Cyrano (2021)

An absolutely gorgeous film that is wasting away without an audience. Somehow, the studio has managed to botch the release of this film, and instead of having a solid adult hit, they have a shiny disappointment that someone should lose a job over.  “Cyrano” is a musical update of a classic tale with a variation on the main character that is reasonable and allows an actor who might otherwise never have had the opportunity, to take on a great role.

The film is based on a stage musical by Erica Schmidt, who is the screenwriter for this film. I found some reviews of this Off-Broadway version of the musical, but I did not see any information about it’s success other than it was nominated for some stage awards. The one thing that is noteworthy is that the star has been transferred to the film, so we get the chance to see Peter Dinklage in a role that he originated.  None of the other stage actors mentioned in the New York reviews, made it into the film, but Haley Bennett , supposedly did play the part on stage, and the rest of the film casting is quite excellent. The parts all require some ability to sing and most of the cast acquit themselves admirably. Dinklage as Cyrano performs the songs in a low register and narrow range, much of his singing reminded me of Rex Harrison talk singing in “My Fair Lady“. He is effective but it is not the musical moments that make him shine in the part. 

For most people familiar with the play, Cyrano de Bergerac, it is the language of the poetry that is memorable and makes us care about the character. That largely survives with one disappointing exception. The duel that contains Cyrano’s witticisms about his opponent and even himself is lost in a musical presentation that surprisingly diminishes the moment instead of enhancing it. The duel itself is effectively staged and the resolution is dramatic and gives Cyrano a bit more cryptic personality, although he does quickly return to the arrogance that he started off with.  Dinklage is affecting in the dramatic moments and his winsome longing for Roxanne is best seen in the moments leading up to her request that he befriend Christian and protect him, you see he thought briefly she might truly have seen that he was in love with her and she returned the favor, but the false assumption comes crashing down on his face and it is a moment of sublime performance from our lead. 

Set in France, but largely filmed in ancient towns in Sicily, the environment feels completely appropriate for a time period before the Revolution. The production design is detailed without being overly opulent, but there are several elaborate scenes that will take your breath away. I was particularly impressed with the opening sequence set in a theater, with a rowdy crowd, a claustrophobic stage, and authentic costuming and make up for all the extras. There are several dance moments in the movie that are also elaborately staged. I have written before about the ability of Director Joe Wright to manage complex sequences of movement in dance, he did it beautifully in “Pride and Prejudice” and it is also true in this film.  The choreography contains a lot of arm movement that feels like an elaborate pantomime, and I was more distracted by that than intrigued. Because such a style was repeated a couple of times in the course of the film, it also felt less distinctive and more like a crutch.

 Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn make up the rest of the cast as Roxanne, Christian and De Guiche respectively. Of the musical sequences they each get, I was surprised that Mendelson’s was the most effective, but that may be because it focuses entirely on his character in that moment. The best number in the film is “Wherever I Fall” which is performed by supporting players in the battle sequence near the end of the film. It was quite dramatic and I noticed that Glen Hansard from “The Commitments” and “Once” was the lead guard performing the number. I find it interesting that unnamed characters get the most effective moment in the film, but it is a tribute to the integrity of the story that no effort was made to force Christian and Cyrano into the musical aspect of the scene. 

This film opened in Los Angeles for an Academy Award qualifying run, but has not been widely available until the end of February. The only nominations it has received are for the costumes, for which the acknowledgement seems deserved. The absence of Dinklage from the nominees seems to be a glaring error in retrospect. Once again, Joe Wright might also have been deserving of some attention, but if Denis Villeneuve was going to be ignored, than this oversite is not a surprise.  The film is available for streaming, but you shold make an effort so see it in a theater, you will be taken by it’s beauty and the shared experience of the film with an audience, will make it more poignant. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.

Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.

This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.

Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara WeavingAbbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities. 

 

Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013,  “The Way, Way Back“.  That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all.