“Dog Almighty.” A Thanksgiving analysis of the films Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is no question that this world feels more than a bit broken these days. Over this Thanksgiving holiday, we took in three films that all deal with our shared past, present, future imperfect in poignant, heartrending, riotous, and allegorical ways: Boy Erased, The Front Runner, and Isle of Dogs. In essence, all three deal with the fact that our world is governed by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart … nor, in fact, have any interests but their own in mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Boy Erased, based on Garrard Conley‘s best-selling memoir, is a gut punch with a surprisingly light touch – as much about family, faith, being true to one’s own self, and integrity as it is about the horrors of gay conversion therapy. Directed with a balanced and nuanced approach by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the head conversion “therapist” with a refreshing lack of Snidely Whiplash-ism), the film withholds judgment on well-meaning parents whose hearts are in the right place even if their actions couldn’t be more out-of-touch. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are absolute magic as an Arkansas couple whose capital-C Christianity defines every square inch of their lives. He is a pastor AND runs a Ford dealership where the salespeople begin each day with a group prayer. Ah, the American Southland. Am I being judgy? Ah well.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lucas Hedges ably portrays their prototypical all-American golden boy Jared – a basketball-playing, cheerleader-dating, Mustang-driving alpha-male-in-training. Except, he isn’t. He’s a sensitive and dutiful son following the recipe-for-life set before him by his noble if misguided parents, still striving to define himself in a world far too ready to box him in with hetero-normative conventions. The irony is that Jared is the purest soul, lost amidst elders who purport purity yet are more obsessed with human sexuality than the supposed “deviants” they seek to condemn. The textbook definition of “thou dost protest too much.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The chief strength of the film is how believably this trio of acting pros – Kidman, Crowe, and Hedges – weaves together a family dynamic that is sad and warm and funny and never melodramatic. This is an essential film and must be viewed by everyone, particularly those arrogant and hypocritical enough to weigh in on social issues that they lack the empathy to fully comprehend.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is it about Australians – like Crowe and Kidman – that they are capable of translating the American experience to film better than most Americans? And here we have fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman offering a pensive, detailed, reserved, dynamite turn as 1988 presidential hopeful Gary Hart in director Jason Reitman’s stellar flick The Front Runner. Jackman is aided and abetted by the always magnificent Vera Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering but never victimized wife. Jackman and Farmiga are a formidable acting combination, and I would love to see them do something again soon.

Jackman has always been a twinkling presence (a true blue Greatest Showman) – sometimes even a glowering, steroidal, twinkling presence  (Wolverine … and Jean Valjean) – but I had my doubts that he had the chops to be unapproachable and unlikable yet still admirable in a ripped-from-the-headlines character role like this. I was wrong. (I do think his hair and makeup people should be fired, though, for the weird dusty mop they plopped on his noggin in the film.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reitman has surrounded his leads with a fantastic supporting cast – including exceptional JK Simmons and Alfred Molina as two sides of the same benevolent puppet-master coin, the first as Hart’s campaign manager and the latter as The Washington Post’s editor. Furthermore, Reitman uses the controversy surrounding Hart’s infidelity which derails his campaign as a sharp-eyed allegory on today’s contentious and never-ending donnybrook between politicians and news media.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is a public figure’s personal life fair game for the media? Is a private transgression a worthy public measure of integrity? Do people care, or do they only care when it benefits their party of affiliation? And what of the ongoing invisibility and disposability of women in said process, be they spouse or mistress or aide or voter?

The film raises all of these questions in the context of what once seemed a charmingly bygone era, yet offers us, today, no easy answers. Significantly, Reitman turns the mirror on ourselves, challenging the viewer to assess his or her own culpability in perpetuating this madness, and that is a marvelous hat trick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

But would you believe me when I said that the best and most pointed analysis of our current milieu comes from what is ostensibly a children’s animated film about dogs banished to a garbage heap island by a Japanese magistrate who prefers cats over canines? I predict masters theses will be written about Isle of Dogs at liberal arts colleges and universities all over the land 20 years from now.

I’m not crazy about director Wes Anderson. Twee sarcasm is not usually something that screams “great night at the movies” to me. His Isle of Dogs (now on home video), blessedly, is anything but.

Imagine Richard Adams’ novel Plague Dogs or George Orwell‘s Animal Farm adapted to film by Quentin Tarantino, using Manga-stylized puppets and stop-motion animation. Isle of Dogs is sweet-natured yet caustic, escapist yet blisteringly critical, whimsical yet horrifying. If there is a movie that pushes and explores and avails itself of every inch and vista what the artsy fartsies call “cinema,” this is it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The script is layered and thoughtful and addresses everything from animal rights to totalitarianism to the twin toxicities of apathy and wishful thinking. The film’s core message, beyond that we should be kind to animals and to each other and that tolerance and inclusion heal? It’s this: if you want this damn world to change, get in there and change it. Anderson seems to be directly addressing any children watching his film that if you see oppression or evil, take it upon yourselves to stop it. Adults are too fat and lazy to care. The young human protagonists in this film are heroic in a way that goes beyond the fantasy role-playing of, say, Dorothy Gale or Katniss Everdeen, presenting young audience members with salient and actionable examples to follow.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, and the voice cast is to die for, including Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, and, yes, Yoko Ono. The titular dogs are, yes, adorable but with agency and surety and never one moment of infantilism.

Hot damn!

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation. It’s also a time to think about what’s next and where you want to go. This seemingly serendipitous combination of films does indeed add up to a pretty important road map. One worth following. For that, I am thankful.

_______________

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

A room of her own (#OscarsSoRight?): The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; The Darkest Hour

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m finally catching up with all of the Oscar-nominated films from year-end 2017. There are many culprits for this delay, chiefly among them the fact that, for some reason, many of these flicks don’t make it to the hinterlands of the Midwest until weeks after their initial release dates. My tendency toward over-commitment in daily life may also be to blame. C’est la vie. I’ve finally viewed The PostThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; and The Darkest Hour.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I can safely say the Academy got so much so right this year. (I’m sure they were nervously awaiting my seal of approval. Not.)

Much (digital) ink has already been spilled on these movies, and I’m feeling a touch lazy so I won’t go into great detail about any of them. I will admit that personally only The Post and The Darkest Hour truly spoke to me, but I found all five to be thoughtfully composed with unique and arguably essential points-of-view and with timely themes, no doubt provoking many minds and healing many hearts in this rather contentious era.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, what resonated with me most about all five films was the strength and agency of their leading female characters. Rarely have we seen a class of Oscar-nominated films (I, Tonya included) where the bravery, wit, wisdom, and tenacity of women are so consistently celebrated and intelligently explored. Perhaps it’s the Trump effect, a cultural reclamation on behalf of Hillary, an anticipation of #MeToo and #TimesUp, or just a much-needed evolution (and growing up) in Hollywood. Who knows?

“Keep your finger out of my eye.” Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee to Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham in The Post

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In The Post, Meryl Streep gives one of her most nuanced portrayals in an already incredible catalogue of film work. Her Katherine Graham is faced with an unwinnable, dare I say, Sophie’s Choice: save her family’s paper The Washington Post from financial ruin through a tricky public offering or take on the President of the United States and risk imprisonment to honor the paper’s history of journalistic integrity by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Graham is “mansplained” up one side and down the other throughout the film. Streep’s portrayal is sensitive to the social and historical context that women were acculturated to lean on men and seek their counsel if and when they were “permitted” any decision-making authority at all. Ostensibly, Spielberg’s beautifully paced and utterly compelling movie is an allegory for our present times when we have a president who sees the Bill of Rights as less inalienable and more ignorable. However, I saw the film primarily as a powerful and subtle depiction of a woman (Graham) reclaiming her authority and driving our nation towards inexorable truth. It’s a performance for the ages, IMHO.

“You’re culpable because you joined the gang.” – Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes to her town minister in Three Billboards

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of performances for the ages, we then have Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand is possibly the most cathartic and relatable actor of her generation, capable of channeling the inherent tension and internal conflict of id, ego, and superego unlike any other. Mildred may be her finest acting work, alas in a film that doesn’t quite rise to her admittedly stratospheric level. Mildred’s daughter was raped and then immolated, and, in Mildred’s frustration that the local police have been incapable of solving the horrific crime, she finds the bluntest instrument at her disposal (the titular “three billboards”) to send a crystal clear message that wouldn’t be out of place on an N.W.A. record. McDormand is haunting and funny, heartbreaking and infuriating as a woman whose voice just can’t be stifled by her small-minded small-town. I think I would have enjoyed the piece better as a one-woman show as most of the supporting cast offer more superficial readings of their respective characters. Further, a mid-film narrative twist nearly co-opts the whole enterprise in favor of Woody Harrelson’s far-less-interesting Sheriff Willoughby. Sam Rockwell (Deputy Dixon) is both hammy and poignant as a foil for and target of McDormand’s rage, and, by the time the film runs its course, the idea of a Thelma and Louise-style “road picture” with the two actors isn’t without its potential charms.

“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” – Lois Smith’s Sister Sarah Joan to Soairse Ronan’s Lady Bird in Lady Bird

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a loving and scruffy slice-of-life with luminous Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a thoughtful and maddening and deep-feeling teen whose conscious rejection of organized religion and of conventional thinking runs afoul of her own desires to be liked and accepted and to “fit in” with her Catholic school’s “popular kid” crowd. Any human who has ever wanted to be their authentic (weird) selves but ALSO get to sit at the best lunch table in school can totally relate (which means all of us). Ronan is brilliant in the role, as is Laurie Metcalf as her worried, worrying, worrisome mother Marion whose noble wishes to protect and to provide are as alienating as they are well-intentioned. The film is a delight, but gets bogged down mid-way with a conventional (if not completely appropriate) Mean Girls-esque subplot of Lady Bird rejecting her theatre nerd friends for the loose collection of pot-smoking athletes and gum-snapping rich kids who rule the school. The film is so interesting and so believable to that point that I found the predictability of that coming-of-age narrative a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, Ronan, Metcalf, and Gerwig give eloquent voices to the frustrations and fears of women navigating a rigged system where their respective needs and desires are often pitted in opposition to one another.

“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.” – wall calendar in The Shape of Water

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Shape of Water, directed with fairy tale elan by Guillermo del Toro, is like a soft core E.T.-meets-The Red Shoe Diaries. A co-worker of mine said it was more like a naughty Edward Scissorhands. I will accept that friendly amendment to my cinematic comparison. Shape of Water had my favorite cast of any of these films. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, and Richard Jenkins are all exceptional in their own rights, let alone collected in one place, in service to a visionary fable of tolerance, compassion, and love. Yet, the film overall left me cold. Perhaps, I’m a prude, but the random bits of “sexy time” between Hawkins’ Eliza and Jones’ otherworldly “Amphibian Man” were disruptive to the gentle narrative at play. I also could have done without said Amphibian Man biting the head off one of Jenkins’ beloved cats, even if the moment is offered as an example of predatory innocence. Yuck. Regardless, Hawkins offers a brilliant and heartrending portrayal of a mute woman whose expressiveness far exceeds vocalization, and Shannon nearly steals the picture as a government official whose myopic masculinity and arrested development result in nothing but ugliness, violence, and missed opportunity.

“You are strong because you are imperfect.” – Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clementine Churchill to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, yes, it is a movie which features a gobsmacking transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. And, yes, Oldman is altogether breathtaking in his depiction of Churchill’s genius eccentricity, shocking isolation, and dogged determination. However, the excellence of his work and of the film itself is greatly aided and abetted by the work of cast-mates Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-long-suffering wife Clementine and Lily James as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-wide-eyed assistant Elizabeth Layton. The three actors bring sparkling life to Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s chatty script, and, while Churchill was clearly the odd-man-out where British politicos were concerned, his ultimate success could be attributed as much to the women in his life as to his own fiercely independent spirit. These are exceptional performances in a pretty good film.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In The Post, Streep’s Graham quotes English essayist Samuel Johnson: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.” Her point, in the context of the film, is that society has not encouraged women to speak their truths, so the act of doing so, while arguably initially inelegant, is as shocking as it is necessary. In the case of these five films, truth is delivered elegantly and compellingly, and the class of Oscar nominees this year goes a long way toward giving women, as Virginia  Woolf once implored, a “room of their own.”

_________________________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 20th Century Women

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)

Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.

The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.

Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.

Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.

(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)

Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated  homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hoteldirector Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you.  Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.

Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.

As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)

_______________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.