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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Silent Hill: Revelation


Videogame or bondage fantasy?

Videogame or bondage fantasy?

(2012) Horror (Open Road) Adelaide Clemens, Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sean Bean, Radha Mitchell, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Donovan, Deborah Cara Unger, Roberto Campanella, Erin Pitt, Peter Outerbridge, Jefferson Brown, Milton Barnes, Heather Marks, Rachel Sellan, Michel C. Foucault, Arlene Duncan, Jason Best, Jacky Lai. Directed by Michael J. Bassett

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Videogame adaptations have a history of being lousy movies. There have been some exceptions to be sure, but for the most part they have been awful cinematic experiences. Many gamers say that it is impossible for videogames – a truly interactive medium – to translate to movies which is a fully passive medium. Occasionally they are proven wrong, like in the case of the Silent Hill movie. Would the sequel be as good?

Heather Mason (Clemens) has, along with her father Harry (Bean) been on the run for as long as she can remember from dark forces that she doesn’t fully understand. Her mother Rose (Mitchell) is gone, taken in a car accident. As Heather approaches her 18th birthday, she is plagued by terrible, horrific visions. When Harry disappears, she discovers that nothing she knows is as she believes it to be.

The truth is that she is being chased by the Order of Valtiel, a cult that inhabits the damned town of Silent Hill which burns eternally. Years ago, a young girl named Alessa Gillespie (Pitt) was burned alive by the Order and its leader Claudia Wolf (Moss). The reason they are chasing them is that Heather, whose real name is Sharon Da Silva and who was once part of Alessa whose agony caused her to create the shifting dimensions that plagues Silent Hill.

Assisted by her boyfriend Vincent (Harrington), Heather decides to go to Silent Hill to find her father. Tormented by hideous, disturbing monsters that appear as dimensions shift in the blasted town which burns endlessly. There, she will confront the monsters of her past, present and future as she discovers betrayals that will rock her to the core and secrets that will change everything.

Christophe Gans directed the first Silent Hill but was unable to direct its sequel. Bassett, who directed Solomon Kane was instead hired and in all fairness to Bassett he was given a terribly convoluted script to work with. The problem is, he wrote it. There is a ton of exposition here and even that isn’t enough to really adequately explain what’s going on. The movie careens from scene to scene and often even with all the exposition it is incredibly confusing to the audience. The characters don’t have much going in the way of personality, particularly Vincent – and Heather, Harry and the rest aren’t much better.

The movie gets much better when it shows the monsters that are kind of a combination of Clive Barker bondage demons and H.R. Giger’s nightmares. Some, like the Red Pyramid or the cleaver-wheeling Nurses, are likely to haunt more than a few dreams. The blasted landscapes of Silent Hill and the other dimensions therein are also compelling.

The main problem though is not just that the movie is difficult to follow; the gravest sin the film commits is of being bland. There are plenty of flames but no fire; lots of shadows but no depth. Silent Hill: Revelation may have been originally filmed in 3D but the movie is flat as a pancake. The monsters, demons and landscapes are cool without a doubt but the movie left me actually bored and if there is one cardinal offense that a movie can commit it’s that.

I don’t know that gamers are correct in saying that their medium can’t be translated to one that is less interactive; after all, books and films are completely different mediums and there have been some great movies based on books. I think the problem lies in that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames or gamers and doesn’t understand the mindset; they basically throw videogame-based movies together without much regard to building a universe in the same way that they have for comic books. Videogames are inherently cinematic; there is absolutely no reason that they can’t translate to the multiplex. The fact is that a crap movie is a crap movie regardless of its source.

And Silent Hill: Revelation is far from being a crap movie. The videogame franchise has a rich background and is a good looking movie. Yes, it is terribly flawed – something tells me that Bassett didn’t really get the franchise or maybe he didn’t care to. This could have been a much better movie but it is at its core deeply unsettling and atmospheric. I would have liked a less convoluted story but from a simply visual point of view could admire the film on that basis alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome demonic creatures. Bleak landscapes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland characters and performances. Lacks force or fire.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and foul language, disturbing images and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bean and Harington played father and son in Game of Thrones; Harrington went on to work with Moss again in Pompeii.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $52.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resident Evil
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Fury


Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

(2014) War (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Minca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman, Daniel Betts, Adam Ganne, Eric Kofi-Abreva, John Macmillan, Saul Barrett, Marek Oravec, Orion Lee, Stella Stocker. Directed by David Ayer

If war is hell, the hell of war are metal tubes and tanks. During the Second World War, America lost tanks and their crew at a terrifying rate. It took (and continues to take) a special kind of warrior to lock themselves in those iron coffins and duel other warriors in an effort to pan-fry or blow off the face of your enemies before they do the same to you.

In the waning days of that war, the tank crew for the tank nicknamed “Fury” is led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), a hard, rough fellow who has only one goal – to get his men back home alive. He’d started killing Nazis in North Africa; now he’s killing them in Germany. However, there isn’t much left of the once-mighty German army. They’re mostly children and old men drafted from villages to protect the Fatherland. Those that refused were hung in the name of the defense of the Wehrmacht.

Inside his tank is his lead driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena), an even-tempered man with a quirky sense of humor; gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), a devout Christian who believes that killing the evil Germans is God’s work (and he’s not far wrong). The mechanic is Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), a wizard with mechanical things but an absolute horror with people. Surly and prejudiced against…well, EVERYONE, he’s meaner than a hound dog with a butt itch.

There’s also a second driver whose face and eyeball and a good deal of his skull as well as assorted bits of brain and blood have painted the inside of the tank.

They receive a new second gunner, young Norman Ellison (Lerman) who has not fired a shot in anger at anyone and was originally conscripted to be a clerk-typist for the army who has been forced to start replacing the staggering losses from wherever they can. He has a hard time with this change in duties and when the time comes to fire his weapon at a living human being, he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction costs another tank crew their lives.

However, even as the Allies are pushing through to Berlin, word comes that a column of battle-hardened SS soldiers are coming down the road to pierce into the heart of the forward command. If they’re successful, they may set the Allies back a bit and add more time and casualties to a war that already has plenty of both. It will be up to the valiant crew of the Fury to stand fast. Will they be up for the challenge?

This was originally thought to be a major Oscar contender but the studio ended up pushing it back from a Holiday release to an October one. I can’t say as I blame them. This doesn’t quite have the feel of a movie that’s going to have a great deal of attention from Academy voters, although there’s a good chance Pitt might get at least some nominating votes.

Ayer was a stickler for authenticity throughout from the uniforms that the soldiers wear, the fashions of the French women that Wardaddy and Norman take a brief break with, and the machines themselves, American Shermans and a fearsome German Tiger. The actors learned to drive the antique vehicle as well as fire the guns it carried. Oddly, they don’t spend a lot of time displaying the claustrophobia of fighting in those tanks, although we get a sense of the limited visibility of the vehicles.

There is a good deal of gore as bodies are burned, blown to pieces and riddled with bullets. While it doesn’t have the visceral you are there feel of Saving Private Ryan, it’s still from my admittedly inexpert viewpoint a pretty accurate representation of tank warfare as it existed in the last days of the war.

The plot is not unlike other movies you’ve seen before, given the characters are pretty cliche including the wise but gruff commanding officer, the nervous rookie having to suddenly re-evaluate his moral code in the heat of battle, the ignorant drunk from the deep South and so on. Pena and Bernthal make the most of their roles and at least offer some personality. Unfortunately LaBeouf doesn’t seem to embrace the role in the same way and quoting the Biblical passages sounds as foreign coming out of his mouth as they would were he saying them in Mandarin Chinese. His Really Awful Mustache doesn’t help matters.

While the authenticity is there, the creativity kind of isn’t. This doesn’t really add anything to the short list of films about tank warfare. Yeah, there’s plenty of camaraderie and some battle thrills. That’s been done. The more interesting elements of the story – how the war affected the men who served in the tank, desensitizing them to what we would consider their humanity, falls by the wayside during the last third of the movie when it becomes a standard “last stand” story. It’s a shame because the movie has a ton of promising elements; it just doesn’t become greater than the sum of its parts but rather, equal to them. Good enough may well be good enough but I was hoping for more.

REASONS TO GO: Drips authenticity. Fine performances by Pena, Bernthal and Pitt. Some intense battle sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t add much to the tank warfare movies. A little bit too long. LaBeouf is a distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, some fairly grisly images, plenty of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the uniforms, weapons and tanks used in the movie were authentic and loaned from various museums around the world including the only currently functioning Tiger tank on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Judge