Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

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POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold


POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock shows his mettle at product placement.

(2011) Documentary (Sony Classics) Morgan Spurlock, Ben Silverman, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump, Jimmy Kimmel, J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner, Antonio Reid, John Wells, Rick Kurnit, Paul Brennan, Mark Crispin Miller. Directed by Morgan Spurlock

 

It’s no secret that motion pictures have become a veritable cornucopia of product placement. Actors guzzle down Coke, wear Nike t-shirts and Ray-Ban sunglasses, chew on Beemer’s gum, escape the bad guys in Mini-Coopers and snack on Reese’s Pieces with their favorite aliens. It’s a means of subtle advertisement for a variety of products who pay big money to place their products in prospective hit movies.

Movies aren’t the only place that advertising reaches us. It surrounds us nearly 24-7; on billboards, television shows, pop-ups on websites, garments, taxis, busses, skywriting – even on menus. We can’t turn around without our eyes resting on some sort of advertisement. It permeates our lives so thoroughly we barely realize it’s there anymore.

Morgan Spurlock still notices though. He came up with the concept of doing a documentary on advertising – entirely financed by product placement. He goes into meetings with executives for a variety of products, from JetBlue airlines to Mane and Tail animal care products to POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. He winds up filming some commercials for a few of them,  and actually winds up achieving his goal.

He also talks to luminaries like social commentator Noam Chomsky, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, filmmakers Brett Ratner, J.J. Abrams and Peter Berg and billionaire Donald Trump about the incessant and invasive nature of modern advertising. The talking head sequences are some of the most entertaining in the film, particularly those of Nader and Trump.

He also visits Sao Paolo in Brazil, a city which has banned all outdoor advertising. It is a stark reminder of just how much ads are a daily reality for all of us. The city looks almost naked without the billboards, signs, posters and handbills that are everywhere in the modern city.

Spurlock is a lot like Michael Moore in that he is not a documentarian who is content to stay behind the camera and allow the story to tell itself. Like Moore, he is always part of the story as he was in Super Size Me which is notable in that it was instrumental in getting McDonalds to discontinue Super-sized combo meals.

I don’t think he’ll have the same kind of affect here – there is nothing here that indicates that advertising is anything other than annoying. However, one is given pause for thought when he talks to administrators at a cash-strapped Florida school that has allowed advertising on its school grounds to help raise badly needed operational funds. You have to think that this might well be the wave of the future.

Even if he is a bit intrusive in his own documentary, Morgan is charming and pleasant enough an on-camera personality. Did his idea merit a full-length documentary feature? Probably not. However, I will give you that it at least gives one food for thought, even if it is just a Happy Meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Spurlock is always clever and funny.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not sure this was a great idea for a full length documentary.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a means of promoting the film, the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania change its name to POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania for 60 days (beginning April 27, 2011). The town was paid $25,000 for doing the promotion.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: All of the commercials Spurlock made for the various products are here in their entirety. There is also a feature on the film’s appearance at Sundance on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $638,476 on a $1.8M production budget; didn’t quite make its production budget back.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lucky

Melancholia


 

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst is sinking fast.

(2011) Science Fiction (Magnolia) Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr. Directed by Lars von Trier

It is not often you root for the end of the world at a movie.

Lars von Trier is a Danish director of some renown who is known for movies with remarkable imagery and an artistic aesthetic. His films sharply divide audiences; some proclaim that he is a genius, others a charlatan. Critics tends to moon over him like a lovesick teenager.

I try to take each film as it comes to me, and not review the filmmaker so much as his work. I will say this; I’m not the sort of person Lars von Trier makes movies for. It’s not that I have a problem with trying to make something that is art; I respect any attempt to do so and encourage it. There is room in the world for all sorts of palettes.

But then there is Art. The kind of thing that is created by people who think Art is above everything, who deliberately try to shock and disturb not so much to make a point or even force the viewer to confront their own viewpoints but simply to grab attention. I view this with the same affection I have for a child screaming at the top of their lungs in an inappropriate setting; the message that is being sent is “Look at me! Look at me!”

The film here is divided into two parts, preceded by a prologue of images that essentially tell you the story in a series of slow-moving interactive pictures many of which appear on the trailer. The first part is entitled Justine and is about the character of the same name. Justine (Dunst) is a brand new bride who is at her wedding reception at the home of her super-wealthy brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who is married to her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).

Among the wedding guests are Justine’s parents, Dexter (Hurt) and Gaby (Rampling) – who along with Claire have British accents, something Justine doesn’t have – and who don’t get along at all. Dexter is a bit of a womanizer and Gaby somewhat bitchy. Also there is Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who is also her husband Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) best man. Jack is tightly focused on getting a tag-line for an advertisement Justine has been working on and sends Tim (Corbet) to get it.

It turns out Justine has some psychological problems, ranging from clinical depression to possibly bipolar disorder and like her mom she’s also a bit of a bitch. She manages to alienate nearly everyone at the wedding. For the viewer, it’s like being at a party that gets more and more awkward to attend. Da Queen was urging me to leave the party but like witnessing a train wreck, I felt compelled to see what the damage would wind up being.

The second part is entitled Claire and shows her, John and their son Leo (Spurr) coping with the sudden appearance of Justine some time after the wedding. She is pale, nearly inert and looked for all the world like an addict coming down from a major bender. The atmosphere is tense with John fed up with Justine’s antics and Claire trying to appeal to her sister in some way.

Hanging over all of this, literally, is planet Melancholia, a gigantic rock that suddenly appeared from behind the sun and is threatening to collide with Earth. While John insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, Justine seems convinced that the Earth is doomed. She knows things, after all.

Having a character “know things” is a bit of a cop out. It’s lazy writing. I will grant you that Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here, gives a brave performance, having to urinate in her bridal gown on a golf course, portray a character who isn’t very likable at times and turns up stark naked and sexually aroused at the sight of the approaching planet.

I suppose there are metaphors here and I suppose that I’m not getting them. For me, this was an excruciating two hours that seemed a pointless exercise in making pretty images, which I grant you were in some cases breathtaking, gallery worthy. However, the movie did nothing for me but leave me with an angry wife who demanded an explanation as to why I’d dragged her to the Enzian to see this.

Again, I don’t have a beef with trying to create a work of art. But there’s art and then there’s Art. The difference is that the former is a communication between the artist and the audience, a point that is being made or some insight imparted. The latter is an exercise in self-indulgence.

I have written a review that could easily have been condensed to two words, but I’m making a point. All of these words I’m putting to page are extraneous and ultimately superfluous. They are unnecessary wastes of time for you, the reader for which I apologize. All of the review you need to read is this: Fuck Art.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty images and Dunst makes a brave effort.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Pretentious, overbearing, badly written, aggravating, awkward – it’s just a mess masquerading as art.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sex and implied masturbation, as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The above image, used in the movie’s poster and briefly seen in the prologue, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia.

HOME OR THEATER: Don’t do it. For the love of God, don’t do it.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

TOMORROW: Winnie the Pooh

The Other End of the Line


The Other End of the Line

How very 2008!

(2008) Romantic Comedy (MGM) Jesse Metcalfe, Shriya Saran, Larry Miller, Michael Chen, Nauva Green, Sara Foster, Harry Key, Austin Basis, Tara Sharma, Sushmita Mukherjee, Asheesh Kapur. Directed by James Dodson

Sometimes the difference between people is greater than the distance between their cultures. Love bridges a lot of gulfs but it generally has a hard time with secrets and lies.

Priya Sethi (Saran) lives in Mumbai and is obsessed with American culture. She works for Citibank as a customer service representative with a flawless American accent. She calls herself Jennifer David on the phone and passes herself off as a Caucasian woman living in San Francsico. Her family is far more traditional than she is and are disturbed by her American bent. However, they are pleased when Priya reluctantly agrees to marry Vikram (Kapur), a somewhat boring and generally unappealing arranged match.

Granger Woodruff (Metcalfe) is an advertising executive trying to save the account of a major hotel chain headed by Kit Hawksin (Miller), who is about ready to bolt after a series of ads make his hotel look like a hook-up place for escort services. Granger is a bit of a smug S.O.B., confident in his ability to sell anything, most especially himself and to woo beautiful women. However, what he doesn’t know is that there have been some fraudulent charges on his Citibank credit card.

Priya, or rather Jennifer David, is assigned to Granger’s case. She and Granger strike up a series of phone conversations that begin to morph from business professional to purely personal. She has begun to fall for the young ad executive, particularly when she looks up his picture on the Internet. She resolves to fly to San Francisco to meet him as Jennifer David and sets up a meeting with Granger.

Unfortunately, he is under the impression that Jennifer is a Caucasian woman so when he arrives at the rendezvous he assumes quite naturally that the darker-skinned Priya is not Jennifer (which she isn’t to be fair) and asks other Caucasian women if they are Jennifer. Crushed, Priya returns to her hotel and is getting ready to check out when she quite literally runs into Granger.

The two immediately strike up a friendship and go on a series of dates in San Francisco and are spiraling ever closer towards falling in love. Unfortunately Priya’s family has also flown to San Francisco to collect their wayward daughter and return her home for the marriage which they arranged. When Granger discovers the truth, he is completely floored and upset and calls off the budding love affair with Priya. It seems that cultural differences will get in the way of true love, after all…or will they?

This is an Indian-American co-production and the subject matter seems quite natural. Saran is well-cast; beautiful and bubbly, she is the ideal Indian woman from an American standpoint; strong-willed, gorgeous, and open-hearted. She is a top actress in Bollywood and has apparently chosen to remain so which is a shame; I think she’d do well on a more global stage if the right part came along.

Unfortunately she is one of the few standouts in the movie. The plot is a bit rote in the fish-out-of-water romantic comedy sub-genre. The comedy seems to rely more on people acting like idiots and keeping secrets from one another unnecessarily than on actual wit. I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were trying to meet the common denominators between American and Indian film audiences and wound up missing the mark for both.

Still, it is rare for Bollywood to “Americanize” itself and to be honest, I’d love to see more of it – I never turn down a chance to see more of the Indian culture which is horribly misunderstood here in the States. Unfortunately, this movie seems to pander more to American cultural insensitivity rather than celebrating the rich and fascinating Indian culture which could have made a much better – and more successful – movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Saran is charming and the culture clash aspects are at least fairly interesting. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Filmmakers don’t have the courage of their convictions. Characters are a bit witless.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material but it is fairly minor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that major Bollywood film Production Company Adlabs has paired up with an American distributor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $507,534 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: I Am Number Four