Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Review

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by FilmZ

In his latest film, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and writing partner Efthymis Filippou have cooked up an ancient dish.  The title references a story of Agamemnon, the legendary Greek king who accidentally kills a deer belonging to the goddess Artemis.  In retribution, he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.  This mashup of the Biblical "eye for an eye" with the contemporary Sophie's Choice creates fertile soil for Lanthimos to sow more absurdist satire, but compared to his previous critical success, The Lobster, TKoaSD comes across as pretty straightforward psychodrama, yet still a satire, lightly seasoned with the blackest of humor.  For those familiar with Lanthimos' films, the characters still speak in a stilted deadpan, the effects of which can range from humorous to jarring.  This has been explained as Lanthimos' wanting for us to search for truth, for meaning in the text rather than have the actors' inflection to influence us.  Perhaps that is true, but then he paradoxically hits us over the head with an unnerving atonal soundtrack that blares at those times he wants our hair to stand on end.  Whether one loves or loathes the overall effect, his films are unique events.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful heart surgeon; with a beautiful home, gorgeous wife Anna (Nicole Kidman)--also a doctor--and two beautiful children, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and pre-adolescent Bob (Sonny Suljic).  True, there is a hint that he once may have had a drinking problem, but he hasn't touched alcohol in three years.  One could certainly understand why his seemingly perfect existence would make him aloof, with just a touch of arrogance.  It seems odd, then, that Steven has taken 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing.  It looks like the Big Brothers program in action: he meets the boy at a diner, buys him an expensive watch, and indeed, Martin's father died not long ago, and the boy seems adrift.  But why does Steven lie to his family about where he has been and to his anesthesiologist friend (Bill Camp) about the reason Martin is visiting Steven at the hospital?

This relationship becomes the driving force that impels the drama's evolution into suspense.  Martin is a strange boy, ill-at-ease and yet increasingly demanding as he insinuates himself more and more into Steven's life.  The surgeon decides to invite the boy to his home for dinner and to meet his family, a decision we begin to feel is roughly akin to inviting a vampire into one's home--and our intuition would be accurate.  Kim develops a crush on Martin and he begins to show his bad influence on both of the Murphy children.  Anna is kind and cordial, but we also see a leeriness at the edges.  In thanks for the meal, Martin reciprocates by inviting Steven to his home for dinner.  Steven demurs, but he learns that the invitation is not so much a request as a demand.  Things get even stranger when it becomes evident that Martin is playing Cupid, trying to set Steven up with his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone), a plot she seems to be in on.

After that, Steven tries to distance himself from the boy, but Martin is having none of it.  He is now in charge of the relationship.  Martin surprises Steven in the hospital, even after the surgeon urges the boy to clear visits with him first.  It is here that Martin fully divulges his intentions: a curse targeting Steven's family--to Martin the only fitting justice--that leads to the third act of ever-increasing horror.  We also come to fully understand Steven's motivation to steward the boy.  It's a smart plan well-written and delivered by Lanthimos, Filippou, and the cast, vacillating between dark humor and psychological horror, between satire and morality tale.  It takes us toward a resolution only Steven can decide, one that may cause Martin to lift his curse but will bring down another that the Murphy family can never shed.  As our traveling partner, Serfing Dude, said later about the climactic point, "I knew it was time to either light up or run to the bathroom."

Two years ago, when we saw The Lobster, Lanthimos' first English-language film, we didn't appreciate it as much as some.  Since then, it has worn better in our memory, and it prepared us for The Killing of the Sacred DeerTKoaSD is more Greek tragedy, less black comic satire than The Lobster, and the deadpan dialogue has been dialed down--Colin Farrell, a veteran of both films, voices emotion here, at times of frustration and rage.  Barry Keoghan wears the flat affect well as the emotionally barren teen who sets the plot in motion.  After seeing him as doomed boys in both '71 and Dunkirk, we can say that his screen presence is undeniable.  Cassidy and Suljic are striking young actors with similarly gorgeous eyes; both drew empathy and wore their parts like gloves.  It was Kidman, though, who provided the true soul of the Murphy family.  She carried out Lanthimos non-inflection dictum (which he denies, BTW) only by softening her tone.  Still, she is a marvelous actor, and the camera caught small, sharp glances that added a subtext of underlying family discord, heightening the drama and, overall, improving the film.  TKoaSD tied for Best Screenplay at Cannes, and the film contended for the Palme d'Or.  We hope that one day Lanthimos drops the flat affect and tone; rather than a hallmark of style, it is an annoying, distracting detraction.
7.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
5.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Outside chance for Barry Keoghan Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay)

The Florida Project

The Florida Project by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

You would be forgiven if, upon watching the trailer for The Florida Project, you thought you were tuned in to an update of the old Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies, this time with Darla in the lead.  A tribe of six-year-olds running amok through modern-day tenements spreading hi-jinks and making all of the adults around them tear out their hair.  But director Sean Baker (Tangerine) who also co-wrote along with Chris Bergoch, has something deeper and more multi-layered in mind, and as he shot Tangerine exclusively on iPhone 5s smartphones, The Florida Project has a distinct cinema verite look.  Despite the fact that it focuses on one summer in the life of a little girl living hand-to-mouth in the shadows of Disneyworld's opulence, Baker avoids romanticism and sentimentality.  It's a smart move that elevates the film.  Still, though, does it deserve the wild adulation it has accrued?  As our own Captain HE observed after FilmZ asked that very question: "I think [the raves are] the reaction of people who never experienced this lifestyle up close and personal."

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is the ringleader of a band of wild children that run rampant through the environs of the Magic Castle motel, a shelter for the working poor one roof away from homelessness.   For a child unaware of this stark reality, it is in its own way an idyllic playground where a kid can cut the electricity for the entire complex and watch what happens.  During one foray into neighboring Futureland motel complex, Moonee and the kids sit on the balcony and spit on a car below.  When the woman who owns the car catches them and forces them to clean it off, the kids meet the car owner's granddaughter Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a sweet child who immediately joins the core crew that also includes Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

Though the kids stay one step ahead of most adults, motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) sees all with baleful reflection.  He is our surrogate observer, and though his eyes tell us they have seen too many bad ends, his actions hold the optimism that his interventions and deep-seated affection--especially for the children--just might be enough to keep the denizens of the Magic Castle above water.  Most problematic in that respect is Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee's 22-year old mother.  Halley provides by subsistence: selling cheap perfume in parking lots of the posh hotels that cater to Disney tourists; sending Moonee for free breakfast, sneaked out of the back door of the diner where Scooty's mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works; relying on excuses and Bobby's good nature for late rent payment.

Halley loves and cares for Moonee, probably to the best of her ability, although that ability is limited by the endemic social conditions that accompany poverty.  As a result, Halley is more of a fun big sister, and her lack of training--as a mother and as a wage earner--severely limits the effective stewardship she can provide the little girl.  As Moonee's reckless summer of fun continues unabated, Halley's tenuous grasp on economic viability loosens--both elements converge after one of the kids' misadventures when the aware, responsible Ashley sees through Scooty's feignred innocence and forbids him from hanging around with Moonee anymore literally ending Halley's and Moonee's free lunch.  All this time we watch and identify with Bobby's reactions, and we begin to feel, as he seems to fear, that things will not end well.

From the descriptions above, it's obvious that TFP is episodic, a series of events and vignettes disparate and loosely constructed.  As the story progresses, loose threads connect events and lead toward an abrupt conclusion, our only clue coming from an equally abrupt change of style.  At Cannes, Baker revealed his dream: to make a film about children “that focused on their resilience, their innocence, and their comic nature."  Mission accomplished, and to that end a success.  The vast majority of critics love The Florida Project and Willem Dafoe's restrained, nuanced performance as the gruff but kindly Bobby.  Some have wanted to include Brooklyn Prince in Oscar talk, and as precocious and natural as she is, she is a kid play-acting, and some of the notes, like a close-up crying scene, do not ring true.  Bria Vinaite delivers a convincing if uneven performance (Baker uses a number of non- professional actors).  The major flaw in this film comes from Baker's dream: while it is entertaining to watch children's hijinks, it is overdone--redundant and dragging, at times.  Cinematographer Alexis Zabe captures the tacky pastel palette and sun-bleached summer of tourist-trap Florida.  Some have compared TFP to last year's Moonlight in projecting an Oscar surprise for another Florida-based film.  And while TFP is timely, focusing on modern-day Joads at the moment Washington has chosen to transfer even more of the nation's wealth to those who already control most of it, it is not a Grapes of Wrath so much as a precocious docudrama.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Dafoe is a frontrunner for Supporting Actor, probable nomination for Picture, outside chance of nominations for Director, Original Screenplay

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Yes, the title reads on the screen: outside, with a lower case "o."  Why?  That isn't explained.  And inexplicable is the perfect descriptor for Martin McDonagh's film work--in a good way, usually (if you've seen the auteur's In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths, you know what we mean).  Inexplicably random and bizarre events occur within the story, and people respond in inexplicably bizarre and random ways.  You either buy it or you don't--the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival bought it, bestowing on TBoEM its eponymous award.  One thing we have to admit: McDonagh's films are certain to surprise.  He clearly is inspired by the work of the Coen brothers--their juxtaposition of humor and horror, of quirkiness and violence.  But their styles diverge in two distinct ways: 1) Coen characters can be eccentric and at times behave in extreme ways, but their behavior is plausible in character, if extreme; 2) Coen situations at times brush up against tragedy, but seldom does tragedy become a hallmark element of their films.  Judging by trailers alone--even the Red Band one--filmgoers will be surprised by both of these elements, and while tragedy adds depth to TBoEM, the implausibility detracts from it (we won't delve into spoilers, so you will see; just be prepared).

As the film opens, Mildred (Frances McDormand) is driving along a two-lane blacktop in her beat-up station wagon.  Seven months before, her daughter was brutally raped and murdered.  No clues were left, and the crime seems destined to go unsolved, an unacceptable fate to Mildred.  She passes three derelict billboards and gets an idea: hustling to the ad agency, she pays owner Red Welby (a nicely weird Caleb Landry Jones) to post a provocative series of messages, reading respectively:  "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," "How Come Chief Willoughby?" calling out the town's Police Chief (Woody Harrelson).  This catches the attention of the whole town, most sympathetic to Willoughby and his family--wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and two little girls.  Some try to reason with her--an exchange between Mildred and a Catholic priest goes badly for the cleric; the town dentist tries to get tough with her and regrets it.  Most radically offended: Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby's racist, momma's-boy deputy.  Driven on by his back-hills' mother from Hell, Dixon takes things to a whole different level of crazy.  The more the townfolk oppose her, the more Mildred digs in her heels, bringing humiliation to her innocent son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) at school and drawing renewed hostility from her estranged abusive spouse (John Hawkes), who prefers a peaceful existence with his newfound 19-year old love.  Not everyone is hostile to Mildred, though: the town's small minority population identifies with her as fellow victims, and Peter Dinklage, all mulleted and mustachioed, is a wishful suitor, becoming both accomplice and alibi.  We know events will escalate, but the levels they reach, and the redemption that comes is wholly unexpected.

What we have come to expect from McDonagh is a story that immediately engages us and at times veers tortuously into unexpected directions, but the true rewards of TBoEM are the well-drawn, complex characters.  Woody Harrelson has never been better; all canny intelligence leavened by homespun charm.  Sam Rockwell has the supporting role of a lifetime; rarely have we been treated to a character as despicable, funny, pitiable, and heart-rending--sometimes all at once.  Even minor characters are well-drawn and get their moments to shine.  But the movie belongs to McDormand.  McDonagh wrote the part specifically for her, and it fits her like a glove.  She mentioned that she interpreted Mildred as a John Wayne-type, and it shows, even down to her walk; indeed, the film takes on aspects of a classic Western, righting a wrong in a small town, à la Wayne's own The Sons of Katie Elder.  Still, though, McDormand retains enough of her own persona to go off on her patented profane riffs and sardonic rants.  Carter Burwell's score, resonant with both American and Celtic folk roots. carries an air that wafts between home-spun and elegiac, the latter especially evident in Renee Fleming's heartbreaking Celtic rendition of "The Last Rose of Summer."  Expect to hear it often on Oscar night.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
9.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (certain nominations for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Score).

Brief Reviews: Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and LBJ (2016)

Murder on the Orient Express by FilmZ

It's probably unfair to review director/star Kenneth Branagh's 2017 Murder on the Orient Express when I hold Sidney Lumet's 1974 version in such high esteem.  Still, it's Agatha Christie, and when it comes to murder most cozy--nothing beats a ride across snowy Europe on the world's most romantic train with the ritziest of 1930's Art Deco trappings.  No one does it better; all you have to do is stay faithful to the template.  Well, Branagh stays reasonably faithful, but his vision is lighter and his interrogation techniques and plot development are more overt to accommodate modern mass audiences and non-readers who lately have proven that being forced to think doesn't sit well with them.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh), self-professed as "perhaps the greatest detective in the whole world," has brilliantly solved a mystery at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall through the use of his acute attention to detail and fastidious need for order and justice.  Now, he relies on Bouc (Tom Bateman), manager of the famed train, to secure him a compartment for a luxurious, restful ride home.  Along for the ride is a classic cast of Christie-types: crooked businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his secretary/lawyer MacQueen (Josh Gad), his manservant Masterman (Derek Jacobi), socialite/vamp Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Countess (Lucy Boynton), a count (Sergei Polunin), a Princess (Dame Judy Dench), her secretary (Olivia Coleman), a racist professor (Willem Dafoe), a missionary (Penelope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), prim tutor Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), and car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia Rulfo).  The victim is drugged and stabbed multiple times, an avalanche strands the train in a mountain pass, and Bouc pleads with the Belgian detective to please solve the crime before rescuers and the police arrive and surely accuse one of the minority passengers--and save the reputation of the railroad.  And so, with methodical precision, Poirot goes to work.

MotOE is a beautiful film--its cinematography, production design, and costume design dazzle, as the film spins perhaps Dame Christie's best, most satisfying whodunit.  For those reasons alone, we recommend it despite its blemishes.  The supporting cast seems more caricature than character (did Branagh see fit not to rein them in?).  Poirot has been played by many fine actors, none better than Branagh, but we've come to expect the little detective to be fastidious, narcissistic, and formal--David Suchet has indelibly hewn closest to the book's image.  Branagh has Poirot giggling over the pages of Dickens, mooning over a photo of a mysterious woman (huh?), and twisting the English language in a silly way rather than a Belgian way.  All this is not necessarily to the film's detriment as the director is playing a long game: at the end of the film, a message arrives, urgently requiring his services to solve a Death on the Nile.  We look forward to it, but for a stand-alone film, stick with the 1974 Albert Finney version, which had six Oscar noms and one win (Ingrid Bergman).
The 2017 film:
7.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
6.0 out of ten on an Awards Scale for the nice period production values.
The 1974 version:
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment (and whodunit) Scale
8.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale
*       *       *

LBJ by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Rob Reiner's LBJ was a Toronto International Film Festival entry in September 2016, and it's not certain why it took over a year to release (perhaps to gain distance from Bryan Cranston's Tony-Award winning performance of the President reprised on HBO?).  As LBJ's credits rolled at the end, Captain HE, a member of our August body gave credence to that theory by remarking that Woody was all right, but, boy, we should have seen Cranston.  Word has it, in fact, that Woody Harrelson consulted with Cranston before taking on the role.  Several positive aspects: Harrelson's commitment to the role, the always excellent Richard Jenkins as racist Southern Sen. Richard Russell, and Reiner's period authenticity.  One warning: Harrelson's heavy prosthetic makeup takes some getting used to; I kept thinking I was seeing Rondo Hatton as LBJ (seriously, Google images of the old-time actor).

The action unfolds from the perspective of Lyndon Johnson, opening with the primary season for the 1960 Presidential election.  Johnson's coyness about running allows the charismatic JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) to clinch the candidacy at the Democratic Convention, and Kennedy surprises everyone, most of all brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David) and LBJ himself, by asking the big Texan to be his running mate.  LBJ discusses his deepest thoughts with his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh), most personally, his dismay that however respected he may be, he is not embraced with the affection JFK enjoys.  Rather than react with bitterness, this melancholy reality spurs Johnson to be the best he can be, a difficult task, considering that Bobby (painted as a snotty and snobbish Macchiavelli) does his best to make LBJ a nonentity.  Bobby doesn't count on Johnson's savant-like ability to maneuver through the Byzantine swamp that is Congress, so given nothing to work with, Johnson works the angles and his connections to carve a meaningful place in the Administration.  Then comes that fateful day in Dallas, and Johnson is thrust reluctantly into the Presidency at one of the most critical social junctures in American history.

Screenwriter Joey Hartstone makes the good decision to avoid a broad brush approach--Vietnam is hardly mentioned--instead, the spotlight falls on the Civil Rights Act.  It is foreshadowing to see the smug caucus of Dixiecrat Senators, led by Russell, cock-sure that Johnson's ascendency brings the death knell to Civil Rights legislation.  Instead, it brings the best scenes of the film: the tête-à-têtes between Russell and LBJ over equality for Black Americans.  Between threats, pleas, bombast, and reason, LBJ shows his true mettle.  Had the whole film, or even half of it, delivered the electricity of Harrelson's and Jenkins' performances, LBJ the film might have grasped the affection that LBJ the man so desired.  Instead, it suffers for the risks it didn't take.
6.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale (not an Awards player)

Lady Bird

Lady Bird Review by FilmZ

As much as we like Laurie Metcalf and Lucas Hedges, and as much as we love Saoirse Ronan, we had reservations about Lady Bird.  The coming-of-age movie seemed to have epic twee potential, hardly the stuff to attract the likes of Guy S. Malone, Researcher; Dude of the Serf; Captain HE; and your humble servant, FilmZ.  Still, we are nothing if not open-minded, and based on its rave receptions at the Telluride and Toronto festivals, we decided to give it a shot.  Upshot: we are men enough to admit writer-director Greta Gerwig keeps her autobiographical baby twee free.   Neither quaint nor sentimental, Gerwig uses snappy, snarky quick-cut scenes to whisk us along through Lady Bird's (Ronan) momentous senior year in high school and the culmination of a stormy relationship with her judgmental, overworked, and stressed-out mother, Marion (Metcalf).

It is Sacramento, "the Midwest of California," in 2002: Christine McPherson, who prefers her "given" name, "Lady Bird" ("... given to me, by me") is an odd duck, a misfit who revels in her uniqueness even as she longs to be one of the cool kids at her Catholic high school.  Lady Bird and her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), plan their self-actualization as they snack on Communion wafers, a juxtaposition of the normal and the absurd that provides much of the film's humor and endearment.  Their quest takes them to the drama club, where Lady Bird meets Danny, a sweet soul.  But the transience of youth leads her to Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a guitar-playing nouveau-Kerouac and a new best-friend--wealthy, popular Jenna (Odeya Rush).  Gerwig remembers well the ups and downs, fits and starts, and the Icarian flights to the sun where wings scorch and aspirants plummet to earth.

At Lady Bird's side throughout is her doting father (Tracy Letts), who hides his career downturns from her even as he becomes both confidant and buffer between her and her mother.  Central to the story, though, is the relationship between Lady Bird and Marion McPherson, and it is what makes the film transcendent.  The mother-daughter complexity: each elicits both empathy and ire, each is right and wrong, each knows the other well but at the same time lacks understanding.  And the perfect match of actor to role as achieved with Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.  It is that relationship that bookends the film and drives it, even at those times when it is only in the back of our minds.

Lady Bird is a triumph for Greta Gerwig in her first film as sole director, a labor of love put forth without a false step.  It is a comedy-drama that allows us to relate to the characters as real people living within the artifices of high school and to remember the intense love-hate between a parent and a child striving for independence.  The film should garner a Best Picture nomination and Saoirse Ronan could end up as the frontrunner for Best Actress.  The 23-year old has a gift for timing that wrings out the power, humor, and truth from every beautifully-written line.  Which brings us to the third probable nomination: Original Screenplay.  Laurie Metcalf has the role of a lifetime, and it could lead to a Supporting Actress nomination.  And finally, if there is any justice Greta Gerwig will earn recognition as Director.

9.0 out of 10 - Entertainment Scale (Dude and Capt. HE declared it their favorite film so far this year)
9.0 out of 10 - Awards Scale
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