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

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Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2027).

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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) – Gender Equality and Same Sex Issues Just As Relevant Today

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) is based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King, which at the time was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.”

It’s a story that is every bit as relevant today as it was back then.

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is one of the top women tennis players in the world, but she and her fellow female tennis pros are only paid 1/8 the salary that the men’s tennis players are being paid.  When she confronts the head of the tennis association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), he tells her that equal pay will never happen because women tennis players are less popular than the men tennis players, an assertion she refutes by pointing out that ticket sales had been the same for both men and women players.  Even so, her request for equal pay is denied.

With the help of magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) the women pull out of Kramer’s tournament and set up their own, soon attracting a major sponsor with the Virginia Slims tobacco company.

Meanwhile, retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) lives an eccentric life while being supported by his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).  He’s a compulsive gambler, and in spite of Priscilla’s entreaties, he can’t seem to kick the habit.  Riggs comes up with the idea of a tennis match between him and Billie Jean King, which he sees as a huge money-maker, but King refuses, not wanting to get involved with the flamboyant and unpredictable Riggs.

King is also struggling with her personal life, as she finds herself attracted to her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  King is married, and she is confused by her feelings towards Marilyn.  When she loses a major match to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Court becomes the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world.

Riggs then challenges Court, and in what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre” easily trounced Court and declared that his victory was positive proof that men were better than women.

Unable to stand on the sidelines any longer, King changes her mind and challenges Riggs in what would become one of the most hyped and most watch tennis matches of all time, the “Battle of the Sexes.”

I really enjoyed BATTLE OF THE SEXES.  The script by Simon Beaufoy , who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and through it all manages to keep a light and humorous tone.

Women not being paid as much as men remains relevant today, as does the stresses and tensions involving gay and lesbian relationships.  There’s a line in the film where wardrobe designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who’s gay, tells King that one day she’ll be able to love whoever she wants and not be afraid to tell people about it.  At the time, King knew that an admission of being a lesbian would pretty much ruin her tennis career.  And while that wouldn’t happen today, there is still a long way to go towards acceptance.

One of the funnier scenes in the film takes place at a gambler’s anonymous meeting, where Riggs tells his fellow gamblers that their problem isn’t that they gamble too much but that they lose, and what they really need to be doing with their time is not attending these meetings but learning how to win.

And the film does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match.  You really feel as if you have been transported back to 1973 during these scenes.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also directed Steve Carell in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) do a fine job here.  Again, the climactic match is expertly crafted, generating as much tension as any Sylvester Stallone bout in his ROCKY movies.

Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King.  Stone is marvelous in this movie.  She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character.  It’s a wonderful performance.  Stone is one of the most talented actors working today, and her work here only solidifies that ranking.  She’s clearly at the top of her game.

Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro.  Riggs was a tireless self-promoter, and all the crazy shenanigans he pulls to promote the “Battle of the Sexes” are captured brilliantly by Carell, who’s very funny here.  But, as he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons

It’s also made quite clear both by the script and by Carell’s performance that the male chauvinist comments he endlessly spewed out in the weeks leading up to the match were simply an act to promote the event.  In fact, in real life, he and King would become good friends.

If there’s one flaw the movie has it’s that it doesn’t do the best job developing its supporting characters.  We get to know some more than others.

Andrea Riseborough, for example, who plays King’s love interest Marilyn Barnett, doesn’t quite match the same intensity as Stone and Carell do here.  Part of this is the writing, which really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Barnett.  We know very little about her, other than she and King generate sparks pretty much as soon as they see each other.  We also learn little about magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

On the other hand, Bill Pullman pretty much blew me away in his small role as Jack Kramer, the man who refused to pay King as much as the male tennis players.  Unlike Carell’s Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer’s sexism was not an act.  Pullman plays him perfectly. He doesn’t come off as a man who hates women or wants to put them down. He simply believes he’s right, and he is blind to the fact that his actions are putting women down. It’s one of Pullman’s best performances in a while.

Alan Cumming is equally effective as Ted Tinling, the gay wardrobe designer who offers advice to King.  Likewise, Elisabeth Shue is very good as Riggs’ wife Priscilla.  She has a great line when she chastises her husband for his chauvinist talk when for years now she has been the one supporting him.  But she’s not a bitter woman, and even though she leaves Riggs for a time, later, when he’s alone, she’s the one who helps him pick up the pieces.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is more than just a movie about a tennis match.  It’s a movie about gender inequality, about sexual self-awareness, about compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the early 1970s.

It’s also the story of two very different people, connected by a sport at two very different moments in their careers. At 55, Bobby Riggs was retired and acting like a one-man tennis version of The Harlem Globetrotters, while at 29, Billie Jean King was at the top of her game.

Riggs was a compulsive hustler and gambler who couldn’t control his outlandish lifestyle and so  decided to embrace it.  King was a voice for women’s rights, unintentionally at first, until after the Battle of the Sexes, when she would become a rallying cry for women’s equality and liberation.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is entertaining, educational, and informative, and since the gender equality and gay and lesbian issues it touts are still relevant today, it’s an important movie as well.

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STRONGER (2017) – Gripping Tale Is Incredibly Fresh and Honest

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I often have pre-conceived notions about movies.  So, when I hear that a film tells an inspiring story about a real life hero, I have an idea as to what that movie is going to be like.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Such is the case with STRONGER (2017),  which tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk.

I expected it to be good, but STRONGER is better than all of my pre-conceived notions about it.

Why?  For one thing, Jeff Bauman had no interest in being a model of hope to an entire city.  He had no interest in getting his life back, mostly because he saw himself as a loser. So, when these things ultimately happen, they’re not just examples of teary-eyed sentimental storytelling.  The story here is real, gripping, and incredibly fresh and honest.  Jeff Bauman doesn’t just rise up and decide to become an inspirational human being.  If anything, he pushes back against the notion. His is a truly heroic journey, one that takes him down into the depths of despair and darkness before he ultimately rebounds and climbs his way back to the road to humanity.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the finish line at the Boston Marathon to cheer on his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who’s running in the race that day.  Jeff and Erin are in an on-again off-again romance, which lately had been off-again.  The irony of Jeff’s being at the finish line that day is that he is notorious for not showing up or being where he is supposed to be, which is why Erin continually gets frustrated with him.  But on this day, Jeff shows up, and he’s there at the finish line when the bombs go off.

The film kicks into high gear when Jeff’s extended family arrives at the hospital. This is not a scene where there is a group of folks sitting and sobbing, while sad music plays in the background.  No, the minute we see these people they are shouting and arguing and hurling accusations like it’s nobody’s business. It’s a refreshingly honest scene showing people who are scared and angry that their son has had his legs blown off by a terrorist on their home turf in Boston.

In fact, this is one of the best parts of the movie, the dynamic of Jeff’s family.  They are a dysfunctional group, but they always have Jeff’s back, and he swears by them, at one point saying after cussing them out that he still wouldn’t trade them for anything.  They are exactly the way many families are:  flawed but united.

Jeff returns home to the small apartment he shares with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), who spends most of her time drunk or hung over.  Jeff soon asks Erin to move in with him, and she does, which is a good thing because he needs her help to recover.

But Jeff is struggling with everything.  Everyone keeps reminding him what a big hero and inspiration he is, but he can’t see it.  He still drinks way too much and slowly begins to distance himself from Erin once more.

It’s not until he finally agrees to meet with the man who saved him, the man in the cowboy hat, Carlos (Carlos Sanz), that things change.  Up until that moment, Jeff had only been able to see things through his own eyes, but when he hears Carlos’ story and learns the reason Carlos was there that day in the first place, and what it meant to Carlos to save him, Jeff’s eyes are opened.  It’s a telling moment in the film, a reminder that all too often we only see things through our own prisms and perspectives, and we forget that others we interact with have their own issues and agendas.

STRONGER has a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   The combination of the writing and acting brings Jeff’s family to life.

I’ve always been a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, and while he has delivered a lot of memorable performances over the years, his work here as Jeff Bauman ranks as one of his best. Sure, he captures the obvious pain the man went through after losing his legs, but more so, he shows what it’s like to be a guy who didn’t really want to be in the limelight, who didn’t want to be a hero, a guy who really struggles when people cheer for him, because he feels he doesn’t deserve it, because he knows he’d rather be out drinking with his friends or at home playing video games.

Tatiana Maslany is just as good as Jeff’s girlfriend Erin. She feels incredibly guilty that Jeff was there that day because of her, and she really loves Jeff and is more than willing to move in with him and help him, even with her reservations that he so often drops the ball and leaves her hanging.  I really enjoyed Maslany’s performance, and she has some of the more emotional scenes in the movie.

Miranda Richardson is excellent as Jeff’s mother, Patty.  She makes Patty more than just a down and out drunken mother.  She really cares for her son.  More often than not she screws things up, but she always puts her son’s needs first.  For example, soon after Erin moves in, Patty catches her leaving Jeff’s room wearing just a nightshirt, and she glares at Erin and asks her, “Did you sleep with my son?”  To which Erin casually replies, “Yes.” And that’s that.  No insane Norma Bates ravings.  Sure, later there is a messy painful argument in front of Jeff between Erin and Patty in their car, and Patty shrieks “You’re off the team!” but later when Jeff decides he can’t live without Erin and meets with her to get her back, it’s Patty who drives him there.

All the actors who play Jeff’s family members stand out.

Veteran actor Clancy Brown plays Jeff’s father Big Jeff, who’s no longer with Patty.  In that first scene in the hospital, it’s Big Jeff who’s aggressively arguing with nearly everyone.

And longtime Boston comic  and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Uncle Bob.  He has humorous lines in nearly every scene he’s in, and he serves as that much-needed comic relief as the family scenes are often very tense. It’s a memorable performance.

Danny McCarthy has some fine moments as Jeff’s former Cotsco manager Kevin, and Carlos Sanz delivers a sensitive, moving performance as Carlos, the man who saved Jeff’s life that day at the finish line, whose own story is just as emotional and inspirational.

Director David Gordon Green does an excellent job here.  I especially liked the way he handled the bombing scene.  When the bombs first go off, there’s minimal coverage in the movie.  It isn’t until much later, when Jeff looks back at the moment and remembers what happened, that we get in close and see firsthand what Jeff saw shortly after the bombs exploded.  The images are not easily forgotten.

There’s also an effective scene where the doctors are removing the dressings from Jeff’s legs that really give the audience the idea of just how much pain Jeff was experiencing at the time.

The film is not slow, nor overbearing, nor syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

STRONGER is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I definitely recommend it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

MOTHER! (2017) – Metaphor For Our Narcissistic Times

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MOTHER! (2017), the latest movie by writer/director Darren Aronofsky, is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that serves as a metaphor for our ever-increasing narcissistic culture that not only breeds and encourages narcissists but the radical zealots who follow them.

There’s a lot going on here, most of it not that easy to digest or decipher, and since the trailer for this movie makes it look like a modern-day ROSEMARY’S BABY, which it is not, I’m guessing there’s going to be a whole lot of disappointed moviegoers out there who decide to see this movie.  It’s not really a horror movie, in the traditional sense.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this one.  Any time a movie makes you think and think hard, and goes about its storytelling in a way that is creative and out of the ordinary, that’s a good thing.  MOTHER! is a good thing.  It’s just not going to appeal to a wide audience.

MOTHER! tells a straightforward story.  A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in her quiet dreamhouse with her author husband (Javier Bardem) who’s stuck in a writer’s funk and has been struggling to produce new material.  One night, a man (Ed Harris) shows up at their door, and to the woman’s surprise, her husband invites the man to stay the night.  It turns out that the man is a huge fan, and this pleases the author to no end.  Soon, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as well, and naturally, she’s invited to stay, too.

Things happen that result in more people showing up, people who make the woman uncomfortable, because this isn’t what she expects.  She wants her life in her house with her husband, but yet her husband is fine with opening up their house to these guests. She grows more distressed as more people arrive.  And later, when a lot of people come in, all hell breaks loose.

In terms of plot, the story is constructed very well, or at least the first half is, anyway. When Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, their arrival makes perfect sense. Likewise, when many of their family members join them, that also makes perfect sense. So, it’s not as if the audience is sitting there scratching their heads wondering why these people are there.  It strikes Jennifer Lawrence’s character as strange, but when Javier Bardem’s character explains things to her, we in the audience understand.

Later, in the second half of the movie, the film deviates from a straightforward plot and enters into the realm of pure metaphor.  And it’s here where the film will no doubt lose most of its audience.

But through it all, it remains truthful and has a lot to say.

First of all, this is not a good movie for authors who want to get married, because if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s what it’s like to be married to an author.  Now, this isn’t the point of the movie, but it’s certainly one of the parts I liked, because there’s truth behind it.

Javier Bardem captures what it’s like to be a writer.  You can see it in his face when he can’t produce, and alternatively, you can see him light up when the ideas come to him and when his fans tell him how much they like his work. The bottom line is for this character,  life is always about him and his work.  His wife, though he says he loves her and indeed acts like he loves her, is always secondary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a great line when she says that he never really loved her, and that he only loved the fact that she loved him.  A telling and truthful moment.

But MOTHER! is much more than a story about an author.  Javier Bardem’s husband character is a narcissist.  He’s driven by the attention he receives from his adoring fans. In the movie, it begins with the simple conversation between his character and the Ed Harris character, who admits to being a fan and who says “your words changed my life.” From there it grows, slowly at first, until during the second half of the movie it becomes full-blown insanity.

In the second half of the movie, people come to the house because they are fans, and it’s here that the plot becomes secondary and the metaphoric elements of the film take over. We see varying degrees of fandom, but most are radical followers.  The film then serves us images which are religious, militant, violent, and flat-out horrific.

In a nutshell, the film shows what life is like living with a narcissist.  But, more than that, the images at the end  of the movie, of violence, hatred, of opposing sides clashing, easily brought to my mind images that we have seen on the news of events here in the U.S. in 2017, which for me, lifted this movie to another level, because what I took from it by the end, was that it’s a metaphor for what life is like when you elect a narcissist.

But not all of the movie works.  I had an issue with the pacing.  It runs at about two hours long, and there were times midway through where it felt longer than that.

Jennifer Lawrence is fine as the young mother here, in a role where she spends most of the film barefoot and pregnant.  And since this movie is called MOTHER! after all, her character is the one audiences will identify with the most. The story is seen through her eyes, and so when she is upset about the things that are going on, the audience is right there with her. And by the time you get to the end, with all the different sides going at each other, she’s the one who’s hurt the most. She becomes the victim of both her husband’s actions and inactions.

I was more impressed with Javier Bardem as the author/husband, who always seemed to make sense when he spoke to his wife, yet at the same time it was maddening to watch him pretty much ignore his wife’s needs.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer add fine support in their roles as the annoying intrusive couple, especially Pfeiffer who exudes a coldness that really fits with the movie.  But Harris is just as good, as the more emotional half of this couple.

The rest of the cast is secondary.

The main guy here is writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who’s mostly known for the movie BLACK SWAN (2010), a dark movie that was well received and that I liked well enough.  Previous to MOTHER!, he wrote and directed NOAH  (2014), a re-telling of the Noah and the Ark story, starring Russell Crowe as Noah which tried to turn Noah into an action hero.  It was a misfire, but I actually enjoyed it.

MOTHER! is a film that most folks are simply not going to enjoy.  It’s not your standard horror movie or drama, and it becomes highly symbolic during its second half which is bound to turn off lots of viewers.

But I liked it.  It has a lot to say about narcissism in our culture, both about those who desire and command attention, and about those who relentlessly become their “followers.”

Better yet, it tells the truth, even when that truth is ugly and repugnant.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WIND RIVER (2017) – Taylor Sheridan’s First-Rate Thriller Satisfies on Every Level

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Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016.

Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving.

Hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the dead body of a young woman in the snow, miles from anyone’s home or farm. Cory recognizes the young woman as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), who used to be best friends with his own daughter, herself deceased.

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives on the scene and quickly determines that the girl’s death is a homicide.  As she begins her investigation, she asks Cory for help,  not only with transporting her through the snowy terrain via his snowmobile, but also with tracking down the girl’s killer, a request he agrees to without hesitation.

They then spend the rest of the movie trying to find out who killed Natalie and why.

WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  For starters, it takes place on a Native American reservation.  As he did with the plight of economy starved Texans in HELL OR HIGH WATER, writer Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence.

But as Cory tells Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier), whose life has been pretty much one problem after another, he’s had opportunities, from jobs to the military, and instead he chose his current situation:  he chose drugs over these other things.  Cory tries to tell Chip that it’s never too late to turn things around, especially in light of what happened to his sister.

Cory is good friends with Natalie’s and Chip’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), and they unfortunately share a bond, in that both their daughters have died.  Martin makes it clear that he wants Cory to track down and kill whoever murdered his daughter. The two actors Renner and Birmingham share some of the better scenes in the movie.

Cory himself is haunted by his own daughter’s death.  She, too, was murdered, her body also found in the wilderness.  Cory tells Jane that if she ever has kids, she can never blink.  Never.  Because no matter how carefully you plan, it’s not enough. It’s a solemn warning, one that resonates with parents.

The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

Jeremy Renner is excellent as Cory Lambert.  He has some truly emotional scenes, both when talking about the loss of his own daughter, and also when he reaches out to his friend Martin over the loss of Martin’s daughter. Renner is also very believable as a hunter and a tracker. It’s a rock solid performance.

Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is just as good as FBI agent Jane Banner. She’s sent to Wind River alone, as she just happened to be the closest FBI agent in the area when the call came in about the discovery of the body, and she quickly realizes she’s in over her head, but she retains her professionalism and does the best job she can do, which is actually pretty darn good, considering the circumstances.  I like Olsen a lot, and this is one of her better roles.

While she and Renner have both starred in the Marvel superhero films, Renner as Hawkeye and Olsen as Scarlett Witch, they both do much better work here and share strong onscreen chemistry together, which says something for characters who aren’t involved in a sexual or romantic relationship.  I also enjoyed Olsen’s performance here better than her roles in GODZILLA (2014), OLD BOY (2013), and the horror film SILENT HOUSE (2011).  She was good in all these films, but she’s better here.

Veteran actor Graham Greene is on hand as police chief Ben, and like Renner and Olsen, he’s solid throughout.  In fact, he may have been my favorite character in this one, and he certainly gets most of the better lines in the movie. At one point Jane asks him if they should call for back-up, and he tells her “this isn’t the land of back-up, but the land of you’re on your own.”  Ben’s a likable character, and he patiently is there every step of the way during the investigation. with Cory and Jane.

Gil Birmingham, who was excellent in a supporting role in HELL OR HIGH WATER, where he played Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger partner, is superb once again here in another supporting role as Natalie’s grieving father Martin.  The scene where Cory talks to Martin about how to deal with the loss of his daughter is one of the best scenes in the movie.

And Kelsey Asbille does a fine job in a key flashback as Natalie. Likewise, Martin Sensmeier is very good as Natalie’s troubled brother Chip.

The acting is superb all around.  Jon Bernthal also shows up for a key sequence, and he doesn’t disappoint.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan demonstrates once again the he is a superior screenwriter.  He writes more than just straightforward thrillers. There are layers to his stories and themes that serve not only to educate but also to substantiate the characters’ actions and motivations.

In WIND RIVER, Cory is only too happy to assist Jane because of the unfinished business over the murder of his own daughter.  He’s still haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to protect his daughter nor was he able to find out who killed her.  These layers establish emotions, and these emotions drive the story forward and give it much more impact.

Sheridan also writes phenomenal dialogue, period.  His characters come to life, and they’re believable, as are the situations they find themselves in.  There’s a great scene where Jane and Ben are at the coroner’s office, and the coroner informs them that he can’t list murder as the cause of death for Natalie because she died from the cold temperatures.  At first, Jane thinks the coroner is stonewalling her, but he tells her point-blank that it’s clear she’s been raped and murdered, but officially he can’t list her death as a homicide if that’s not how she died, to which Jane responds that unless he lists it as a homicide, her superiors are going to tell her to go home.  And then Ben basically pulls her aside and tells her that the coroner is a good man who’s just doing his job, and she should cut him some slack. It’s a refreshingly honest scene.

Sheridan also directed WIND RIVER, and he proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays.  The photography is beautiful and captures the grandeur of the snowy mountains of Wyoming.  And WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller as well.

There is a sequence near the end that is every bit as suspenseful and nerve-racking as some of the nail-biting sequences in SICARIO.   WIND RIVER does not disappoint on any level.

And while this isn’t Sheridan’s directorial debut— he directed the horror movie VILE (2011)— it’s still an impressive piece of work, combined with the fact that he wrote the screenplay.  Sheridan is also an actor, and in fact the first time I saw Sheridan was on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY where he played Deputy Hale.

WIND RIVER is Taylor Sheridan’s third straight superior screenplay, and it’s a thriller you certainly do not want to miss.

I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.