Watch Kedi for the Holidays



KEDI (2017
Directed by Ceyda Torun
Oscilloscope Laboratories, 79 minutes, Not-Rated (a saint couldn’t object)
In Turkish with subtitles (but very little dialogue)

If you’re in need of a smile and some metaphorical warm fuzzies, the Turkish documentary Kedi will make you purr. The very title sounds like “kitty,” and that’s what this documentary is about. Its subject is street cats in Istanbul, but fear not: these are not pussies in peril. Kedi casts its spotlight on the unique love affair between Turks and its assorted toms and tabbies. It’s also a small slice of anthropology in that it highlights several significant differences in how Turks and Westerners relate to cats.

Those departures begin with how cats are raised. Like so many things in the West, a cat is a possession—at best a pampered houseguest; at worst a disposable commodity to be given away or sent to the pound if it doesn’t “work out” or no longer fits our lifestyle. Residents in Istanbul don’t possess cats; they are possessed by them. Cats are community responsibilities, even when the beastie in question chooses to reside in a particular place. A neighborhood cat is literally so. Fishmongers just scratch their heads when a marauding moggy pilfers a sardine or two from their stalls. More likely still, the vendors preemptively toss a few into their path.

This highlights another difference: Turks celebrate the cat’s intrinsic wildness, not its domestication. Mousers generally roam free in Istanbul, regardless of whether or not they tend to bed down at a particular domicile. In the film, numerous people wax eloquent about the essential nature of cats and their abiding respect for those traits. They see the world, with all its perils and curiosities as a cat’s to endure and explore.  

One aspect of this might trouble Westerners: Turks seldom spay or neuter their furry friends. Because cats are intact and free to roam, Istanbul has a lot of them—as in a whole kit and kaboodle. Quite a few are feral or semi-feral, but even the more settled females are likely to drop their litters just about anywhere. If anything happens to the mother, only luck can help the kittens. Fortunately, because Turks so revere cats, there are lots of people who make it their job—for reasons ranging from altruism to self-therapy—to feed street cats and rescue abandoned kittens. In Istanbul, numerous individuals roam the neighborhoods with plastic bags filled with kibble and chicken bits to feed hungry felines.

This is an utterly charming film. To be honest, it’s at best a two-trick Felix. Its overall theme is that Turks like cats. Want a subtheme? Okay, Turks really like cats.  They like them so much that they worry that Istanbul’s rapid modernization and proliferation of high rises encroach upon the city’s street cat culture.

Kedi sends simple messages and does it well. Sure, it’s basically an extended Internet cat video, but Kedi is a happy way to pass 79 minutes. You can curl up on a cold winter’s night—perhaps with persnickety puss on your lap—and goofily grin as you watch cantankerous critters prowl, meow, submit to petting, and—as is their way—scowl and bugger off. As your cat sighs in disgust and jumps from your reach, you can ponder the cat’s most brilliant magic trick: giving us so little and commanding so much in return.

Rob Weir


McDormand Dazzles in Powerful Three Billboards over Ebbing

Directed by Martin McDonagh
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 115 minutes, R (very rough language)

I suggest over-sized posters of Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for every studio in Hollywood. Emblazon them with the tag line: "This is what a real actress looks like." Place the posters in prominent locations where fast-talking pitchmen trying to convince producers to green-light a piece of fluff starring the airhead of the moment must gaze upon McDormand's scowling, haggard countenance. If this doesn't make them go away, cue any scene from the film in which McDormand calls out phonies.

Frances McDormand is so astonishing in Three Billboards that the Oscars should be abolished if she doesn't win her second Best Actress award in March. Three Billboards is billed as a black comedy. Do not believe it. As Mildred Hayes, McDormand delivers amusing lines, but the humor is of the acerbic, sardonic variety. Mildred is a world weary, angry, and on a mission whose message appears against a blood red background plastered to three billboards:




Let's be plainspoken. No film about rape should ever, ever be tagged with the word "comedy." McDormand makes sure that you know this is a film about tragedy—in this case, the murder of her teenage daughter Angela, whose charred body revealed just enough evidence that coitus occurred as her life ebbed.

It's been seven months and, in Mildred's mind, the murder investigation hasn't been taken seriously in the good old boys' hangout that passes for Ebbing's police department. In fact, several of Ebbing's not-so-finest are known more for their harassment of local African Americans than for their homicide-detection skills. This is especially the case for dumb-as-a-rock mama's boy Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). If you've grown up in a small town, you know the type: a stick-a-badge-on-a fool-and-create-a-monster braggart who uses heavyweight physicality to command the respect that his lightweight intellect can't. The rest of the force is content to roll their eyes, cover for Jason, and try to keep a low profile. Sound like fodder for comedy, even a dark one?

The exception to all this is the man called out on the billboards, Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Moral ambiguity abounds in this film. Willoughby is one of the few people in the town who likes the salty Mildred, a single hell-raising mother whose remaining child, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), rockets between deep embarrassment over his mother's antics, his personal trauma over his sister's death, and his love/resentment of his sixty-something father (John Hawkes), who left Mildred to take up with a 19-year-old girlfriend. He also physically abused Mildred, whose response to this and her daughter's death is to develop an exterior so crusty you couldn't break through it with a backhoe. Her tongue-lashing of a local priest is hysterical, but in a "call bullshit" fashion. Welcome to the club, Father; Mildred doesn't ration expletives for anyone in Ebbing. She's damaged, poor, angry, and guilt-ridden. But is she too pissed off for her own good?

Willoughby is a case in point. He cares, but he has a deep burden of his own. Should one single out such a man just because he's in charge? Does this shake the tree, or foster so much local resentment that Mildred, not Angela, becomes the issue? Anger unleashed is hard to contain and perhaps Mildred—minus his racism—is more like Dixon than she knows. And let's not forget that our setting is a small town in which gossip, reputation, and strong opinions hold sway. 

Three Billboards is a cut above simplistic good-versus-bad films. Its purported Missouri setting commands pause in a post-Ferguson, post-Michael Brown age (though much if it was actually filmed in Asheville, North Carolina). Some have protested that punches were pulled in the film's depictions of race, though I'm inclined to give credit to director/writer Martin McDonagh for making it a subtext in the first place. There are situations in the film that, on the surface, could be viewed as comedic, including Mildred's salty putdowns and an encounter between her and James, a local dwarf (Peter Dinklage), but the humor label misses bigger points about the possible bonding of marginalized people. My sole complaint about the film is that redemption comes a bit too suddenly for several characters.

Whatever flaws lie in the script are covered by stellar performances. As noted, McDormand delivers an amazing performance that should cheer older actresses everywhere. (She is 60. Need I remind you of how few roles are written for women of her age?)

If we've not done so already, it's time to forget that Harrelson ever appeared in Cheers. He is a very good actor who long ago left Woody Boyd at the bar. In Three Billboards he delivers a compelling performance as a man with so much on his mind that it can only resolve in a single tragic way—and it's probably not how you expect. It's very hard to depict an ill-educated oaf, and Sam Rockwell is superb as Dixon. As for minor roles, Hollywood often skimps on these, but that's not the case for Hedges, Dinklage, and Hawkes.  Abbie Cornish has a small part as Willoughby's wife, but she does much with what she's given. Caleb Landry Jones also does a nice job as Red Welby, the head of a seedy advertising agency. He is quite convincing as a local who knows that not everyone in a position of authority deserves deference.  Give a shout out also to Sandy Martin, as Dixon's bigoted mother who doles out both genuine and controlling love in equal measure.

Black comedy? I don't think so. Drama isn't always about histrionics and big speeches. Sometimes drama is about pain masquerading as snark, marginalization disguised as backlash, and guilt posing as defiance. Three Billboards depicts such tragedies and one could do far worse than proclaim it the best film of 2017. One could debate this, but wrap that Oscar for Frances McDormand, a real actress in the age of fluff.

Rob Weir


McCracken's Older Novel Relives a Faded Era

By Elizabeth McCracken
Dial Press, 320 pages

Why review such an older novel? First of all, Elizabeth McCracken is a very fine writer (Giant, Thunderstruck). But the main reason is that there's been a small burst of new enthusiasm for books about vaudeville lately and that's the subject of McCracken's work. Like other works, both fictional and historical—The Little Shadow, The Tumbling TurnerSisters, The Comedians, Four of the Three Musketeers, The Queen of Vaudeville, various Sophie Tucker biographies—McCracken takes us inside an increasingly forgotten era, a time in which entertainment was less airbrushed than it is today. Vaudeville was a place where dreams came true or died hard and it staged performances ranging from stupendous to stupid. Variety exhibitions such as TV's Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71) were the last remnants of an entertainment form that dominated from the 1880s through the 1920s and immersed live audiences large and small in everything from song and dance to plate twirling, slapstick, and the sort of things you'd expect at a carnival sideshow. 

McCracken's novel tells of the long partnership between the pencil thin Mike (Moses) Sharp and hefty Rocky Carter that began when Rocky dumped his longtime straight man and saw something in the novice Sharp, a Jewish lad from Iowa who hit the boards to pursue his fantasy, exorcise a beloved sister's ghost, and avoid taking over his father's menswear business. McCracken begins her tale at a time in which vaudeville is already threatened by a new diversion, motion pictures, and it takes us through the decades as the duo transitions to movies, does some television, and ultimately joins the ranks of the famous long ago. McCracken clearly modeled their comedy act on Laurel and Hardy, but with the body types reversed: skinny Mike is the commonsense, constantly flummoxed "Professor" and rotund Rocky goes for the laughs. In many ways it's an unorthodox love affair between the two—not physical love, but the sort of deep connections whose severance comes fraught with deep pain and touches of tragedy and cruelty.

It's about more than that but the Mike/Rocky relationship is the start and end points of ancillary story arcs. Mose/Mike grew up with six sisters, but it was Hattie, two years older than he, who forced the issue by insisting they'd be an act when they grew up. She died young, but another reason Mike left Iowa was to escape from a household filled with sisters who annoyed him in one way or another. He can't understand why Rocky pushes him to reconnect with his family or wishes to ingratiate himself into it—especially when both of them were young, virile, and good with the ladies. One of the book's touching explorations is how their respective stage masks ultimately match their public personae—with Mike ultimately yearning for stability and convention and Rocky stuck as a lifelong mammothrept who can only flirt with the things Mike lived/lives.
McCracken reveals details about vaudeville—the title references the peripatetic lives of stage performers—but because she's such a wonderful writer the biggest reveals are about life when the lights dims. Themes include straight men* and comics in the bigger world, stability versus chaos, and Iowa commonsense versus the lure of excitement.  It's an older book, to be sure, and not one of McCracken's master works, but a fine winter's read.

Rob Weir   

* For younger readers, the term "straight man" has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It was/is a common comedy duo strategy in which a level-headed actor (straight man) is paired with one prone to recklessly getting both into funny but perilous situations from which they must extricate themselves.  Or, alternatively, the sensible straight man  stands in comic contrast to the jokester/buffoon.