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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Everest (2015)


Climb ev'ry mountain!

Climb ev’ry mountain!

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Martin Henderson, Justin Salinger, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Reilly, Ang Phula Sherpa, Tim Dantay, Charlotte Bᴓving. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

There are a certain type of people who feel compelled to push themselves to the limits. They don’t feel truly alive unless they are facing down death. Most of us don’t require this kind of validation of our own supremacy, but those that do can’t live without it. Thee and me will never climb Mt. Everest simply because we don’t need to. Others, however do it because they have to.

\At one time, Everest was the province of experienced mountain climbers and at that only the best of that breed. However, New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke) figured out that there was money to be made in getting ordinary travelers (who could afford it and were in good enough physical condition) to the top of Everest. His company, Adventure Consultants, specialized in getting people to the summit of Everest – the highest place on Earth.

The 1996 climbing seasons sees a proliferation of these sorts of outfits, all clustered in Everest’s base camp. Rob Hall is bringing an experienced team of climbers including Sherpa Ang Doree (Sherpa), Andy “Harold” Harris (Henderson) and clients Doug Hansen (Hawkes) who had nearly made it to the summit the previous year but was turned back by Hall 100 meters from the top, Yasuko Namba (Mori) who was summiting the final of the Big Seven – the seven highest peaks on seven continents – which is an accomplishment only elite climbers ever meet and Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Brolin). Accompanying them is respected writer Jon Krakauer (Kelly) who’d be providing much needed publicity for the company.

At base camp is den mother Helen Wilton (Watson) who would be overseeing the operation from there as well as team physician Caroline MacKenzie (Debicki). A close friend of Rob’s, American Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) runs a rival team. Scott is known for being more of a go-for-it guy whereas Rob tends to be more methodical. As the two discover that the sheer number of climbers are creating bottlenecks on the mountain, they determine to work together so as to reduce traffic. Scott’s Russian right hand, Anatoli Boukreev (Sigurösson) is there to lend a hand.

Waiting at home is Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) who is about to give birth to their daughter, an event Rob is planning on being home in Christchurch for. Also at home is Peach Weathers (Wright), a no-nonsense Texas woman who is a mite ticked off at her husband who is undertaking this adventure despite her distinct disapproval – and despite having had eye surgery recently.

After months of preparing, the time for the final ascent to the summit arrives but things start to go wrong almost right away; the Sherpas who were supposed to have fixed the ropes had inexplicably failed to do so, leaving the guides to fix them on trail, causing long delays. The teams end up staying on the peak long past the turnaround time of 2pm. And headed towards them is a monstrous rogue storm. This would be the worst day of fatalities on the mountain (until 2014 when ironically enough an avalanche occurred while the second unit was filming in Nepal would break the record) and who survives and who doesn’t is an act of will and sheer luck.

The story itself is riveting. Those who have read Krakauer’s book on the subject or watched the documentary that was made in 1998 will know in advance who survives but even so there’s a tension here that is right up there with any movie released this year. The performances are for the most part terrific; Clarke has become a very reliable lead although he hasn’t ever had a breakout performance that would mark him as an A-lister and this won’t be the one that does so either, although in many ways it is one of his most memorable pieces of work. Brolin and Hawkes, solid actors both, continue to do impressive work. Watson ends up being the emotional core of the film.

There are some truly heartbreaking scenes here, the most notable being one where the wife of one of the trapped climbers contacts him on satellite phone, urging him to keep moving forward, pleading with him all the time knowing that he is dying even as he speaks to her. We see the horror unfold as Helen keeps in contact with survivors, discovering the grim toll taken by the mountain.

This is almost an impossible story to tell properly; for one thing, giving audiences a sense of the mountain’s size and grandeur really can’t be done with just pictures. Some of the footage was taken on Everest itself but a lot of studio re-creation was done, particularly for some of the more perilous scenes and in all honesty I wasn’t convinced. Still, the story is so compelling that I was able to overlook the flaws of the film and enjoy it for what it was; an adventure and tragedy rolled into one.

Like Meru, this isn’t a movie that really motivated me to want to go and climb Everest on my own. Everest at least makes an attempt to explain why men are willing to climb up to the cruising altitude of a 747 where the air is so thin that the body begins to die, but in the end we never really get a clear picture of why – perhaps because the men doing this thing don’t really know themselves. Oh, Doug Harris does say he’s doing it to prove to his kids that nothing is impossible – even a letter carrier on the summit of Everest – but is the price for a lesson like that truly worth it? I think that a lot of kids whose mothers and fathers didn’t come back from this trip would say it wasn’t.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat filmmaking. Some very solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t give us a sense of the majesty or the size of the mountain.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of intense and graphic peril, some gruesome images and a bit of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the bodies of all the victims of this expedition have been found, all but one remain on the mountain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air: Death on Everest
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sicario

Higher Ground


Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Vera Farmiga, McKenzie Turner, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Reagan Leonard, Lucy Owen, Nina Arianda, Dagmara Dominczyk, Molly Hawkey, Warren Haynes, Sean Mahon, Natalie Thomas, Deborah Hedwall. Directed by Vera Farmiga

Karl Marx once described religion as the “opiate of the masses.” There is some truth to this, although as with most pronouncements about faith, religion, belief and the lacks thereof, it comes off as rather simplistic. Religion is many things to many people.

Corinne Walker (V. Farmiga) got married early in life. As a teen (T. Farmiga) she got pregnant by would-be rocker Ethan Miller (Holbrook) and, as Springsteen once said, man, that was all she wrote. While traveling by bus to a gig, an accident changes all their lives and in the aftermath Corinne and Ethan find religion.

Now a grown-up Ethan (Leonard) and Corinne live in what could be characterized as a Christian commune; a community of evangelical sorts in the Midwest for whom folk singing and Bible study occupy large portions of their time. Now with two daughters, Corinne has not questioned her faith and has been a devout follower of Christ.

But doubts are beginning to rear their heads. She feels constricted by the traditional roles assigned her and when she attempts to voice an opinion she feels the disapproval of her community, particularly from the women. Her lone confidante is Annika (Dominczyk), a free spirit who talks frankly with Corinne about her sex life and her female needs. Corinne craves these talks like Robinson Crusoe craves companionship.

But when a further test besets Corinne and the religious community, her faith is tested to the breaking point. When does faith become blind obedience, and how long do you blindly obey before making your own mind up about faith?

Now these sounds like questions that an atheistic Hollywood would be using to attack Christianity but I assure you that’s not what’s happening in this movie. Rather, what Farmiga and screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs (who based her screenplay on a book based on her own experiences) are trying to do is to examine the nature of faith, when it is appropriate to question it and the powerful role it plays in all our lives.

To the credit of writer and director, the believers are not painted with the fanatic paintbrush that believers are often painted with in Hollywood; rather those of faith come by it honestly, either through tragedy or self-examination or more to the point, both. Also to the credit of writer and director, there is no judgment going on here either. Religious faith isn’t portrayed as a crutch but the fact that it can be isn’t ruled out. Instead, it is portrayed as part of the tapestry of our lives. In some ways it reminded me of the 1991 apocalyptic movie The Rapture in which a hedonistic Mimi Rogers is brought to faith by a gentle, loving man whom she later marries, then loses it when her husband is senselessly murdered. While the events her are less epochal, the examination of faith has the same honesty to it.

Farmiga, whose younger sister plays her as a teen, carries the movie. Her Corinne is never shrill but she isn’t meek either. She has questions that need answering and they require answers that aren’t “mind your place.” Corinne is not the sort of woman who can fit in to a mold and indeed most women aren’t. However, there are some that can and do, and some who believe it is their religious duty to do so. That is the part of faith that can be difficult to understand.

The odd thing here is that while these are based on someone’s actual experiences, there is kind of a contrived feeling to the plot – as in that certain characters show up at crucial times when they are needed, or events happen at exactly the right time to have maximum impact on Corinne’s faith and doubts. While the movie doesn’t stereotype the faithful here other than perhaps the disapproving pastor’s wife, it doesn’t really explore them as people as much as I would have liked and the questions of faith that are raised here don’t get more than a very surface examination. While that does leave room for finding your own answers, you don’t get a sense of what the filmmakers think of all this and I would have really liked that insight as well.

This had the potential of being an important movie and indeed I do admire it for raising questions that Hollywood – and independent film for that matter – doesn’t tackle and while it ends up being more or less a morality play without really explaining the morality, you do have to admire its gumption if not its execution.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t sink to stereotypes. Farmiga is a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a bit contrived. Tackles the subject in a cursory manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual situations, as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farmiga directed the film as well as acted in it while five months pregnant.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of outtakes and a production diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $841,733 on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes (purchase only), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rapture
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Toast

New Releases for the Week of April 5, 2013


Evil Dead

EVIL DEAD

(Tri-Star) Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jane Levy, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore, Jim McLarty, Rupert Degas (voice), Randal Wilson. Directed by Fede Alvarez

You’ve seen it before but you’ve never seen it like this. The 1981 cult hit gets a new coat of paint as a group of young people go to a remote cabin in the woods where they find (da-da-DAAAAAAAAH) the Book of the Dead. Even though they’re warned not to of course one of them reads aloud from it, unleashing demonic possession and all kinds of carnage. You’d think people would know by now…

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and gore, some sexual content and language)

6 Souls

(Radius) Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Conroy. After the death of her husband, a psychiatrist has lost her faith in God, choosing to believe only in science. She is then introduced to a patient with multiple personalities who takes on the physical characteristics of each personality. As she discovers that each of those personalities is the soul of a murder victim living inside him, she discovers that what is happening may transcend science and have deadly consequences for her and those she loves.

See the trailer, clips and a link to download the full move on Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for violent content, disturbing images and terror)

Himmatwala

(UTV) Ajay Devgn, Tamanna Bhatia, Paresh Rawal, Zarina Wahab. A remake of a 1983 blockbuster in India, a shy schoolteacher inadvertently witnesses a local thug commit a crime, only to see him go free after his testimony. Ashamed and terrified, he leaves his village. His family then sets out to redeem his good name.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Jurassic Park 3D

(Universal) Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Jeff Goldblum. The question is, does post-converting this ’90s classic add anything to the experience that your imagination didn’t already put there? Thought not…

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and a link to download the full move on Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for intense science fiction terror) 

The Playroom

(Freestyle Releasing) John Hawkes, Molly Parker, Olivia Harris, Jonathan Brooks. A teenager is forced to become a surrogate mother to her younger siblings during the 70s. She tells them fantastic stories to mask the realization that their parents’ drinking is raging way out of control.

See the trailer and a link to download the full movie on Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR 

Tattoo Nation

(D&E Entertainment) Danny Trejo, Don Ed Hardy, Freddy Negrete, Travis Barker. How did tattoos go from being something sailors got when drunk on shore leave in Singapore or something prisoners got to identify themselves as criminals to becoming “body art” and where 25% of all young adults under the age of 40 now have one? It’s actually a pretty good question…

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

The Perfect Storm


Cowabunga!

Cowabunga!

(2000) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, Michael Ironside, William Fichtner, John Hawkes, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Bob Gunton, Karen Allen, Allen Payne, Cherry Jones, Rusty Schwimmer, Janet Wright, Christopher McDonald, Dash Mihok, Josh Hopkins, Todd Kimsey, Chris Palermo, Wiley Pickett, Hayden Tank, Merle Kennedy, Jennifer Sommerfield. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

There is a certain romance that we landlubbers assign to the life of a fisherman. It is not an easy life, one of hard labor, patience and more often than not, frustration. Men leave their families and the comforts of home for days and weeks at a time, hoping to make a big catch that will keep them and their families heads above water when storm season makes deep sea fishing too dangerous.

The romance comes from the uncertainty of the ocean. She may be calm and give freely of her riches on one trip; the next she may give nothing but death. For the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, it’s the life they’ve known and loved since 1623. In that time, more than 10,000 men and women of Gloucester have lost their lives in the great, unmarked grave of the North Atlantic.

The skipper of the F.V. Andrea Gail, Billy Tyne (Clooney) knows the ocean and her fickle nature. One of the most respected captains in the Gloucester fishing fleet, he is in the middle of a horrible run of luck that has begun to get his crew doubting his abilities. Bob Brown (Ironside), the boat’s owner, is a bottom-line kind of guy who is thinking of replacing Tyne if he can’t get the boat to pay. Under this kind of pressure, Tyne decides to take the Andrea Gail for one last run on the Grand Banks even though it is October, and the Banks are no joke in October.

His crew, including the young, starry-eyed-in-love Bobby Shatford (Wahlberg) and the teddy bear-ish divorcee Murph (Reilly) know the risks, but are willing to follow the captain if it will mean a fat paycheck. However, as the voyage continues and the scarcity of a catch has begun to weigh heavily on their minds, Tyne decides to push for the Flemish Cap, east of the Banks and on the edge of the Andrea Gail’s range. There, they finally begin to have the kind of trip they’ve been dreaming of.

What they don’t know is that three weather fronts — a cold front from Canada, an embryonic Atlantic storm just waiting for enough energy to turn it into a monster, and Hurricane Grace, a category five storm moving north from Bermuda — are about to collide and turn the North Atlantic into a buzzsaw. And, because their radio antenna was destroyed (one of a series of mishaps that have plagued the trip), they don’t know they are headed straight into the maw of the mother of all storms.

Of course, this is the kind of script that even Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t dream up without a little help. The events of The Perfect Storm actually happened, with waves verified at over 100 feet (think of a wall of water the size of a seven-story building coming your way and you’ll get the idea).

Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One) captures the harshness of a fisherman’s life, as well as the courage that all fishermen must possess to brave the sometimes deadly seas. He also captures the agony of those who love them and must wait for their safe return. The people here are not wealthy or famous; they are ordinary, blue-collar folks who work hard to make ends meet (barely). They are heroic in the ways that we are heroic, struggling to make something better for our families.

The cast, which includes a nearly-skeletal Mastrantonio (how did she get so gaunt?), a too-rarely-seen Allen, Gunton and the lustrous Lane (one of my very favorite leading ladies), all give solid performances as people whose lives are changed forever because of the storm. The effects by Industrial Light and Magic are terrifying to watch as the sea’s fury grows and multiplies.

The real star of the movie is the Atlantic herself. Changeable in mood, eternal in her allure, she beckons the folk of Gloucester with a saucy wink and gentle, caressing whispers of wealth and wonder. And, like a woman, for all her beauty and charm, sooner or later she shows her volatile side. Still, I believe that not one of the 10,000 souls who went to their rest at the bottom of the sea would have traded their lives, even knowing their end, for any other. Perhaps that is the greatest mystery of all.

Da Queen lost count of her hankies for this one, so you can draw your own conclusions. The movie drags a bit during the fishing portion of the movie (think of “The Deadliest Catch” and you’ll get the drift) while the storm develops, but once it gets rolling, the tension doesn’t let up a bit. The Perfect Storm falls just short of being the perfect movie, but only JUST short.

WHY RENT THIS: Awe-inspiring effects. Gripping story. Terrific performances by Clooney and Wahlberg but in support by Lane, Reilly, Fichtner and Hawkes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re terrified of storms this will put you into the nut house for sure.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of salty language (they’re sailors after all) and some disturbing scenes of peril.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD and Blu-Ray have an HBO special on the making of the film as well as interviews with actual survivors of the storm, and a very moving photo montage. as well as a brief featurette on Horner’s scoring on the film.  There are also collectors editions and signature editions which include lobby cards and other non-disc extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $328.7M on a $140M production budget; the movie was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day After Tomorrow

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Mama

Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter

The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend