Three Billboads Outside Ebbing Missouri. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. (2017)

poster three billboardsA mother cannot let a police department rest until the murderer of her daughter is brought to justice.  What we see the mother do:  erect three billboards accusing the police chief of not doing enough, her daughter raped while dying.  What we see the police chief do: let  his office with a bunch of stupid cops loiter over the file as the trail grows cold.

There is a lot of fire in this movie.  The girl is burnt to death in a car.  The billboards are set aflame.  The police station is attacked with molotov cocktails.  A policeman is encased in flames as he runs out of the burning building.

But this is a movie, so the only one who stays dead or injured (with one acute surprising exception) is the girl who sets the plot in motion, the daughter, whose murder the mother means to avenge.  The fires are almost biblical, a sign of the anger the characters feel at the injustice of it all.

France McDormand (Mildred) plays angry, clear eyed, vindictive.  She knows what she wants, but cannot get it the way she goes about it here.  Woody Harrelson  playing Willoughby the police chief, married to a woman with an English accent (Abbie Cornish), so much younger, with two adorable daughters, strained credibility..  So much sudden violence in contrast with the idyllic family of the police chief, interspersed with the near imbecility of the policeman whose story this really is, makes for a very dark story.

Rockwell, McDormand

 Rockwell and McDormand face off.

Because it is the racist cop Dixon’s (Sam Rockwell) awakening, after reading a letter from a dead man, that makes the story move forward.  Up until then it is revenge porn and characteristic McDonagh dialogue, full of snap and bristling with truth about the human condition. (Example: ” But he’s dying!”   “We’re all dying!”)

on a date

McDormand and Dinklage

The fine acting could not overcome the deep depression this movie left me with: that Hollywood movies depict small towns as repositories of stupid people, unwilling or not able to do their jobs; that violence sudden and graphic is what we want to experience in the theater (I had to to cover my eyes at times but wish I could have covered my ears as well, as several heads were kicked in).   It just left me in a very bad mood.  Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, perform their parts perfectly.  McDonagh has written another screenplay that features dwarves who are constantly referred to as midgets to prove how ignorant and cruel Americans are.  Peter Dinklage deserves better than this.    We all deserve better than this.

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Phantom Thread. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2017.

With Daniel Day Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

lesley manville
Lesley Manville has perfect posture as she marches into the office of her brother’s fashion house,  drawing in the viewer with her commanding even military gait. She wears a beautifully tailored dress, her hair is pulled back in a no nonsense coiffure, and she is clearly sure of what she will do next. The space she inhabits has a classic beaux arts design, with high ceilings, the curtains opening the oversize windows to the stylish London circle outside. She joins her brother for their daily breakfast in silence.

Paul Thomas Anderson makes movies about men who are domineering, masterful, yet unable to be intimate or tender with anyone.  The Master, There Will be Blood, and Magnolia all feature fascinating, nearly repellent male characters. In Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, as opposite in style to Plainview in There Will Be Blood as you can be. The scene where we watch him shaving, brushing his hair, tying his tie, makes clear how high his aesthetic standards are. With Woodcock’s character, the only person in his life is his sister with a masculine name, Cyril, who executes his every command without being asked.  Who would need a wife with such a second in command?

The story unfolds as the brilliant fashion designer is thrown off balance by a woman he tries not to fall in love with, but who has nearly conquered him, the way a mountain climber finally summits the Himalayas.

On the day after he has discarded a woman who demanded his attention at breakfast (you must not make any noise at breakfast in the Woodcock household), he meets a charming, down to earth waitress, Alma (Vickey Krieps) and the rapport is instantaneous. Krieps bears a striking resemblance to Julianne Moore, an actress favored by Anderson in her early days.  Anderson has a way of extracting unforgettable performances from his cast, partly because of the strength of his script, its strange hypnotic qualities, and the aura of place.

Phantom Thread refers to the messages sewn into the haute couture garments Woodcock fashions for his clients. Wedding gowns are especially fraught, so carry an anti-curse phrase. It was Woodcock’s mother’s wedding gown that started his career as a designer. A haunting scene features this dress, and casts a fairy tale glow. There are other references to fairy tales, for instance, a walk in the woods to gather mushrooms.

The movie is gorgeous. The 70 millimeter film brings a sumptuous level of detail to everything and a loving care to the photography of the construction of the clothes. All of the scenes are carefully composed, the gowns influenced by the highest couture house. Mark Bridges, the costume designer, did his research well, and makes all of the cast look authentically dressed in the 1950s style. When Daniel Day Lewis pulls on his fuchsia colored socks, I was reminded of something, and was not surprised on learning that they came from the same Italian shop that supplies the pope.

The conflict that arises when Woodcock’s staid rigid world is interfered with because Alma wants him to love her and she wants to treat him with exclusive intimacy leads to plot twists that follow the fairy tale theme.
gown

The  movie begins with a good rhythm, where the scenes flow from one to the next based on the story behind it, the actors’ performances, the tension inherent in one cut shifting to the next, pace of editing is just right. It is only in the last 20 minutes that there is a strain in story and the masterly rhythm begins to stall.  Still, I found myself reflecting on the movie days afterward, and questioning certain plot points.  Phantom Thread is not just entertaining, it is a work of art.

 

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The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg. 2017.

With Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, Sarah Paulson.
The_Post_(film)

The movie opens with a combat scene during the Vietnam War; soldiers paint their faces to camouflage further their night time raid in the jungle.  They are attacked, instead of being the attackers.  Casualties are high.

While the soldiers have been assembling and cleaning their guns,  one man carries a typewriter: Daniel Ellsberg, a special reporter employed by the State Department writing on the progress of the war.

Ellsberg is summoned to advise the generals what he saw on the front.  It is a political moment: telling the truth sounds like mutiny.  So he hedges.  Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, hedges further, stretching political expediency into something more dangerous, into something that threatens thousands if not millions of lives.

The Post is not about all those human lives lost though.  It is about the power of the press, and one moment during the Nixon administration when the press was challenged and fought back in order to expose what had been happening during the decades of conflict in Vietnam.

There are several heroes in this movie.  First and foremost is Ellsberg, who had the courage to steal confidential files from the Pentagon and expose the government’s falsehoods.

But the most poignant and intimate portrait is of Katherine Graham, a well mannered lady of high degree, someone used to living well, in mansions, treating her friends to birthday parties, her colleagues to retirement speeches.  Graham as the only woman in power at the Washington Post is not often listened to, more commonly disparaged as a woman out of her depth in managing the paper.

But as she is called on to make an essential decision, even though her most trusted advisors suggest the prudent path, she sticks her neck out, decides the opposite, and speaks her mind. Her decision is historically significant.

Streep orchestrates her performance with great subtlety.  Tom Hanks as Benjamin Bradlee does a great impression of the Boston Brahman know it all.

What began as an enlightenment of one woman in the form of Katherine Graham, publisher, actually was informed by many other women who were relegated to lesser positions because of sexism.  Sarah Paulson in her role as Bradlee’s wife explains why Graham’s act was more courageous than Bradlee’s. It is a fine moment in the movie, when without some of the grandstanding and preachiness evoked at other points about the power of the press, a political victory is made.

paulson

Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee

 

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A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger. 1946.

With David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesy, Raymond Massey.

What is it about David Niven that is so charming? Is it his perfectly shaped mouth, topped by a slightly too thin mustache?  Is it the way he asks questions expecting nothing but the truth for an answer? Is it in this movie, his ability to recite Sir Walter Raleigh’s poetry over a radio while he is in the act of being shot down as a bomber pilot, his dead mates all around him?

David Niven’s character named Peter Carter keeps saying he is 27 years old, even while  his creased brow indicates a man older than that, perhaps in his mid 30s.  No matter.  Peter has the intelligence and wit to convince you that everything he says is absolutely true, including his having fallen in love, only over the airwaves, with an American whose job is to bring bomber pilots in for a safe landing.  When June (Kim Hunter) realizes that she cannot do that, and that her and the bomber pilot’s mission has failed, she weeps quietly at her station, and somehow Peter picks up on that innate sense of decency, and if he hasn’t fallen in love with her before, he certainly has by now.

And so the dilemma begins.  What to do with a bomber pilot whose parachute has failed, and who by extension, must die, when he has suddenly and irretrievably fallen in love, when your job is to reap in the fallen souls who have died,, and belong in … the other place.  We are not talking about heaven or hell, just the sheer statistical gathering place where souls are harvested, and accounts must be squared, and deaths are deaths and lives are lives.  Here officials dressed in white make sure you sign the register book and collect your wings carefully wrapped in cellophane.  What if one of the newly dead  doesn’t land where he belongs?  One like Peter Carter, recently fallen in love, recently bailed out of his airplane, without a parachute, into a very foggy England?

Well, there you have it.  He has landed in a place and a time where lo and behold June, the girl he has been talking on the radio with, is quickly bicycling home to her lodging, where she is friends with a clever doctor named Reeves, who on learning about the strange nearly dead Peter, determines through his diagnosis, that Peter has suffered from a serious injury which requires surgery in order to save him.

Or…does the judge who has come to be in charge of the case of statistical anomolies, need to determine whether Peter has earned a repeal, a new case?  In which case, each side gets to claim a defending advocate to argue whether Peter will live or die.

The movie’s ideas and several quick light handed touches made me laugh. For instance, there is repartee regarding the conflict between the English and the French, and the conflicts between the Americans and the English.  But another great thing about this movie, besides its ability to waltz on air with its many changes in tone, is its casting of Roger Livesey as the doctor/friend to June.  He is perfection.

I am so grateful to live near the Film Forum on this bitterly cold day so that that I got a chance to see it!  It has some magical realism, some sappy romantic bits, and a whole lot of thoughtful plotting about what it means to sacrifice yourself for the one you love.  It requires a bit of leaving your brain at the door, until you need to quickly pick it up again for its marvelous ability to work through whether a law might exist that could prove whether or not someone had truly loved you.   Metaphysical legal cases rarely co-exist in war movies, but here is one, and on top of that, you have a great performance by Roger Livesey as a brilliant doctor.  And all throughout you get to cast your eyes on David Niven in his prime, full of charm, and wit and dashing goodness.

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Lady Bird. Directed by Greta Gerwig. 2017.

With Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein.

Lady_Bird_poster

Time: early 2000s, just after 9/11 around the time of the Iraq war.  Place: Sacramento.  Situation: A young adult woman in her senior year in high school starts to break away from her family.  It begins with her choice of colleges on the east coast.  It continues with her naming herself with a name of her own chosing.  She rejects her religion in her strict Catholic school.  She wants to lose her virginity.  She joins a group of actors in her high school drama club, drops some crucial friends, picks up some dubious others.  Each month that goes by in the chronologically structured plot brings Lady Bird closer to her much desired freedom from her safe neighborhood, her rigid school, and most importantly, her powerful mother.

Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, rarely breaks a smile.  One can understand why Lady Bird has lost her use for her.  She rarely praises her.  Mostly she chides her for minor infractions like not picking up her clothes, and makes her feel guilty when her father loses his job.  To say that she does not sugar coat the hard knocks of life is an understatement.

metcalf, ronan

Lady Bird lives with her family of modest means surrounded by families with ample means.  She is used to scraping by.  Saiorse Ronan is extremely charming in the leading part.  Her relationship with her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) is convincing, poignant, and brings to the fore all of the nasty business one must wade through to be clear of high school.    Gerwig’s script is witty and smart, and all of the minor characters shine their considerable talents on the leading lady, while acquitting themselves beautifully.  Tracy Letts as the girl’s father as so many other fathers before him, has a tight bond with his daughter that the mother can only imagine.  The conflicts are laid bare but not melodramatically, mostly because of Ronan’s supreme ability to bring subtlety and a natural grace to everything she does.

lady bird and friend

This movie made me laugh, and also brought me to the brink of tears.  I am still thinking of it these many weeks later, as a genuine work of art.

 

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The Florida Project. Directed by Sean Baker. 2017.

With Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Bria Vinaite.

florida project poster

With Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Bria Vinaite.

Moonee is six or seven years old when we first see her spitting from a high place, landing gobs on a parked car below.  She and her friend Scooty run wild through the purple painted motel in a town near Disney World, Florida.  Their parents are not present except in the manners or lack of them they have learned.

Feral animals, I kept thinking, as they ran along sidewalks, crossed parking lots and highway medians, fearless of being hit by an errant car.  The children walk past one store after another, Disney influence all around them.   Moonie’s mother’s friend who lives downstairs from her works at the waffle house and is willing to give the kids free food if they pick it up out back.

If you live near Disney World you will be influenced by the heightened fantasy that hotel and resort radiate.  Up and down the highway are stores with huge faces of fantastic characters:  Dumbledore, Snow White, Spongebob Squarepants.  So if you are six years old you might think that Santa Claus summers around the corner.

dumbledore

It would be hard to accept the harsh reality you actually live in.  Moonee’s mother, a child herself, has no job or way of making an income.  They live hand to mouth:  pizza for dinner, handouts from Christian charities, ice cream  purchased with change begged from people in line to buy same.

florida ice cream

One day a new family moves in, the one whose car Moonee’s been soiling with her spit.  The grandmother in charge takes offense and insists that Moonee clean up the mess.  Moonee decides to enlist one of the grandchildren to help, a girl called Jancee.  Jancee’s grandmother objects– it was a punishment after all, something for Moonee to learn from.  But the only one learning anything from this movie is the audience.

And here it is:  Disney World is a big fat fraud intended to make us forget or not see how miserable it can be when you’r not educated or skilled, saddled with a small child, when you yourself are a child.  Moonee’s mother comes in for close scrutiny as she struggles to pay the bills and has to resort to some risky business.

How wonderful is the storytelling, though, as we run with the children from scene to scene, in a kind of rhapsodic grace, free of any reality except the innocent point of view of six year olds.

The motel manager, Bobby, is very sympathetic.  He sees everything and empathizes with everyone, even as his business is being  run by a heartless owner.  He protects the children from suspicious strangers.  I believe that Dafoe should win some kind of prize for the dignity with which he acts this part.  

florida project

But the actress playing Moonee, Brooklynn Prince, could not be more perfect, even as she leads more innocent children astray.  Like all feral animals, her task is to survive.    The threat of the law is never far away.  When police finally do show up, they seem like just more ineffective grown ups unable to change the rotten way things are.

 

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Visages Villages. JR/Agnes Varda. 2017.

 

JR and Agnes Varda: one a man in his prime sporting sunglasses which hide his eyes; the other an old woman with a great resume but whose eyes do not see except blurry images because of macular degeneration.  This movie is a collaboration between two slightly subversive filmmakers, both interested in issues of class and powerlessness.  Agnes Varda can speak of the beginning of the new wave in French cinema as someone who was there when it started.  She was married to Jacques Demy, director of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  The movie does not explain how she was present during the birth of a movement that had as its intention the casting off of the old wave.  All of her movies have a disdain for conventional thinking.  And so do the works of JR,  whose Portraits of a Generation documented the young people living in the banlieues of Paris, those run down housing projects where riots took place outside of Paris in 2005.  Close up photographs of teens were issued  in massive paper prints and then pasted on the concrete walls of Paris buildings.paris portraits.jpg

How these two artists discover their subjects evolves in their journey through rural France. It becomes a type of road movie where both directors get to photograph portraits of people in small towns who perform blue collar labor.  JR’s team plasters portraits of workers on the sides of buildings in  a state of collapse. The emphasis is on those laborers who are just about disappearing as machines and technology replace them.

A farmer is able to plow and plant and reap over 2000 acres by himself, with the equipment at hand, a computerized machine that does the work of several men.

farmer

Another farmer, a woman tending a herd of  goats, is intent on not pulling or searing off the horns of the goats as other more industrialized farms do to keep the productivity level high.  Political messages like these sprout up  and make it clear how the two filmmakers find a common theme: to keep the common man from being dehumanized by machines and the need to maximize profits.

goat

Another thread running through the movie is Agnes Varda’s mortality, her relationship with many of her friends from her youth, some of  whom have already died.  One of these is Henri Cartier Bresson whose gravestone she locates in a small town, and insists on taking a photo of it.  Most importantly, she wants to re-connect with Jean Luc Godard, with whom she makes an appointment, hoping to introduce JR.  When they arrive at the appointed hour, something other than what she had hoped occurs and that is practically the end of the movie, where much emotion is unleashed, and sadness, but not bitterness.  Agnes Varda is not capable of that, nor of self pity,   She finds whimsy on a sea coast where a lovely young woman is photographed holding an umbrella.  This makes the woman a minor celebrity, even though she resents it because she is by nature shy, but her photograph becomes the subject of a million selfies.

umbrella

Half way through the movie, I thought, it is rare to have a movie allow you time for reflection.  But there are many moments  where you have the opportunity to consider what is happening, what has just happened, and how it makes you feel.

I will miss Agnes Varda when she is gone, but how lucky we are to have her now, with her ruminative sensibility, and her willingness to work with other artists, some of whom are 50 years her junior.

I found particularly moving a portrait of a woman living in a ghost town of a mining community.  This is the place that means the most to her: her husband, her father and brother were all miners.  Now she is the only holdout left to occupy the company housing.  The oversize photograph is put on the facade of her house.  It is magnificent.

miners' daughter

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