(USA 2017)

Netflix surprised me last year with a pair of impressive original films, Okja ( and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson ( The streak of merit continues with Mudbound, director Dee Reese’s film adaptaion of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel.

A Southern Gothic soap opera with a bit of social commentary, Mudbound is an interesting story. Written by Reese and Virgil Williams, the screenplay, told in flashback, follows two families, the white McAllans and the black Jacksons, from the Depression until just after World War II.

Fate and circumstance bring them together on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The McAllans have the upper hand — they own the land — but they rely on the Jacksons, who work as sharecroppers, for more than farming. Mother Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) bears the brunt of it through sickness, injury, death, and disrespect.

The plot elements are familiar — poverty, church, white only areas, the KKK — but the whole thing is fresh. Maybe its Reese’s objective approach. Her pace is deliberate and slow; frankly, it almost lost me. I’m glad I stuck it out, though, because the momentum picks up after one boy from each family — Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) — goes off to war. A romance that develops between Ronsel and a German woman enlightens him; it serves as a marked contrast to life at home.

Jamie and Ronsel both face challenges assimilating back into Southern civilian life when they return. They become friends, much to the dismay of Pap McAllan (Jonathan Banks) and, like, the whole town. When Jamie refuses to stop associating with Ronsel, things get brutal. While not on the epic scale of something like Roots, Mudbound got to me nonetheless.

With Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Kerry Cahill, Dylan Arnold, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Faust, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Samantha Hoefer, Henry Frost, Kennedy Derosin, Frankie Smith, Jason Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Windley, Piper Blair, Joshua J. Williams, Claudio Laniado, Charley Vance

Production: Armory Films, ArtImage Entertainment, Black Bear Pictures, Elevated Films, MACRO, MMC Joule Films, Zeal Media

Distribution: Netflix (USA), Diamond Films (Mexico / Argentina), TOBIS Film (Germany), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece)

134 minutes
Rated R

(Netflix) B

The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk ( already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+


(Italy 1977)

I saw a stunning digital restoration of Dario Argenta’s weird masterpiece Suspiria back in October:

It was such a sensory experience, I convinced a good friend to join me for a midnight screening. It’s no better the second time, but the visuals are decadent. Lush. I could watch it again and again with only Goblin’s soundtrack playing. Perhaps the secret is to watch it high?

98 minutes
Not rated (alternate version)

(Music Box) C+

The Florida Project

(USA 2017)

I saw The Florida Project when it first came out in October:

A few months haven’t changed anything. I’m just as moved as the first time, and a few scenes made me more emotional. I even shed a few tears at the end. Frankly, seeing The Florida Project a second time made me love it more.

This is a brilliant film. I can’t believe the Academy ignored all but Willem Dafoe.

115 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-