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.

 

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.

 

 

Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig's semi-autobiographical debut feature film, offers an astute, clever, often funny, and poignant portrait of the teenage transition to adulthood. It's 2002 as Gerwig zeroes in on Christine who has given herself the name Lady Bird, thereby taking control of her identity even while she struggles exploring and defining it.

Originally titled "Mothers and Daughters," the heart of the film is continuous conflict between Lady Bird and her mother Marion, who reveals her own challenging upbringing when she describes her mother as "an abusive alcoholic." A senior at Immaculate Conception High School, Lady Bird longs to move far away from Marion and home town Sacramento, what she contemptuously calls "the Midwest of California." At Telluride where I first saw Lady Bird, Gerwig described this film as "a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left." 

Dropping into Lady Bird's life over the course of a year, Gerwig identified one theme as time rushing forward, "one scene tumbling into the next," which they do in a revealing shorthand. Brief moments communicate volumes about values--betrayals of friends, discovery of sex, secret support from her father amidst continuous conflict with her mother from whom she must disengage to realize herself, even while acknowledging several times that her mother has a good heart. So does Lady Bird, as she will find, especially when she shows empathy for a boyfriend. Gerwig observes that the mother/daughter conflict is so contentious, which it surely is, because they're so close.  

Supporting characters are established as three dimensional (as opposed to stereotypes) in very brief dialogue exchanges: Lady Bird's father Larry and Sister Sarah Joan, for example. All of the performances, especially Saoirse Ronan's as Lady Bird, Laurie Metcalf's as Marion, Tracy Letts' as Larry, and Lucas Hedges' as boyfriend Danny are Oscar caliber. So too the technical presentation with the camera capturing but never intruding into scenes. Similarly, the sound track artfully adds commentary without ever feeling intrusive. The title itself comes from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme Ladybird, Ladybird about running home to save a child. 

Gerwig wanted to portray universal truth in a small story. She's achieved that and more--a thoroughly entertaining film in a smashing feature film debut -- one with heart and soul. 

 

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.

 

Most people know about Jane Goodall's ground-breaking animal behavior research on the wild chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, now in Tanzania. We know much less about Jane herself: that Dr. Louis Leakey picked twenty-six-year old British secretary Jane Goodall precisely because she had no degree and no training, thereby embarking on a six-month study unbiased about scientific theory.  

Leakey picked Goodall because she impressed him with her lifelong love of animals, her open mind, her passion for knowledge, and her monumental patience. As writer/director Brett Morgen describes the circumstances, Goodall would need that patience, as any animal behaviorist knows, with long hours and months of observation passing before the chimpanzee community accepted Jane. Through occasional voice-over narration along with contemporary on-camera interviews, Jane says and proves that when she stared into the eyes of the chimpanzees, she saw a reasoning, thinking person looking back. She will also eventually find brutal aggression.

Simply, elegantly titled Jane, this documentary explores Jane and her world: her mother initially accompanying Jane to Gombe because it was considered unsafe, Jane's loving the isolation and resenting the need for National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick sent to photograph and film her and the chimps to keep the grants coming, Hugo and Jane's eventual marriage, Jane leaving Gombe to be with him and their son Flint, her eventual return to Gombe, and the Foundation now in her name. 

Hugo's wildlife footage is breathtaking, both of the chimpanzees and of the Serengeti. But it is his films of Jane and the chimpanzees, named and closely observed, that carries this film. Goodall's direct, unsentimental recounting of her extraordinary experiences is heartwarming and heartbreaking when a polio epidemic invades the community over fifty years ago. As Goodall says, "Experience in the forest had given me perspective. In the forest death is not hidden, but all around you all the time, part of the endless cycle of life." Goodall's life, by any standards, is extraordinary and we're fortunate that she has shared it so generously in the documentary Jane. It made me happy to be alive. At the Hi-Pointe Cinema.

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