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May be the best movie of 2017
If you long for the brilliant depiction of the melancholy unity between humor and pathos, you'll love writer/director Martin McDonagh's darkly comic Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. In seeming homage to the Coen Brothers, especially their iconic Fargo and Raising Arizona, this film takes the rape/murder of Mildred Hayes's (Frances McDormand) daughter and weaves the dreary investigation with some scarily funny takes on small-town rednecks/crackers.
Mildred spurs the investigation of her daughter's murder by placing three billboards that accuse the local police, especially Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), of slacking. However, this is just the MacGuffin that pales in the shadow of the town's bigotry and lassitude. The Chief, however, is not necessarily culpable as he claims to have tried but without physical proof such as DNA.
Mildred, in Marge Gunderson mode, pursues the killer at the expense of local sympathy: "It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes." Note the slams at languorous cops and racism, motifs played throughout.
Catching the right dark tones between grief and hilarious ineptitude, this film knows justice is not easy and sometimes meted out by imbeciles. Yet, getting on with a goal and learning cooperation and compromise, especially in a small town, may lead to a comfort that goes beyond catching a murderer.
The acting is incomparable. When Harrelson talks about the culture of racism, there's truth in his voice, sadness in his tone: "If you got rid of all the cops with vaguely racist leanings, you'd have only have three cops left. And all of them would hate fags."
Lady Bird (2017)
One of the best ever coming-of-age comedies.
"I wish I could live through something." Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan)
Nothing in the constantly funny and stunning coming-of-age film Lady Bird will surprise any audience. It's all been played before: conflict with mom, loving dad, high-school romances, gawky and hip girl friends, amateurish school play, agony about college admission, and nuns who restrain and nuns who nurture.
She has indeed lived through "something" up to her waning adolescence, but as in the case of her hometown, Sacramento, she has to look back at it to see that she has lived there fully and uniquely. Right now, before graduation, the city is to her "the Midwest of California." The real difference from other growing-up stories is first-time solo writer/director Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan (who plays Christine "Lady Bird "McPherson). Together they craft a lovable, flawed heroine with such a sense of herself and her future that she is unafraid to taste life in its entirety, blessed or broken. Forget Julia Stiles in 10 things I Hate About You. Bird is better.
As in most films where a young girl is taught in a Catholic high school, the nuns are the looming moral force for restraint and also dream, embodied in the principal, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), a realist who knows Lady Bird is a creative and independent spirit. So, too, in a different way is Lady Bird's mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose tough love is constant, but whose love is there if only Lady Bird would see it. Mom's agony at the airport when Bird goes to college is as anguished a mom/daughter parting as you will ever see in a comedy.
Moments of humor are plentiful and low key, e.g., when Sister Sarah's reality check with Lady Bird, "Math is not your strength," is met with Bird's "that we know of, yet." While Mom's realism is minute by minute, Sister Joan gives hers out slowly with equal portions of quiet love.
While actress Ronan has already tasted life from an adolescent heroine, Hannah, to a young adult in Brooklyn, Lady Bird could be seen as a retro acting gig. Bird is so strongly mature yet naïve that this role defines Ronan's wide-ranging ability. So, too, great Greta, a directorial/writing genius who should outstrip Woody Allen by the time he fully matures.
It's magical even when the characters can't hear.
The title Wonderstruck, a film about the mysterious connections between parents and kids, suggests the magic of being curious and young and the powerful forces of nature and family. Parallel stories of 12 year old Ben (Oakes Fegley) in rural Minnesota around 1977 and 12 year old Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in 1927 NYC eventually link in a way that only fantasy can allow.
Although this dramatic flight at times confuses the audience with its multiple relationships and time periods, it has director Todd Haynes's earnestness about the children's searches: Ben for the father he never knew and Rose for her beloved older brother. The tie that binds is the American Museum of Natural History and the dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals with wolves to send Ben's mind back to the wolves of Minnesota.
Along the way appears Robert Moses' scale-model Panorama of NYC in the 1964 World's Fair linking Rose to her paper buildings in her Hoboken bedroom. Oh, yes, the uncommon tie that binds both explorers is their deafness, she from birth and he from a storm. Both are struck, she from film stars and he from lightning.
As Haynes did in Carol, he has an artist's appreciation for the fine details of the period: the romance of '20's pre-crash energy and the allure of silent transition to sound in film. How the two finally connect is an imperfect conjunction that tries to tie in the disparate details of both lives.
Wonderstruck is a lovely evocation of the nervous energy and creativity of youth and the joyful quiet of being deaf. Regardless of physical challenges, the film embraces our early search to connect with parents and set loose the creative energy latent in youth.
For the Hugo-like nostalgia buffs, this film will give them one more dose of the goodness that can come from the limitations of time and place.
Maya Dardel (2017)
You may think she's a cougar, but she's really a viper.
An attractive, middle aged writer at the end of her life advertises for young male writers to compete to be heir and executor of her estate. The intriguing Maya Dardel is an art-film setup almost too precious for its own good. Because the titular writer (Lena Olin) is both brilliant and accomplished, we are expected to eat every word for the wisdom of age and genius.
Au contraire, the wise words are frequently lost among the tests she gives the applicants for her fortune. If there is anything profound about her plotting with neighbor, Leonara (Roseanna Arquette), and the cunnilingus Maya demands from the young men, I missed it in my fog of adoration for the well-aged star and her game with the boys. For certain, this challenging drama can be a figurative screed against men who dare to ignore older women.
Along the way are some bon mots about writing, mostly about the salutary effect of self criticism and the passage of time. The film does its best depicting the artist's aging gifts and her need to preserve her estate and writing legacies. Although her means of preservation are closer to bizarre than eccentric, the effect is the same: Her motives are mixed and occasionally wicked.
Largely because she tortures the men in such a way that misanthropy becomes a relevant motif, it is wrong to go into the film anticipating a feminism that welcomes men in a celebration of an accomplished life. Even her constant critical thinking is a weapon against the boy-men.
Lina Olin couldn't play a more dangerous intellectual, a predatory artist bent on emasculation and dominance rather than loving inclusion. Actually, her predations are a welcome counterbalance to the current obsession with Harvey Weinstein crimes. While Maya is no lawbreaking harasser, she is nonetheless lethal. All hail equality!
If you can't go to film class, be instructed and delighted by this informative and entertaining doc.
Let's say you don't have the time for a film class; do you have 1/2 hours to spend to learn a major chunk about film, let's say theme, editing, and auteurism? Then see 78/52, a superb analysis of Hitchcock's famous shower scene.
Wayne Miller, who knows more about Hitch than anyone else I know and regularly visits as guest host on It's Movie Time, gave it thumbs up with the observation that the doc was replete with facts and observations he didn't even know.
Here is a perfect example of the ideal educational mantra: to teach and delight.
Visages, villages (2017)
You'll book a flight to France after seeing this lyrical Golden Eye Cannes winner.
"Lyrical" best expresses with poetic simplicity the greatness of Faces Places, a documentary from French director Agnes Varda and street photographer, graffiti artist, JR. Together they create a song like film that immortalizes the French countryside and the people who work there.
Cruising in their van tricked out to look like a camera, they converse with and capture in photos goatherds, farmers, coal miners, factory workers, and cheese makers. By engaging their subjects with a sincere interest in what they do (Varda comes back a second time to connect with a lady whose principled tending of goats (not burning off young horns) appeals to the still formidable, principled director.
Varda and JR's blowing up the portraits to put on the sides of buildings, hills, ant trains not only ingratiates the artists with the subjects, but also figuratively comments on the director and photographer's ability to magnify the beauty of human nature. All photographers should hope for that impact.
A recurring motif about JR's unwillingness to remove his sunglasses (I identify) reminds Varda of her New-Wave friend, Godard, leading them to attempt to visit the famed director at the end of the film. Regardless of her success in connecting, Godard serves a touchstone for the genius of Varda and friends in the '60's just as JR helps make her just as relevant today at 88.
She's a remarkable grand dame, and although some have called her work "thrift-shop cinema," she and partner JR are savvy enough to win the 2017 Golden Eye for a documentary at Cannes. Best expressing her optimism and realism, she says about her death, "I'm looking forward to it. Because that'll be that." "That" is a body of work, the present doc included, that spans a half century of sublime cinema with immortality on its mind.
Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)
You'll pull the book out of the attic after seeing this lovely biopic.
Not having any serious connection with Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and the rest of the children's story, Winnie the Pooh, I am perhaps even more ready than its devotees to admire Goodbye Christopher Robin. It's a biopic of great sensitivity that mixes nostalgia for the most popular children's book ever with the harshness of two world wars and the practice of parents leaving their children with nannies in the first quarter of the 20th century.
I now wish I had a stronger relationship with those little critters and that lovable boy, for I could have used the distraction from the aftermath of WWII just as Pooh was able to do for the world after the war to end all wars. Author A.A. Milne (a stoic and yet lovable Domhnall Gleeson) was traumatized by his service in the war, and moved slowly to erase that PTSD while creating Pooh. The film spends too much time on his trauma, but it does help fill out Milne's character.
Yet, this is the story of Billy Moon (a remarkably-dimpled, serene Will Tilston), as Christopher Robin is called in real life, who supplies his dad with inspirations for the book. The film centers on remote dad's growing love for the boy and the book while remote mom goes off to London to do who knows what. The film carefully shows how children might be lucky to have a nanny like Neu (Kelly Macdonald) to give them love and some creative inspiration along the way.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a successful biopic because it doesn't spare the story of anti-helicopter parents who endanger the mental health of their children with their absences. As fame overtakes the Milne family, the film still relays the sense of wonderment Billy had as a child immersed in love of his forest, animals, and imagination.
The biopic may be counter to what we expected of a world-renowned author of a book for children. That he had difficulty initially interacting with his own child is unusual, but the film is successful showing how he warms up and creates a masterpiece as well.
Though not always a feel good movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin makes you wish he'd never go away. It looks like he never will.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Revenge, Justice, Nicole, and Colin: It has it all.
"It's the only thing I can think of that is close to justice." Martin (Barry Keoghan)
Justice, aka revenge, is just one of the motifs in this black, absurdist comedy called The Killing of the Sacred Deer. A wealthy family of two doctors is invaded by 16 year old Martin with that revenge on his mind. If you keep Euripedes' Iphigenia in Aulis in mind, where Agamemnon deals with Artemis over killing killed her sacred deer and her demand that he sacrifice a daughter, you'll get an idea of the Greek tragic overcast to the decidedly dark humor.
This is not a slasher movie with excessive blood and barely observable motives. Although the disturbing close up opening of a heart surgery hints at bloody business to come, minds move the plot, from the aforementioned vengeance to emotionless living where the beautiful home is as clinically sterile as the hospital in which the two children must spend time for psychosomatic or occult reasons.
For sure, however, is that the two children are made immobile by the force of Martin's will, in a standoff with emotionally remote surgeon dad, Steven (Colin Farrell), over Martin's obsession with Steven's bungling his father's operation, causing his death.
While Martin blackmails Steven with the most heinous condition for deliverance, we are treated to Kubrick-like long shots down antiseptic corridors to distance us from the horror of this doomed family's life. Even their language is stiff and formal, measured out slowly as if in a bad Puritan-colonial drama. Such careless distancing leaves everyone off center, the better to show the class divide, the degradation of the wealthy, and the baseness of the underclass that lies underneath the veneer.
All of this is comical when considering the black nature of it, but a feeling that revenge may be necessary is not far beneath the surface. Moreover, payment may be due for a cloistered, affectless life. As usual in a surreal dissection of privileged complacency, the hollow house, an emasculating masturbation motif, and emotional negligence work together to undermine the surface happiness of wealth and power.
The theme of an outsider invading a home and changing things is given extra force with an absurd overlay. Maybe absurdists like Samuel Beckett and director Yorgos Lanthimos are better than the realists and we critics in exploring the terror of living.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Satisfying muscular myth and light humor.
"Asgard is not a place, it's a people." Odin (Anthony Hopkins)
Thor: Ragnarok is about saving a homeland, Asgard, but eventually not the physical land. It's all about the people, a gentle allusion to the plight today of immigrants who have become travelers while bringing home with them. People leaving in a space ship like an ark carry the Biblical heft and a swashbuckling sci-fi adventure.
So the redeeming element of these heroic films from Marvel, and DC for that matter, is the cultural mash up that reflects our civilization's abiding interest in how we can become better than we are, i.e., becoming super heroes, and yet retain the sweet, flawed humanity we were meant to be. The pervasive humor in quips and self deprecation is a welcome humane ingredient and a sign that the super hero genre is maturing.
In Thor :Ragnorak, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is not just a hemmer-throwing, muscle bound cutie; he is a young man dealing with the death of his father, Odin; the mischief of his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and the devastating power of his sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. A bit more severe than yours and my families, but in a figurative way, just the same with its challenging relationships that sometime seem bloody.
Although these space citizens are years ahead of us, they still fight with broadswords and machine guns, confirming our cultural awareness that battles will never really be different because they reside in the mind. From Greeks through now, we have been fascinated by our highs and lows, our greatness and our flaws, be it in Oedipus Rex or Willy Lowman.
There will always be a place for hubris in our theater and films, and although the time and technology may differ, we still love and deplore our bloodlines as we work our way to dusty death. This Thor carries too many explosions for my taste, but the sociological thunderstorms are satisfyingly entertaining and sometimes downright allegorical.
Only the Brave (2017)
Super depiction of actual fire fighting.
"If this isn't the greatest job in the world, I don't know what is!" Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin)
True to its title, Only the Brave depicts with authentic-seeming imitation, the hell of fire encountered in numerous fire fights, the most famous being the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire in which 19 firefighters died. When Director Joseph Kosinski, an expert in action filming, dramatizes the rigorous routine of the fighters, with the help of first-rate CGI, you seem to be right there in the midst of the flames.
Like many films about war, this docudrama takes pains to reveal the domestic tensions with wives waiting for fighters or to become pregnant or to take care of the children. All of this is to say, one could become impatient with the non-essential melodrama as the real interest is in the mechanics of fighting.
Of course, some domestic story is necessary to humanize the heroic firefighters. However, this film seems to take too much time fleshing out the details of loves and family that take second place to the fires. It's the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, from Prescott, Arizona, who are the stars as they fight heroically without complaint.
Given the current fires raging in California, Only the Brave is timely if nothing else. It will help put into perspective the danger and valor of the firefighters; it will also dwell unnecessarily on the non firefighting.
All but one of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots do not come home from the Yarnell fire. We are better able because of this film to appreciate the danger of their jobs and the longing of their families. If you want an up close look at how these heroes fight fires, this is the film for you. Certifiable heroes they are.
"I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine." Kurt Vonnegut