THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: raw emotion and dark hilarity

Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a powerful combination of raw emotions and dark hilarity, Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a small town woman consumed by the unsolved murder of her daughter.  Mildred doesn’t have the power to solve the murder herself, but she has the power to make everyone else uncomfortable until she finds justice and closure.  She buys billboards that personalize the stalled murder investigation, laying the blame on the popular town sheriff (Woody Harrelson).  She intends to rile people up, and, boy, does she succeed.

There are consequences, both intended and unintended.  In addition to the murder mystery, there are two new whodunits related to the billboards and some violent outbursts by two of the characters.  There’s a heartbreaking letter, and two more utterly unexpected letters.

The murder of one’s child is shattering enough, but Mildred also piles guilt on herself.  The murder has enraged the entire family, including Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges of Manchester By the Sea) and her ex-husband (John Hawkes).  All three express their rage in different ways.  This is a showcase role for McDormand.

Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

This might be Woody Harrelson’s best performance.  His sheriff is an island of common sense, decency and levelheadedness in a turbulent sea of upset and idiocy.  The character of the sheriff is a remarkably fine father and husband in ways that are fun and interesting to watch.   The sheriff is facing his own mortality, and his feelings are hurt unjustly, but we only see glimpses of the pain in Harrelson’s eyes.  This is a performance that would have been in the wheelhouse for Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck, and Harrelson nails it.

Sam Rockwell plays Dixon, one of the sheriff’s deputies.  Dixon is an unfortunate muddle of bad instincts, no impulse control, stupidity, racism and rage.   Then he gets an unexpected opportunity for redemption…

Sandy Martin also sparkles as Dixon’s Momma.  It’s a very small part, but Martin practically steals the movie  with her white trash Svengali. Martin’s 128 screen credits include roles in Transparent, Big Love and as Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite (she’s the one who says Knock it off, Napoleon! Just make yourself a dang quesa-dilluh).

Samara Weaving is really perfect as the inappropriately-young-girlfriend-on-the-rebound of Mildred’s ex.  Weaving is drop dead beautiful with a remarkable sense of comic timing and a mastery of deadpan.  Fully invested in her character’s goodhearteredness and  airheadedness, she reminds me of Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Banks as a comic actor.

Peter Dinklage plays a character that provides comic relief and one important plot point, and he brings an unexpected and profound feeling to the part.

Here’s one thing that is uncommonly great about Three Billboards:  the story would have worked with characters of far less dimension, but the roles written by Martin McDonagh and performed by the cast elevates Three Billboards.  Mildred could have been only a shrew, the sheriff could have been only a cardboard foil and Dixon could have been only a buffoon.  Instead McDormand, Rockwell and Rochwell add layers of complexity to their characters, and Hawkes, Martin, Weaver and Dinklage each contribute more to the mix.

Three Billboards is brilliantly written by director Martin McDonagh.  McDonagh’s 2008 In Bruges was either the funniest hit man movie ever or the darkest and most violent buddy comedy ever.  Three Billboards shares the same dark/funny flavor.   Three Billboards also has a really fine soundtrack with a couple of spaghetti western-inspired cues.

The emotion in Three Billboards is genuine and deeply felt.  There are some especially grim moments, peppered with lots of laughs.   As I ponder this film, I keep coming back to the characters, the performances and the surprises in the story. Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri was an audience favorite on the festival circuit and is a Must See in theaters now.

RADIO DREAMS: stranger in a strange and funny land

RADIO DREAMS
RADIO DREAMS

The droll dark comedy Radio Dreams explores the ambivalence of the immigrant experience through the portrait of a flamboyant misfit, a man who rides the roller coaster of megalomania and despair. That misfit is Hamid Royani (Mohsen Namjoo), the director of programming at an Iranian radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area. Radio Dreams opens tomorrow for a one-week-only run at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Hamid, an author in Iran, is a man of great certainty, with an unwavering sense of intellectual superiority He assumes that everyone should – and will – buy in to his idiosyncratic taste. This results in extremely random radio programming, and Hamid tries to sabotage everything that he finds vulgar (which is everything that might bring more listeners and revenue to the station.)

With his wild mane and indulgent programming, we first think that Hamid is simply batty. But immigrants to the US generally forge new identities, and we come to understand that Hamid has not, perhaps will not, forge that new identity. His despair is real but it’s hard to empathize with – he might be a legitimate literary figure in Iran, but he’s probably a pompous ass over there, too.

The highlight of Radio Dreams is Hamid’s reaction when he is surprised that Miss Iran USA, whom he has dismissed as a bimbo, might have literary chops that rivaling his.

Hamid has concocted a plan to have Afghanistan’s first rock band visit with the members of Metallica on air, and that’s the movie’s MacGuffin. As we wait to see if Metallica will really show up, the foibles of the radio station crew dot Radio Dreams with moments of absurdity. There are the cheesy commercials about unwanted body hair, Hamid’s obsession with hand sanitizer, a radio jungle played live on keyboards EVERY time, a new employee orientation that focuses on international time zones, along with a station intern compelled to take wrestling lessons.

Writer-director Babak Jalali is an adept storyteller. As the movie opens, we are wondering, why do these guys have musical instruments? Why are they talking about Metallica? What’s with the ON AIR sign? Much of the movie unfolds before Hamid Royani emerges as the centerpiece character.

Hamid is played by the well-known Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, “Iran’s Bob Dylan”. This is only Namjoo’s second feature film as an actor. He’s a compelling figure, and this is a very fine performance.

Except for Namjoo, the cast is made up of Bay Area actors. Masters of the implacable and the stone face, all of the actors do deadpan really, really well.

As befits the mix of reality and absurdism, here’s a podcast by the characters in Radio Dreams. I saw Radio Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, and Babak Jalali took Q&A after the screening by phone from Belgium.

Radio Dreams is the second feature for Jalali, an Iranian-born filmmaker living and working in Europe. He shot Radio Dreams with a small crew over only 24 days in San Francisco. About 60% of the dialogue was scripted and 40% improvised. The band in the movie, Kabul Dreams, really is Afghanistan’s first rock band, they did get to meet Metallica in real life and the PARS-FM were filmed at a real Iranian radio station in the Bay Area.

Babak Jalali is a promising filmmaker and Radio Dreams is a movie that we haven’t seen before.

RADIO DREAMS: stranger in a strange and funny land

RADIO DREAMS
RADIO DREAMS

The droll dark comedy Radio Dreams explores the ambivalence of the immigrant experience through the portrait of a flamboyant misfit, a man who rides the roller coaster of megalomania and despair.  That misfit is Hamid Royani (Mohsen Namjoo), the director of programming at an Iranian radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hamid, an author in Iran, is a man of great certainty, with an unwavering sense of intellectual superiority  He assumes that everyone should – and will – buy in to his idiosyncratic taste.  This results in extremely random radio programming, and Hamid tries to sabotage everything that he finds vulgar (which is everything that might bring more listeners and revenue to the station.)

With his wild mane and indulgent programming, we first think that Hamid is simply batty.  But immigrants to the US generally forge new identities, and we come to understand that Hamid has not, perhaps will not, forge that new identity.   His despair is real but it’s hard to empathize with – he might be a legitimate literary figure in Iran, but he’s probably a pompous ass over there, too.

The highlight of Radio Dreams is Hamid’s reaction when he is surprised that Miss Iran USA, whom he has dismissed as a bimbo, might have literary chops that rivaling his.

Hamid has concocted a plan to have Afghanistan’s first rock band visit with the members of Metallica on air, and that’s the movie’s MacGuffin.  As we wait to see if Metallica will really show up, the foibles of the radio station crew dot Radio Dreams with moments of absurdity.  There are the cheesy commercials about unwanted body hair, Hamid’s obsession with hand sanitizer, a radio jungle played live on keyboards EVERY time, a new employee orientation that focuses on international time zones, along with a station intern compelled to take wrestling lessons.

Writer-director Babak Jalali is an adept storyteller.  As the movie opens, we are wondering, why do these guys have musical instruments? Why are they talking about Metallica? What’s with the ON AIR sign? Much of the movie unfolds before Hamid Royani emerges as the centerpiece character.

Hamid is played by the well-known Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, “Iran’s Bob Dylan”.  This is only Namjoo’s second feature film as an actor.  He’s a compelling figure, and this is a very fine performance.

Except for Namjoo, the cast is made up of Bay Area actors.  Masters of the implacable and the stone face, all of the actors do deadpan really, really well.

As befits the mix of reality and absurdism, here’s a podcast by the characters in Radio Dreams.  I saw Radio Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, and Babak Jalali took Q&A after the screening by phone from Belgium.

Radio Dreams is the second feature for Jalali, an Iranian-born filmmaker living and working in Europe.  He shot Radio Dreams with a small crew over only 24 days in San Francisco.   About 60% of the dialogue was scripted and 40% improvised.  The band in the movie, Kabul Dreams, really is Afghanistan’s first rock band, they did get to meet Metallica in real life and the PARS-FM were filmed at a real Iranian radio station in the Bay Area.

Babak Jalali is a promising filmmaker and Radio Dreams is a movie that we haven’t seen before.

DVD/Stream of the Week: CHEVALIER – male competitiveness, brilliantly skewered

CHEVALIER. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing
CHEVALIER. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens tomorrow night, so this week’s video pick is my favorite film from the 2016 SFIFF. One of the best films of the year, Chevalier is a sly and pointed exploration of male competitiveness, with the moments of drollness and absurdity that we expect in the best of contemporary Greek cinema. Chevalier is also now the Most Overlooked Movie of 2016, and I’m hoping that its popularity explodes now that it’s available on video.

In Chevalier, six guys are taking a holiday week on a yacht in the Aegean Sea. Each has his own stateroom, and the crew includes a chef. They spend their days scuba diving, jet skiing and the like. After a post-dinner game of charades, one suggests that they play Chevalier, a game about “Who is best overall?”. Of course, men tend to be competitive, and their egos are now at stake. The six guys began appraising each other, and their criteria get more and more absurd. “How many fillings do you have?”

In one especially inspired set piece, the guys race each other to construct IKEA bookcases, which results in five phallic towers on the boat’s deck (and one drooping failure). Naturally, some of the guys are obsessed with their own erections, too.

Director Athina Rachel Tsangari is obviously a keen observer of male behavior. Both men and women will enjoy laughing at male behavior taken to extreme. I sure did. Chevalier is perhaps the funniest movie of 2016, and it’s on my list of Best Movies of 2016 – So Far.

I saw Chevalier at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), where I pegged it as the Must See of the fest. (In 2011, Tsangari brought her hilariously offbeat Attenberg to SFIFF.) Unfortunately, in the Bay Area, Chevalier only got a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it release in June. Chevalier is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of CHEVALIER . Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of CHEVALIER . Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

Cinequest: SWEET GIRLS

SWEET GIRLS
SWEET GIRLS

In the dark, dark Swiss comedy Sweet Girls, the two teenage besties are lazy and unmotivated – even by teenage standards.  They will do ANYTHING to avoid an entry-level job that might plunge them into the adult workaday drudgery that they despise.  Left to their own devices with a deadline looming, the two  take unseemly advantage when an elderly woman dies in their apartment building.  Absurdly self-involved, the two start harvesting all the apartment building’s elderly in an absurdly harsh scheme.  Think Arsenic and Old Lace and Sweeney Todd.

Both girls are brats of the first order, but Elodie, the ringleader, also has an experience in her past which has scarred her feelings about the geriatric set.  Neither is a sympathetic character.  The humor here comes from the absurdist plot and from the social satire, which is probably more accessible to a Western European audience.

DVD/Stream of the Week: CHEVALIER – male competitiveness, brilliantly skewered

CHEVALIER. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing
CHEVALIER. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

One of the best films of the year, Chevalier is a sly and pointed exploration of male competitiveness, with the moments of drollness and absurdity that we expect in the best of contemporary Greek cinema. Chevalier is also now the Most Overlooked Movie of 2016, and I’m hoping that its popularity explodes now that it’s available on video.

In Chevalier, six guys are taking a holiday week on a yacht in the Aegean Sea. Each has his own stateroom, and the crew includes a chef. They spend their days scuba diving, jet skiing and the like. After a post-dinner game of charades, one suggests that they play Chevalier, a game about “Who is best overall?”. Of course, men tend to be competitive, and their egos are now at stake. The six guys began appraising each other, and their criteria get more and more absurd. “How many fillings do you have?”

In one especially inspired set piece, the guys race each other to construct IKEA bookcases, which results in five phallic towers on the boat’s deck (and one drooping failure). Naturally, some of the guys are obsessed with their own erections, too.

Director Athina Rachel Tsangari is obviously a keen observer of male behavior. Both men and women will enjoy laughing at male behavior taken to extreme. I sure did. Chevalier is perhaps the funniest movie of 2016, and it’s on my list of Best Movies of 2016 – So Far.

I saw Chevalier at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), where I pegged it as the Must See of the fest. (In 2011, Tsangari brought her hilariously offbeat Attenberg to SFIFF.)  Unfortunately, in the Bay Area, Chevalier only got a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it release in June.  Chevalier is now available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of CHEVALIER . Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
Athina Rachel Tsangari, director of CHEVALIER . Photo courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

THE LOBSTER: the movie disappointment of the year

Colin Farrell in THE LOBSTER
Colin Farrell in THE LOBSTER

The Lobster, which is supposed to be a dark comedy, won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, along with acclaim at the Toronto and Sundance fests, so I had been eagerly awaiting it for just over twelve months.  I had liked Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Greek absurdist film Dogtooth.  Unfortunately, The Lobster is a disagreeable misfire, which makes it the biggest movie disappointment of the year.

The Lobster takes place in an imagined world that looks like ours, but where being single is the worst status possible.  Single people go to a woodsy resort hotel, where they are under a time limit to find a partner or be turned into the animal of their choice. After all, in the city, they are challenged by law enforcement to produce their most important form of identification – the certificate that proves they are in a couple.  Guests at the resort go on daily hunts in the forest, where they shoot escaped single people  – the Loners – with tranquilizer darts.  (The Loners have their own monstrous leader (Lea Seydoux) and harsh rules.)

If a guest finds a partner, they enjoy a double room for two weeks and then a holiday on a yacht.  The hotel manager (Olivia Colman) drily announces,  that if the new relationship  becomes troubled, “We will assign you children. That always helps.”

It’s all very deadpan.  As the cast earnestly complies with ever more absurd rules at the hotel, The Lobster is darkly funny.

But then, The Lobster runs off its rails.  We lose the drollery and find our way in a survivalist love story with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and then, into a what is essentially a horror ending.  Inside all this mess is an allegory about society putting obstacles in the way of our reaching happiness through a love match.  But it stops being funny, and starts becoming tedious and uncomfortable.

Colin Farrell leads a fine cast with Weisz, Colman, Seydoux and James C. Reilly.  The failings of The Lobster are not their fault.

The first third of the The Lobster is amusing, and I hung hopefully with the second third.  The final third is dark, without much, if any, leavening humor, and the last fifteen minutes is almost unwatchable.  Stay away.

 

Cinequest: A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO SNUFF

A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO SNUFF
A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO SNUFF

The shamelessly low brow comedy A Beginners Guide to Snuff features a very dim pair of would-be actors who seek to win a horror movie contest by simulating a snuff film.  What could possibly go wrong?  To get the most realistic performance out of their leading lady, they decide to kidnap her and pretend that they’re going to torture her to death on film.  Their choice of that leading lady (played by Bree Williamson) brings some very unexpected consequences.

Most of the humor in Beginners Guide comes from the dumb and dumber filmmakers and spoof on low-budget horror cinema.  But Williamson’s electric performance, like a shot of adrenaline, animates and elevates the movie whenever she is on-screen.  Her character is so many tiers above the two boobs that she remains in charge even when chained to a table.  On top of that, she has some unanticipated skills and characteristics…

A Beginners Guide to Snuff ends with a particularly inspired trailer for the movie-within-the-movie.  If you’re looking for broad and dark comedy with a sparkling performance by an actress, this is your movie.  World Premiere at Cinequest on March 4, 6 and 11.

 

Thursday at Cinequest: THE HAMSTERS

LOS HAMSTERS
LOS HAMSTERS

Don’t miss the most overlooked nugget at Cinequest 2015. The Hamsters (Los Hamsters) is a delightfully dark social satire about a riotously dysfunctional Tijuana family. The dad, mom and two teenagers are going to such lengths to hide secrets from each other that they are completely oblivious to the drama in the others lives. In his first narrative feature, writer-director Gil Gonzalez has crafted a comedy that is completely character-driven, compressed into a very fun 71 minutes.

This family is in the upper middle class and the dad is desperately trying to stay there, the mom is denying any signs to the contrary and the kids are too spoiled and self-absorbed to notice any odd behavior by the parents. The acting is strong, especially by Angel Norzagaray, who plays the weary but driven, hangdog dad.

And here’s a bonus – Los Hamsters was filmed in Tijuana, and it’s great for a US audience to see this city as it is seen by its residents, not by its visitors.

Los Hamsters plays Cinequest today again on March 7 at Camera 12. See you around the fest. You can find my festival coverage, including both features and movie recommendations, on my Cinequest page. Follow me on Twitter for the very latest.

Cinequest: LOS HAMSTERS

LOS HAMSTERS
LOS HAMSTERS

The Hamsters (Los Hamsters) is a delightfully dark social satire about a riotously dysfunctional Tijuana family. The dad, mom and two teenagers are going to such lengths to hide secrets from each other that they are completely oblivious to the drama in the others lives. In his first narrative feature, writer-director Gil Gonzalez has crafted a comedy that is completely character-driven, compressed into a very fun 71 minutes.

This family is in the upper middle class and the dad is desperately trying to stay there, the mom is denying any signs to the contrary and the kids are too spoiled and self-absorbed to notice any odd behavior by the parents. The acting is strong, especially by Angel Norzagaray, who plays the weary but driven, hangdog dad.

And here’s a bonus – Los Hamsters was filmed in Tijuana, and it’s great for a US audience to see this city as it is seen by its residents, not by its visitors.

Los Hamsters will have its North American premiere on February 27 at the California Theatre and plays again on March 5 and 7 at Camera 12.