THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI 

Reviewed by H.A. Eaglehart

Last year was one of the best for incredible screenplays, case and point being Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) writes with the same bold simplicity that brings to mind other greats Sam Shepard and James McClure, giving this stellar ensemble sheer poetic verse in dialogue.

It is impossible not to see the relatability in McDonagh’s script to the world in which I grew in northern New Mexico, filled with such dysfunctional characters I had to keep reminding myself I was watching a film and not reliving the memories of my rural past. No surprise it took home Golden Globes for Best Screenplay, Best Director-Motion Picture, and Best Motion Picture. Clearly McDonagh is a seasoned writer, having proven himself many times before, and being at the helm of this fantastic piece of writing as director has earned him and his masterpiece the praise it deserves.

My jaw was dropping within the first ten minutes of watching Frances McDormand (Fargo, Hail, Cesaer; Burn After Reading) purchasing those three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a small rural town where everybody knows everyone and the little church house is the communal potluck/social center for the entire town.

It was no shock to see McDormand walk away with Golden Globe and the Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Actress in a Drama. Her stone-cold eyes literally burn straight through her fellow ensemble due to the rape and death of her only daughter (Kathryn Newton), but that’s only part of what makes McDormand’s performance riveting. She demands so much truth from fellow actors like Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), who plays the story’s infamous Sheriff Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell (Napoleon Dynamite, Cowboys & Aliens), who also walked away with Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice honors as Best Supporting Actor as Willoughby’s “cracker motherfucker” deputy.

This exceptional cast raises the bar and stakes to heights far above the small town of Ebbing to umbrella our entire nation, the tiny rural community now ruled by the very people whose “gang” Mildred Hayes (McDormand) accuses the local Catholic parson Father Montgomery (Nick Searcy) of joining—meaning the church. “You’re culpable,” she rails at him. “And when a person is culpable to altar-boy-fucking, or any-kinda-boy-fucking—I know you guys didn’t really narrow it down—then they kinda forfeit the right to come into my house and say a word to me. Finish your tea there, Father, and get the fuck outta my kitchen.”

That was one of the greatest monologues McDonagh penned in his screenplay because it’s the message that needs to be heard by every American as our elected president calls Africa and Haiti “shithole countries” and behaves like Ebbing sheriff deputy Dixon (Rockwell) throwing Red Welby (played perfectly by Caleb Landry Jones of Friday Night Lights and The Social Network), out of the second story window of the Ebbing advertising firm that leased those three billboards to Mildred and into the street in front of the entire town as Americans just stand by quietly and watch.

Other performances in the film that cannot be overlooked include Lucas Hedges, Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee last year for Manchester by the Sea, who doesn’t bring any less to the role of Mildred’s son. The scenes between Hedges and McDormand, alone in their small country house as they both deal with the brutal rape and murder of their sister and daughter, breaks the heart and are so accurate to McDonagh’s story that it took me back to the farm on which I grew up with my mother. McDormand and Hedges are absolute dynamite.

Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage plays the town “midget,” bringing another important facet of the screenplay to life in small town America. After Sheriff Deputy Dixon throws Welby into the street in front of Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) and continues to punch the tar out of the advertising agent right in the middle of Main Street, he just walks back to the Sheriff Station literally right across the street and, as he passes by Peters’ character, shouts back, “See? I got issues with white folks too.”

Color is not the only facet to prejudice in our country. Whether it’s an alcoholic Little Person who sells used cars, an advertising agent suspected of being gay, or a mother causing trouble with three billboards using the greatest threat to American ignorance: words. This is the thing that brings poetry to this film, baring the power to bring to life the problem facing our great democracy which stems from ignorance and poverty—both of which “the pigs” of Ebbing, Missouri use to maintain the status quo.

Carter Burwell (In Bruges, True Grit) also took home a Golden Globe for Best Original Score, another of the many components, including the production design by Inbal Weinberg (The Place Beyond The Pines, Frozen River) and cinematography of Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange) contributing to the cohesive collaboration that make me confident Three Billboards Outside Missouri will be taking home a lot more gold before the end of our current award season.

THE BIG SICK 

 Reviewed by H.A. Eaglehart

As the end looming before our society grows darker and darker with each new Tweet, as the divide between the left and right cracks into the mantel and the amazing gift of communication starts to crumble with it, the importance of art becomes paramount. Today, the many walls being built to divide us are cast into light on the big screen comedy The Big Sick. A true story based upon the real life of lead actor Kumail Nanjiani (The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Hot Tub Time Machine 2) and how he fell in love with his wife, Emily Gordon. Nanjiani co-wrote the screenplay with Gordon, played in the film by Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road).

Beginning at a comedy club where Kumail does stand-up, giving off that late-hour vibe right after Bill Maher and Vice News end when you’re faced with a HBO comedian line-up of really bad jokes or just going to bed, the brilliant screenplay’s subtlety quickly captivates the audience with its smart dialogue and honesty. The Big Sick takes its audience on the journey of a young Pakistani-American trying to find his place in a world filled with his extremely traditional old-world parents, as well as ominous white Americans who often see him as a terrorist.

Off the page, this all may seem like a recipe for disaster, but that’s why Kamail and his wife wrote it as a comedy. Just like the real life Kamail, we watch his character use his knack for finding the humor in life to maneuver many hilarious situations. These range from meeting the girl who would later become the woman writing a screenplay with him at one of his stand-up shows to winning his parents back after they disown him for not praying five times a day and choosing to be with a white American girl over one of the many Pakistani girls that his mother (Zenobia Shroff) is constantly inviting over for dinner in hopes of arranging Kamail with a wife.

The lighthearted spirit of Kamail eventually wins over Emily, but when she finds pictures of all the girls with whom his mother has attempted to hook him up, it seems as if their relationship may be over. However, due to a sudden infection in Emily’s lungs that puts her into a medicated coma, which Kamail tells Emily’s parents is better than their daughter being in an actual coma, stakes change once again.

Attempted humor that doesn’t go over so well with wary parents Beth (the phenomenal Holly Hunter) and Terry (played by the deadpan sensation Ray Romano). The course of Emily’s journey through her unconscious illness brings Kamail and his future parents-in-law together in a wonderfully heartwarming, yet very real way that allows us to see beyond all those walls that are being built in society today. The punchlines in The Big Sick are what makes it the best comedic triumph of 2017, because the moment we laugh at the relatability in our humanity is when those walls crumble.

Kumail Nanjiani carries the film as the seasoned actor he is, making his own dialogue shine like his future star on Hollywood Blvd. He shows us the vulnerability of what it means to have darker skin in these horrifying times, like when his brother (Adeel Akhtar) shouts in frustration in a restaurant and Kumail assures a white family in the booth across the aisle, “We are not terrorists.”

The humor is as real and alive as the chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan. Together, they make the audience fall in love with them and root for their relationship almost as equally hard as his parents fight them to save their thousand-year-old culture, a moment of humanity really resonating with me raised by an incredibly religious family as well. Whether its Islam or Christianity, tradition versus love is an age-old battle that seems to favor the latter when Emily comes out of her coma.

The parents cannot be overlooked in this story, played by well-rounded actors who make the film’s ensemble explode. Kumail’s father (Anupam Kher, Silver Linings) loves his son but struggles with his own fears of change as the old traditions back in Pakistan disappear within American society. Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) delivers my favorite monologue of the film while sleeping at Kumail’s apartment after his wife kicks him out and he struggles with the parental burden of watching his daughter fade into the bliss of a medical coma as it unhinges his already struggling marriage.

Hunter knocks the role of ball-busting southern gal Beth out of the ballpark, delivering a performance that has me somewhat disgruntled by Golden Globes for not even offering her a nomination. Still, she is a nominee for a SAG Awards as Best Supporting Actress and the Oscar nominations are right around the corner.

The Big Sick is definitely a big surprise. It’s a film worth enjoying as each new day brings another gut-wrenching Tweet from the White House, reminding us it is comedy that always leads to love.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME 

Reviewed by H.A. Eaglehart 

A story about the life of modern 1983 society in reflection to the past, this beautifully written work of poetry instantly captures the audience with its wonderful simplicity, and impressive courage in championing the truth behind the fabric that holds our crumbling civilization together.

Screenwriter James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Maurice) is fearless in his adaptation of Andre Aciman's novel, the tale of artistically talented brooding 17-year-old boy Elio Perlman, played by the talented Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar, Homeland), who discovers a relationship with an ‘older’ surprisingly educated American named Oliver, performed by Armie Hammer (J. Edgar, The Social Network), who is assisting Elio’s father research ancient Greek and Roman sculptures dredged up from the bottom of a nearby lake.

Feelings unfold between Elio and Oliver in the glacially-paced countryside of Northern Italy in a fashion which could be likened to Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. It’s a story of a teenager discovering love with an older adult man and is masterfully directed by Luca Guadagnino (The Protagonists, Melissa P.).

Call Me by Your Name takes us out of our seats and carries us back to a more Hellenistic time where intelligence and compassion are acceptable human qualities. These are traits captured in Michael Stuhbarg’s (Steve Jobs, Trumbo) portrayal of Elio’s well-rounded father Mr. Perlman, who not only knows of the relationship that unfolds over the summer between his son and Oliver but also sees its pure reflection of the human spirit that Greek and Roman sculptors attempted to capture in the ancient bronze and marble statues he’s dredging up. He tells Oliver, as they are looking at projections of Greek statutes of boys, it’s as if they are “daring you to desire them.”

Saying this instant masterpiece is a “coming of age” romance is like saying the phenomenal Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical equates to Rock of Ages. Hedwig is a real person. I watched her pain unfold on stage at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and I saw the same with Elio. A human being walking through life. Art.

Timothée Chalamet brings his own amazing talent to the screen for us to appreciate by exquisitely playing piano and helping to show us the emotional creatures hidden behind society’s taboos. This is an artistic portrayal of real life and the grounded vision of the entire ensemble makes this a feat in accomplishment. I fully expect to see this taking the nominations for gold this year.

The performances of the women in this stellar cast cannot be overlooked. Amira Casar’s (Arabian Nights, Age of Uprising) portrayal of Elio’s mother is an ever-present force that allows us to understand from where her son’s courage and strength comes. Her naked vulnerability in showing the understanding love of a mother and wife is chilling, and I couldn’t help but see my own mother who completely loves and accepts me as a 28-year-old gay man in a 5-year relationship with my 71-year-old boyfriend.

Life is more than a film, which makes this cast exemplary because I watched it in an American movie theatre with my boyfriend. The vast majority of the audience was heterosexual couples, all of whom only ever saw a story of people, like themselves, and not the stigma’s of societal perception.

Aside from Elio’s infatuation with Oliver, he is also love stricken with a young Italian girl named Marzia played by Esther Garrel (Love for a Day, Thirst Street), a very important performance allowing us to see the balancing act many young men play as they explore love. You can’t help falling in love with Esther’s Marzia as she watches Elio slowly push her away.

The best way of describing this film would be to quote Chekhov when he described his play The Seagull: “A great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.” It is a magical 2 hour and 12 minute adventure of suspense well worth the outrageous price of a movie ticket!

 ON THE ROAD 

Reviewed by H.A. Eaglehart

“In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.” Brilliant words written by the great Allen Ginsberg while in San Francisco in 1956. It’s impossible not to watch them on film without acknowledging Ginsberg’s work as a poet, since he figures so prominently under the pseudonym Carlo in Jack Kerouac’s timeless classic On the Road that director Walter Salles turned into a magnificent 2014 multi-award-winning entry in film festivals around the world.

The star-studded cast proves the importance that Kerouac’s words still hold for us today as the world still slowly crumbles beneath hate and the human condition. Every performance given comes from a place of true conviction from an ensemble that fights to drive this incredible story home for the audience just as its original creator intended.

The good direction of On the Road becomes immediately apparent from the beginning, and it’s easy to see why Salles was awarded Best Direction by the Sydney Film Festival. Perhaps it is just the amazing words of Kerouac that bring such life to the screen as we are introduced to a closeted/troubled Allen Ginsberg, played wonderfully by Tom Sturridge, and his sexy lover Dean Moriarty, whose life in real life was Neil Cassidy, played spot on by Garrett Hedlund. We see them stare into one another’s eyes looking for trust after just having had a three-way with one of the many girls that are passed through on the journey down Kerouac’s road.

You can’t help but see two young men searching for truth in their lives within a crumbling world of mediocrity. It’s a real treat to see both actors equally connected not only with the script but also each other. Again I think Kerouac must be given a lot of the credit, but you cannot ignore the great talent of this stellar cast. The pain of these characters just pours from Sturridge’s eyes as he quietly yearns for Dean to “just simply hold me.” While he and Sal Paradise, based on Jack Kerouac and performed by Sam Riley, sip liquor in the wake of Dean abandoning them to have sex with a girl, Ginsberg cries, “This is the first time sex has been part of my relationship with a man. Grief is closest. I’m 21. By the time I’m 23, I’m going to write a great poem. Then it’s all over for me.”

Based on the poem quoted at the beginning, it’s clear Ginsberg did indeed keep his word, but the pain and suffering in his writing becomes more understandable as we see Dean, the man of his dreams, wrench his yearning heart apart. The accomplishment in this film is that it gives reveals the importance in art; you can’t help but wonder if Kerouac would have ever written On the Road if equally great artists, like Ginsberg, hadn’t been a part of his life. Art inspires art in collaboration, and the performances of this cast are no exception.

Eight years under President Obama have given rise to a new generation of people that cannot see life in the same way that the post-World War II artists of the Beat Generation did, which makes it even harder us to understand the Civil Rights era that came as a result of the great literary movement that Kerouac, Ginsberg and many others inspired. On the Road is the story of mere children growing up in a devastated world being torn down by capitalism, communism, and fear of nuclear annihilation. These are characters that are seeing the world anew for the first time through the use of drugs, sexual freedom, and any other means available to discover truth.

Racing down highways built by President Eisenhower, whose predecessor says, “We must cut down on the price of living,” is constantly quoted by Dean and Sal both repeating the President’s words every time they steal gas or take food from country grocers. Proving that idealism has always failed our species, because of the state of our condition that doesn’t show any signs of changing. While at his parent’s house with Dean and some friends, Sal Paradise erupts at the news that General Douglas MacArthur banned kissing in the streets of Tokyo, shouting, “Who does that puritanical old fart think he is?!” If Kerouac were writing his timeless masterpiece today, I shutter to think what Sal and his friends would think now with Trump in office. The beauty of the writing truly shines through the screen as this story of raw naked pain unveils the close relationship that 1959 has with 2017.

Just like any journey down the road of life this film reflects the comings and goings of all the different people that pass through our lives by the memorable cameos made throughout the 124 minutes of drama. When Sal meets a Latina woman named Terry (the talented Alice Braga) who picks cotton for a living, we see Kerouac’s own desire to connect with the lives of those tread upon by—as Viggo Mortensen later puts it, “White Americans”. We see Sal turn a hand to working America’s cotton fields and then be mocked by his white overseers for being a white man mingling with Latinos.

The civil divides that tear us a part truly come to life as we watch Terry and Sal sweating both in the fields and naked on sheets of desire. Young souls with the strength to seek out the love and connection that makes us all human, while also realizing the insurmountable obstacles keeping us from uniting as one race. It’s heartbreaking to watch them constantly met with disappointment despite their best, often misguided, efforts in combating the horrid elements that many of us all want to change. Yet, while taking Sal’s mother to New York as a favor for feeding them, Dean is pulled over for a speeding ticket and Sal’s mother ultimately is forced to pay the fine proving that sex and love are not enough to survive in a world that revolves around the almighty dollar.

Watching the crucifixion of these relatable characters fighting for righteousness makes this film a true compliment to the book, a rare feat. From watching a stoned Amy Adams sweeping lizards out of trees with a broom in the dark, to getting to see Mortenson perform the part of real life William Burroughs butt-naked step into a tiny shed to breath in fumes to get high, this film is a rollercoaster ride that culminates into a magical experience.        

Kristen Stewart and Kristen Dunst are the leading actresses that form a striking duo of ‘Kristen’ prowess as they represent the women that get left behind on Sal and Dean’s journey down the road. We begin to see the consequences of Dean using his boyish charm to swoon the hearts of a world in need, ultimately leaving Stewart and Dunst shipwrecked upon the wayside., to which Dean later tells Sal, “As you get older all those mistakes just keep stacking up.”

Despite seeing Dunst’s heartbreaking performance as a lonely mother left alone who tells Dean as he packs his suitcase, “You know how much I gave up for you?” and being surprised by the usually predictable performance of Stewart, who was perfectly typecast as Marylou, it’s still hard to hate Dean even after hurting so many of the men and women in his life, because you understand that strong people simply cannot save everybody. Even a lifeboat will sink if too many cling to it.

While driving to California, Dean pulls over and picks up an Okie cowboy hitchhiker, played by American blues singer and songwriter Jake La Botz, who sings folks songs as they travel down the road into the sunset promising the Golden State. One of the lyrics that Bolz’s character sings that drives home our understanding of Dean’s predicament goes, “It’s hard to love what you kill.”

Steve Buscemi enters the story playing a salesman who travels to Denver with Dean and Sal after they abandon Dunst’s character and her and Dean’s baby in California. Buscemi is yet another example of the stellar ensemble, and performs the part of a guy looking to ensure that everybody around him remains “copacetic” to the score of commitment. Again, commitment reappears as an important part of the film, first with Ginsberg pining for Dean, and again as Buscemi later admits to Dean and Sal in a cheap motel that he really doesn’t like girls.

In the end, Sal gets to witness Dean become Buscemi’s bedtime top, which finally begins to crack his own love for Dean. Later Buscemi leaves them in Denver, to which Dean turns to Sal and says, “You see? Give ‘em what they secretly want, and they just panic.” The brilliance in Hedland’s talent as an actor comes as Kerouac’s curved out literary journey gradually begins winding down beneath the weight of reality, unveiling an arced performance that makes Hedland the perfect pick for Dean.

It oddly isn’t surprising that Dean arises as the dark hero of the story, because even his own strength isn’t enough to carry him through the story unscathed. Granted in the end he too ends up alone and begging to not be abandoned like all the loves in his past, but it’s his courage that makes him so endearing to the audience. Even the strongest crumble in the face of a world filled with millions of people all sinking. Leaving us to wonder if maybe the strongest people are actually those like Ginsberg and Paradise who remain committed to their art and those that they love.

I’m left with the somber tone of Ginsberg’s words, “There is no gold at the end of the rainbow.” Fortunately, anyone that gets to watch Walter Salles’ adaptation of Kerouac’s amazing story will agree that there is definite gold at the end of this cinematic journey On the Road.