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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: Der Hauptmann (The Captain)

Der Hauptmann (2018): Written and directed by Robert Schwentke.  Starring: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hoelscher, Waldemar Kobus, and Alexander Fehling.  Running Time: 118 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            A man- dirty, ragged, desperate, possibly a deserter- is fleeing from a group of Nazis who appear to be hunting out for nothing more than sport, calling out “little pig, little pig” as he runs.  He manages to shakes them off in the woods, but finds life as a vagabond in wartime Germany to be no less violent or deadly than life on the front.  He finds an abandoned car with the full uniform of a Luftwaffe officer that fits him perfectly.  After putting it on, another soldier (also a deserter?) mistakes him for a real officer and offers his services.  Thus begins his wild and increasingly cruel existence as the Hauptmann. 

            We never learn his real name. Who he is, where he came from, what led to him being hunted; he betrays none of it, stuffing it all deep within himself in his fight to survive from one minute to the next.  And what a strange and surreal fight it is.  In a world where all revolves around whether your papers are in order, the man continuously bluffs his way past one obstacle after another by insisting he’s been entrusted with a secret mission by Adolf Hitler himself.  Soon he’s practically handed control over a small concentration camp with the expectation he will single-handedly solve its overcrowding problems.  If you have ever seen a single film about Nazi Germany before, you can probably guess where the end of this particular road lies. 

            That the main character remains such an enigma from start to finish is ultimately the main stumbling block holding this film back.  The ever-more-complicated lies he’s forced to spin to keep up the charade leads to him ordering and/or personally committing heinous war crimes, but because we know nothing of who he was before, we don’t know if he was already someone with a propensity for murdering people in cold blood or not.  Does he go through any sort of personal transformation, and does this hurt or trouble or haunt him in any way?  Is it all the act of a supremely skilled con artist, or is he really as fervent an ideological Nazi as he pretends to be? 

            Perhaps the movie is simply meant as a meditation on the moral entropy we are all prone to, especially in times of crisis.  Perhaps we are witnessing an adaptation of Dante, seeing one man arrive and welter in the deepest pit of hell.  This would certainly fit with how the tone of the shift continues to shift into more surreal and debauched territory in its second half, including a shot of the man wandering alone across a literal carpet of human skeletons in a forest before being swallowed up in the darkness of the pines. 

            Perhaps the real story, the real narrative arc, lies with Freytag, the first soldier to join the man.  At first, he seems a simple man and a simple soldier (if there is such a thing) content to help as best he can.  But you can see the shift in his eyes as he slowly begins to realize something is terribly off about the man he’s sworn himself to. 

            Ironically, for all its horrors, this is a stunningly beautiful film to watch.  Shot in crisp and piercingly clear black-and-white, every frame is packed with a richness of detail few color films could hope to match.  A steady knowledge of composition is clearly at play, because sequence after sequence provides us with worlds of information about the various characters and their relationships to one another without ever needing to explain much of anything. 

            Still, at least a few moments of introspection on the man’s part would have done much.  I can’t help but feel that the film does itself a disservice by ignoring a lot of potential depth in its thematic material.  This is, apparently, based on a real-life war criminal named Willi Herold, but as of this writing I don’t know enough about him to ascertain whether or not the film is historically accurate.  As it stands, I see it as much more of a moral allegory for the depravity people are always and ever capable of, once enough societal restrictions are lifted.  This is a remarkable film I will not forget seeing anytime soon. 

-Noah Franc

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Cinema Joes Podcast: February Update

            As many of you know, in addition to my writings on this channel, I am a founder and longtime contributor to the intrepid cinematic explorations of the Cinema Joes Podcast.  It was a busy month, what with the build-up to awards season and all, so here’s a short run-down of the topics we explored this month: 

February 4th- 2018 Oscar Reactions (mini-episode)

            With the Oscar nominations out a bit later than normal this year, we sat down to give a shortlist of our biggest thoughts on this year’s nominations, and what some of our desired outcomes are. 

February 11th- I, Tonya/Should Real-Life Villains Be Awarded Their Own Films? 

            With I, Tonya causing a major cultural effort to re-visit the sordid world of early 90’s Olympics drama, we offered our take on what the film could/should mean for cinema going forward, and discussed the merits of trying to make films from the perspective from…shall we say, less-than-sympathetic real-life figures. 

February 18th- Notable Sports Documentaries (mini-episode)

            With the Winter Olympics in full swing, we decided to give shout-outs to sports documentaries we found particularly impactful and worth seeing, whether or not you fancy yourself a sports fan. 

            And by sports, of course I mean baseball, and literally nothing else. 

February 25th- Black Panther/What Makes A Fantastical Setting Work?

            What else could we close the month out with but with our thoughts on Black Panther, which is shaping up to be one of the defining cultural events of 2018.  Being a trio of white men, of course, we are quite limited in what we can say about a lot of the film’s cultural meaning and import, but since we all loved it, we saw no shame in taking an hour to laud its merits and suggest everyone and their grandmother go out and see it. 

-Noah Franc

Friday, February 23, 2018

Films for the Trump Years: Black Panther

            Because really, what else could it possibly be?  Not only is Black Panther THE cultural event of the moment, with nothing else coming even close, it could very well end up being the cultural event of the year.  It’s shattering of box office records has the potential to permanently shift the world of movies away from their hitherto unbreakable obsession with white men as the be-all-and-end-all of our pantheon of cultural Gods. 

            But beyond all that, while the very existence of the film itself would be a radical thing in this day and age of political and social regression, its very story, character arcs, and themes present explicit, direct challenges to the threats presented to us by conservative extremism around the world. 

            Maybe it was intentional design on the part of Ryan Coogler and his team, that they set out from the beginning to make a movie with the potential to spark a veritable revolution.  Maybe it was sheer luck of timing.  Either way, this movie has perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of 2018, and with theater after theater being bought out for inner-city and disadvantaged children of color to see the film for free, I don’t think we’ve developed the mathematics yet to grasp just how much sheer optimism this movie could unleash on the generation for whom the characters of this movie will be their first great cinematic heroes.  A population filled with happiness and a strong self-confidence in their own colors and identities is one far more immune to the manipulation of would-be tyrants and oppressors. 

            On top of that, the movie is already starting to have an immediate political impact through growing movements like the #WakandatheVote drive to use screenings of the film as a conduit to get people to register to vote.  Even within the movie itself, in one of the credit-scenes, a practical GOP-stand-in figure at the UN challenges T’Challa’s assertion that Wakanda will help improve the world with a scornful, “What does a nation of poor farmers have to offer us?” 

            Every movie, every part of our culture, is political in some way, shape or form, but few embrace this as willingly as Black Panther does, and few could change us for the better the way this film very much could. 

            So if you haven’t yet, log off this site, close the laptop, and get your ass in a theater seat RIGHT NOW.  You don’t want to miss a second of this.  This revolution will not be televised.  It's live.  It's right now.  

-Noah Franc

Part 1- Selma  

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short

Part 7- Human Flow

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: Black Panther

Black Panther (2018): Written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler.  Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker.  Running Time: 134 minutes.  Based on the Black Panther comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. 

Rating: 4/4

            It’s taken far too long for us to get to this point, but here we are at last- a major superhero blockbuster, financed by one of the biggest production companies in the world, made by black filmmakers about and starring black characters.  And although there’s no excusing how long it took, the wait was worth it- Black Panther is not just great “for a Marvel movie,” it’s a great movie period, an immediate cultural event that can and should dominate our cultural conversation through 2018 and beyond, and like last year’s Wonder Woman, will also hopefully serve as a harbinger of a more pluralistic future for both cinema and human culture in the years to come. 

            Picking up in the aftermath of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is preparing to take over the mantle of King of the hidden, super-advanced African nation of Wakanda.  The nation has existed in isolation for centuries, but T’Challa now faces a difficult choice over whether or not to end this isolation, and under what conditions.  His former flame, the spy-warrior Nakia (the ever-magnificent, ACADEMY AWARD WINNER Lupita Nyong’o), lean towards opening the country benevolently to share its wealth and technology with the world, especially the poverty-stricken African nations surrounding them.  Others, most notably the film’s main antagonist, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, finally granted cosmic mercy after suffering through the latest Fantastic Four reboot) want to end the country’s isolation as well, but take it to the further extreme of wanting to export weapons to cells throughout the world, sparking a massive African uprising to literally upend the racial hierarchy of the world through the same violent methods Westerners used to establish it. 

            This film is a staggering accomplishment on so many levels.  There are technical nitpicks to be had, if you must; several scenes are held back by some dodgy CGI, and yes, the plot does follow much of the same “hero’s journey” beats every major blockbuster follows.  However, like last year’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that rises to such epic heights in its best moments, and achieves such potent cultural meaning in this particular day and age it was made in, that the sort of regular criticisms applied to other movies just aren’t ultimately relevant here. 

            Much of this is due to how explicitly and thoroughly the movie delves into the most potentially troubling and/or uncomfortable questions its basic premise raises when you pursue it to its logical end.  In most other Marvel movies, you could squint and pretend that the whole affair was taking place in an alternative Earth without all the baggage of our history, but Black Panther blows up any remaining chance to pretend that’s so.  This film clearly establishes that colonialism, the slave trade, and the depravations that followed happened, that Wakanda deliberately chose to shut itself off from the world and (more or less) ignore it all, and that it might be time for the Wakandan people to ask themselves some hard questions about what their responsibilities in an increasingly globalized world should be. 

            Permeating it all are questions about what the sudden reveal of the most advanced nation in the world being an isolated “third-world” country (the film walks right up to the “shithole” line in one of its best scenes) could mean for oppressed minorities throughout both the Marvel world and our real one.  As a white person, I feel it’s not my place to try and stake any ground in that particular discussion, but the varied and passionate responses (from both African-Americans and others) that have been filling the internet since the film’s release, examining the movie and its premise from dozens of different angles have been truly amazing to behold, and are well-worth digging into and pondering no matter where you approach the film from. 

            Even though some of the action fails to stand out from the rest of the Marvel pack, this is one of the most visually-arresting comic book films ever made.  The sets and costumes on display are lavish in their uses of colors of every shade- this movie continues the streak started by Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok of Marvel movies becoming increasingly colorful, bright, and daring in their production designs.  Ruth Carter’s costumes are such exact creations that I almost felt I could see the fabrics pushing through the screen, and Best Costume Design just one of many categories where this film should be considered an immediate nomination favorite come the next awards season. 

            What makes the film soar, of course, is how the remarkably layered script by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler is brought to life by one of the most powerhouse black casts ever assembled.  Chadwick Boseman is solid and steady as T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan remains one of the most gifted rising actors in the business, and their dueling goals, ideals, and personalities make the film arguably the deepest one to yet enter the MCU.  Daniel Kaluuya and Winston Duke provide effective contrasts in their ideas about how Wakanda should change, and Andy Serkis, at last, is on screen in-person as Klaue, and oh my God, does he grab every second of screen time he gets and wrings it for all it’s worth.   

            Where the film sings the most, though, and where it stands to potentially have the greatest real-world impact, is its depiction of women.  Everyone knew Nyong’o as Nakia would be amazing, but I don’t think the world was quite prepared for the Earth-shattering awesomeness that is General Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the all-female Royal Guard (imagine a dozen Rey’s and you’ll be on the right track), and Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and a technical genius/smartass to match, and quite likely to exceed, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner combined.  Oh, how I can’t wait to watch Stark’s mouth drop when he inevitably gets shown up at a key moment in Infinity Wars. 

            Seeing this film, and just thinking about it on and off after my screen, makes me so, so happy, almost giddily so.  There is an inescapable sense in the air of a movie mattering to people in real ways that hasn’t been felt there for a long time.  With Duvarnay’s A Wrinkle In Time just around the corner, the already-staggering success of this film on the heels of Wonder Woman could very well be remembered as a key fulcrum in cinematic history, where the old cultural power structures built by and for white men passed the proverbial tipping point, and finally began to crumble into true irrelevance. 

            The best part of all this came when I realized that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I or any other white critic or viewer has to say about this movie, because black audiences are already using it, interpreting it, and giving it meaning that no one else can touch or stop.  There are many white people in the world who sense this and choose to take it as a threat to their own existence.  In fact, though, it’s liberating, for all of us.  The time is fast approaching when the white man will no longer be able to decide the fate of the world.  And thank GOD for that. 

-Noah Franc  

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: Padmaavat

Padmaavat (2018): Written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.  Starring: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh.  Running Time: 163 minutes.  Based on the epic poem Padmavat, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. 

Rating: 3/4

**this review contains some spoilers for the plot of the film**

            Padmaavat is the sort of sprawling, epic movie that used to be regular fare for Old Hollywood, but nowadays just doesn’t get made anymore.  It fills every shot with sumptuous color and detail, feels seeped in real fantasy world of its own making, and you can practically see every stitch in its meticulous, intricate costumes.  The acting style is operatic and grand, with big gestures and overwrought emotions.  That the film is a remarkable technical accomplishment and provides a unique cinematic spectacle is beyond debate.  Whether or not the substance of the film is worth it- and whether or not these characters belong in the 21st century- is a bit harder to place, and will come down mostly on how target audiences (especially in India) respond to it.   

            Adapted from the epic poem of the same name, originally written in the 16th century, the story centers around a young Sinhala princess, Padmavati, and the dueling passions she inspires in two powerful kings.  One, the cruel and greedy Alauddin, helps his uncle seize the Sultanate in Delhi before murdering him and taking the crown himself.  The other, the more principled Ratan Singh, is the Rajput king of nearby Mewar.  Ratan Singh and Padmavati meet in her home country as Ratan Singh is on a mission to find rare pearls, and they quickly fall in love. 

            The conflict between the two is sparked when Ratan Singh expels his head priest, Raghav Chetan, after he discovers him spying on the couple out of lust for Padmavati.  Furious, the priest travels to Alauddin’s court, telling him tales of the mystic beauty of Padmavati, and promising him that if he could make Padmavati his wife, he would soon conquer the world.  Alauddin marches forth with his army and lay siege to Mewar, demanding to see Padmavati and promising dire consequences on the entire kingdom if they defy him.

            This movie ended up becoming (purportedly) the most expensive production in India to date, and it shows.  This is a lavish feast for the eyes from the first shot to the last, with the visuals at their most stunning during the films music-and-dance sequences.  Consider two with particular thematic resonance; Padmavat’s first dance before Ratan Sing, and Alauddin dancing with his men to express his overwhelming desire for a woman he’s never even seen.  Padmavat’s dance is smooth, choreographed, both sensual and gentle, filled with graceful movements and lush, arm colors.  Alauddin’s is a mix of cold, almost freezing blues and grays, with harsher, more desperate (and even animalistic) movements, reflecting the more destructive and controlling nature of his desire.     

            In fact, while the whole cast is solid, Ranveer Singh as Alauddin is the one who shines the most as an enthusiastically sadistic villain.  It’s a scenery-chewer of a performance in the classic sense of the word, very nearly matched by Jim Sarbh as Malik, Alauddin’s second-in-command, who is so clearly SUPER gay for his boss it’s actually a little heartbreaking at times.  It’s interesting to note that he’s actually the only male character in the entire movie who’s completely clean-shaven, even in the middle of the desert, possibly meant to emphasis his (probable) homosexuality. 

            The movie feels at first like it could end up being a sausage-fest; Padmavat is revealed in her first scene to be a spectacular hunter and archer, but these skills never really come back into play, and she seems to fade into the background at first as a mere object of desire.  However, when Alauddin tricks Ratan and imprisons him, the women step forward and take charge of a drastic effort to free him, and the result is one of the film’s highlights.  Alauddin’s first wife, who was opposed to his pursuit of Padmavat from the beginning, makes a key choice here that provides her and Padmavat with a moment that, for me, was one of the film’s most meaningful. 

            It was this second part of the movie that, in my view, provided the film with some much-needed thematic shading.  Ratan Singh makes much of his moral principles, and he is clearly presented as the completely wise and virtuous counterpart to Alauddin, but in true Greek Tragedy fashion, I couldn’t help but feel that that which was supposed to raise him above other men is what actually leads to everything bad that happens to him and his people.  He gets several chances to just kill either the priest or Alauddin, and if he had taken a single one of them, all the terrible stuff that follows would never have happened, and perhaps that alone is one of the intended messages of the story. 

            But we’re getting into controversy territory here, so with this, I think, it’s just about time for the disclaimer; I am a white, Western, Christian male, so my right/ability to judge whether or not the film is….

-morally backwards
-insulting or demeaning to Indians, Hindus, or Muslims
-a faithful adaptation of a classical Hindu text (or not)
-OR whether or not this story or these characters are/should be culturally relevant to India today

… just about nonexistent.  It’s not my place to decide what this film means or should mean to India today.  But that’s not to say others haven’t been more than willing to take up the debate in violent ways.  A number of radical groups in India- most notably a Rajput group called Karni Sena- have repeatedly sent death threats to the director and many in the cast, have threatened to cut off the nose of the lead actress, and even attacked sets and attempted to destroy props, costumes, and the like.  Most recently, a bus full of schoolchildren was attacked on a highway, allegedly in protest of the film (although Karni Sena itself denies involvement).  Reactions from local governments have been mixed, at best, and pushes continue for the government to either ban the film outright or severely restrict its distribution. 

            As I said before, I have no place to comment on how Indians should or should not handle this film and this story in general, but I do think that the idea of a film being worth hurting people over is something a tad more universal, since this sort of thing has happened over and over again throughout the world and is in no way limited to Indian or Hindu culture.  So, at the risk of overstepping my bounds as a Western film critic (and please, PLEASE let me know in the comments if I do), I would like to conclude this review by saying the following-

            The right to tell or adapt whatever story you want- to have whatever ideological underpinnings or messages or characters you want- is fundamental, no matter how backwards or reprehensible I or other viewers may find them.  NO movie, no matter how heinous, justifies violence.  No movie should be banned.  If the movie is reprehensible, let it be demonstrated through audiences choosing to spend their time and money on other, better films, not because it was arbitrarily pulled from theaters over how people might react.   

            If the consensus on this movie amongst audiences (Indian or otherwise) ends up being that it pushes an outdated, destructive form of patriarchy, that it’s unduly sexist or anti-Muslim, that it’s a lot of money and effort spent on the wrong character or the wrong story, it needs to be because people sat down, watched the movie from start to finish, and then thought about and debated it, and NOT because some reactionary, sword-wielding lunatics mutilated the filmmakers and terrorized a bus full of kids. 

-Noah Franc

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, and, of course, Ċ½eljko Ivanek.  Running Time: 115 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

**this review contains assorted spoilers for In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards**

            Every year there seems to be at least one solidly good, if flawed, movie that ends up getting hyped just a bit too much come awards season, prompting a backlash from those insisting that the film isn’t that good, or is actually terrible, and then a backlash to the backlash, and on and on.  Meanwhile, the heated arguments move so far beyond the starting point that the film itself ends up completely forgotten and left in the dust.  Some of these films do deserve such treatment (looking at you, Crash), but many do not, and much to my disappointment, this year the anvil has fallen on one of my all-time favorite writers.    

            Martin McDonagh is an Irish playwright who, after solidly establishing himself as one of the most celebrated playwrights in Irish history, began making forays into films with his 2004 live-action short Six Shooter, which eventually won an Oscar, and followed up with his first feature-length films, In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).  After a long hiatus to work on his latest play, he returned this year with Three Billboards, and for the first time has seen a movie of his become a serious awards darling, winning big at the Golden Globes and entering the Oscars a heavy favorite in many of the major categories.  This despite the fact that it is not one of his better films.  Like with Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese before him, I’m happy to see him get accolades, but can’t help wishing it were for one of his earlier, better works. 

            Three Billboards tackles a lot- a LOT- of subject matters, but first and foremost it’s the story of Mildred (Francis McDormand), a middle-aged, divorced mother growing increasingly bitter and angry at the inability of the local police force to make any progress in solving the rape-and-murder case of her daughter.  Determined to push Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) any way she can, she rents out three abandoned billboards on the road near her house, posting a series of messages on them deliberately meant to provoke as strong a reaction as possible from both the police force and the town as a whole. 

            This provokes a whole series of events, many darkly comic, many just sad, involving a nerdy ad manager, a trigger-happy cop played by Sam Rockwell, a cancer subplot, arson, domestic violence, and more.  The movie is very well-shot and superbly well-acted (Lucas Hedges, playing Mildred’s son, has not been getting enough praise for his small but crucial role), but the story and many of the intended characters arcs ultimately fail to connect in all the ways they’re clearly supposed to.  McDonagh’s best movie remains In Bruges, where both the characters and the world they occupy are so perfectly fitted to one another that, at the end of it, you realize the story could not possibly have played out any other way.  His most transcendent work remains his 2003 play The Pillowman, where the characters and world are just vague enough that it could be set anytime and anywhere.  Three Billboards falls well short of both heights, and a clear part of this lies with how its narrative develops.  Specifically, with how unbelievably circular much of the plot ends up being. 

            See, usually the realm of the stage is that of the circular plot, where characters and props and story points all come around by the end to connect to each other.  Each characters will eventually be (or always were) bound to the others in highly coincidental ways.  While regularly excused in theater, this conceit is usually disdained (or at least hidden as well as possible) in movies due to its clear artifice, but with In Bruges, McDonagh made one of the rare great films where this circularity is stunningly effective.  This is mostly thanks to how well the film’s setting evokes a fairytale atmosphere in both a dreamlike and nightmarish sense.  Three Billboards utilizes this same approach- most obviously in cases like the choice of a hospital bed, the identity of an arsonist, even a tease about who the rapist might be- but to noticeably less effect.  Here again, I can’t help but feel the setting is the cause of this.  Bruges feels like exactly the sort of place where the streets fill up with fog every night, and where you’d never feel surprised to meet the same cast of characters on every street corner, where life, hate, and love repeat themselves endlessly.  In the flatlands and open spaces of a Midwestern American town, less so. 

            This could maybe have worked better had the movie carried more similarities in tone and mood to McDonagh’s other major film, Seven Psychopaths.  While that film is also filled with one remarkable coincidence after another, it’s a movie more focused on deconstructing itself than telling a story, so worrying about problems or inconsistencies of plot or characters is just about pointless.  Three Billboards, by contrast, is clearly striving to tell a good, straight story about interesting characters, and has to be judged on those merits. 

            Narrative issues aside, let’s dive into where the real heated stuff about the film lies.  Like purveyors of Fox News, we all know what we’re really here for; the hot, spicy racism.  There are two main thrusts of criticism of the film that have taken shape; that it unsuccessfully (and say callously) tries to be a movie “about” racism and police brutality, and that it’s a movie that redeems (or excuses, or “explains”) the racism of its most hateful and bigoted character, Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon. 

            The fact that the movie does clearly try to at least include racism and police brutality as major themes is its biggest weakness.  We are given a sense that the town is a racially-mixed place with a very Ferguson-like history of animosity between the police and the town’s minority communities.  Yet we only really have three characters of color in the whole film, two of whom are there solely to appear on-screen, comment on the police, and then in one case literally be “disappeared” for most of the rest of the film.  The third character, a black police officer appearing late in the game to assist in Mildred’s case, might have been intended as a balance to this, and to give the police some shading as well, but here too he isn’t around nearly enough to make a big enough impact.  This isn’t to say that McDonagh can’t or shouldn’t tackle racism, but as a particularly memorable scene from In Bruges shows, he’s much better at approaching it as a white man poking fun at other white men for the absurdity of their bigotry.  His efforts here to use black characters solely for this purpose feels off, even within the context of the film, and I understand why this was a key breaking point for many viewers. 

            The question of whether or not Officer Dixon is “redeemed” by the end of the film is a bit trickier.  Over the course of his career, McDonagh has created some of the most hateful, pessimistic, cynical, violent, and cruel characters imaginable, with many of his stories centering around how the particular cruelty of various characters lead to endless cycles of violence, injury, and recrimination.  Very few of his works end with anything approaching redemption or salvation, but his best works do at least allow moments of genuine love and/or tenderness to shine through the darkness.  Here again, In Bruges and The Pillowman stand out especially well, another reason why they’re his best works.  Three Billboards clearly wants to have moments like this- there are a lot of scenes that try to let the characters’ inner softness or goodness peak out- but their effectiveness is much more mixed. 

            In regards to Officer Dixon, then, can we say his character is redeemed by the end?  I would argue he isn’t.  McDonagh himself is on the record saying he doesn’t see Dixon as redeemed, nor did he try to write that in as part of the script.  There is, of course, the infamous “letter scene” where a letter from Chief Willoughby insists that Dixon is only as hateful as he is because he’s “had a hard life” and he’s really “a good person, deep down.”  This moment is one of the film’s bigger clunkers, for a number of reasons, but even here I don’t think this was intended as a sort of absolution for Dixon- it could simply be a very dark joke meant to show that Willoughby was wrong, dead wrong, about Dixon the whole time, and every minute he spent defending him was wasted breath.  It wouldn’t be the first time McDonagh designed a character’s death to be a horribly misguided attempt to save people beyond saving.  That the scene could be misinterpreted as a saving grace moment for the character lies, then, less with the explicit intention and more in a failure of execution. 

            One of the more interesting interpretations I’ve read about the film is that, in fact, no one is saved, and both the main characters are irredeemably twisted by the end.  The movie ends with Dixon and Mildred in a car, contemplating murdering a man unconnected to the crime at hand, and unsure of whether or not they will actually go through with it.  This I find to be a rather fitting way to end, because, for all the justification behind Mildred’s anger, it’s hard to escape feeling that she’s let it twist itself into something far darker.  She has suffered, yes, but can that excuse the suffering she metes out to others, sometimes at random?  Her daughter is gone, but her son is still there.  He pleads with her time and again to change her behavior, trying to make her see the ways her mini-war on Chief Willoughby is making his life harder, but not once do we see her pause to consider this.  Maybe she and Dixon have both fallen beyond saving, and those who think otherwise are just fooling themselves. 

            Perhaps, in the end, the movie just handicaps itself by biting off too much in trying to handle racism and police brutality on top of its central story.  If it were more tightly focused on a single woman’s search for justice and anger over the inefficiencies of the justice system, we likely would have had a much stronger film that would never have prompted such controversy to begin with.  Violent crime against women going aggravatingly unpunished is very much a real issue that movies can and should tackle.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of artists and filmmakers more than able to tackle both that and other issues like racism within the same film- there most certainly are- but McDonagh isn’t one of them, at least not yet. 

            Three Billboards is a good movie, solid in a lot of ways, but too uneven to count as a great film.  And while I have been an avid fan of McDonagh’s for a long time and would love to see a film of his dominate the Oscars one day, this isn’t the film that should.  

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 2017

            And now, at long last!  You know what film scores I liked most.  You know which action scenes I think topped the year.  Now we wrap up my final look-back at the year-that-was with the best of the best- my top ten favorite films of 2017.  

            For all new readers, the rules- I consider eligible for my list any film that either screened at a film festival OR had at least a brief theatrical run in either the US or Germany, even if it was originally produced in a previous year.  And as always, what films end up being my favorite is purely subjective- a lot of the films I saw this year were excellent, but for one reason or another didn’t affect me on a personal level, so absence from this list is in no way meant as a diss.  Agreements, disagreements, and comments are, as always, more than welcome in the comments below! 

Honorable Mentions: Wonder Woman, Boys For Sale, Tiger Girl, Your Name, mother!, Valley of the Saints
10. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)

            This film was soaked in the evocative atmosphere of a lazy, otherworldly summer in the European countryside, where time stretches out indefinitely….until suddenly, it doesn’t.  This perfectly-cast movie will hopefully be remembered as a watershed in film treatment of non-heterosexual romances on the big screen, where they are granted the same space and peace to just become what they were meant to become as “normal” romances have always been given.  As excellent as Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg are (and they are excellent), Chalamet’s final scene during the start of the credits was one of the most powerful visual and acting experiences of the year, one that may yet make him the youngest Best Actor winner in Oscar history. 

            The latest entry into the new Star Wars universe did not do what I had wanted it to, or develop its characters the way I’d hoped.  And the more I thought about that, the more I realized that’s exactly what I, other fans, and this whole franchise needed- something that, for all its parallels to the original trilogy, breaks out on its own when it really counts.  This was highlighted for me by Mark Hamill’s incredible performance and the challenging way the film tackles the person and legacy of Luke Skywalker.  Yes, the past must always be viewed with a skeptical eye, but we can’t help but need grand legends to inspire us to be better, and that not’s necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it can make all the difference in the world in terms of whether hope lives or dies. 

8. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

            I am madly in love with both Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, so my expectations for the former’s directorial debut starring the latter could only have been higher if they’d somehow managed to rope the John Goodman into the project.  Not only did the film meet those expectations, it surpassed them with aplomb.  This is about as point-perfect as coming-of-age films get, with the indelible sense of time and place this sort of film hinges on.  I was a bit behind Lady Bird in 2002/2003, still two years away from Catholic high school, but I’ve been to those dances.  I’ve said the pledge of allegiance to the flag followed immediately by the Lord’s Prayer to the crucifix right next to it, and been dogged by an inescapable sense that I have to get far away from where I’m from to find myself.  I’ve followed through on it, only to realize after the fact that maybe my hometown meant more to me than I realized.  This is the stuff that growing up is made of. 

7. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)

            A film based on this premise- a man dies and haunts his house under a literal bedsheet with eyeholes while Rooney Mara chugs a pie in real time- could so easily have ended up being a pretentious, overindulgent, head-up-its-own-ass, unwatchable piece of experimental indie bullshit. 

            A Ghost Story is not only decidedly NOT that, it’s one of the deepest, most provocative films of the year.  Its visual style deliberately feels like the movie consists of old, square home videos, lending us a voyeuristic perspective similar to the ghost’s as we wander back and forth through, seemingly, all of time, forcing us to reckon up-front with our own mortality and transience.  The final moment of the film provided one of the year’s best and most challenging endings, perfectly encapsulating what makes this film so indescribably special. 

6. Paradise (Andrei Konchalovsky)  

            A combination of this film’s unique style, its underplayed acting, and stark black-and-white visuals stayed with me throughout the year, even though it came out fairly early.  Here is a film that doesn’t so much try to grasp for a universal explanation or overview of the Holocaust.  Instead, it simply observes one corner of it through the lives of three individuals- one French, one German, and one Russian- and how ideology and circumstance warp and twist them.  The Russian woman’s reflection on how starkly the promise of steady food changes what you are and aren’t willing to risk and the German Nazi officer’s encounter with ghostly apparitions (which may or may not be real) outside a concentration camp were two of my favorite scenes in any movie from last year.  Sometimes, you don’t need to over-explain why bad things happen.  You don’t need graphic violence to convey the horror of something.  You just need to look in someone’s eyes and see how deeply (or shallowly) it’s affected them. 

5. Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)

            As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy 2, this was the movie I laughed the hardest at in all of 2017.  Every line lands with such precision.  Every shot is crammed with so much astounding visual design.  Every casting choice was perfectly suited to each character.  The Marvel movies have long started to feel rather samey for me, their generally high quality notwithstanding, but with this one I finally have a breakout favorite that I will always be able to go back to whenever I need to get a smile back on my face. 

4. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

            Christopher Nolan remains one of my all-time favorite directors, so after both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar proved relative disappointments, I was really pulling for him to knock one back out of the park in his next big film.  And with Dunkirk, he delivered, making one of the best and most original WWII movies to come out in years.  This is very much Nolan’s sort of movie, one that both lets him play around with his twin obsessions of time and our perceptions and memory of it, while also letting him and his team show off their unparalleled technical skills in making big-budgeted, impeccably crafted visual experiences that manage to be both groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing. 

3. Human Flow (Ai Weiwei)

            This film takes on the monumental (and essential) task of trying to take a comprehensive approach to the current global refugee crisis and provide a literal bird’s eye view of how human society and the planet itself will continue to shape and be shaped by this for decades to come.  There is a debate to be had about whether or not the film does itself a disservice by trying to go so broad and big, thus potentially losing some of its punch, but I strongly argue that the film couldn’t approach the subject matter any other way that would have justified the title.  This is a staggering, heartbreaking, and yet still beautiful and moving work tackling one of the most pressing issues in the world today, one that, like climate change, is not being taken nearly seriously enough by most people. 

2. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada)

            Once again, Japanese animation proves itself to be the lord of just about everything.  Naoko Yamada’s masterful adaptation of the popular manga of the same name is one of the best film’s I’ve yet seen in how it tackles mental illness and its long-term, lingering effects.  It’s characters are tenderly managed, their flaws fitting right alongside their virtues, and it had the single best ending scene of any movie I saw this year, one that grabbed right in the most personal part of my heart. 

            And my #1 film of 2017 is….

1. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

            Key and Peele proved to be one of the smartest comedy duos of recent years over the course of their show Key and Peele, but there was always a darkness, a hard edge, lurking behind many of their strongest and most affecting skits.  With Peele, at least, we now have a glimpse of just how deep that darkness goes, and just how powerfully relevant what he has to say is.  Get Out was one of the best horror films to come out in years, certainly, but it reached far beyond the bounds of its genre.  Every bit of the writing, directing, editing, sound design, and acting is perfectly pitched for maximum impact, as Peele takes aim straight at one of the beating hearts of systemic American racism.  This is that rare film that is both about something AND a masterpiece of genuinely fresh and (hopefully) influential filmmaking.  For far too long, most white Americans have sought to ignore their stake in America’s racial past so as to blind themselves to its continued existence.  Get Out was one of the best films of the year, AND the one we needed most. 

-Noah Franc