Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

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Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

A United Kingdom


A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante

 

We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea