Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

18 Nov

 

Director Martin McDonagh, a playwright best known for such dark comedies as “The Pillowman” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” put film audiences on pleasurable, if uneasy, heel with his cinematic crossovers “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012). Humor amid violent doings – the graphicness of which you couldn’t make happen in the center of a stage – was the takeaway from those first two films; Tarantino meets the Coen brothers is in the ballpark, and what a glorious one it is. But McDonagh’s vision and style is something of its own, and it operates on its own bloody terms. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is more of the same, and a bit of a feminist anthem that arrives coincidentally, and poetically, as entertainment heavies including Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are eviscerated for lewd and criminal sexual behavior.

As if a Coen influence was not enough, the film stars Frances McDormand, who ruled the roost in the brothers’ masterworks “Blood Simple” (1984) and “Fargo” (1996), for which she won an Oscar. (She’s also married to Joel Coen). Here McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a steely eyed woman who’s responsible for the three billboards of the film’s overly long title – and something of a bother to the town. Against blood-red backdrops the billboards say “Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”; and “Raped While Dying.” They concern the death of Mildred’s daughter, which has gone unsolved for months. Mildred blames the town’s beloved sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, able to keep pace admirably with McDormand). Continue reading

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Justice League

18 Nov

 

The new super adventure inspirationally labeled “Justice League” is an extremely crowded affair littered with jumps in plot, and things end up exactly as one might expect: in a giant CGI beatdown with an arch-villain. Still, after the turgid “Batman v Superman” it’s good to see Zach Snyder fit a lot into a neat two hours, and finally do justice to the floundering DC Comics franchise. (An encouraging trend, considering the sharp and fun “Wonder Woman” directed by Patty Jenkins.)

Things pick up in the immediate aftermath of “BvS,” with Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead or comatose and his mortal darling Lois Lane (Amy Adams) burdened by grief and suffering reporter’s block. That leaves fellow “Leaguers” Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fend for the world as alien ghouls with dragonfly wings descend upon the planet in slow strokes, kidnapping folks. Batman (what is it with these movies where Christian Bale and Affleck talk in constipated growls from behind the mask, but are smoothly eloquent in Bruce Wayne mode?) deduces astutely that the nasty bug-beings are part of a bigger plot – to unite the three Mother Boxes (like the Infinity Gems over in the Marvel Universe) and give an entity known as Steppenwolf – not to be confused with the band founded by John Kay (“Born to be Wild”) or the novel by the tortured German novelist, Hermann Hesse – the ultimate power to terraform the earth and wipe out humankind. Continue reading

Appreciation

13 Nov

Remembering David Pendleton, film lover whose passion, generosity enlivened HFA

 

David Pendleton

The film community in Cambridge and Boston dimmed Monday when Harvard Film Archive programmer David Pendleton passed away after a long battle with cancer. Pendleton, 52, was a highly respect ambassador of film and its preservation, and a fixture in Harvard and Porter squares.

If there was one aspect about Pendleton – beyond his inexhaustible passion for film – cited universally by those who knew him, it was a kind and easy manner that allowed him to interact with filmmakers and the public seamlessly. “He was a generous collaborator,” said Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive. Pendleton spent 10 years as the HFA’s programmer, following Guest east from the Film & Television Archive at the University of California at Los Angeles. (Pendleton, who was born in Dallas, earned a doctorate in critical studies from UCLA.)

Pendleton especially loved French cinema and classical Hollywood, Guest said, but had an interest in world cinema that included building strong programing slates focused on Korean, African and African-American filmmakers. Pendleton was “very inclusive and had a soft sport for marginalized people, and wanted to give them a voice,” HFA publicist Brittany Gravely said.

One of the ongoing programs Gravely cites as part of Pendleton’s imprint on the HFA and its community is the monthly film/discussion forum “Cinema of Resistance,” designed to orchestrate a conversation about salient social topics through film. During his tenure Pendleton also complied “complete” retrospectives of some of his favorite filmmakers, including Robert Altman, Pasolini and Jean Renoir, and helped assemble “A Burt Lancaster Centennial Tribute” in honor of one of his favorite actors.

Special guests Pendleton was instrumental in bringing to the HFA, and whose works he helped curate, included Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Harmony Korine (“Spring Breakers”) and Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”). “David’s legacy,” Guest said, “was his ability to spark conversations between filmmakers and the public. He hosted many great evenings full of energy.”

“If there was one thing about David,” Gravely said, “he was thoughtful and unflappable, and always willing to reconsider things.”

Pendleton’s programs were cited regularly by the Boston Society of Film Critics (I am a member) in its year-end Film Series selections. “David’s programing was diverse, discriminating and eclectic,” Guest said, “and that made it exciting.”

Despite his advanced degrees and revered station in film preservation, Pendleton had a reputation for being accessible and open. “He was very nice and approachable man. I could always commiserate with him about the problems of running a repertory film program,” said John Galligan, curator of the Channel Zero repertory film series. “He was no snob.”

Pendleton is survived by his parents, his brother and two nieces. To honor his legacy, his family has urged donations to the American Civil Liberties Union, human rights organizations or LGBT groups.

Lady Bird

13 Nov

 

Greta Gerwig, the mumblecore queen who scored a breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s Woody Allen-esque “Frances Ha” (2102) gets behind the lens for this semi-autobiographical reflection about a girl coming of age in Sacramento in the early 2000s. If there’s any question about how true to the bird it is, Gerwig is in her early thirties – would have been a senior in high school then, grew up in in Sacramento and attended a Catholic school, just like protagonist Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), aka the “Lady Bird” of the title, struggling to find the right boy to surrender her virginity to and the funds to go to college.

The intimate nature of the film (Gerwig also writes, but does not appear) builds in subtle yet palpable strokes with a devilishly barbed edge as it tackles the mandatory rites of senior year: prom, sex and college acceptance. One of the many angles that makes Christine such an intriguing character study isn’t so much her sass with a dash of surly, or red-shocked (dyed) locks that give her a tint of goth-punk, but the fact she’s a perpetual outsider, not religious and not well off, going to a parochial school and running in circles of affluence while dad (an endearing Tracy Letts), an outdated computer programmer, can’t land a job and mom (Laurie Metcalf, giving the best mom performance of the year behind Allison Janney in “I,Tonya”) hold the house together with stoic tough love.

In short, Christine is in a continually uphill battle – part of it her own obstinance – and along the way makes some provocative (and questionable) choices, be it the dumping of her weight-challenged best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for the popular rich girl (Odeya Rush) or her choices in men, the nice guy who’s too nice (Lucas Hedges, so good in “Manchester by the Sea”) and the cool hipster (Timothée Chalamet) about as deep as his veneer.

Many are hailing this as Gerwig’s directorial debut, though she has a co-directorial credit with mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg on “Nights and Weekends” (2008). She’s also worked on several projects with Baumbach and has clearly been a keen observer of technique and orchestration. The result is quite mature and astute for such a nascent filmmaker, but is it groundbreaking? No – let us not forget Orson Welles pumping out “Citizen Kane” at 24 – but it is fresh and has a bite that feels different even while treading in the same pool as other fine female coming-of-age efforts in the recent past – ”Palo Alto” (2013) and the more accomplished “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Gerwig seems focused and intent behind the camera, which plays against her usual screen presence as pleasantly generic quirky waif.

The real score for Gerwig and the film, however, is the casting of Ronan, a highly accomplished and capable actress who, in her early twenties, has been up for an Academy Award twice already (“Atonement” and “Brooklyn”). There’s never a moment on the screen that you don’t feel and believe every tic and motivation running through Christine’s veins. It’s seems so natural and fluent, you don’t think of it as acting. But don’t be fooled; it’s one of the year’s best performances.

“Lady Bird” is the kind of indie film like such recent hits “Moonlight” or “Boyhood” that possess mainstream crossover and critical appeal. It should also position Gerwig and Ronan as A-listers, able to call their own shots.

Critical Ban

9 Nov

Boston Film Critic Head Explains Solidarity With LA Peers After Disney’s Strike Against Press

Visitors walk through Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in January 2015.
(Jae C. Hong/AP)closemore

Tom Meek, a film critic for The ARTery, is the president of the Boston Society of Film Critics.


Update:

On Tuesday afternoon, Disney told the New York Timesthat the company “agreed to restore access to advance screenings” for Los Angeles Times critics.


Our original post: 

A recent retaliatory measure enacted by the Walt Disney Company triggered a rapid solidarity response by film critics groups, including ours in Boston, over the weekend.

On Tuesday morning, four critics groups announced they would drop Disney-produced films from award consideration until the company rescinds its blackout of the Los Angeles Times.

The Boston Society of Film Critics joined the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics in speaking out against Disney’s systematic blackballing of the Times from its press screenings, interview opportunities and other media access.

The situation erupted last week when the LA Times film critics were barred from attending the press screening of the Disney-produced Marvel adventure “Thor: Ragnarok.” The studio was upset by the paper’s Sept. 24 report about the company and its financial arrangements with — and political influence in — the city of Anaheim (where Disneyland is nestled). Disney cited the paper’s “disregard for basic journalistic standards” as the basis for the move. (The company did not respond to my requests for information.)

Given the course of events, there’s a grave irony that arises in that a company, so effusive in its pursuit to maintain a wholesome, “family-friendly” image, is the hand behind such Machiavellian manipulation tactics. Continue reading

Thor: Ragnarok

4 Nov

The “Ragnarok” of the title may have you scratching your head some, but early enough in the latest “Thor” installment we learn it’s the term for the apocalypse about to hit to Asgard, home of the Norse gods and heralded heroes. Can gods actually be terminated by mass extinction, you might wonder, once the prophecy is told. The answer to that comes in the form of fiery giant demon that typically lurks in the lower abyss of a Medieval-themed video game.

It’s probably best to forget your learned lore; this is the Marvel Comic universe, and a goofy, fun one at that. The handsome and hulking Chris Hemsworth again reprises his God of Thunder role with manly man bravado that’s comically undercut with a devilish dash of cheeky nod-and-wink deprecation. This deity is just as happy to solve a disagreement over a beer as he is to smite the opposition with his mighty hammer. His good-natured, turn-the-other-cheek-first attitude, rounded out with hangdog friendliness, endears. It’s a winning combination that makes the “Thor” series more engaging than, say, a “Captain America” chapter. Levity may be more essential to saving the universe than teeth-grinding grit – just look to the original “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which won audiences on so many levels.

Of course Thor, in his defense of the realm, has one heck of a backup team: the Hulk (a CGI image, and Mark Ruffalo when in human form), his double-crossing brother Loki (Tom Hiddelston) – what else would you expect from the god of mischief? – and boozed-up warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Also in the mix as papa Odin we have the estimable Anthony Hopkins and, as Thor and Loki’s sister who’s been sent to the corner for a near-eternal timeout, Cate Blanchett as Hela (she’s absolute Hell), the goddess of death who looks like Maleficent on steroids.

The intoxicatingly strange brew – the third “Thor” flick, and fifth Marvel film that the Norse god has appeared in – gets nicely stirred by quirky New Zealand auteur Taika Waititi, who’s helmed such idiosyncratic ditties as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) and “What we do in the Shadows” (2014). And if that’s not enough, Doctor Strange(Benedict Cumberbatch) pops in briefly to pull Loki and Thor through a portal in Manhattan. The reality-bending interaction between the three is so pickled and pleasing it nearly sets the rest of the film up for failure. The best, however, is Jeff Goldblum as an entity referred to as the Grandmaster, an omni-powerful being on par with Hela, but one who takes far greater joy in his station, hoisting gladiator contest on a trash heap of a planet called Sakaar. Thor and the Hulk get pitted in the ultimate fight contest. It’s a juicy role akin to Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman in “The Hunger Games” and he bites in deep. Blanchett does too, and Hemsworth cements it all together in a rollicking good time that, predictably and somewhat sadly so, ends in a CGI slugfest.

Killing of a Scared Deer

29 Oct
Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer." (Courtesy Atsushi Nishijima/A24)closemore

Director Yorgos Lanthimos, who rendered a dry, dystopian vision of the near-future with “The Lobster” in 2015, brews up a waking suburban nightmare that’s equally perverse and haunting. There’s rising tension, but the murky dive into the abyss of a guilty soul, desperate for redemption but unwilling to make sacrifices, becomes “The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s” burning core.

We catch up with the Murphys, a well-off family judged by their grand suburban home. The father, Steven (Colin Farrell), is a respected heart surgeon, while his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), is an equally successful eye doctor. Their children Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a precocious teen, and her younger brother, Bob (Sunny Suljic), round out the nuclear perfection. Everything’s hunky-dory despite an eerie — if not disturbing — sedateness that pervades.

Colin Farrell plays Steven in the new Yorgos Lanthimos film. (Courtesy Atsushi Nishijima/A24)
Colin Farrell plays Steven in the new Yorgos Lanthimos film. (Courtesy Atsushi Nishijima/A24)

Weirder yet, Steven has obligatory lunches with a boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), who’s around Kim’s age. They’re uneasy, mandatory meet-ups. Whether Martin is Steven’s illegitimate son or something more salacious, he’s clearly got his hooks into Steven, who is at a loss as to how to free himself. Steven lazily hides Martin’s existence from Anna until one night, Kim comes home from chorus practice on Martin’s motorcycle. Continue reading