against Hitler as the only solution, and refuses to negotiate, but this position leaves him alone politically. Both Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the man who many believe should be prime minister, view surrender and a negotiated peace as the only hope for their nation, and they have the support of not only their party but of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who admits that he finds Churchill rather “scary.”

And with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk, with no reasonable way to escape, it appears they are correct, and that Churchill has no other option than to surrender to Hitler.  But as we know, this is not what happened.  Churchill ordered a civilian fleet of small ships to mobilize and rescue the soldiers, something that was so outlandish it almost wasn’t done, but it was done, and nearly every British soldier was saved that day.

How Churchill withstood the massive political pressure to give in and how he somehow managed to get England to fight back is the incredible story told in DARKEST HOUR. And it’s one of those stories where if it wasn’t true, you probably wouldn’t believe it.

The main reason to see DARKEST HOUR is Gary Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill.  It’s as good as advertised.

Sure, the make-up department outdoes itself by transforming Oldman into the portly aged Churchill, but Oldman’s performance goes way beyond make-up. He captures not only Churchill’s eccentric personality and signature gait, but the unbelievable stress and pressure on the man, Oldman makes palpable.  He’s so effective that I found myself getting stressed out, just thinking about what Churchill was going through.

He so much wanted to fight, knowing that surrender would mean the nation would be at the mercy of a monster, Hitler, and yet, his position was seen by those in power as irresponsible. He was seen as a warmonger, someone who would get lots of people killed, when surrender would be a better option that would save lives.  And militarily his hands were tied.  When he tries to rally the French, he learns that they’ve already been beaten.  His own army, the entire army, is trapped without hope of escape at Dunkirk.

Oldman captures all of this emotion and completely brings Winston Churchill to life.

And of course, working behind make-up is nothing new for Oldman, who has made a living looking different in most of the movies he has appeared in over the years.

The rest of the film is a bit uneven. While it’s certainly interesting, it doesn’t reach out and grab you until its final emotional reel. Unlike Oldman, who’s locked in from the get-go, the rest of the film takes a while to get going.

For three-fourths of this movie, things are dark, dreary, and depressing, and it’s not until late in the film when the clouds of doom begin to lift.  There are several key scenes which effectively highlight the changing tide.  When King George realizes that he actually admires Churchill’s tenacity, and in a private meeting, when he whispers to Churchill that he has had a change of heart, that now “you have my support,” it’s one of the most satisfying rousing emotional moments in the movie.

The private conversation between Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), where she tells him that it’s because of his flaws and his experience dealing with them that’s he ready and able to deal with this impossible situation now is equally as powerful, as is the moment when Churchill learns that his young secretary Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) brother has died at Dunkirk, and he marvels at the bravery in her face when she tells him.

And my favorite scene in the film is where Churchill decides to ride the subway and talk to the people, gauging their thoughts and feelings about what to do about the inevitable Nazi invasion. And of course they tell him in no uncertain terms that they want to fight.

It’s moments like these where the script by Anthony McCarten comes alive. Earlier though, the story is much more low-key as it details the politics of Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister.  And that’s what DARKEST HOUR is mostly about, the politics of the time. The story of how Churchill would go on to lead England to victory is not told here.  This is the story of the days leading up to the time when Churchill would become that leader.   These political scenes never resonated as well with me as the more emotional moments later in the film.

This is the third film to come out in 2017 to deal with the battle of Dunkirk.  There was Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which happened to be my favorite film of 2017, and the comedy drama THEIR FINEST, which told the lighthearted story of the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk to help encourage the United States to join the war effort.  Of these three films, DARKEST HOUR is probably the least emotionally satisfying.

Director Joe Wright captures the look of World War II England brilliantly. The cars, the costumes, the sets, all bring this moment of history to life.  In terms of an entire captivating package, however, as I’ve said, it takes a while to get going.

Oldman is helped by a solid cast.  I particularly enjoyed the two female performances here.  Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clemmie.  It’s Clemmie who’s constantly pushing her husband along, encouraging him when he’s consumed with self-doubt, and while at times it’s difficult to imagine her in love with such a cantankerous character like Churchill, the love they have for each other comes through loud and clear.

I liked Lily James just as much as Churchill’s very young secretary, Elizabeth Layton.  She seems to latch onto Churchill as a father or even grandfather figure, and she too constantly encourages him to continue to lead.

Stephen Dillane is particularly convincing as Viscount Halifax, seen here as the biggest thorn in Churchill’s side.  He’s the man who most in England wanted to be the new prime minister, and he knows it and wields his power accordingly.  He’s also the biggest proponent of peace talks, and it’s interesting because his take here is one that I think most rational people would agree with, while most would indeed view Churchill as a loose cannon.  It’s easy for us today to sympathize with Churchill because we know how cruel and crazy Hitler was, but back in 1940 the world didn’t know this. Halifax is also on the receiving end of Churchill’s memorable line in the movie, “Would you stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!!!”

Likewise, Ronald Pickup makes for a weary and worn Neville Chamberlain.  And Ben Mendelsohn, who STAR WARS fans saw last year as the villainous Orson Krennic in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), is superb as King George VI.  He’s one of the few characters to change during the movie, at first seeing Churchill as a poor excuse for a leader, but later viewing the Prime Minister in a new light, when his own feelings of anger towards Hitler surface, and he suddenly wants a leader who’s willing to fight for his nation.

DARKEST HOUR is exactly what its title says it is: the darkest hour for all of Europe. It was a moment in history when the face of Europe was about to change, when a dictator was on the verge of conquering it all, and when the odds against this happening seemed so slim that the entire United Kingdom stood ready to surrender it all.  And yet, that’s not what happened, due in large part to the leadership and decisions of one man, Winston Churchill.

DARKEST HOUR tells the story of how that man survived his darkest hour to emerge as that rallying leader.

And Gary Oldman, through a remarkable performance, brings this unlikely savior to life.







Frances McDormand Outstanding in Powerfully Relevant THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

three billboards - frances mcdormand


Can a bad cop be a good man?

Can an officer of the law who spends most of his time drunk and has been known to harass people of color have redeeming qualities? Can a woman whose teen daughter was brutally raped and murdered become so hated in her community that she receives death threats because she takes aim at the local police department for failing to solve her daughter’s case?

These are just some of the serious and complicated questions posed in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), a comedy drama by writer/director Martin McDonagh, a movie that does indeed produce frequent laughter but is driven by its serious themes, which by far are the best part of this film.

Mildred (Frances McDormand), an embittered coarse woman, spies three decrepit billboards on a lonely road on the way to her home and immediately hatches the idea to use them to combat the local police department.  She seeks out the young man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs the company that owns the billboards and pays for her messages to be put up, three simple statements which pretty much accuse the local police department of not doing enough to find the person who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

Both the police department and the community as a whole take offense to Mildred’s billboards.  The very popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that his department has been doing all they can to solve the case, but some cases are harder than others, and so far they just haven’t caught a break.  He tells her the billboards are not helping, but she ignores him.  To further exacerbate the situation, Willoughby has cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, and with a wife and young children, he’s got the full support of his community, which makes people lash out at Mildred even more.

Most effected by Mildred’s actions is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oftentimes drunk officer with violent tendencies who is not above using threats and physical harm to get his job done, and he does indeed threaten Mildred.  But Willoughby defends his officer, claiming that deep down he’s “a good man.”

Mildred could give a care.  She only wants her daughter’s case solved.

With such a serious plot, you may be wondering how this can be a comedy.  The comedic elements come from the quirky townsfolk and from Mildred’s over-the-top way of dealing with them, from using a dentist drill on her dentist after he criticizes the billboards, to firebombing the police station.

The laughs also come from the language, which is vulgar and crude.  Everyone in this town, both young and old, talk like they’re related to Deadpool.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI tells a quirky story that gets better and stronger as it goes along, and its told well by writer/director Martin McDonagh.  His script is sharp and incisive with some truly biting humor, and even better, its serious themes like police brutality and vigilante justice are handled deftly.

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Mildred.  She has the weathered, determination of an army drill sergeant, and you can see in her drawn face the deep pain of having lost her daughter.  She’s particularly wounded because she and her daughter argued the night the girl was killed, and this was the last conversation she had with her daughter.

Sam Rockwell is equally as good as Officer Dixon.  At first, he makes Dixon someone you pretty much can’t stand, and Chief Willoughby’s comments that he’s a “good man” ring hollow.  But as the story goes along, and we learn more about Dixon, and we see that in spite of all his shortcomings, he really does want to do the right thing, his character becomes more sympathetic.  Rockwell is terrific in the role, and it’s saying something that he’s able to take this very unsympathetic character and give him significant depth to turn him into a guy who later in the movie the audience actually roots for.

And later when Dixon reaches out to Mildred with information about her daughter’s case, it’s not only a testament to the solid writing that this moment is believable, but to the two powerhouse performances by McDormand and Rockwell.

Woody Harrelson enjoys some fine moments early on as Chief Willoughby, but as the movie goes along the story really focuses more on Officer Dixon than the chief.

Other notable performances include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who owns the billboards and catches just as much heat as Mildred for allowing the messages to go up.

Lucas Hedges, who was outstanding in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) and who we just saw in LADY BIRD (2017), has less to do here as Mildred’s teen son Robbie.  Clarke Peters enjoys some fine moments later in the movie as the newest police official in town, who, unlike Willoughby, has no patience for the volatile Dixon.

John Hawkes is sufficiently slimy as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, and Samara Weaving is equally as good as his innocent, clueless nineteen year-old girlfriend Penelope. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Mildred looks like she’s about to verbally thrash Penelope in front of Charlie, but instead she recognizes Penelope’s innocence and she simply tells her ex-husband to be good to the girl.

The cast also features some familiar faces.  Peter  Dinklage has a small role as James, a local who has a thing for Mildred, and veteran actor Zeljko Ivanek plays the desk sergeant.  And in a very creepy performance, Christopher Berry plays an unsavory stranger in town who later becomes a person of interest in the case.  Berry was similarly creepy in a couple of episodes of THE WALKING DEAD as one of Neegan’s scouts, before he was blown up by a bazooka-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus).

Come Oscar time, you may see Frances McDormand as one of the final contenders for the Best Actress award for her performance here as Mildred.  She’s certainly one of the strongest draws of this movie.

But THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also tells a relevant and powerful story and does so while interspersing genuine laughs throughout, thanks to some quality writing and directing by Martin McDonagh.

Its story remains genuine and true to life. There are no easy answers or quick fixes or nice neatly wrapped endings.  It’s full of people who mean well but screw up all the time, and others who don’t mean well and get away with their crimes. In short, it’s all rather ugly, but as in life, the things that matter don’t exist in a vacuum.  They’re oftentimes surrounded my muck and slime.  You just have to navigate through the mess to find what you’re looking for.

Or as is the case in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, you have to go above the muck and plaster your intentions on billboards, igniting a fight that you have no intention of losing.








LADY BIRD (2017) – Truthful Coming-of-Age Tale Quirky, Uncomfortable




Saoirse Ronanter  as Lady Bird, and Laurie Metcalf as her mother in LADY BIRD (2017).

Critics are raving about LADY BIRD (2017), the new comedy-drama by first-time director Greta Gerwig.

Now, I’m a fan of Gerwig’s work as an actor, and so I was looking forward to her first film behind the camera.

LADY BIRD tells the story of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who is hell-bent on getting out of her hometown of Sacramento, California.  She wants to attend college on the east coast, which is no easy task since her dad just lost his job, and her family is really struggling with money.  She goes by the name “Lady Bird” because she says she thinks it’s crazy to accept a name given her by her parents before she was born. Yep, you can see right away that Lady Bird is an intense young woman.

She gets along well with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) but not so much with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion is a nurse, and with her husband out of a job, it’s up to her to support the family, which includes Lady Bird’s older brother and his live-in girlfriend, who’s been taken in by Lady Bird’s parents.

Marion and Lady Bird butt heads constantly, and Marion can’t seem to talk to her daughter without criticizing her. We learn why when Marion says her own mother was an abusive alcoholic, the implication to Lady Bird being that her woes are nothing in comparison.  There is also a shadow hanging over the family, as Lady Bird attends an all-girls Catholic School, and most of her friends there come from wealthy families.  The stigma that Lady Bird and her family feel about living in relative poverty is nearly palpable.

When she’s not fighting with her mother, Lady Bird is attending school and becoming involved with boys, all the while doing everything she can during her senior year to get accepted to an east coast school, which is a challenge for her not only because of her parents’ lack of money but also because of her own mediocre grades.

LADY BIRD is a largely autobiographical tale.  Writer/director Greta Gerwig also grew up in Sacramento, attended an all-girls Catholic school, and her own mom was also a nurse. Gerwig definitely knows this material and is deftly able to tell this story, which is the best part about LADY BIRD, the honest fresh way it relays its narrative.

There are some truly remarkable scenes in this movie, including one of the more honest scenes dealing with a first sexual experience I’ve ever seen.  There are also some poignant moments between Lady Bird and her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), especially one moment in particular when he reacts to a realization about himself.

The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother are painfully uncomfortable to watch, mostly because her mother is so relentless, and yet we know that aside from her relationship with her daughter, she is a very good person.  She was quick to take in her son’s girlfriend when her own family disowned her.

The other strength of this movie is Gerwig gets the most out of her actors.  There are some very strong performances here.

To me, Laurie Metcalf steals the movie as Lady Bird’s bitter mother Marion.  It’s a supporting performance, as this is really Lady Bird’s story, but whenever Metcalf is on-screen, the tension between mother and daughter is agonizing.

Tracy Letts is also very good as Lady Bird’s father Larry.  To Lady Bird, he’s the strong sensible member of the family, the person she leans on, and so she is completely surprised to learn that he has been struggling with depression for years.  The scene where he interviews for a job, and he’s interviewed by a much younger man, and it’s clear that the man isn’t taking him seriously, is brutally honest and sad.

Lucas Hedges does a fine job as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend Danny.  While not as impressive as his work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) he does deliver a sensitive performance.  I also enjoyed Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and Odeya Rush as Jenna, the wealthy popular girl who Lady Bird later befriends when she tries to move into a new crowd.

Timothee Chalamet does a nice job playing the cool, offbeat teen musician Kyle who Lady Bird later falls for.  Their relationship runs the full gamut from infatuation to disillusionment, at least from Lady Bird’s point of view.  Kyle remains coolly distant throughout, something Lady Bird at first finds attractive until she realizes that is how he is all the time.

Two other memorable performances include Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, whose opinions often surprise Lady Bird, and Stephen Henderson as Father Leviatch, who runs the drama department.

In the lead role as Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is completely convincing as the strong-willed high school senior.  She makes Lady Bird a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s vulnerable.

That being said, I really struggled to like Lady Bird.  There was something off-putting about her, something I simply couldn’t rally around.  I enjoyed her personality, enjoyed going along for the ride during her high school misadventures and her plight to get accepted to college, and her fights with her mom, but I never felt all that invested in any of it.  I never warmed up to her character.

The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother remain nearly unbearable to watch throughout, and I suppose that’s the point, that there are no happy endings with this kind of relationship.  And while we see proof separately that they indeed love and care for each other, we never see it when they’re together.

There are some moments that work in terms of generating emotion.  The scenes between Lady Bird and her father, especially when he works behind the scenes to get her financial aid for college, are noteworthy.  Likewise, the scenes between Lady Bird and Danny have some emotional resonance.

But most of the emotion here is reserved for scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, and those scenes are difficult to endure.

LADY BIRD is marketed as a comedy-drama, and it is, but the emphasis is more on drama.  The comedy isn’t at all laugh-out-loud funny and works more on the level of when-things-are-awkward they are humorous, which is often true.

LADY BIRD is certainly a successful debut for first time writer/director Greta Gerwig. She succeeds in creating three-dimensional characters and tells an honest, quirky and oftentimes uncomfortable story about a young woman’s senior year of high school, with heavy emphasis on the strained relationship between the girl and her mother.

While I would have preferred a lighter more humorous tone, I can’t deny that the strength of this movie is the truthful way it is told.

It’s just that as most of us know, the truth often hurts.






VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship



There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.