Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that has got a lot of people talking since its release. Talk is of its unique story line, but also of its themes.
The film begins seven months after a teenager from Ebbing, Missouri named Angela Hayes was brutally raped and murdered. The case remains unsolved. Mother Mildred Hayes goes to the office of businessman Red Welby to rent three billboards outside her home and unused for 30 years to post a message directed to the police of Ebbing, especially officer Willoughby, advertising what she sees of a lack of action. She isn’t even afraid to be interviewed by the media where she doesn’t hesitate to mention the negative treatment of African Americans by the police.
This hits the police hard. Chief Willoughby is angry about this, but sympathetic to her situation as DNA tests failed to result in a lead. Officer Jason Dixon is a lot more hostile as he goes about angrily arguing with Mildred, threatening Red, and even arresting Mildred’s African American co-worker from her shop on suspicious marijuana charges. Dixon is the cop in ebbing who has been acting the most hostile to African Americans.
Outside the police, the hype surrounding the billboards creates a lot of heated discussion throughout the town. Many throughout the town find it insensitive as Willoughby is battling terminal pancreas cancer. Robbie is upset about it, especially since it made him a victim of harassment at school. Her ex-husband Charlie, who’s currently dating a 19 year-old named Penelope, even visits and violently blames her for Angela’s death.
Nevertheless Mildred stays firm, even despite knowing she can expect violence any minute. Mildred even receives a surprise when she learned an anonymous person gave her money to keep the signs active for another month. Her dentist makes mention that he heard the story, but she impulsively reacts by using his dental drill on his fingernail. Chief Willoughby brings her into questioning after the incident, but accidentally coughs up blood on her. It’s obvious his cancer is getting worse and he will die very soon. Willoughby is to be in the hospital for a set period of time, but leaves early despite doctor’s demands. Willoughby sets out to the lake to have an idyllic day with his wife Anne and two daughters. The next day, he commits suicide, leaving behind suicide notes for Anne, Mildred and Jason.
The police react with hurt over Willoughby’s death. A male customer in Mildred’s store reacts angrily over his death and even threatens her. Jason reacts to his death by assaulting Red in his office and even throwing him out of the window. This is all witnessed by Ebbing’s new chief of police, who happens to be black. On his first day, the new Chief fires Dixon. Dixon however does not return his badge, claiming it’s missing. Right after Anne reads her suicide note, she angrily hands Mildred her note. Willoughby tells her she’s not responsible for his death and he’s the one who paid for the extra month, admiring her stunt and wishing her justice in the future. Shortly after, the billboards are set ablaze.
Jason learns he has a note from Willoughby waiting at the police office. He goes during a night during the closed hours. Willoughby writes he thinks Dixon would make a great detective as long as he learns to slow down, think and not react so hostile. Mildred reacts to the sign burning by burning the police office, believing it to be closed and no one there. Right in the blaze, Dixon comes falling out of the building in from of Mildred with the suicide note and the Angela Hayes case in his hands. Dixon is hospitalized for his burns in the same room as Red, recovering from Dixon’s assault. Dixon apologizes.
After Dixon is released, he goes into a bar. He comes across the male customer who threatened Mildred. What catches his ear is that he brags about an incident similar to the Angela Hayes murder. Dixon gets into a brawl with him, but only to use the brawl as opportunity to gather DNA evidence for the Angela Hayes case, as well as his Idaho license place number. He even phones Mildred to inform her. However the DNA results prove unsuccessful and that the man was an armed forces officer overseas at the time. To which, Dixon returns his badge.
After an unsuccessful date with James, who witnessed Mildred torch the police officer and cover her up, Mildred sees Charlie on a date with Penelope and even learned he was the one who burned the signs. Mildred gives him a bottle of champagne and tells him to treat her well. The film ends in a way one doesn’t expect and even leaves one questioning.
The thing about this film is that the audience will expect the film to be about something and for it to end in a certain way, but it doesn’t. Most of you probably expect this film to be like a crime story where those billboards succeed in bringing Angela Hayes’ killer to justice, but it ends in a completely different way. The film may be about the themes you think it’s about, but its main theme appears to be something else. Yes, there’s the theme of racism in there. We see that even in the name of racist officer Jason Dixon; possibly a reference to the Mason/Dixon line under which Missouri was a ‘slave state.’ Sure, there’s the theme of police brutality and how they sometimes act before they think, especially in Ebbing as we witness. However the film is a lot more. The film has themes about stories and truths. There are the stories we hear, the ‘truths’ we assume, and what is the real story. We see that in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, we see it in the individual residents, we see it in people’s family members, we see it in their police force, and we see that in the media team filming story after story.
I feel the biggest theme of the film had to be about two people who were polar opposites that somehow found themselves coming together at the end as they’re both fighting their personal demons: demons they both had in common and their own personal demons.
The first demon is their impulsiveness. Mildred Hayes is a mother angry because of what she sees as justice denied. She wants her daughter’s murder solved and hopes those three billboards will be the trick to do it. She appears ignorant towards how her son Robbie feels about the issue and is ignorant over his hurt and depression. Mildred is a woman fast on the draw with what she says and fast on the draw for the way she reacts. We learn how impulsive a person she is when she impulsively attacks her dentist just by simply mentioning he learned of the story. He didn’t voice support for it or show anger for it. He just mentioned it and that’s all it took for her to drill that hole in his fingernail. We also see her impulsiveness as the billboards are set ablaze right after Chief Willoughby’s death and she rushes out to put out the flames. The sign company would later fix the signs as it was part of her policy. Jason Dixon’s impulsiveness and acting before he thinks is also a problem. He feels that using brute force or use arrests to look menacing would get justice done. His violence even becomes a case of revenge on Red Welby. He doesn’t hesitate to use his racism when carrying out his police ‘efforts.’ This all makes the police unit of Ebbing look bad.
Both also had their own separate demons. Jason had his racism problem. It’s evident as he lives with his mother who also has a racist attitude. It’s obvious where he learned to be bigoted. Mildred also had her problem with her family life. She had just gone through a divorce with her abusive husband and is trying to live life again despite everything. Her ex-husband has not lost his abusive ways despite the divorce and even while he’s dating a woman half his age. There’s even the memory of the last words she said to her daughter. Words of anger: “I hope you get raped!” And it happened as she was murdered. Maybe it’s her own personal blame.
The most bizarre thing is that Chief Willoughby eventually ends up being the mediator between the two and hit was his suicide that would lead the two onto their meeting and their eventual road to healing. However it was not without its friction immediately after. First came the hate from the male customer to Mildred , then Jason assaulting Red Welby witnessed by the new Chief of Police, then Jason’s firing and finally the billboards being torched. It was through the suicide notes to Mildred and Jason that we all learn what really happened despite what everyone else thought. It’s that scene when Jason comes out of the burning police building in from of Mildred holding the Angela Hayes file for protection that it was a turning point for the behavior of both. The film does a very good job of placement of both the main characters and the events. That scene where Jason is in the hospital recovering from his burns in the same room as Red especially serves as a scene of the main characters knowing they need to change.
One of the top qualities of a film is delivering an ending of a film that the audience doesn’t expect or anticipate, but turns out to be right. We all thought that Mildred’s hopeless date with James would end up in a brawl with Charlie just after Mildred buys the bottle of champagne. Admit it! We all thought she’d smash it across his head! Instead she gives it to him and tells him to treat Penelope well. A sign of her personal changes. Most of us all thought that Jason’s evidence he collected from the brawl with that customer would lead to Angela Hayes’ killer being identified, but it doesn’t. It shows how Jason has become a person who now thinks before he acts, but not the result we hoped for. Even that common plotline in police movies where a cop saves the day after losing his job gets defeated there too.
SPOILER ALERT – Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending: That end-scene where we see Mildred and Jason in the same car on their vigilante mission against that man will surprise a lot of people and even ask “That’s it?” I even thought that too. However it does seem appropriate as it’s a case of two impulsive people who were two polar opposites and even at each other’s throats find themselves together as allies. It even makes one wonder if the ‘abrupt’ ending was the right decision. However I constantly remind myself of what Sean Penn said many years ago: “Movies should leave people asking questions rather than give the answers.” Maybe that’s the quality of the ending; get the audience to decide for themselves what happens next.
This film is the best work of writer/director Martin McDonagh. Dark comedies appear to be McDonagh’s expertise as he has delivered before with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Here, McDonagh delivers something I thought would be impossible. I was surprised to learn this is a drama-comedy of a mother trying to get justice for the rape-murder of her daughter. I find nothing funny at all about rape and murder, or even the hurt family members go through. However McDonagh achieved it through clever plotting of the story and the events as well as placing of the humorous dialogue without compromising the drama behind it. He delivers a story that’s very thematic and gets people thinking.
The acting performances definitely boosted the film’s excellence. Frances McDormand’s performance as the protagonist was an excellent mix of both drama and humor. For those who saw her in Fargo, you’ll know she knows how to make that work. That’s where she won her Best Actress Oscar. Her ability in handling a character that’s both dramatic and humorous again shines here and could win her another Oscar. Also Oscar-worthy is Sam Rockwell who plays what first appears to be a stock character of a redneck cop, but later shows his dimension after the later chain of events. Also a standout is Woody Harrelson. He delivers an excellent performance as the cop under fire who handles the billboard situation cooler than Dixon and even uses his suicide as the event to start the resolve. His character even makes the words in his suicide notes sound like poetry. There were also minor supporting performances that stood out and owned the film like Lucas Hedges as the son hurting inside, Caleb Landry Jones as the well-meaning businessman, Peter Dinklage as the man trying to win Mildred despite his hopeless chances, Abbie Cornish as the wife of the chief, and John Hawkes as the abusive ex-husband trying to change.
The film also features a lot of standout technical aspects too. There’s the cinematography from Ben Davis that add to the power of the story. There’s the editing from Jon Gregory that places the chain of events and plotlines together in a creative way. There’s also the addition of music from the mix of classic songs from the 60’s and 70’s to the blending of Carter Burwell’s score in between scenes
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film whose best qualities are delivering a story different from what you thought it would end up being. You will appreciate it for being just that.
Lady Bird is a top contender for this year’s Academy Awards. If you’ve seen it, you can see how this film is not a typical ‘teen movie’ and actually a story with a lot packed in.
Christine McPherson is a frustrated 17 year-old girl living in Sacramento in 2002. She has a stormy relationship with her parents as well as her adoptive brother and his girlfriend. To make things more frustrating, she’s put in Catholic school for Grade 12 because there was a shooting at her public school. She appears unclear about her life direction and frequently insists that all people refer to her as ‘Lady Bird,’ including family.
Starting school, she has a close friendship with Julie Steffans whom she joins the drama club with. Through the club, she meets a sweet talented boy named Danny O’Neill. They soon start dating and they appear to be a match made in heaven until Lady Bird catches Danny in a bathroom stall kissing another boy.
Throughout her time at the school, Lady Bird develops a mean streak of rebelliousness. One minute, she’s consuming Eucharist wafers with Julie. The next, she vandalizes the nuns’ car with a sing saying “Just married to Jesus.” Another moment, she lashes out at a pro-life speaker who visits her school, which leads to a two-week suspension. This leads to a lot of friction with her friend Julie who sees her as one who does things for attention.
During this time, it all leads to a lot of friction with her mother Marion, who has a lot of high expectations for Lady Bird and her life, especially with applying for colleges. Marion often feels that Lady Bird lacks goals or appears like she doesn’t want to do anything meaningful with her life. Marion feels that way because she had to work hard to achieve. This generation gap appears to Lady Bird that her mother is an interference to her life and her own goals. To make family struggles worse, her father loses his job and is struggling with depression.
Lady Bird tries to escape from those headaches. She gets a job at a cafe where she meets Kyle Schieble, a boy from school she knows is part of a rock band. She strays away from Julie and starts hanging out with popular girl Jenna Walton. She sees opportunity after Jenna was reprimanded by the school for wearing short skirts. Thus Lady Bird bring Jenna into the ‘just married to Jesus’ prank. However none of her efforts to mix with the ‘cool kids’ works out. She lied to Jenna about her house so she can fit in, but Jenna finds the truth out. Also she agrees to have sex with Kyle, believing his claim that he’s a virgin, only to find out he’s had other girls before.
As graduation nears, things change for the better for Lady Bird. She gets a letter from a college in New York saying she’s on the waiting list, though she tells her mother she’s been accepted. She’s willing to go shopping for a prom dress with her mother. Her relationship with her brother and his girlfriend gets better as he gets a major job. On prom night, she forsakes a party with Jenna and Kyle to meet up with Julie. There, she rekindles the friendship and they go to the prom together. She even attends Danny’s school performance.
Over at the graduation party, Lady Bird admits to her mother that she was on the waiting list to the university in New York, to which Marion appears either hurt or angry. Lady Bird’s 18th birthday comes soon after. Marion has a letter written for Lady Bird to read when she’s settled in her college dorm. Then it’s the flight to New York. Marion does not talk to Lady Bird, appearing like she’s disappointed with her. Marion even drives away when Lady Bird enters the airport, but cries soon after. It’s in her first month in New York after reading the letter and a near-fatal bout of alcohol poisoning that she leaves a heartfelt message to her mother.
The biggest quality of this film is that it’s a story many people can relate to. Sure, it’s about a 17-year-old tart-tongued girl from Sacramento who’s clueless about which direction to go, but one will find themselves relating to this story. Many can watch what Lady Bird is going through at school, through her job, through falling in love, or through her stormy relationship with her mother and say: “That’s also what I went through,” or “That was my attitude at 17,” or “I knew someone like that.”
One of the things is about the character of Lady Bird is that despite her eccentricities, it also captures the essence of being a seventeen year-old well. Seventeen is that bizarre age where one is just a year away from becoming an adult. It’s a bumpy road as they are in the process of defining one’s self and making choices of what direction in life they want to pursue. We see that in all of the seventeen year-old characters in the film like Julie, the best friend who’s a social misfit, Jenna who thinks she’s too cool, Kyle who thinks he’s all that just like every rock star, and Danny who’s struggling with being gay in a conservative Catholic family.
Lady Bird is at the centre of being seventeen. The character of Lady Bird captures being 17 in a lot of its best traits, but also in some of its worst traits too. Lady Bird is all about her self-definition where she feels she has to find herself in the drama club. Lady Bird is one who also still feels social pressures despite her individualism and tries to fit in with the cool students despite leaving close friends behind. Lady Bird is also about her spiritual confusion too. She wants to be an individual and think for herself, even rebel against the Catholic Church at times, but somehow shows that she longs to believe in a god despite her rebellion.
Lady Bird is also about having that teen frustration towards her parents, especially her mother. In fact, the mother-daughter relationship between Lady Bird and Marion has to be one of the biggest elements of the film, if not the biggest. Lady Bird has desires for her life, but Marion has goals for her. Often Lady Bird feels she has to explode at Marion, but she learns to calm down and have the normal frustration a 17 year-old has to their mother. As for parent-teen relations, the film is also about Marion too. The personalities of Marion and Lady Bird are like oil and water trying to mix. Marion had her own upbringing and her own difficulties resonate in her personality and even how she raises Lady Bird. Marion feels that the best way she can steer Lady Bird down the right path is to tell her off about her misdoings and wrong directions. She has expectations for Lady Bird, but often feels she falls short. Over time, Marion becomes more accepting of Lady Bird, but she does show disappointment when she finds out Lady Bird lied about her application. That scene near the end where Marion is unemotional in the ride to the airport but cries after dropping Lady Bird off is an example of her personality.
I’m sure many people first thought that this film would be about Lady Bird Johnson. The funniest thing about this film is that there is not a single reference to the former First Lady! Not even a case of one of her classmates uttering out: “Hey Lady Bird, where’s LBJ?”
The true star of the film isn’t exactly an actor, but writer/director Greta Gerwig. After years of having an acting career of mixed results, she came up with this story that is not completely biographical. There are some similarities in Lady Bird that tie into Greta’s own teenage years, but Gerwig insists it’s its own story. Whatever the situation, Gerwig did an excellent job of constructing an entertaining story about a 17 year-old that anyone could relate to. I’m sure anyone no matter what race or gender can identify with moments in Lady Bird to moments in their own life at 17.
Additional top kudos go to Saoirse Ronan for delivering a character that is quirky, but shares a lot of common traits of teens. She does an excellent job of making the role of Lady Bird multi-dimensional. Also worthy of praise is the performance of Laurie Metcalf. She succeeds in turning this film into Marion’s story as much as it is Lady Bird’s story. She’s good at capturing the essence of the mother of a teenager both inside and out. She also does a good job of blending in Marion’s own personality traits of hardship and having a hard attitude. Laurie’s also very good at leaving out all traces of Jackie from Roseanne. Fans of the show would be surprised how different she acts here.
The actors in their supporting roles also did a great job of owning their moment. The most noticeable being Beanie Feldstein as the best friend who sometimes appears to be Lady Bird’s better half, Lucas Hedges as a boy who loves to act but is troubled by his sexuality in school, Timothee Chalamet as the teenage bad boy girls drool over but parents hate, Stephen McKinley Henderson as the priest that’s troubled on the inside, Jordan Rodrigues as the brother caught in the middle, and Tracy Letts as the father trying to make sense of it all.
Lady Bird is a quirky and humorous film about a mother-daughter relationship and the difficulties of being seventeen. Despite its off-the-wall humor, it’s also deep and touching and will resonate with the audience.
One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.
Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.
Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.
The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.
Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.
They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.
The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.
Some of you may be confused about the order of how I do each film of my Best Picture summary. It’s definitely not alphabetical. How I do it is in the order in which I saw the nominees. For example, I saw all the films in my first summary before Christmas. I saw La La Land on my father’s birthday, Fences the day after New Years, and Manchester By The Sea on the day of the Golden Globes. That explains why they’re the three films part of my next Best Picture summary.
LA LA LAND
We don’t see musicals on the big screen as often as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s. La La Land may not make the musical phenomenon come back but it is very entertaining.
We’re constantly reminded that bringing a musical to the big screen is a very tricky job. In the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of cases of musicals being put on the big screen– most of which are adaptations of Broadway musicals– and it’s always been a case of sink-or-swim. There have been those done successfully like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. There have also been adaptations with bad results like Rent, Nine, The Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia. It’s a very tricky job and it may explain why we don’t have musicals as frequent as in decades past.
Now try putting a fresh original musical on the big screen. That’s what writer/director Damien Chazelle does here in cooperation with composer Justin Hurwitz who was Chazelle’s Harvard classmate. The musical is a story we’re familiar with: boy meets girl, boy learns girl also has showbiz dreams, both boy and girl are supportive of each other’s dreams, boy and girl both have long bumpy roads to get to their successes, boy and girl both achieve their own successes but their love is put to the test. One could argue anyone could create a musical with that kind of premise. Whatever the situation, it would have to take a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming to make a very good musical out of this. In addition, it would have to have the right songs, the right singing moments and the right dancing moments to make it succeed.
Chazelle and Hurwitz succeed in pulling it off. The story is familiar but they deliver all the right moves in making the story and the songs of the musical work. It’s not just about making a common story work as a musical on screen but have it set in the modern times too. I’ll admit that opening in the movie where there’s a song-and-dance number on a jammed-up freeway was unexpected. It’s not just set in modern time but it also brings back a lot of the classic scenes of Hollywood; the Hollywood we’ve all come to know and love. I think that’s why La La Land comes off as a gem. Because it’s a reminder of the great musicals of the past and why we love them so much. It’s just that charm.
It’s not just up to Chazelle and Hurwitz to make this musical work but also the actors too. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had to make things work as well both as individuals and both as the couple Mia and Sebastian. They had to tell their own stories of love and passion for their crafts and the heartbreak they had to endure to achieve their dreams. They both also had to play a couple with the right chemistry to work. They pull it off excellently both as a couple and in their own individual moments too. The supporting actors/singers/dancers also had their parts to play too and add to the zest of the musical. Their own participation also added to the movie. Sure some of the bigger supporting performances from John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Tom Everett Scott lacked range–I mean Mia and Sebastian were the dominant focus of the musical– but they did very well too. The film did a very good job in terms of the use of sets both set up and various Los Angeles locations. The film even scouted out some ‘old L. A.’ locations to add the charm. That was not an easy find, I’m sure.
And now onto the songs. My father who likes musicals believes having a memorable song is what makes a musical a masterpiece. I have to agree. I’ll say I agree with him that there is no single song in La La Land destined to be a memorable classic. True, ‘City Of Stars’ is getting a ton of awards but I don’t think it will be a classic 20 years from now. Actually my favorite songs were the opener ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and ‘Audition (Here’s To The Ones Who Dream).’
It’s funny. Years ago, I jokes the unique thing about my father is that he’s straight and he likes musicals. He was quick to remind me that back when he was dating my mother, musicals were the ideal date movie. My how times have changed. What defines a date movie has changed as much over the decade as ‘real man’ standards.
La La Land may not have what it takes to bring the musical phenomenon back to the big screen but it’s winning in it’s own right. Anytime soon I’m expecting a stage adaptation of this.
Fences is a play by August Wilson that won raves when it first came out in the 1980’s. Denzel Washington brings Fences to the big screen at long last and the end result is something wonderful.
Fences is unique as a stage play. It’s a story about Troy Maxson: an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who makes like he has it together but he doesn’t. He thinks he could have been the next Jackie Robinson but feels racism kept him from moving out of the Negro League. He wants to mould his son the way he feels right and wants him to be better than him but doesn’t sense how harsh he is. He wants to be seen as a loving husband to his wife Rose but secrets of his infidelity are about to unfold. He gets an opportunity as a driver of a garbage truck–the first ever for a black man in Pittsburgh– but is reminded of his weaknesses when he accidentally signs for his brother to be admitted into a mental hospital. He has his own feelings about what should be right such as how he feels it’s better to raise his son right than like him only to see it backfire. I’ve heard some writers say that every African-American male has some aspect of Troy Maxson in them. Some people say that Troy Maxson is the African-American everyman. Some can even say Troy Maxson is the black Willy Loman. Whatever the situation, it was the toast of the 1987 Tony Awards and definitely made a legend out of scriptwriter August Wilson.
Now Wilson had always dreamed of bringing Fences to the big screen. I know one of the things he insisted on was that it be directed by an African-American. That may or may not have been the biggest obstacle but it was never realized in Wilson’s lifetime; he died in 2005. Hope was revived in 2013 when Denzel Washington expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen and star as Troy Maxson. Washington played Maxson in a Broadway revival in 2010. He’s even had experience as a director with 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. The production was realized early in 2016 when Washington was joined by producer Scott Rudin who also produced the 2010 revival. Viola Davis who was also part of the revival as Rose Maxson soon joined in along with other actors from the revival like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. One thing was that Washington wanted to remain true to Wilson’s own adaptation in respect to his work.
Now adapting a play to the big screen is as much a tricky challenge as bringing a musical to the big screen. It’s a matter of choices of what to include and what to keep as is. Theatre and film are two different formats of medium. Film scenes are numerous and can be set in an unlimited number of places in various amounts of time. Theatre scenes are often few, often quite lengthy, set in a limited number of places, and often consists of ‘moments of monologues.’ There’s even that 20-minute final scene in Fences where the family is getting ready for Troy’s funeral. Rarely in film do you have a scene after the death of the protagonist that’s even five minutes long. It’s a matter of making the adaptation work on the big screen. It’s also about what choices to add to the film adaptation and if they work. It was about choosing to add the scene of Troy and Jim Bono on the back of the garbage truck at the start. It was about including the scene without dialogue of Troy and Gabriel in the mental hospital. It was about keeping Alberta the mistress from being seen in the film in any which way.
Then there’s the acting. Of course it’s beneficial for most of the actors to have previous experience with the roles. However, it’s a known fact that stage acting and film acting have their differences. The biggest difference for film is that the audience expects a 100% believable performance, especially since it will be witnessed on a screen five-stories tall.
Overall I feel that Denzel Washington as a director/producer did a good job in adapting the play to the screen. It may not have the fast brief dialogues you get in your typical big screen fare but it was still done well and with the same truthfulness. The choices of what to add to the big screen adaptation were good choices, if not perfect. Denzel as an actor was definitely phenomenal in embodying the role of Troy in all of his triumphs and struggles. You could feel the pride and demons Troy was struggling with. Just as excellent is Viola Davis as Rose. The role of Rose was also a strong challenging role: a wife who appears happy and loving on the outside only to suddenly let out her hurt and inner wrath towards Troy and somehow come to peace with him upon his death. She does an excellent job of finally exposing Rose’s inner hurt and inner personal strength at the right times and even ending with believable delivery. The acting of the whole ensemble was very much there and as excellent as it can get. Of all the supporting performances, the one that stood out most was Stephen Henderson whose performance as Jim Bono came across as a common man at first but would soon come off as the man with a lot of wisdom and was able to see the good in Troy even while his terrible misdoings were being exposed. The ‘newcomers’ Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney were also very good in their roles. Jovan especially did well as the son struggling to relate to Troy.
Fences is a triumph of a twelve year-old dream coming true. August Wilson dreamed it. Denzel achieved it. The end result is a masterpiece.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Manchester By The Sea is a film that has been loaded with Oscar buzz ever since it made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why all the buzz.
The film presents a hurting person and showcases all the things that led to his hurt. It shows why he had to leave the town he always had as his home and why returning can’t be done. It shows why Lee Chandler comes across as a jerk in the present when he wasn’t like that at all years ago. The film is also about the relationship of Lee and Patrick. Rarely do we see a film about an uncle-nephew relationship. You think the relationship is something all of a sudden at first forced by something in his brother’s estate but it was always there even when the two were apart.
The film also presents a situation where healing or leaving the past behind is next-to-impossible. I’ve always believed people need to heal. It’s not right to hurt. I still believe it. However I can easily see how healing is very hard. You can see why it’s extremely hard for Lee to heal, especially upon returning to Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts. His negligence that one night is why all three of his children were killed in that fire. The divorce from his wife Randi was bitter and she gave him hurtful words in the process. The town has not forgiven him for what he did: his name is still mud. Even moving to a suburb of Boston has not ended his hurt as he’s rude during his job and starts bar fights over the simplest thing.
The film does showcase Lee’s attempt to assimilate into the town and try to become the guardian to Patrick he hopes to be. The story does not water down as it exposes Lee’s failings. It also exposes how complicated the situation is as Patrick’s mother is a recovering alcoholic and still under strict control by her husband. It also shows how hard it is for Lee to forgive himself. Even as Randi says she’s forgiven him, Lee still can’t heal.
The story does not water down the situation or try to aim for the type of happier ending you’d get in a film like Arrival. The story does not end the way you hope it does. Nevertheless it does end with a ray of hope. Patrick is the closest relative to Lee. His parents and brother are gone and his other brother lives with his own family in Minnesota. Patrick is the one person in Manchester By The Sea outside of family friend George who doesn’t see Lee as this terrible person or rubs into Lee the tragedy he caused.
The film was not just about Lee trying to heal for Patrick but about Patrick too. Patrick is a teen with a lot of common ‘teenage make jerk’ traits like starting fights in hockey and cheating on girls but you know he has a naïve, innocent and even sensitive side and it comes out in his relationship with Lee that starts uneasy at first. Patrick still wants to live a normal teenage life by dating around, playing with his band, and talking about Star Trek with his friends, but you know he has feelings of hurt and frustration on the inside and you know they’ll come out eventually. For all the teenage jerk traits Patrick has, his respect for Lee is his best quality. Patrick could have easily come across as a rebellious teen and gone as far as calling Lee a ‘child killer’ but he doesn’t. Possibly it’s being Joe’s son that may be why Patrick is the person most forgiving to Lee now that Joe is gone. Joe was the one person willing to help Lee live life again after the tragedy and Patrick accompanied Lee and Joe during that time. You can see how Patrick adopted his father’s sensitivity to Lee.
The story of this film is definitely not a crowd-winner. You can understand why a film like this would rely on the Film Festival circuit to get its exposure and its chances of making it to the box office. Nevertheless it is an excellent story about loss, grief, hurt and an attempt at healing. The film fest circuit was the best way for a story like this to get a box office release. It’s good because it is a story worth seeing.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an excellent original story. Lonergan has few works writing and/or directing to his credit but they have a lot of merit: like Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and The Gangs Of New York. This is his best work to date. He delivers a story that’s honest and even brutal at times and doesn’t water down but doesn’t try to rip at your heartstrings too often. He also gives characters that are three-dimensional and will remind you of people or situations you may know about.
Actor Casey Affleck fit the role of Lee excellently. He captured Lee’s inner demons excellently and played them very truthfully. He was able to make you hate Lee at first but come to understand him later, even feel for him, and make you want the best to work out for Lee in the end. Also excellent was Lucas Hedges. Hedges’ role of Patrick grows in its complexity over time and he does an excellent job of it. The two together had to have the right chemistry to make an uncle-nephew relationship like this work and they had it.
The only other significant supporting role in the film is Michelle Williams as Randi. The various scenes as the typical wife before the tragedy to being the remarried ex-wife who healed better than Lee and wants to make peace with him is also a complex role too and she does an excellent job of it too. Actually the whole cast did an excellent job of acting and they delivered one of the best ensemble performances of the year. It’s not just the basics that made this film great. There’s also the cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes where she’s able to get some of the most picturesque shots of the east coast. There’s the editing of the story shifting from the present to the past back to the present on a constant basis at the right times. There’s the inclusion of dialogue at the right moments and even moments of dialogue muted at the right times where you just know what they’re saying. The muted parts work to the story’s advantage. There’s also the arrangement of music–original, classical and choral– that add to the story.
Manchester By The Sea may come across as a film that’s unwatchable if you take its premise at face value. In the end, it turns out to be a great story that’s worth seeing.
And there you go. That’s the second of my review of the nominees. One’s an original musical, one’s an original story and one’s an adaptation of a renowned stage play. All three make it obvious why they were nominated for Best Picture as all three have what it takes to be among the Top 10 films of the year.
Final Best Picture summary is expected to be up by Tuesday.
It never fails with me. I have the habit of ‘waiting until the crowds die down’ to see a blockbuster movie. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do when it involves a Star Wars movie, especially not Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I saw it three weeks after its release. I’m glad I finally saw it.
I won’t explain the story line like I do in most reviews, especially since most of you have already seen it by now, unless of course you’ve been under a rock. One thing about this movie is that it wasn’t just simply bringing another volume of the Star Wars series to the screen. The film’s job was also to bring back the magic of Star Wars people have come to know and love. No kidding the first three Star Wars movies from 1977 to 1983, those that are now referred to as episodes 4 to 6, captivated the world. Watch any one of them nowadays and you’ll see why.
However when George Lucas did the three prequels from 1999 to 2005, many fans felt something was missing. No doubt The Phantom Menace had huge expectations but they missed them and disappointed a lot of fans. Attack Of The Clones tried to be better but still something was noticeably missing. The scene of the fighting Yoda added excitement but it was one small added element. Revenge Of The Sith was the best of the prequels but the feel of Star Wars was still not there. I think it was best summed up by my sister who’s a huge Star Wars fan: “George Lucas knows how to direct sci-fi but he doesn’t know how to direct actors.” Good point because it’s been proven in other action movies or sci-fi movies in the past that special effects no matter how dazzling cannot overtake a lousy story or lousy acting.
Now we should remember that The Force Awakens or Episode Seven was actually thought up by George Lucas way back in the 1970’s as he was dreaming out and writing out the whole Star Wars series. Lucas made it clear after Revenge Of The Sith he will no longer direct Star Wars movies. In fact he sold LucasFilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012. The first thing Disney did was bring The Force Awakens on screen. The director they hired was J.J. Abrams who has an extensive resume in writing and directing thrillers and sci-fi like Armageddon, Mission Impossible III (his directorial debut), Super 8 and the last two Star Trek movies. Hired to adapt the story to screenplay was Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote the scripts for Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi but didn’t help co-write any of the prequels, and rising writer Michael Arndt.
The mix turned out to be the right chemistry as it was able to bring the magic of the story back to life. The recreation of the two worlds also worked excellently. There was however one challenge I feel it didn’t overcome. That was when they brought back Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. There were a few times that I felt that instead of adding to the latest Star Wars story, it almost made it seem like a ‘Star Wars reunion.’ Even adding C3P0, Chew and R2D2 in there also added to that feeling this was like a ‘reunion” I don’t know if the huge following of Star Wars had a lot to do with why I felt that it seemed like a ‘Star Wars reunion’ but that’s how I felt.
One thing I have to say is the best thing about this Star Wars story are the new elements and the new characters of the story. One thing you hope to get with each Star Wars film are new characters that are able to charm us whether it be the philosopher Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back or even villains like Jabba The Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. Here was get appealing characters like Rey and Poe Dameron and even villains like Kylo Ren. I don’t know if they will deliver the same craze Luke, Leia and Han first did but moviegoers have welcomed them to the Star Wars saga. In addition we have a plot twist in this film as Storm Trooper Finn deserts his duty to fight against the Dark Side. That’s a key element leading into Episode Eight in anticipation in what will happen next.
In addition, adding BB-8 to the Star Wars saga was a plus. Usually adding in something cutesy to the Star Wars Saga is a risk. C3P0 and R2D2 had a big part in making the first Star Wars‘ greatness. The Ewoks of Return Of The Jedi helped make the story. However Jar Jar Binks of The Phantom Menace was too irritating and had a lot to do with that episode’s constant panning. BB-8 was cute but he was more the cute one would welcome and be entertained by rather than easily get irritated with. BB-8 actually added to the quality of The Force Awakens. Even the scenes where R2D2 meets BB-8 for the first time come across as funny instead of ridiculous.
It’s not to say the older elements weren’t good. They may not have stood out like the newer elements but they still fit the movie excellently. I know I talked about bringing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back made it feel like a ‘Star wars reunion’ but they were intended to be in the story from the start and intended to age 30 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could play their characters. The Dark Side and its darkness still maintained its mystery and villainous feel. The battles were also excellent to watch. Oh yes, the light saber battles. You can’t have a Star Wars episode without light saber battles. There weren’t as many this time around but they still dazzled.
I will have to say J.J. Abrams succeeds with flying colors in directing and co-writing the latest in the Star Wars saga. He’s proven in the past he can direct sci-fi and direct actors and he was the right man to take over the Star Wars series right after George Lucas let it go. The acting was not stellar but it was very good. The best acting came from those performing the ‘new roles’ like Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs. Driver especially delivered an unpredictable villain. The set designs fit the movie perfectly and were able to replicate the ships, planets and lands of the story perfectly. The visual effects were top notch again and worked the movie excellently. And of course they had to bring back John Williams as the score’s composer. Even at 83, Williams is still at it. It seems as though there’s no other composer who can do it for Star Wars and he delivers again.
Without a doubt the biggest news about Star Wars 7 is all the box-office records it’s breaking. It already broke the opening weekend record with $247.9 million: almost breaking the quarter-billion barrier. It would go on to break the North American total box office record held by Avatar on January 5th: the very day I saw it! It now stands at $879.3 million and currently sits at #2 at the box office. Worldwide it sits at $1.94 billion currently and appears poised to break Avatar’s record of $2.788 billion. Only time will decide that.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a very good addition to the Star Wars series. Not only that but it brings back a lot of the Star Wars magic that appeared missing from the prequels. What can I say? Star Wars mania is back and rightly so.
The first documentary I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival was Tribeca Film’s Side By Side. It first caught my interest on opening day as I was assigned to be an usher for the screening. I was lucky to see it as an audient three days later. I’m glad I did because this is of a topic I’ve been interested in over the past ten years.
The documentary is hosted by Keanu Reeves and it is on a hot button in the filmmaking industry. this hot button is the transition from making celluloid motion pictures to digital motion pictures. It attempts to answer the question: “does it mark the death of an art form or does it accelerate it?”
The documentary starts with some opening opinions by some of the biggest names in directing like George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle. It also features opening comment from independent filmmakers too. The beginning also gives descriptions and computer simulated examples of how images from both celluloid cameras and digital cameras are created. Interesting is the terminology used for filming: film filmed on a reel in a single day and developed the next day would be called ‘dailies’ while digital images would be described as ‘immediates’. Later on the documentary would describe the invention of digital filming dating back to the late 60’s to George Lucas experimenting with it. The progress of digital filming would be described more over the remainder of the documentary, which I will elaborate on more throughout my review.
The documentary also points out that the use of video cameras was not accepted by the film industry at first because video cameras were seen as something for ‘cheap movies’. They showed the first two movies filmed on video camera that made an impact on video cameras’ use in film: Denmark’s The Celebration from 1998 and the US’ Chuck And Buck from 2000. The quality was obviously cheap but the cinematic angles it was taken from caught people’s eyes. Nevertheless many people still felt video cameras were not good enough quality for something like motion pictures. To think back in 1999 when George Lucas announced after The Phantom Menace that he would no longer film on celluloid, most people didn’t take it that seriously.
As I just mentioned, we shouldn’t forget at the time digital film was still lacking in quality. Slowly but surely big name directors would take notice over time and make the switch. That’s another quality of the documentary is hearing of how so many big name directors made the switch to digital. They describe the scene filmed on digital that put the nail in the coffin for their use of celluloid film. The most interesting for me is Danny Boyle’s story about the change. He described one scene in 28 Days Later–the scene of a deserted London–that was able to be done on digital because he could shut down traffic in one area temporarily for a few minutes while he would have to shut the whole of downtown down for hours if he did it on celluloid. Many directors said that filming on celluloid film has gone as far as it can go and none sensed any limit to filming on digital in sight.
Back to the part which give demonstrations of the two filming methods. As the descriptions of are demonstrated, film professionals interviewed would describe their experiences in dealing with both filming forms, both the positive aspects and the negative aspects. One filmmaker talked of the use of dailies of how they’d look at the dailies in the screening room and at how they were taken aback by what they’ve created. It was often the case but not always. There were times when the dailies would be something flimsy. As for digital, the ‘immediates’ were convenient because they were there in an instant and they were cheaper. It’s not to say the ‘immediates’ were a complete solution. One director even said immediates would show the filming well immediately on a computer screen but won’t answer what it will look like on a 50-foot big screen.
Also described in the documentary are the various changes to how one does their job. The director and cinematographer, or director of photography (DP), have always worked as a team during the days of celluloid. The two still work as a pair even during digital filming but there are changes to how they work and communicate to each other during their job. The documentary also describes how actors have had to make adjustments of their own. During filming of celluloid, there was always a period of time when the cameramen had to do technical things that would allow for a break. Now with digital there’s more consecutive shooting less of that break time, if any at all. There’s even mention of a certain ‘protest’ done by Robert Downey Jr. when he did his first digital picture. Another thing involving actors, which would get on the directors’ nerves, is that they’d want to see the ‘immediates’ to see what they looked like all too often. Should we really be surprised? Film editors as well describe how their job has changed from literal cut and paste of reels to the computerized cut and paste. Some say the quality is still there while others say it’s cheapened. And we also see how visual effects personnel work with digital film as they’re able to create greener trees and bluer skies.
Another aspect showcased in the documentary is the changes in technologies over time. I mentioned at the beginning that video camera use for motion pictures were not accepted at first because of the lack of quality. What a difference more than ten years can make. Over time just as computer technology has improved, so has video imagery and designs of cameras. The documentary showcases the pixel quality of pictures over time and also highlights camera companies creating digital motion picture cameras that would be breakthroughs. Interesting how images shot for the big screen are at least ten times better than they were at the start of the century. Video cameras used for filming motion pictures have also become better and even smaller which allows for more unique angles. The simultaneous use of two cameras for filming 3D movies is another example of technological breakthrough. Then the news of the ultimate: the announcement from motion picture camera companies in 2011 that they would no longer manufacture celluloid movie cameras.
Despite the mention of all the technological progresses of digital cameras and its progresses leading to digital practically overtaking celluloid filming, the documentary does remind us there are still Hollywood movies and independent movies shot entirely on film and there are also still ‘celluloid purists’ who won’t hop onto the digital bandwagon for their own personal and professional reasons. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture The Artist was shot entirely on film as were Best Picture nominees Moneyball and War Horse. Even two of the biggest moneymakers of this year, The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises were shot entirely on film. In fact both Christopher Nolan and his personal DP Wally Pfister have even declared that if they’re the last people in Hollywood to shoot movies on celluloid, so be it. There are even some independent filmmakers that talk of the beauty of shooting on celluloid that digital can’t equal.
This documentary may give a lot of examples and opinions about the filming types but it doesn’t give the final word on the future of film. It cuts off to now and will leave the future to define itself. With no more celluloid cameras being made, the ‘celluloid purists’ will face a bumpy ride if they want to stay true to their principles. As for moviemaking, where will an industry full of predominantly-digital movies take this in the future? Will the ‘celluloid purists’ succeed despite the odds? We’ll see. One thing one director said was as long as a director has a vision, they will try to create that vision with whatever means they have.
I admit that this is a topic that caught my attention and it’s one dating back ten years ago. How it caught my attention was when I attended an acting class which a top Hollywood cinematographer Monty Rowan. He talked about celluloid filming and brought up George Lucas’ comments about never filming on film again. Rowan mentioned that digital will never have the same artistic quality as celluloid. Years later I read a magazine–either Time or Newsweek–that talked about filmmaking and once again Lucas’ talk about filming on digital: “You don’t work at the office the same way you used to. So why should I do my filming the same way I used to?” It also mentioned of a younger generation weened on digital this and that and who don’t have the same appreciation for the filmmakers of the past. That had me scratching my head. Even hearing how filming on digital has cut costs on filmmaking has still led me wondering about Rowan’s comments. Yes, filmmaking is an art but there’s this vice called ‘showbiz’ that’s unavoidable. Can celluloid continue one despite the business demands of showbiz? Especially as movie viewing is no longer cinema-only and now flexible to the point one can see movies on their tablet or cellphone?
The best quality of the documentary is the big names and wide array of professionals being interviewed by Keanu for this picture. We not only hear opinions and experiences from some of the top name directors in the business but some of the independent filmmakers who have their own say, whether positive or negative. We also hear the various cinematography, film editing and visual effects angles from some of the top names in their respective fields. We also hear from the various ‘trailblazers’ of digital filming who did something that would pave the way to the future of film, though they didn’t know it at the time. Hard to believe that Anthony Dod Mantle filmed with video cameras with the thought “I may never win an Oscar but…” and he did for Slumdog Millionaire. It does however limit the number of independent filmmakers in the business. Yes it’s great to hear opinions from the big Hollywood names but the independent directors were limited in numbers and opinions.
Another thing I liked about the documentary is that Keanu did it unegotistically. He wasn’t like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock who try to steal every scene and force their personal opinions. Keanu stuck to the topic and put focus and emphasis on the facts, the technologies and the professionals’ opinions. I don’t think I noticed anywhere in the documentary him talking about his own personal experiences.
As far as this documentary goes, I would not consider this to be a documentary meant for a movie cinema. One of the things with the VIFF is that there will be a lot of documentaries shown. Some will be lucky enough for a big screen run. Some will most likely be shown on television through either a documentary channel like Vancouver’s Knowledge Network or a teaching channel. This documentary looks like something that would be best suited for something like a science channel or even an entertainment information channel. I would like to see it again as this this about a topic I’m interested in as I mentioned earlier. I like how thorough this documentary was.
Side By Side is an important documentary for anyone in film, whether a professional or a student at a film school, should see. It doesn’t just present the situation but is very thorough in presenting the examples of filming, history of technological advances, and how some of the biggest names in moviemaking have taken it on. Thank you Keanu for doing a great job of giving us the facts.