Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews

The Divine Order

“The Divine Order” addresses some late-blooming women’s rights issues in the West: the shocking lack of suffrage among Swiss women as late as 1971. The story is told through Nora, dutiful housewife and mother, who lives with her decent husband, their two sons, and her crusty father-in-law in a small Swiss village, where there is little awareness of the burgeoning civil rights movements elsewhere in the world. “Equality of the sexes is a sin against nature,” intones one convinced character.

Nora is a reliable, modest woman who “would like to do something different,”
such as taking up a part time job, but she cannot work in Switzerland without her husband’s permission, with women’s second class status seen as part of the “divine order” of things. Her frustration runs up against a couple of activists advocating for the women’s franchise in a national referendum, and she senses an opening. Articulate and liked by all, she joins a sturdy but beleaguered band of females who take on their town—and the menfolk—to lead a local campaign for the vote, an issue that will be put
before only male voters, of course. The film has a touch of a modern-day “Lysistrata,” with the lady activists even separating themselves into a makeshift dormitory away from their families and without the distraction of husbands.

The film, written and directed by Petra Volpe, benefits greatly from a fine lead performance by Marie Leuenberger, brilliantly playing an unassertive person who blossoms into a convinced advocate. She not only discovers her own activist skills but also awakens to her sexual self and “personhood,” aided by a bouncy feminist lecturer from outside (it is to be noted that this is an understated, subtle comedy, but some sexual elements are rather blunt and definitely “R”). A redemptive ending challenges “The Divine Order,” at least in this one Swiss town.

(The film runs 96 minutes, is unrated, and is in Swiss-German with English subtitles

(November 2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MIssouri

Go to this film with the expectation of seeing a new Coen Brothers film, most particularly “Fargo.” It has the small-town Midwest vibe, a consistent “hick” tone, the same sudden shifts from goofy to ghastly in a nanosecond, a favorite Coen actress in a formidable performance-- even the same sound track composer, Carter Burwell.

Mildred Hayes (Francis McDormand) lost her daughter months ago in a
horrendous rape-murder, and she decides to pressure the local police to find the murderer by commissioning three chiding billboards on an abandoned road near her home. The pressure is on Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the crime, but he—a decent family man—has his own problems with a terminal cancer diagnosis. His staff seems mainly inept, especially deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) a casual racist and lay about, and the community finds Mildred’s obsession unseemly.
Nevertheless, she persists.

A shocking death changes the dynamics of Mildred’s cause, and events begin to escalate, with retaliations by Dixon on the advertising company that mounted the billboards (he defenestrates the office manager) and Mildred firebombing the police station (in this lackadaisical town, both escape without consequence, and the two injured parties end up sharing a hospital room!). An overheard remark by Dixon promises a solution to the murder, and antagonists Mildred and Dixon join forces. The ending is not neat, not even necessarily promising, but is consistent with this cunning,
switchback story.

I referenced McDormand as one link to “Fargo,” but her performance—the main reason to see the picture—is extremely different. Hardly the sweet but dogged policewoman Marge Gunderson, McDormand here is a tight-lipped yet profane vengeance seeker, ready to put down anyone (including an officious local minister) who questions her motives. Her search for answers is obsessive, clouding out everything else and making her double down on naysayers. Her stance is adamantine, and puzzling, too, since the film only offers one brief scene (the movie’s lone flashback) with her and her daughter, and it is a very sour one, ending on a “rape” line. Still, she is

Rockwell, as the maladroit Dixon, appears as a crass stereotype whose
character, in fits and starts, begins to gain dimension and sympathy (he also may have the worst mom in recent movies, played by Sandy Martin). Harrelson, normally coarse and wooden, is a decent sort who reveals a richer nature as the film proceeds. There are other featured players who add welcome elements of calm and reason (Mildred’s
son played by Lucas Hedges), goofball romanticism (Peter Dinklage), reassuring competence (Clarke Peters), and charming ditz (Malaya Rivera Drew), among others. Whatever weirdness of plot, these players ground the film.

Martin McDonagh became a world-famous playwright in his 20’s, with
provocative Irish dramas packaged as the Leenane and Aran Island trilogies. He later gravitated to film, and “Ebbing” is his third feature. From the offhand humor of “In Bruges,” he moved to darker territory in “Seven Psychopaths” and exhibits an even more complicated palette in his latest film. What he excels in is keeping up the momentum of the story, keeping it finely balanced between silly and shocking, and keeping you guessing as to what’s next. It may turn you off occasionally, but “Ebbing” remains decidedly watchable.

(Rated a fairly hard "R," this film runs 115 mins

(November 2017)

Photo Credit: Sam Rockwell (left) and Frances McDormand face off in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Last Flag Flying

“The Last Detail” was a great film of the 1970’s that told of two Navy signalmen shepherding a young sailor to the brig, especially a triumph for Jack Nicholson. It was based on the first novel of a young writer Darryl Ponicsan. Almost 40 years later, in 2005, Ponicsan wrote a kind of sequel to that work. “Last Flag Flying” featuring, again, three servicemen on a quest, but in a different context.

Now, director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) has teamed with Ponicsan (cowriting the script) for the film of “Last Flag Flying,” wherein three Vietnam War vets come together to honor the son of one of them who has died in the Iraq War. Exseaman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrell), the grieving father, brings the threesome together by looking up his old Marine buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), running a cheesy bar in North Carolina (the kind of joint where Sal drinks last night’s beer for breakfast). They, in turn, run down Richard Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne), once a Marine with a reputation as “The Mauler,” who has become a dedicated minister with a
congregation in Virginia.

Acceding to Doc’s wishes, the three set out to receive the young Shepherd’s remains at Arlington cemetery. Oops! The body is not being flown into Arlington, but Dover AFB, where Doc’s contesting of an officious colonel’s orders leads them to rent their own vehicle and drive Doc’s son home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Joining them, at the Corps’ insistence, is Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a friend of the deceased, to keep protocols intact.

Thus, a road trip ensues as the old timers cajole, reminiscence, bond, and recall a terrible incident from their war experience. Doc is a self-effacing man, bound in a reticence that contrasts utterly with the wise-ass Sal, a drunk and a macher always on the lookout for a chick or a hustle. Mueller is a bear of a fellow who has found the Lord and given up sinful ways—almost. Meant to be a sweet-and-sour tour of these differing personalities, the film traces their traits in sometimes humorous, sometimes tart set pieces, some more effective than others.

There are comic elements that the actors pull off well, such as a bit when these 50-somethings get picked up as elderly “terrorists” with a U-Haul when Mueller’s name gets mangled into “Mullah.” Or when, terrified of Sal’s driving, the respectable Mueller lets fly a flurry of obscenities he hasn’t used since the war. There are touching scenes, too, as when the three look up the mother (Cicely Tyson) of a lost soldier to reassure her about her son’s death. There are struggles, too, of what war losses can mean:
when the Colonel (Yul Vazquez) wants to shelter Doc from the truth of his son’s death, he rages, “Let him have his hero!” to which Sal retorts, just as vehemently: “Let him have the lie!”

There are lapses in logic and tone. Cranston’s character, though often amusing, dominates the movie with a logorrhea of cracks and crudities without break. Also, is it believable that the introverted Shepherd would travel hundreds of miles to seek out a “buddy” he has not communicated with for 30 years and ask him to participate in his son’s burial? Finally, a finale that turns on Shepherd and Mueller sporting full Marine dress blues is a sweet image but wholly unbelievable.

Yes, a flag that flies mostly spiritedly, but one with rips.

film is rated "R” and runs 124 mins.)

(November 2017)

Photo Credit: Left to right: Bryan Cranston as "Sal," Steve Carrell as "Doc," and Laurence Fishburne as "Mueller" in "Last Flag Flying."
Photo by Wilson Webb; courtesy of Lionsgate Films