Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric, Female-Reviewed

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aptly called both “sorrowful and savagely funny” by Rolling Stone in its 10-best list for 2017, has one of the best story lines and some of the most interesting and complex characters and performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Most importantly, it has Frances McDormand in the lead. And in honor of rare female-centric films such as Three Billboards, I’ve decided to let this movie post be female-reviewer-centric as well.

Watch this trailer, which sets up the Three Billboards premise (and colorful language) really well:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times, describes the basic plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:

[McDormand] plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy-blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. ‘I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,’ she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

Mildred pays for three empty billboards to make the following statements:

    • “Raped While Dying.”
    • ″And Still No Arrests?”
    • ″How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

More about Mildred’s process, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in.

Dana Stevens, Slate, adds to our understanding of Mildred:

…(T)hough Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world…Mildred is a tough person to be around…there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway.

How does the police department deal with Mildred? Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: “The decent Willoughby (another finely crafted portrait of sympathetic masculinity from [Woody] Harrelson) tries to pacify her and rein in the most vicious of his officers, the explosively racist Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full psychopath mode.”

April Wolfe, LA Weeklyaddresses dynamics that ultimately may leave some viewers dissatisfied:

[Director] McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody. And then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life.

There’s another problematic issue too. The Globe and Mail’s Taylor: “If the film fails to solve Dixon’s emotional puzzle, another one that remains troubling is Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the only remnant of her family and link to her motherhood, yet apparently an afterthought in her crazed planning.”

Nevertheless, this is a movie, one with overall positive reviews, that makes you mull such things over. In closing:

...(T)here’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, regarding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

…just the bitter pill the times call for, offered with a loving cup to make it go down just a bit easier. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

Aug 11

“The Glass Castle”: From Best Selling Book to Film

 A young girl comes of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist nomads with a mother who’s an eccentric artist and an alcoholic father who would stir the children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty. IMDB description of The Glass Castle

Home goes wherever we go. Tagline to The Glass Castle

Long-term best seller The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls, now has an eagerly awaited movie version.

THE BOOK

Book critic Francine Prose, New York Times, stated about it that “…what’s best is the deceptive ease with which she makes us see just how she and her siblings were convinced that their turbulent life was a glorious adventure.”

More book details from Publishers Weekly:

…Walls’s parents—just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book—were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn’t conventionalize either of them. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs and had ‘a little bit of a drinking situation,’as her mother put it. With a fantastic storytelling knack, Walls describes her artist mom’s great gift for rationalizing…The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn’t show.

Kirkus Reviews: “The author’s tell-it-like-it-was memoir is moving because it’s unsentimental; she neither demonizes nor idealizes her parents, and there remains an admirable libertarian quality about them, though it justifiably elicits the children’s exasperation and disgust. Walls’s journalistic bare-bones style makes for a chilling, wrenching, incredible testimony of childhood neglect.”

THE MOVIE ADAPTATION

Peter Debruge, Variety, introduces Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film, which features the highly regarded Brie Larson as the lead:

‘The Glass Castle’ catches up with Walls at the moment in her life when she finally came to terms with her father (which has taken a bit of creative fictionalization, but remains remarkably true to the book): She’s engaged to a successful investment banker (Max Greenfield) and looks like a character out of ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ with her fancy high-society hairdo, pearl necklace and stiff-shouldered blouse. No one would guess that this charming, seemingly cultured woman once ate a stick of butter and sugar because there had been nothing else in the house — a house without running water or electricity.

The trailer:

 

Critics are divided over whether the movie does the book justice. Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter, believes, on the one hand, that The Glass Castle “successfully captures the essence of the memoir, with exceptionally potent work by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as the spirited, self-involved and willfully impoverished bohemians who subjected their four kids to a peripatetic, hardscrabble life but also, in the process, taught them to fend for themselves.”

Claudia Puig, The Wrap, concludes, though, that it’s “a far better book than movie” and “feels like a cloying, one-note Hollywood tale, the beastly trauma all tied up with a pretty bow and de-fanged.” Likewise, Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, states that The Glass Castle “gets the mediocre-movie treatment.”

Other Selected Reviews

Tomris Laffly, Time Out: “Reflective and cumulatively poignant, Destin Cretton’s The Glass Castle lays bare the utmost truth about families: You will eventually morph into your parents.”

Eric Kohn, IndieWire: “For a while, the movie generates a fascinating juxtaposition between Jeanette’s childhood efforts to improve her family’s circumstances and the tragic results, a mystery unfolding piecemeal. However, the movie becomes ever more familiar as it moves along, giving way to a tale of father-daughter estrangement.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “Cretton captures the incidents of Walls’ childhood (too many of them, to be honest, as the film really ought to be half an hour shorter), but struggles to connect them to the grown woman Larson plays in the present. Here is a successful New York gossip columnist whose own story was juicier than practically any she uncovered in her day job, and yet, despite its running time, it offers at best a fragmented portrait of how she was personally shaped by having a father as unique as Rex Walls.”

Dec 02

“The Edge of Seventeen”: We’ve Been There

This is a movie about a teen, first and foremost, rather than a “teen movie,” and that’s exactly what makes it feel like a peerless example for the genre. David Sims, The Atlanticregarding The Edge of Seventeen

The official description of The Edge of Seventeen may at least partly explain why many potential viewers haven’t been flocking to theaters to see it—it just sounds so, well, teen-movie-like:

Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.

The following excerpt, however, adds more depth and interest (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times):

…Nadine has always resented Darian for his favored-child status with their mother (Kyra Sedgwick), a feeling that has only intensified since the sudden death of their father (Eric Keenleyside) a few years earlier…

Its verbal style informed by numerous interviews that [writer] Fremon Craig conducted with teenagers nationwide, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ never descends into a ‘Juno’-esque quirkfest…

Critics, in fact, have generally heaped high praise, declaring Steinfeld to be a gem and the story uniquely told. A sampling of reviews:

  • The teen cult classic you’ve been waiting for (Nico Lang, Salon)
  • No one experiences self-loathing as intensely as a teenager, and I’ve never seen it so well-reflected in a movie before (Molly Eichel, Philly.com)
  • A deceptively funny depiction of teen anxiety and depression (Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek)
  • The rare coming-of-age picture that feels less like a retread than a renewal. It’s a disarmingly smart, funny and thoughtful piece of work, from end to beginning to end (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times)
  • Thanks to its edgy sense of humor and achingly accurate poignancy, the flick will touch a nerve with anyone who has ever had to ride that tidal wave of teenage angst. By the way, that’s everybody (Maria Reinstein, Us Weekly)

The Trailer for The Edge of Seventeen

Nadine’s Character

David Sims, The Atlantic: “Nadine is prone to moments of cruelty or gracelessness, and proves at times to be incapable of self-awareness, despite her obvious intelligence.”

Katy Waldman, Slate: “…a beguiling blend of charisma, lancing intelligence, and hostile insecurity.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com:

She’s capable of laughing at herself for her frequent follies, but her default mode is misanthropy, and she doesn’t suffer fools. She can be mean and impulsive and she’s often the victim of her own undoing. Steinfeld makes this intriguing jumble of contradictions feel real and alive. She doesn’t seem interested in making us like this girl who’s perched on the edge of womanhood. She just tries to make her feel true—and that’s what makes us love her.

Other Notable Characterizations in The Edge of Seventeen

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “If ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ were a run-of-the-mill high school melodrama, Krista would be revealed as a selfish, scheming vixen and Darian as an arrogant jerk. But they are smart, sensitive people who care about Nadine. Krista, with her sunny temperament and gentle disposition, has been the light of Nadine’s life since they were children, while Darian has assumed the role of a surrogate patriarch since the death of their father…”

David Sims, The Atlantic: “As the straight-arrow Erwin, who’s clearly interested in Nadine but has no idea how to snap her out of her various reveries, Szeto is a delight, as well as a refreshing choice for a romantic lead in a genre that usually relegates Asian performers to sidekick roles.”

Ella Taylor, NPR:

The life lessons, such as they are, flow from [teacher] Bruner [Woody Harrelson], but less from what he says than in the understanding he extends toward this floundering young bigmouth…All along this taciturn man has offered her what every teenager needs — acceptance, the gift of listening, and a sly nudge down a path along which she can take the reins.

Nov 05

Voter Psychology and the Issues: “Frasier” Clip and “The New Normal”

I. Voter Psychology

Watch the first several minutes of the following clip from the “Woody Gets An Election” (1993) episode of Cheers and it will remind you that when it comes to politics, everything old is new again.

In this scene, frequent barroom patron and psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) is blown away by others’ inability to see through a local candidate’s political vagueness and meaninglessness about such issues as the economy and “the American way.”

Frasier, in fact, becomes so swept up by a fascination with voter psychology—including his belief that typical voters are “sheep”—that he decides to conduct an experiment. In short order, he gets bar employee and not-too-bright Woody (Woody Harrelson) on the ballot for city council—just to see how far they can get.

Hang on til the end of the clip and you’ll hear Frasier advise Woody the new candidate that all he has to do is mention “change about a hundred times” and he’ll do fine. Indeed, Romney’s doing it, Obama did it before him, and so on. It’s what challengers do.

Politics as usual. Do a search for something along the lines of “political candidates and no substance” and you’ll easily find complainers against any and all of the campaigners in any and all types of elections, presidential or otherwise, past and present.

II. Voter Issues

Much has been theorized about the differences between the way Republicans and Democrats view the issues. Fake conservative Stephen Colbert once aptly noted that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” for example.

The new sitcom The New Normal capsulizes some more of these differences into the following spoof. (Unfortunately, I can no longer show you the clip I’d had placed here.)