A Review of ‘Mudbound’

Upon its opening, Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” draws you in with period piece elements. There is a sense of underlying ominousness — albeit undefined — as we are introduced to the home front of the American South before and during World War II. Similar to Terrence Malick, Rees introduces her ensemble with voiceovers (which continue throughout the picture) that give articulation to the inner thoughts of the charactersin the same wandering, introspective way in which our thoughts are produced and relayed.

Weaved by race, war and economy — this story is one of many moving parts. Opening with a brothers burial for Pappy McAllan, the film jumps back to Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke, “Zero Dark Thirty”), a businessman from Memphis, who marries Laura (Carey Mulligan, “Drive,” “The Great Gatsby”) and decides to buy farmland and a house in Mississippi. The seller has swindled him on the deal, and the family — having sold and spent everything on the move — must live on the farm alongside Henry’s elderly, racially-prejudiced father. On the land lives the family of Hap (Rob Morgan, “Stranger Things”) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige, in a breakout, Oscar-nominated performance) and their children of various ages. While they are indeed renters, remaining racial prejudices make it seem like they are not welcome. The family constantly has to deal with requests from Henry (Hap for workand Florence for child care) and general mistreatment from Henry McAllan’s father. Hap knows the farmland through and through, however (much more than the city-familiar Henry), and proves crucial to the daily operations of the McAllan property.

Henry has a younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) who leaves the U.S. to be a fighter pilot in World War II. The Jackon’s eldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), is in the war, too — receiving a high honor for helping his fellow troops. While overseas, Ronsel falls in love with a native while in Europe and never quite forgets her upon returning home.

The story follows occurences on the farm while the two men are at war, the characters’ respective wartime experiences, and the aftermath of them returning — the bond they form, and the consequences of their presence.

Thus, the plot and its possible complications are set. Race, post-traumatic stress, intimacy, history, economic mobility and more themes of everyday life loom large in this film. What makes Mudbound special is how it’s able to drive home these themes, elicit emotion and make broad societal points all while not feeling forced. And it provides a good story, too.

Voiceovers workas an insightful tool to help us understand the characters and guide the plot. And while the film covered many years, the yearnings of the characters and their motivations seem to stitch together timelines — so the viewer never gets lost in the details. The digital cinematography, driven by the work of Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison (“Dope,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Black Panther,” and now the first woman ever to be Oscar-nominated for Cinematography), shows the lights, breezes and mud of the Mudbound world — translating physical and emotional hardships of farming, war and societal tensions from ideas to a tactile, tangible on-screen presence.

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2017 Sundance Film Festival

Dee Rees’ narrative has a powerful, moving, sad and tear-jerking climax, one set up by the previous two hours of artistic cinematography, plodding character development and weaved timelines. Dee Rees presents a circumspect inspection of these characters throughout the film, and they march into the film’s end fully formed and with agency, thus making the ending authentically weighted and powerful.

The viewer will surely react viscerally to what transpires, but that is the intention. These characters are a product of the time they live in and in many ways the times that came before them. The ending shows us that our past, and thus present, can never be perfect.

But when we focus on life and unifying things — such as the next generation, the bonds between characters because of life experience — society can begin to slowly trudge out of the mud.

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A Review of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

In a world of cosmic indifference, many of us ponder the purpose of being decent. Many of us may wonder why we need to forgive — both ourselves and others — in order to move forward in a world that does not seem to care about right and wrong.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri would argue that while the human condition and random chance guarantee unfortunate events, a capability for forgiveness is nevertheless necessary in order to deal with personal and worldly hardship.

The film, written and directed by Martin McDonagh (“Seven Psychopaths”), sees Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) agitating to get the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to pay more attention to the case of her murdered daughter, which has been lingering with no word for seven months. To make her point, she purchases ad space on three abandoned billboards on a rarely traveled road near her home, and has a single sentence printed on each with bold black lettering popping out on top of a red background.

Rather than a conventional murder mystery, the town’s reaction to Mildred’s actions and the development of the characters that dwell in Ebbing dictates the story that follows. Through the supporting cast, the likes of which include Woody Harrelson (“True Detective”) and Sam Rockwell (“Moon”), the film examines the human condition by taking conventional character tropes (the local police chief; the bad, disgruntled cop; and more) and adding layers of complexity on them that challenge our preconceptions.

McDonagh was inspired to write the film after seeing billboards about an unsolved crime in the Georgia-Florida-Alabama corner.

We learn, through this examination, that every human — no matter how typical or exceptional — is capable of both good and bad. And because of this simultaneous, unchangeable duality, everyone deserves a chance; barring atrocities, of course. Three Billboards shows its characters, some who are more likable than others, doing both good and bad things. We are left to be the judge, but by the film removing any sense or source of absolute moral authority, we realize that flaws are what make us human, and thus, capable and deserving of love.

While this thesis is certainly heavy, the film tackles this in a very understated way. A mix of seriousness, humor and irony, the film demonstrates rather than explicates. In other words, it is a full use of the motion picture medium par excellence. We are simply left to digest the actions as they unfold on screen.

The moving story (and the score), driven by the performance of Frances McDormand,  are the most outwardly emotional elements of the picture. The cinematography, on the other hand, is softer, and quietly achieves the film’s thesis through visual language. Reminiscent of “The Sopranos,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Fargo,” the shots — elegant captures of the mundane details of Ebbing and its characters — convey emotions just as powerfully as the rest of the film’s other elements.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, resolutions are not the answer; redemption is. This unconventional stance type may leave some viewers dissatisfied if they are expecting many of the film’s larger plot questions to be answered. In a sense, however, the resolution is that many things in life rarely go fully resolved. But the emotional effect of what happens in our lives lingers, and that surely affects us. That is what the film cares about — how we process things, how we look inward and outward to forgive, and how we deal and move forward.

Love & Obsession in ‘Phantom Thread’

Attention to detail. This quality defines a great garment, and is also a quality of diligent students of any craft.

Success in any vocation is likely due to dedication and discipline that trumps the extent an average person is willing to travel. Famous athletes, prolific writers, artists & world leaders all come to mind. Their drive and focus shape the routines and habits of their daily lives.

But what effect does this pursuit have on someone’s personal life? How do they connect with others? Such is the chief question posed by “Phantom Thread,” a new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights”). In his second collaboration with Anderson, actor Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln,” “Gangs of New York”) plays renowned, fictional and London-based high fashion dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (a name Mr. Lewis came up with himself). His drive for excellent craftsmanship creates friction with his newfound partner, Alma (Vicky Krieps, “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart”).

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Mr. Day-Lewis and Ms. Krieps in a scene from “Phantom Thread”

While clearly talented, Woodcock’s success as a dressmaker seems owed in part to his ordered routines and unique personal world, tailored by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, “Maleficent”), whose terseness and clear-thinking counterweights his sometimes childish stubbornness. Dwelling in a fashion house — Woodcock’s house is not a home — is for dressmaking.

The film opens by showing the end of Woodcock’s previous relationship with an aging muse. The viewer’s sense is that these muses come and go, but the audience begins to feel that Alma, idiosyncratic in her own right, is a special match for Woodcock’s psyche. That match, however, comes with tension. The movie highlights growth in both their working and intimate relationships over an unspecified duration in the 1950s; and also shows particular ways in which they push each other’s patience.

“Phantom Thread” has a cohesive thesis that meditates on the interrelatedness of obsessive tendencies, success and love. What balance can one strike in order to both pursue a calling and find love? Are they mutually exclusive?

Anderson’s form is compact, focused and achieves the film’s desired aims of exploring these questions. With lush, but muted hues in tone with London’s overcast environment (in fact, Anderson used smoke effects to give even interior shots a certain grayness), the beauty in this film — from the sets, the costumes, and the shot compositions — blends harmoniously with the mood of the story. Like a perfectly tailored garment, the film’s visuals never draw attention to themselves. Shot on 35mm film and experimental in its use of exposures, the cinematography (there is no listed cinematographer on this film) is as fine-made as one of Woodcock’s dresses — and thus achieves the same understated elegance.

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(L-R) Lesley Manville, Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps

“Phantom Thread” is a precisely crafted film and its well-done moving parts — from technical to the acting — come together to rhythmically (perhaps frustratingly) explore the dynamics between two lovers, the walls between them and the motivations that drive them. This film fits particularly well in Anderson’s canon, adding onto his list of bold, sui generis character studies post “There Will Be Blood” (2007).

Likely warranting subsequent viewings in order to fully appreciate its richness, “Phantom Thread” is a layered and subtly daring piece of cinema that diligently examines the difficulty of loving, and of being loved.

 

A Review of ‘The Shape of Water’

History seems to move quietly in the background of Guillermo del Toro’s (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Pacific Rim”) “The Shape of Water,” a film that pays homage to a classic era where cinema was an escape from the struggles and stresses of reality.

The film centers around the love story between Elisa (Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”), a mute custodial staff member at a government research lab in 1960s Baltimore, and the Amphibian Man, who is housed in the facility. The man has been caught by a perplexingly odd and perverse Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, “Midnight Special”) in South America, and is now studied in an attempt to gain an edge on the Soviets. While historical context — consumerism, the Cold War, racial tensions — very much influences the storyline, “The Shape of Water” focuses on love between two unique characters.

Presented in a desaturated green and with fantastical production design, the film feels like it takes place in an enhanced reality similar to Del Toro’s previous films, such as “Hellboy.” Elisa works the night shift and has a routined life, and, given her muteness, has her daily life narrated by her two best friends: Zelda (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”), a colleague who talks to Elisa about the stresses of the job and her own absent-minded husband; and Giles (Richard Jenkins, “Step Brothers”), a neighbor struggling to keep work in print advertising, as he makes handmade ads in an increasingly photography-driven age.

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The Shape of Water is set near Washington, D.C., inside a Cold War government lab.

Del Toro succeeds in crafting a strong film, with a tactful script, rich characters, beautiful sets and a tender love story. But where the film goes above and beyond is in subtle references to struggles of society and humankind — both past and present — through romance.

Throughout the film, Del Toro satires the era with self-help books and the “four out of every five successful men drive a Cadillac” type of suburban consumerism. But he also showcases more serious subjects in segregated countertops, espionage, and post World War II peacetime malaise.

These items in the film, at a first glance, can feel like an aside to the main plot. Love trumps all, right? The journey of a supernatural creature and a mute woman rise above all of these societal complexities. However this story, or any human story, is very much a product of underlying realities. The same human emotions, strengths and flaws that dictate history play out in small-scale connections and interactions among individuals.

There is a scene where Giles is watching a saddening news report on Civil Rights demonstrations, and, exclaiming that it is too upsetting, quickly switches the channel to one of his favorite classic films. He is using cinema as an escape. The viewer is performing the very same function, watching “The Shape of Water” (or any film), potentially, as an escape. It all feels very dreamlike: beautiful sets, classic music, supernatural creatures. But the animus that leads Michael Shannon’s character to fear, rather than admire the Amphibian Man is the same human flaw that plays out in society’s greater struggles to accept differences. Elisa’s character represents our better nature — good vs. evil in a classic sense.

We can never escape ourselves, but we can always be better. Del Toro’s subtle expression of this thesis makes “The Shape of Water” — already a fun, well-crafted and a moving love story — a societally introspective film.

The Shape of Water received seven Golden Globes nominations, including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score.

A Review of ‘Darkest Hour’

Some of history’s biggest decisions are often made in the most personal of moments. Such is the sense in Darkest Hour’s most memorable frame —  a seated Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight, Fifth Element) on the phone with American president Franklin Roosevelt, requesting an exchange for British purchased fighter planes.

The scene takes place in a quiet room in the underground quarters of Parliament, lit by a small light, with the surrounding blackness seemingly narrowing the shot’s aspect ratio. Much of the film is similar, with these intimate moments of conversation, decision and indecision all weaving together to make a collective historical narrative.

Centered around Hitler’s domination of the European mainland in spring 1940, the film deals with how new prime minister Winston Churchill will manage the growing threat of German advancement to the British island.

darkest hour GIF by TIFF

Darkest Hour is a film that succeeds due to its precise technique. In the spirit of All the President’s Men and Spotlight the film plays like a made-for (high end) television drama. Dialogue is the prominent element driving action. Cuts happen quick, frames are tight and shot composition is simple, yet elegant. This style allows the performance of Gary Oldman to carry the film, and creates a Churchill character study taking place within a larger historical context.

Most of Darkest Hour’s shots are close-ups and mediums, with wider frames of British royal and governmental halls edited in as transitional sequences between the important conversations that happen in the small rooms of those very buildings. The viewer spends a majority of the film close to Oldman and the supporting cast, and only catches brief glimpses of the outside world and its citizens.

As the camera stays close to the actors, the viewer is able to see nuances of politics, and particularly from Churchill, a great deal of anxiety and angst. Larger, sparser shots of British structures remind the viewer of the ominous threat of the advancing Nazi army and the institutional legacy under threat. These two shot types, juxtaposed, opine that history; while grand in its scope, is very much a matter of the decisions of humans — who are both talented and fallible.

The work of production designer Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast, 2017) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) combine to add emotional fullness to the film. While the film takes place in May and June, the blacks and grays of the skies, backdrops and wardrobes add a tone of appropriate bleakness and desaturation to the screen, and dim-lit rooms serve as quiet, understated settings for the characters, whose faces illuminate from the few light sources surrounding them. These technical elements ultimately support the actors and their dialogue, as well as underline the uncertainty and importance of the historical moment.

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Lily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR. Photo Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

Exceptionally well-directed, written, acted and shot, Joe Wright’s (Atonement) Darkest Hour is an engaging drama that sheds lights on one of the 20th century’s darkest and most pivotal moments. And by virtue of the film’s technical elements, Darkest Hour allows us to examine the characters and milieu that defined those moments. While not a historically flawless film — indeed some scenes play a bit unrealistic — the movie nevertheless achieves its prime objective of showcasing the turbulence and significance of May 1940, and the man who turned the tide for the better.

Author’s note: this film is a great complement to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017), as Dunkirk is an important plot element in “Darkest Hour.” Coincidentally, Christopher Nolan directed Gary Oldman in the Batman trilogy.

A Review of ‘Lady Bird’

 

“We’re afraid we’ll never escape our past… we’re afraid of what the future will bring… we’re afraid we won’t be loved… we won’t be liked… and won’t succeed.”

This is what a priest announces to a mass filled with attendees from an all-girls Catholic high school in Greta Gerwig’s new film, “Lady Bird.” The film — starring Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Laurie Metcalf (“Toy Story,” “Roseanne”) — follows Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Ronan) during her senior year of high school in 2002-03 suburban Sacramento. This coming-of-age story highlights Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother (Metcalf), family, friends, boyfriends and home city — all while socioeconomic context and historical context (the Iraq War) play their part as characters in the film.

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Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig

With a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, this movie has garnered almost universal acclaim. And rightly so — “Lady Bird” brilliantly weaves universal emotional truths into a nuanced and rich version of the coming-of-age story, by the realistic depth and complexity of its characters.

At first glance, it may seem that this is a film that has been done before — but, by virtue of the emotional beats it hits, it’s a film that succeeds by sticking to form. But what makes ‘Lady Bird’ unique and effective, is that the characters follow no archetypes, and because they are so real, we relate to them due to their very humanity.

Lady Bird, and other characters in the film, are inherently believable. It’s easy to see yourself interacting with them as individuals. A natural connection develops because certain human feelings exist (longings and fears that are common across all characters). By Lady Bird being the best version of herself (a mantra Metcalf’s character repeats), we see her as a real person moving through Gerwig’s scripted world.

Many viewers have, or will have, experience(d) several adolescent events in the film. And, while your particular life experience may be quite different, you surely can relate to breadth of Lady Bird’s smiles, laughs, angsts and contradictions. For instance, there are moments in the film when Lady Bird is short with her mother — who clearly does so much for Lady Bird — and says quite hurtful things (evidently, her mother also says quite hurtful things in return). Even with this dynamic, the viewer never sees Lady Bird as a “bad” character, and never loses faith in her as the film’s driver. This faith remains, because, subconsciously, the viewer knows they themselves are capable of the very same behaviors.

Lady Bird’s contradictions are not flaws. Rather, they are strengths; because her honest, raw moments are a necessary experience in adolescent growth and development. By the end of the film it is very clear that Lady Bird has grown tremendously.

The fear of escaping the past — or of not succeeding, or of not being loved, or of being ashamed of a hometown — all originate from the same human longing for connection and love. “Lady Bird” is a film about finding comfort with the people and places closest to your heart; and how self-acceptance is a foundation for self-confidence and personal growth. That is the human story, and that is why this film resonates.

Greg can be found on Instagram at @thejohngregory

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