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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced single mother working in the small town gift shop of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. It’s also been seven months since her teenage daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire. She rents out three billboards on a rarely used side road to advertise her frustrations with the slow pace of law enforcement. The billboards say, “Raped while dying,” “Seven months and no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief (Woody Harrelson) tries to pacify the grieving mother while keeping his loyal officers in check from retaliation. Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is trying to apply pressure to get the billboards removed by any means. The small town loves their sheriff and turns on Mildred, which suits her just fine. The more people that disagree with her the more it helps fuel her sense of righteous indignation. Mildred engages in an escalating series of battles with the police and town that might just make justice impossible.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a Coen brothers’ movie played straight, and it’s borderline brilliant in its depiction of homespun characters allowed tremendous emotional latitude. These are people with complex depth who are allowed the power to be contradictory. They can be vicious one moment and kind the next, wise one moment and impulsive and self-destructive the next, capable of great acts of mercy and cruelty. This achieves two things: 1) making the characters feel far more convincingly drawn, and 2) making the characters consistently surprising. This is a messy movie but I don’t mean that as any intended insult. It’s messy in scope, messy in tone, and yet it thrums with the messy feelings and messy complications of human tragedy. What happened to Mildred’s daughter is utterly horrifying and her rage is righteous; however, that doesn’t sanctify her. She makes mistakes, pushes people away, and can be cruel even to her own family. I was expecting Harrelson’s police chief to be a sort of villain, either incompetent or conniving, willfully ignoring the murder investigation. This is not the case at all and he is full of integrity and rightfully beloved in his community. As happens in many criminal cases, the trail of evidence just ran cold, but Mildred would prefer every male in the city, state, and even the country be blood tested to find a culprit. Her demands are fundamentally unreasonable and Willoughby points out the many civil rights protections in possible violation. Just because Mildred has been wronged does not make her the hero, and just because Willoughby is the face of local law enforcement does not make him the enemy. They are people with much more in common than they would ever admit. The awful circumstances of the plot have pit them against one another in an escalating tit-for-tat that serves as projection for Mildred’s blinding fury against a world that would rob her of her daughter.

The dichotomy of sweetness and terror is best exemplified in the transformation of Mildred and Dixon, one of the most satisfying and engrossing film experiences of the year. Thanks to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s deft handling, these two characters start at opposite ends and grow before our eyes. Mildred tests the limits of her resolve and anger and makes costly mistakes. Dixon begins as the screw-up with a badge (hat he literally misplaces) rumored to have tortured a black prisoner in jail. He seems like the dim-witted poster boy for unchecked masculine privilege. He feels like an enforcer of the corruption we (wrongfully) assume is at work in this small town. As Mildred descends into darker decisions, Dixon ascends and chases a redemptive arc, which is amazing considering the damning behavior he engages in at the halfway mark. These two characters start as adversaries and develop into begrudging allies in a completely organic way that doesn’t blunt either character. That transformation is thrilling to watch and terrifically satisfying on its own terms. By the very end of the movie, I was ready and willing to watch its hypothetical sequel setup, especially if it meant I got to spend more time with these carefully crafted people.

McDonagh’s film juggles many tones, effortlessly switching from laugh-out-loud comedy to crushing drama and back again. I was genuinely surprised how many times I laughed and how hard I was laughing. During my second theatrical viewing, there was an old woman in the back who was quite vocal in her bafflement about how anyone could be laughing. And if you were told the specifics of the plot and its heavy subject matter, I would tend to agree. McDonagh has a preternatural feel for how to find humor in the most unlikely of places. The humor dissipates as the film marches into its second half, a natural byproduct of having to raise the dramatic stakes and make things feel serious. This is the first grounded drama in McDonagh’s filmography (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). He doesn’t shortchange the impact of his drama by weaving in more heightened comedic moments. The characters feel realistically developed and portrayed and are allowed to exist in moral grey areas. There’s a minor character played by Peter Dinklage who is positioned as a romantic option and a bit of a fool, but by the end you feel degrees of sympathy even for him. Even this most minor of supporting characters (not a comment on Dinklage’s stature) has earned your emotions. That’s great storytelling but it’s also tremendous execution from the director. Another sure sign of McDonagh’s command for tone is that he undercuts his story’s moment of triumph. I’ll dance around spoilers but Three Billboards looks to end in a way where several characters would claim a hard-won victory, and McDonagh casually strips that away. Even though this is a movie, and even though there are moments of broad, irony-laced comedy, the complexities and disappointments of real life emerge. Even to the very end, Three Billboards doesn’t follow the expected rules of How These Things Go.

The excellent acting gives further life to these tremendous characters. McDormand (Fargo) is radiating with ferocious resentment and indignation. Her character is a walking missile that just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Her stares alone could cause you to shrivel. McDormand hasn’t been given a character this good in years. She opens up the full reserve of her deep acting reservoir, able to flit from great vulnerability to intense repulsion. She has plenty of big moments where she gets to tell off the disapproving townspeople and media members. It’s ready made for easy laughs, but McDormand is so good that she shades those moments with subtler emotional nuance. You get the laugh and you also get further character insight. It’s a performance of such assured strength that I imagine you’ll be hearing her name often during the awards season. Rockwell (The Way, Way Back) has also never been better. He has to play a similarly deep array of emotions, from idiot comedy to heroic dramatics, and at every point Rockwell is stunning. He makes every joke twice as funny. When Dixon becomes a larger focus of the story is when he undergoes more intensive introspection. He goes from buffoon to three-dimensional character. Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) also delivers a worthy performance as a proud yet wounded man who is trying to do right against a world of pressures and self-doubt.

Three Billboards is an impressive, absorbing, searing film gifted with some of the best-developed characters in 2017. The portrayal of the characters is so complex and given startling life from such amazingly talented actors. You’ll watch three of the best performances of the year right here. You get a really strong sense of just how life has been irrevocably altered from this heinous crime, not just with Mildred but also for the town as a whole. Things cannot go back to being the way they were. The characters you like can make you wince. The characters you don’t like you might find yourself pulling for. Thanks to the complexity and nuance, the film delivers a raft of surprises, both pleasant and painful. These people feel closer to real human beings. McDonagh’s brilliant handling of tone and theme is a remarkable work of vision, cohesion, and execution. This is a darkly comic movie that can make you bust out laughing and an affecting human drama that can make you cry. It takes you on a journey that feels authentic and wildly entertaining. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which should have simply been called Three Billboards) subverts typical Hollywood clichés by making sure, even during its wilder flights of comic fancy, that everything is grounded with the characters first and foremost.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Bernie (2012)

The last person the residents of small town Carthage, Texas would expect to be tried with murder would be Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). He was an assistant funeral director, a “born natural” we’re told at comforting others, but he was really the everyman glue of the town. He lead the choir at church functions, loaned his time and money to those in need, directed the town’s fledgling drama productions, coached the Little League team, and went out of his way to spend time with the town’s lonely little old ladies. It was a shock then, in 1996, to find out that Bernie had shot one of those little old ladies, Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), the meanest one of them all, and stuffed her body in a freezer and kept it all a secret for nine months. During that time, Bernie used Marjorie’s considerable fortunes to help every community project he could. Despite the macabre nature of the crime (she had to thaw out for two days before an autopsy could be performed), the residents of Carthage rallied around their boy, Bernie. District attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) had to move the trial to a different venue, not because the accused couldn’t get a fair trial, but because everyone in town wanted Bernie free.

Bernie is Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) returning back to his local color roots. The man is excellent at taking the natural peculiarities of regionalism and credibly establishing a slightly skewed yet authentic portrayal of small town Middle America that feels like it was lifted straight from the pages of Mark Twain. Aiding Linklater is the fact that the movie is composed like a true crime special replete with on camera interviews from many of the real townsfolk of Carthage who knew the real Bernie and Marjorie (what a strange experience it must have been acting with the fictional counterparts). They are all amusing, unassuming characters in their own right, many natural scene-stealers, and they’re still fiercely protective of Bernie 15 years after the events of the movie. The town’s unswayable loyalty and adulation for Bernie pretty much becomes the film’s own point of view. Despite confessing to murder, we find ourselves liking the guy. It’s hard not to love the guy when we see him lift the spirits of the bereaved, volunteer around town, and bring so much pride and joy to the citizens of Carthage. When forces are circling around him, we want him to escape. We want him to keep the illusion of Marjorie being alive just a little bit longer, especially when, in death, she is helping so many more people. Even when we reconcile the facts our gut still wants him to get slapped on the wrist for what is, after all, a capital crime. It’s a fascinating emotional journey for the audience in that regard, to ignore the reality of the offense because of how genuinely nice Bernie is, except for that time he killed an old lady and stuffed her in the freezer.

Black (Tropic Thunder) does something completely different from his usually manic routine. By God, the man inhabits this character. The part plays to his strengths as a performer, his energy and natural likeability, but allows him to mellow out and try a very different tact. For the first time in perhaps his acting career, he’s not playing some variation of Jack Black. He’s playing a real-life person, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the actor is indebted to completely mimicking the living inspiration. Told from the perspective of fawning townsfolk, and one completely mystified prosecutor, Bernie remains something of a mystery as a character. He’s deeply repressed, probably closeted as well, and it’s that distance that keeps us from better understanding him. For all intents and purposes, the people of Carthage loved Bernie, but did any of them really know him? He was a genial presence, charitable and kind, but could anyone really say they truly knew him? Who is the real Bernie, the guy who would break his back helping his neighbors out of the good of his heart, or the guy who shot a little old lady four times in the back? Black doesn’t overplay the fey mannerisms or go to camp levels; he hides behind his friendly veneer and hints at more at work. Bernie’s canny salesmanship with funerals, as well as his lavish spending when he got in control of Marjorie’s finances, give a glimpse at a darker side of Bernie. It’s subtle work for a role that tempts him to go larger. I have no reservations when I say that Black’s controlled yet charismatic performance is worthy of Oscar attention. He’s that good, folks.

Supporting Black are two other great performances from established stars. MacLaine (Valentine’s Day) hasn’t had a role this good since the underrated In Her Shoes. She has great fun as the old sourpuss in town, but she too shows us glimpses of the real Marjorie, the one behind the wall of negativity. There’s a scene where she’s watching Bernie’s musical practice and she can’t help herself but smile. The very act has to break through the scowl that she has so permanently etched into her face, but break through it does triumphantly. MacLaine could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of the grouchy rich old lady, but she’s better than that. You don’t exactly sympathize with her but you do feel Marjorie’s budding comfort, even if it’s slathered in her usual contempt, and you feel her desperation at clinging to the one person who has shown her any personal interest. Likewise, McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer) could have been the one-note daffy lawman, and he’s certainly presented as such early on with his attention-seeking theatrics. We don’t really like Danny Buck, but from an objective standpoint he is the voice of reason. He counters the easily forgiving townsfolk, “If he killed you and stuffed you in a freezer, would you not want him to go to jail?” We know he’s right. And yet, strangely, we don’t seem to mind that much. It’s nice to see McConaughey flourish in a role that shows you he can be a real fine actor instead of just a real fine shirtless torso.

Linklater balances a lot of different tones here but manages to find a satisfying middle ground. Bernie is a chuckler, a movie that will continuously make you laugh but leave your sides safe from splitting. I chuckled and guffawed my way through from beginning to end with great amusement. The comedy is dark but not unrepentantly (hence the PG-13 rating) or mean-spirited. Linklater doesn’t make light that a real woman was murdered, but his film raises a cracked mirror at the absurdities of our culture and the power of charisma/celebrity. There’s a mordant amusement to the entire movie, and you know you shouldn’t be laughing but you cannot help the urge. The constant interviews with the actual Carthage townsfolk add a nice color commentary to the proceedings, filling in the edges of the blanks left over by the screenplay. Some may feel that the constant commentary undercuts the movie, interrupts its flow and turns the movie into one of those grisly TV true-crime specials gussied up for the big screen. The movie does follow a similar trajectory but Linklater balances the small-town satire, tragedy, courtroom drama, and general morbid curiosity into one persuasive, cohesive whole.

Bernie is one of those stories that are so bizarre that it could only come from real life. Buoyed by strong comedic performances, a mordantly compelling story, and some rich supporting turns from real-life witnesses, Bernie is an amusing breath of fresh air amidst the summer movie-going extravaganza. It’s gentler than I would have anticipated, and funnier, and Black’s wonderful performance is worthy of serious awards attention, though I know it will be long forgotten come the fall. I don’t think Linklater was trying to make some kind of larger statement about the powerful allure of charisma, or our malleable sense of what constitutes right and wrong, but Bernie the movie is all about the fronts people put out there and the human willingness to be deceived. Or it’s just a really fun, country-fried slice-of-life comedy. Why not both? Bernie is worth discovering.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011)

The curiously titled Myth of the American Sleepover owes as much to American Graffiti as it does to the works of John Hughes. This sprawling teenage opus by debut writer/director David Robert Mitchell resonates with all the beautiful aches and joys of adolescence, wonderfully understated but brilliantly realized. I fell in love with this movie.

Set over the course of one night in suburban Michigan, a slew of teenagers try and make the waning summer days worth remembering. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is the new girl in school and invited to the cool gal’s (Shayla Curran) slumber party. She learns her boyfriend slept with the cool gal and plots a little boyfriend stealing of her own. Rob (Marlon Morton) is obsessed with a pretty blonde girl he once shared a look with in a supermarket. He is scouring the neighborhood, going from party to party, looking for her so he can reveal his true feelings. Scott (Brett Jacobson) is unsure of whether he wants to finish his final year of college, now the site of a painful breakup from his longtime girlfriend. One day while walking the halls of his former high school, he comes across a picture of him with twin sisters, Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna Abbey (Jade Ramsey). He heads out to the University of Michigan, where the twins are enrolled, convinced he could win one, or both, of them over. Maggie (Claire Sloma) is navigating between the middle school sleepovers of her peers and the world of the cooler upperclassmen. She’s been nursing a crush on an older boy (Douglas Diedrich) who worked at the community pool all summer, and will find the courage to make a move.

Unlike other coming-of-age entries, this is a movie that forgoes scatological comic setups and other Big Events meant to mark the passing into adulthood, like the loss of virginity, college admittance, or the prom; instead, Sleepover tackles a subject much more honestly and with tremendous naturalism. The level of detail is outstanding; set in what seems like the late 80s or early 90s, I was astounded at all the nostalgic artifacts of adolescence brought back to life. I kept going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about those,” or, “That’s totally something that me and my friends did.” I loved that the movie shows different social spheres and age ranges, so we go along with the late teen house party but we also get see a middle school/junior high sleepover that involves girls staying up late, talking about boys, and eating large bowls of chips. Obviously not everyone will have this reaction, but it just shows the commitment to recreating a very specific time, place, and sense of being. These feel entirely like real teenagers, and their troubles and desires are achingly articulated. You feel the powerful sense of yearning throughout, where the nudge of a knee, the closing distance between two hands that can cause your insides to fill up with a thousand butterflies. Sleepover is about teenagers grappling with emotional connection and personal identity, but it never drags out a soapbox or breaks from its verisimilitude. Every single character in this movie, even the ones meant to be seen in a questionable light, is deeply empathetic. Being an ensemble, you’ll gravitate to different characters and their pursuits, but the movie balances a nice mixture of storylines, cutting back and forth to build a graceful picture of the uncertainty of adolescence.

I found this movie to be so charming, so overwhelmingly affecting, and poignant without slipping into mock sentimentality, which would have been easy. It’s been a big year for nostalgia, but nostalgia is the “least authentic of all feelings,” according to Enrique de Heriz. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh I remember that too,” and feel the tingle of some wistful pull from the past, the yearning for a bygone time and place that has magically transformed in your mind into some idyllic spree. Does anyone remember those times, before there was an Internet, and cell phones, and social media, when you got together with your friends to witness the shared experience of a movie with female nudity (this might just be a guy thing), or when you didn’t know if you’d see your crush ever again? The Myth of the American Sleepover does, and so do I. In the words of Lou Reed: “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.”

Indeed, it seems like the film exists in a bit of a cultural time warp, where sleepovers were the social apex and holding hands and making out were considered victories worth celebrating. There are no computers or cell phones, thank God. If you excuse the casual and extensive teenage drinking, Sleepover is a rather wholesome film. I was wary that some storyline might take an unexpected dark turn, especially with all the alcohol and hormones, but the movie maintains its sweet appeal without fail. While ostensibly existing in a late 80s/early 90s, I believe this movie is timeless and can be felt effortlessly by people of any age. The pains of adolescence and the anxiety of growing up, not to mention the peculiarities of the other sex, are universal. There is a superb scene where Rob and the girl who secretly likes him pass each other accompanied by friends. We get both sides of the story cut together; he tells his bud that one night he kissed her and then they made out. “It was a pretty good day,” he admits. She says she spent all night trying to get him to hold her hand and then just gave up. We instantly know that her side of this tale is far more accurate, but then this small exchange tells us even more about Rob, his fumbling attempt to be seen as cool with girls. Later, this same girl gives Rob a pep talk about unrequited crushes; she wonders if a person thinks hard enough about an individual, if they’ll know. Like most men, Rob misses her real meaning, but I’m happy to say that this story is tied up in such a sweet manner that I got choked up. The emotions of Sleepover are genuine and genuinely felt, no big overtures or outbursts, but the quiet moments of realizing who you are, who you like, and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise. It all feels utterly real and relatable.

The one storyline that seems to stand out amongst the rest of the panoply of sleepovers is that of Scott. He’s a college junior and at least three years outside the social realms of the majority of the other characters. You can’t help but feel at the start that he doesn’t belong and his presence, in a movie primarily about 14-15-year-olds, might feel a tad icky. Scott’s misguided attempt to get over his ex-girlfriend seems like some strange leftover plot from a sitcom. The fact that he’s trying to drown his sorrows in twin sisters almost seems skeevy. However, he comes clean early and opens up to reveal startling vulnerability, thanking the twins for a memory that would be incidental to them but has meant so much to him. It is this memory that gave him hope. The twins reveal that one of them had a huge crush on Scott back in high school, wishing he would one day reciprocate. But they won’t tell him who. He has to guess. The fact that this setup is actually a push toward personal growth and maturation is a great revelation and a relief.

The cast of unknowns may be low when it comes to star-wattage but they lend the film another degree of authenticity. I wouldn’t say a single participant in this movie is a bad actor, though their characters are often understated, which under the wrong guidance can lead to blandness. None of these characters are exceptionally verbose or opinionated, which leaves the impression that they are thinly drawn. However, the characters coexist within the impressionistic nature of the film; it’s like a coming-of-age movie with the tone poem ambitions of Terrence Mallick. They are not as memorable or as sharp as the characters from Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti (Rob’s pursuit of his blonde dream girl, and his several near-misses, screams Graffiti homage), but the goal is a disarmingly sweet authenticity, allowing the viewer to discover relatable moments throughout the ensemble. I will say that Sloma imparts the biggest impression as the pieced, platinum pixie-gal feeling out the level of interest in her crush. I think we’ll be seeing more of Bauer and her cherubic, Scarlet Johansson-etched features as well.

The Myth of the American Sleepover is a sincere, observant, insightful, gentle, and overall wonderful little movie, brimming with life and the rocky experiences of growing up, but mostly it will make your heart sing. The details and small gestures feel completely believable; building an ode to youth that feels earnest without being sentimental and knowing without feeling like a know-it-all. There wasn’t a moment in this movie that didn’t leave me smiling, chuckling to myself, and feeling immersed in this innocent, heartfelt, exuberantly youthful world. The pleasures of Sleepover are small but numerous, and I don’t mind admitting to tearing up at several points, shaking in anticipation, and celebrating the personal triumphs of the cast of characters. The Myth of the American Sleepover made me feel like a teenager all over again, nervous, anxious, excited, and beguiled by the imprecise negotiations into adulthood. I’m sure some people will find this movie boring or too embryonic, a coming-of-age tale crystallized in dewy emo-earnestness. For me, I fell in love with this movie. It filled me with joy. I know it will do the same for others; Sleepover just needs a little tenderness and an open heart. The movie and its homespun magic will do the rest.

Nate’s Grade: A

Take Shelter (2011)

It’s rare that I get to take some local pride and puff my chest about a movie being shot in Ohio. Take Shelter, a small, suspenseful character-piece, was filmed in Loraine County, near Cleveland. Several of the actors in the production are local actors, including Tova Stewart, the adorable seven-year-old who plays the onscreen deaf daughter. The young gal, who is also deaf in real-life, is from Columbus and was in attendance at the theater I saw Take Shelter at. And I can beam with even more local pride at the fact that Take Shelter is unwaveringly magnificent. It’s a remarkably tense movie, deeply realized, expertly crafted, and one of the best films of the year.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a working-class family man in rural Ohio. He works as a manager of a two-man drill team, scouring the earth for valuable deposits. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), cares for their recently deaf daughter, Hannah (Stewart), and sews pillows and embroidery on the side. They are making ends meet to save up for Hannah’s cochlear implant surgery. This family tranquility is interrupted when Curtis begins having strange visions. He sees dark, ominous storms that no one else seems to see. He hears loud cracks of thunder during clear skies. He feels the dark rain fall on his person. He wakes from frightful dreams detailing friends and family turning on him. What does it all mean? Curtis feels compelled to remodel the storm shelter in the backyard. He even purchases a cargo container and buries it in the yard, collecting some end-of-the-world provisions. Could Curtis just be crazy? His mother has been in a psychiatric home since she abandoned Curtis as a child. She began having schizophrenic episodes in her mid 30s, and Curtis is now 35. Is he being warned of what lies ahead or is he succumbing to the pull of a hereditary mental illness?

This is very likely the most nerve-racking, tense, dread-filled film I’ve watched since 2009’s Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) masterfully lays out the particulars of his tale. Even the family drama has some nicely constructed tension. Curtis’ family is living paycheck to paycheck, so his backyard project is a real financial setback. By borrowing equipment from his work, Curtis is even risking losing his job, the only way he can afford his child’s cochlear implant. Not only do we dread stormy weather and strange flocking patterns for birds, we dread the everyday struggles of keeping afloat. Curtis following his visions can very likely put his family into financial ruin, but is that a risk worth taking? Nichols nicely creates an authentic small-town setting. There are small, acute character touches that enrich the story, like when Dewart (Shea Wigham) concludes that the best compliment a man can give is that “he’s lived a good life.” When Curtis and Samantha watch their daughter sleep, they share behavior they are still trying to kick in adjusting to having a deaf child (“I still take my boots off not to wake her,” he confides. “I still whisper,” she returns). These people and their troubles feel believable, and their reactions to Curtis’ strange behavior feel extremely believable. Whispers begin to spread and people start to treat madness like it’s a communicable illness. Religion seems like a natural landing zone when discussing anything apocalyptic and/or prophetic, but Nichols sidesteps this discussion. There could have been some interesting theological room to explore here, considering a Biblical prophet would likely be derided as mentally ill in our modern age. Nichols keeps things secular. Curtis is admonished for missing church again, but that’s about the extent of religion in the man’s life. He does not seek out spiritual advice. He seeks out psychiatry, at least if he could afford it he would.

There are some terrific standard thriller moments, like some well-calculated jump scares and many nightmare fake-outs, but the film’s real skill is drawing out tension to the point where you want to shout at the screen. This is a deliberately paced thriller knotted with unbearable tension. We become conditioned to start doubting the onscreen imagery after Curtis’ series of nightmares. Every time there’s a storm now the audience, too, fears the validity of what we witness. What is the significance of these portent signs? There’s a moment toward the climax, where a storm door needs to be opened, and I simultaneously was dreading every second leading up to that door opening and silently screaming in anticipation. Every part of me wanted to see what was going to happen next and I could not guess where Nichols would take us. I was a nervous wreck. The dread was so heavy, so all consuming, and not just from an apocalyptic standpoint. Curtis understandingly thinks he may be nuts, especially since his own mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. The threat isn’t just the strange apocalyptic signs but also Curtis himself unraveling and lashing out. He worries that he’ll become a danger to his own family, and if he cannot discern the difference between reality and fantasy it’s only a matter of time before he jeopardizes his loved ones. He fears he’ll be ripped away from his family. He wants to be better, he wants to be “normal,” but he can’t trust his own senses.

Take Shelter is also so effective thanks to Shannon, a talented actor who always seems to be on the brink of freaking out. The bug-eyed, crazed, monotone actor has played plenty of nutcases in the movies. He was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for Revolutionary Road for playing such a nutter. He’s a live wire of an actor, simmering, waiting for the final cue to explode. Shannon uses this intensity to his great advantage, wonderfully mirroring the movie’s compounding dread. Shannon’s character is troubled, that’s for sure, and worries about slipping into insanity. His performance is simply riveting, searching for answers amidst the desire to keep his family safe at all costs, even if that eventually means his removal. When he has to confront his central dilemma, the legitimacy of his visions, Shannon is racked with fear, eyes glistening with tears, terrified to go on faith, and your eyes are glued to the screen, completely taken in by the depth of the performance. I hope Shannon gets some due recognition come awards season because I doubt I’ll see few performances more compelling.

Chastain has had quite a breakout year for herself with lead roles in Tree of Life, The Help, and The Debt. She has a remarkable vulnerability to her, radiating an ethereal vibe (no doubt why Terrence Mallick chose her), and both aspects are put to fine use in Take Shelter. She’s much more than the oft underwritten put-upon wife, silently enduring her husband’s foibles. She’s desperate for an answer to explain her husband’s actions and motivations. She’s alert, angry, compassionate, and deeply concerned. Chastain holds her own with Shannon, and the two elevate each other’s performance subtlety, making their supportive relationship even more believable.

Take heed movie lovers, and make sure to find Take Shelter, an intelligent, expertly constructed, suspenseful drama with powerful performances and a powerful sense of dread. Shannon’s coiled intensity nicely fits the mounting tension. Nichols has created a taut thriller, a fiercely felt human drama, and an involving character-piece attuned to the talents of its cast. Take Shelter is a commanding, unsettling film that puts the audience in the unreliable position of the main character’s point of view. You may almost hope for some actual apocalypse just to validate the guy’s struggle. When was the last time you secretly hoped for the end of the world just to give one person a sense of relief? Take shelter from inferior movies and find a theater playing this tremendous movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Cedar Rapids (2011)

When people think about the temptations and sundry thrills of the Big City, most people are probably thinking of a sin-stained location like Las Vegas. Most people would not confuse Vegas with Cedar Rapids, and yet the Iowa city of note is the setting for a sweet and sometimes dirty, but still sweet, comedy of big-city adventures. To a guy from a town without a stoplight, Cedar Rapids is like New York City. It all depends on your perspective.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. The town is small but the little insurance agency that could has won the coveted Two Diamond Award four years running at the annual insurance convention held in Cedar Rapids. Tim’s life is in a holding pattern. He wants to do big things but can’t find the oomph to get there. He’s involved in a romantic tryst with his (one-time) seventh grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver). Tim’s chance to make a name for himself comes when he’s selected to represent his company at the annual convention. He has to impress the right people to take home another Two Diamond Award. Never having been on a plane before, he leaves small-town Brown Valley for big-city Cedar Rapids. At the convention site, Tim rooms with Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the more unsophisticated Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The group meets up with Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), and together they work on helping Tim loosen up. Over the course of the weekend, bonds will be made, principles will be tested, and tom foolery of the first order will be had.

The premise is rather simple, small-town guy heads to the big city (well, bigger) and the culture shock that waits. But the film never looks down on Tim Lippe. While there is plenty of humor drawn from his naiveté, the movie doesn’t condescend or play up the small-town folks as rubes and squares. It’s funny to see Tim’s mild-mannered explosions of anger, mostly of the “horse pucky” variety of vulgarities, but the movie doesn’t say that the big-city folk are better than Tim. On the contrary, Tim is a principled and devoted insurance salesman, courteous to a fault. He could have stepped out of a Frank Capra movie from a bygone era (Mr. Lippe Goes to Town). Tim is sheltered, which provides some amusing fish out of water comedy, like when he initially is on alert because his roommate is African-American, a rarity in Brown Valley despite whatever the name may imply to some. Tim is a man out of time, but that can be small-town life in general. The Midwestern satire reminds me of the gentle yet knowing nudge of King of the Hill. Phil Johnston’s script sets up Tim’s dilemma as a crisis of conscience, the compromises we make in morality. Tim’s trip to the “big city” is the push the guy needs to get his life out of stasis. There’s something deeply satisfying in watching a character you care about triumph in the end, even if that triumph is a small victory befitting a small-town guy with a big heart.

The real fun of the movie, however, is watching the effect the group has not just on Tim but on each other. They teach Tim to cut loose and live a little, but this is still Cedar Rapids, so cutting loose goes as far as nighttime pool escapades and drunken sex. His flirtatious fling with Joan brings the guy out of his shell, and the two of them are genuinely cute together without going overboard. It’s a reserved romance that feels true to the nature of both of the characters. Dean is the loudmouth knucklehead notorious for his oafish shenanigans, but once he feels accepted he goes to war for his friends. He’s a buffoon but not stupid. And then Ronald, though less developed than the other three, provides a nice foil as a straight-laced businessman who keeps it together impressively. Together it’s a team of likeable characters that have grown closer together over the course of that weekend in Cedar Rapids, and you’ll feel the same. You feel like they’ve formed a family around the earnestness of Tim.

Helms (The Hangover) is a suitable candidate for a nice, regular, Midwestern guy. Helms has honed his awkward comedy chops after several seasons on TV’s The Office, and here he sticks to what he knows. Tim Lippe is another in a line of embryonic men. Helms settles into his usual nervous tics that fans will be familiar with. His sunny naiveté wins over the audience and provides for several laughs in contrast with the jaded “big city” folk. Reilly (Step Brothers) can overdo his character’s intentional obnoxiousness. He’s chartered a successful second career as a winsome nitwit, so like Helms, Reilly relies on notes gleaned from past performances. Whitlock Jr. is mostly straight man to the others. His comedic highpoint is an impromptu impersonation of a character from The Wire to get the group out of a dangerous jam (Whitlock Jr. himself played a state senator on The Wire). Other than that, he’s more contrast than character. Heche (TV’s Hung) is a real surprise. She underplays her character, tantalizing us with tidbits that leave us wanting more, much like Tim. The way she plays Joan, you feel the connection.

With all that said, Cedar Rapids still has its share of flaws. The naïve comedy can go so far before you start to question Tim’s senses, like his casual mistaking of a prostitute (Alia Shawkat, Whip It) for a fellow attendant. His relationship with his former seventh grade teacher is intentionally awkward, but the whole plotline presents an unseemly overtone that doesn’t fit. She’s made to be rather motherly, even when she’s rolling her eyes at her bedmate’s pie-eyed declarations of being “pre-engaged.” I think the motherly aspect makes the whole Oedipal mess even worse (Weaver just seems bored). Late into Act Three Tim goes on a drug-fueled bender that feels out of place for his character who, when first asked for a drink, requested a beer of the root kind. The character of Dean is given too many moments to just wander around and spout crude one-liners. It sometimes feels like the movie is resting while it lets Dean do his thing, and a little of this guy can go a long way.

The plot is relatively predictable and the ending is pretty pat. It works, but the actors and the characters were capable of more. The relationship between Tim and Joan also leaves something to be desired. There’s a great assembly of recognizable guests (Stephen Root, Thomas Lennon, Rob Corddry, Mike Birbiglia) that stop by but add little. Again, the potential for more feels missed. With a solid 80% of the movie taking place in a hotel, you can also start to feel a little cabin fever. And not that it matter much, but I’m disappointed that film with “Cedar Rapids” in its name was filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Iowa did away with its in-state film tax credit).

The appeal of Cedar Rapids, the film, is much like the appeal of its central figure, Tim Lippe. It’s an unassuming, earnest charm, enjoying the company of likeable characters who we want to see succeed. I just wish the predictable plot had done more or trusted the actors’ capabilities. The core characters feel mostly authentic and easily recognizable, which makes the familiar, if at times bland, plot fairly forgivable. Helms and company are an easygoing bunch and you’ll be happy to tag along on their unspectacular hijinks in the “big city.” Cedar Rapids is the kind of low-key, charming little movies that often gets overlooked. It’s worth viewing for the pleasurable camaraderie of the core cast. Cedar Rapids, much like the city that bears its name, is worth a visit but does not require more commitment than that.

Nate’s Grade: B

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