Something -- memories of esprit de corps, desperation, loneliness -- draws Doc Shepherd to find his old Marine buddies on the Internet. He has an agenda: he wants them to go with him to bury his son, also a Marine but killed in another war. Doc finds Sal, running a failing bar.

Then Doc directs Sal to church because that's where Richard is preaching the Word. It's the last thing either Doc or Sal expected of a buddy who drank and cursed and smoked weed through the Viet Nam war. The three old friends start out on this journey in 2003, a journey that ends beside a grave.

The story of that journey was scripted by the director of Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, and by Darryl Ponicsan, known mostly for his early military works, The Last Detail and Cinderella Liberty. The two men march the three Marines on a trip through the past, through bureaucracy, through manhood and aging. They traipse heavily over lies and secrets.

The most mournful of the trio is Doc, who has also recently buried his wife. As played by Steve Carell, Doc personifies the sad, lost man. Bryan Cranston plays the player, the drunk, the joker, and Laurence Fishburne is the preacher-man, remorseful and upright but provokable to the past. Each man lives inside his role and wears it well, but each could easily have played either of the other two roles. Cicely Tyson's cameo is poignant.

Last Flag Flying is not a film about camera angles or about light and shadow, although Linklater directs those aspects as befits his reputation from his "Before" series. It is a literate film about character and plot, about the creases of time and the pressure of paths, some more wayward than others. Last Flag Flying provides broad brush strokes and nuances and rewards with every line, whether comic or tragic.

 

If I never have to trudge through a production of "A Christmas Carol" again, I'll be happy. But watching the merry and bright film about the story's origin almost makes me want to see the show again, or maybe read the brief book by Charles Dickens. That's how delightful the movie is.

The year is 1843. The flop count: 3. Charles Dickens must have a hit after Martin Chuzzlewitt flat-lined. Christmas is a month away, the wolf is at the door of his fancy house with its fancy, unpaid-for appointments. Dickens' derelict dad is selling Charles' autographs, harvested from the garbage. Dickens' wife is preggers. Dickens' competition, in the form of William Makepeace Thackery, is taunting him at the Garrick Club. And Dickens worries that, without a hit, he will never write again.

Life couldn't get worse. Luckily, he begins to see and hear all the possibilities. Like the new Irish nanny's stories to his little ones about fairy spirits that cross over fairy mounds on one night of the year. Like a man named Marley. And another who declares "Humbug." Like a Christmas story, maybe a ballad. Or a carol. Dickens's kindly agent tells him there's not much of a market for Christmas books. Well, humbug, indeed.

Bharat Nalluri, who directed "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," gave to "The Man Who Invented Christmas" a light-heartedness, a whimsy. Ben Smithard's cinematography echoes his warm work in "Goodbye Christopher Robin," making the light and the sets appeal to us Anglophiles. Dan Stevens is dandy as Dickens with Christopher Plummer a definite Scrooge and Jonathan Pryce a delicious Daddy Dickens. And although "The Man Who Invented Christmas" bogs down about half-way through, basically, it dances with sugarplums, silken cravats, and humanity.

 

The title "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" signals the catalyst unleashing the mayhem that follows. On bold red backgrounds, three billboard messages explicitly ask Sheriff William Willoughby why no one has been arrested months after the rape and murder of Angela, the teenage daughter of a grief-stricken Mildred Hayes who channels her all-consuming anger into, in Willoughby's words, a war.     

Like dominos falling and accelerating through a cascade of action and reaction, the plot follows a destructive expression of grief, violence and pain. Mildred is consumed and outraged. And yet, as her ex-husband's too young new girlfriend says, "Anger Begets Anger," something she read on a bookmark, while reading a book about polio or polo. She can't keep them straight and asks, "What's the one with horses?" This gives a hint at the grim humor intermixed with some anguished communication.

The perfect actress to express Mildred's distress is Frances McDormand. Words almost seem extraneous, so powerful is her non-verbal communication, but when the words do come rat-a-tat-tat from her, they are weapons that hit their targets. Wearing a headband as an homage to "The Deer Hunter," she is fierce, frightening and funny, thanks to the amazing writing and directing of Martin McDonagh. He expresses an uncompromised and unique perspective in his less than flattering assessment of human nature, also displayed in his "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths." And yet he includes moments of profound emotion even as he strikes at important topics: domestic abuse, religion, and racism. 

The supporting characters--unique and memorable--are played flawlessly by a dream cast. Woody Harrelson is Sheriff Willoughby; Sam Rockwell is Dixon, the unhinged mommy-boy deputy; Lucas Hedges is Robbie, Mildred's embarrassed son; Peter Dinklage is a friend, and Caleb Landry Jones is Red Welby who mans the outdoor advertising office.   

Carter Burwell's score and Ben Davis' cinematography add masterful technical support. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" won Toronto Film Festival's People's Choice Award and has racked up eleven British Independent Film Award nominations. "Three Billboards" screens at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema, the Hi-Pointe Cinema, and other local cinemas. Check local listings.

 

Director Margaret Betts, in her debut feature film, focuses on a novice, who has just entered the order, and a reverend mother, who has been in the convent for 40 years, stereotypes, yes. The young woman and the elder have a strong connection to the Roman Catholic church.

But, it's the early Sixties, and the church is about to throw them under the bus. Vatican II declared that women religious were just ordinary Roman Catholics, not special. Betts explores how this denigration affects two sisters, the romantic in training and the other in strict order. Sister Cathleen is shown first as a girl, growing up with a mother who's a free spirit if smoking and cursing define her mores. The Reverend Mother has no name, just a title and a will of iron.

She does not graciously accept the papers slipped in to her cloister from the archdiocese. She pretends that her church is not changing, that it is perfect as is. She continues to humiliate and brow-beat her charges. Cathleen wants so much to abide by the order's rules, but she is only 18, wet behind her coif.

Betts tells this story with allusions to mass and masturbation, fasts and flagellation, and with choirs of altos and sopranos singing in dynamics.

Betts does not take a stand for or against the Roman Catholic church. So even an hour into "Novitiate," the audience is not sure for whom to root. This is disconcerting. But at the end, as the cards of history flip by, Betts explains that, after Vatican II: 90,000 nuns left the religious life.

"Novitiate" stars the inimitable Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother. All that shows is her face, but it's all she needs to portray this woman. Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) presents Cathleen well, and Julianne Nicholson is the confused mother. Dianna Agron of "Glee" fame puts in a cameo.

"Novitiate" is not great, but it is very good at presenting a notable time in church history.

 

 

Ruben Östland 's The Square immediately announces its unconventional, satirical skewering of upper-class society. Christian, chief curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, is sitting for an interview on the upcoming installation of the film's title, The Square. His obtuse theoretical commentary praising it, read back to him by the reporter, signals a pretentious, inaccessible analysis.

This superficial veneer for a square drawn in the museum's cobblestone entrance area is accompanied by an inscription reading, The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." Disruptive events in Christian's life will shred this metaphor for what should be a supportive, constructive community, holding a mirror up to what the privileged, educated class profess and what they practice when they literally or figuratively come face to face with a disruption of their complacent, privileged existence. I can say nothing more specific because The Square traffics in the unexpected.

Ruben Östland's previous film, Force Majeur, undertook a similar mission, undermining the central character when he flees an avalanche in a panic and lies after the fact. Östland broadens his targets here, including the economic disenfranchised, selfish sexual indulgence, self-congratulatory complacency, and anger when -- surprisingly -- facing vulnerability. At two hours 22 minutes, the episodic survey of Christian's life includes this divorced father's interaction with his children and his attempts to cope with a disastrous public relations video that goes viral. Extending the fairly all-encompassing indictment to the audience, several scenes put the viewer into decidedly uncomfortable positions, one at a glamorous dinner in a palace and another as Christian faces a boy in his own apartment building. Östland has written that The Square explores the difficulty of acting according to one's principles.

As Christian, Claes Bang brings a perfect balance of composure and agitation. Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, and Terry Notary bring their A games to complex roles. The Square won the 2017 Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or, the top film prize. In Swedish with English subtitles with some English scenes at Landmark's Tivoli Cinema.

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