film

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri

 

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Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing Mssori. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I did not run out and see writer/director/producer Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri because I knew it had something to do with an abduction of a young girl, and as a  parent, I tend to avoid plots like that. I didn’t really read about the film either, just enough to know that Frances McDormand was in it and that it was curiously labeled a dark comedy. This last factor is what got me to the theater earlier today; how could a film about the loss of a child be comic?

Three Billboards accomplishes this difficult feat because it isn’t actually about what happened to the lead character Mildred Hayes’ daughter Angela as much as it’s about what happened to the community around this awful event, and by extension, what happens to communities all over the world in the face of trauma, injustice, and tragedy.

McDormand plays Hayes as a steely-eyed, somewhat frightening, divorced mother trying to make it through each day in the wake of her daughter’s vicious rape and murder several months earlier. Frustrated with the lack of suspects brought in and her sense that the police are too busy harassing African-American kids for misdemeanors to “do their job” and investigate the murder, she takes the odd step of purchasing space on three billboards on the remote road near where her daughter was killed to chastise the police chief by asking why there have been no arrests. When it is revealed that the chief has pancreatic cancer, the town turns on Hayes, seeing her billboards as cruel considering he is on his deathbead.

And in a sense, it is cruel for her to leave those signs up in light of the chief’s devastating illness that will leave his two young daughters fatherless in a matter of weeks or moths. But it is this sort of  morally ambiguous circumstance that is piled up in layers throughout the brilliantly constructed script. The characters face tragedy after tragedy, each one responding in the way humans ordinarily do: with anger, violence, and hatred. And time and time again that response leads to further injustices, more pain for someone, and little by little an erosion of the community itself.

I could talk about the strength of McDormand’s performance, the equally solid work of Woody Harrelson as the Chief and Sam Rockwell as a racist police officer, but the weight of the film is carried by its script, which never feels predictable, but ends up seeming very real and very familiar. Police brutality, anti-cop violence, misogyny, racism, the victimization of young women, even the crimes of the Catholic Church are all subjects broached here, but ultimately, I was moved by everything in the story leading to the conclusion that anger in the face of tragedy must be tempered by thought, compassion, and an abiding vigilance guarding our common humanity.

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Tom of Finland Opens in New York

c474032a-dd9f-485b-8ff5-0b69c9abf9c0.jpgI caught this film at Tribeca earlier this year and, coincidentally, there was an art gallery in Provincetown showing original works by “Tom of Finland.” The movie is opening on Friday in New York and I really hope it will make its way to the Cape, because it was a really interesting perspective. I really never knew much about Finland’s position during World War II, and although the story is about an artist whose depictions of homoeroticism have made him a household name in Finland as well as in the gay community around the world, the impact of the war that is shown this film is really quite fascinating. Anyway, here is a story I wrote about it in Provincetown Magazine this past spring.

Programmer Notes: Opening Night Selections

HalalLove-stillI am so excited to bring to Cape Cod another edition of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema. For a couple of years now I have wanted to add comedies to the program, but I was never able to get the ones I wanted until this year. Opening night at the Chatham Orpheum Theater (Thursday, May 4, 6 p.m.),, after a wonderful reception with Middle Eastern food and cash bar, I am proud to present to you the feature comedy from Lebanon, Halal Love (and Sex) by Assad Fouladkar.

Halal Love (and Sex) was chosen because it is funny, at times dramatic, well acted, and overall a wonderful film, but also because this is a comedy I feel you will relate to, even as different as our countries are. In the film, we meet three romantic couples at different stages in their relationships. Living in a Muslim country, and being Muslims themselves, the rules and codes of their religion and culture restrict how they can behave, but there are also certain “loopholes” that give the characters some hope that they can resolve their romantic issues. This is something I think people who follow other religious traditions will relate to, but also, all of us can find ourselves in the situation of being stuck between what our hearts desire and what our communities will allow.

Humor is an essential human coping mechanism, but from the images we see of Lebanon, the Middle East, and the Arab world, one would think there is no sense of humor in these places. We only hear about terrorism, refugees, anti-Americanism, and religious extremism. So, although this film is a comedy, I believe it is still a vitally important film to screen this year, and I hope you will join be there tomorrow night.

To read more about Halal Love (and Sex) and its director’s thoughts about making the film, check out this story in Variety from when the film was screened at Sundance  last year.

18119506_791511167678237_5634968043991553126_nIn addition to the reception and screening of Halal Love (and Sex), we will be showing E.A.S., a short film by Kays Al-Atrakchi, an Iraqi-Italian filmmaker living and working in the United States. The film takes place in the U.S. in the near future, at a time when Arab-Americans must hold special ID cards. It was a film Al-Atrakchi made before President Trump was in office. In his director’s statement, Al-Atrakchi says, “When I came up with the original idea that ended up becoming E.A.S., I imagined a fictional America where Arab immigrants were viewed as hostile and national ID databases and interment camps were quickly becoming the law of the land. I could never have imagined that my fictional vision of an increasingly paranoid America would be so close to becoming reality.”

We are hoping to discuss this short film with Al-Atrakchi via Skype right after it screens, so please join us for this.

Opening Night is Thursday, May 4, with a reception at 6 p.m. and the screenings starting at roughly 7 p.m. Tickets ($25 including the reception) are still available online or at the box office at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, 637 Main St., Chatham.

Moonlight

MoonlightImpressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.

In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend  who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.

In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and  weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.

Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.

As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.

There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.

I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.