Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (**1/2) is a take worth leaving

Ebbing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2017

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Željko Ivanek, Nick Searcy

There is a smell that pervades most of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, even as they spend much of the time trying to work against convention. It smells of judgement in the way that someone who lives in a coastal urban area might judge those who live in the flyby states. In this thought process, people who live in Missouri are more than a little racist, homophobic and shallow. Not all of them, of course. There has to be people in the town to judge them as such.

One such person in this story is Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was tortured, burned and raped almost a year ago. And she hasn’t heard anything from the police force of her town in almost 7 months. This spurs her into the action of hiring the three billboards of the title. On these billboards are the sequential messages “Raped while dying,” And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby.”

There are a lot of good actors in this film. One of them, Nick Searcy, is known for his knack of using clever dialogue in a clever way. This is especially due to his several years playing U.S. Marshall Mullen on Elmore Leonard’s Justified. I knew there was something amiss when I saw him donning the black as Father Montgomery here. His five minutes of screen time are a perfect example of how poorly written the dialogue is when you don’t understand who you’re writing about. He says things that no man of the cloth would ever say, then the script requires him to look dumbfounded when Mildred rakes him over the coals regarding the ‘group’ he is part of and what they, if not he, have done to young boys. Then she walks off, all dramatic-like. And he is required to look defeated. This is a righteous indignant social justice warrior’s dream. They write the script, and have their enemies layed out perfectly per their own impressions of them.

Not that there isn’t some good parts to the film, though. Woody Harrelson is as fine as I have ever seen him. His Sheriff Willoughby is troubled, but hardly conflicted. If the film saw more of his character, it would have surely been a benefit. There is something more to his character than the one note characters surrounding and following him.

One of the most troubling characterizations for me is Sam Rockwell’s bumpkin without a cause, Officer Jason Dixon (get it, Mason/Jason?). He and his mother, played by Sandy Martin are ambling through life just smoking, watching television and hating anything different. Why the Sheriff keeps him on the payroll will be for you to find out. First though, we need to see him get worse as the situation demands. My problem is as much with Rockwell’s Californian estimate of the south as it is with McDonagh’s substantial misreading of middle America as part of the deep south. Perhaps if I didn’t have friends and relatives from Missouri, I might buy into this interpretation more.

The things that people do to each other and their property in this film are hard to take. What’s even more difficult to believe is that no one seems intent on investigating any of these things, even when it’s done in the open. People walk around freely after committing felonies and then walk away. No one ever says, “Hey did you kick two kids in the junk at a school?” Things get compounded and misunderstood enough to qualify for a Curb Your Enthusiasm skit, only with significantly fewer laughs.

Much hay has been made that this is a sure thing for McDormand. This movie is nowhere close to Fargo, though. There is character development, to a point, but when someone starts off as the aggrieved divorced mother, there’s only so far one can go. McDormand gets there, though, and has several touching moments in the plot. Truth is, she’s been better and she’s significantly better than the script deserves. Maybe if she’d referred to Dinklage as a midget just a few less times, I might buy that she’s advanced culturally.

Deep beneath the curdling cries of injustice being perpetuated by lazy Missouri “southerners” there is a half-way decent plot. Living in a liberal bastion of the Northwestern United States, I heard more than a few self-satisfied snickers during all of the key political points. None of this resonated, though. There’s only so many times you can call someone a Neanderthal before it loses its impact. Of course by the time we have a need for a real bad guy, one just comes out of the blue, or does he?  Or do we even care by then?

McDonagh has been effective in the past, with many of the same actors, even. He completely wastes Searcy, Dinklage and Hawkes here. If his writing seemed better in the past, it may have been due to more familiarity with the subjects. I wish the focus had been more on realistic characters, maybe punching up the plot a bit. Telling urban American city folk that the people living out there where there’s green trees and grass are creepy and weird is a surefire way to win festivals and maybe awards. It will not win as history or any sort of lesson, though.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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This is not your father’s Robocop, it’s your younger son’s

RoboCop-Movie2014

Robocop – 2014

Director José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel
Screenplay by Joshua Zetumer

Poor ED-209.  Never has there been such a cool looking law enforcement officer destined only to be the sucker.  In both the original classic and the good, but softer remake, ED-209 performs as the Washington Generals to Robocop’s Harlem Globetrotters.  Even if he and several of his brothers get the lead, there is no way he wins.

“It’s the illusion of free will” is the conclusion the makers of Robocop decide they have arrived to as they watch his creation mow down a bunch of other robots (ED 208’s if you are curious) and one of their commanders (Earle Haley).  His creation is, as it was in the original, a cynical attempt to buttress corporate greed. Omnicorp’s CEO (Keaton) wants to get more of his robot armed forces available in the U.S..  The automaton forces have done a decent job in the rest of the world, but here, they seem a little too much like drones.

The filmmakers give ironic codes to imply who is good and who is Republican.  The senator who is against the drones, Dreyfus (aka Richard) has a bill that was passed prohibiting their implementation.  On the other side, we have a TV Pundit Pat Novak (Jackson), who has a show called The Novak Element (O’Reilly Factor) intent on siding with corporate interests and against liberty.  If only the irony was funny and less politically misleading.  No one wants to see an action film with politics in it these days, much less lazy politics.

For those who don’t know the story behind Robocop, Det. Alex Murphy is nearly killed by bad guys, and then resurrected by Omnicorp.  This resurrected version becomes an almost unstoppable crimefighter.  His only weakness is that he is too good at his job, and finds people too high up the chain.  There are some differences between the incredibly graphic original and the new, PG-13 version.

To my surprise, I discovered that I liked some of them.  The new version strikes gold when supplying Murphy with tasers in order to subdue bad guys without having to decimate them.  I also like that he is aware of his family and past life, for the most part.  I never have been able to buy into the memory wipe concept.  Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle and Samuel L. Jackson are some heavy hitters to throw into the mix for what mostly amount to character roles.  I loved that it’s still Detroit that is the cesspool.  They called it back in the 80’s, and it came true.  Might as well stay with it.

Ultimately, though, the film is a lighter touch than the original.  Kinnaman lacks the charisma to even top Peter Weller, and that’s saying something.  Perhaps if he had more screen time apprehending criminals, some of the lines borrowed from the original (“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me…”) would feel more organic.  Abbie Cornish does not bring much to the table either.  There is not one bad guy who can even hold a candle to Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), not to mention Ronny Cox’s Richard “Dick” Jones.  There is very little in this film to supplant memories of the original.

That said, if you liked the original, but don’t want your kid to be exposed to the violence it engenders, try this one.  The original should definitely not be seen by anyone under the age of 17.  This movie is for anyone under that age.

(*** out of *****)

Seven Psychopaths: Sam Rockwell out-Walken’s Walken.

Seven-Psychopaths-Posters-SliceSeven Psychopaths – 2012

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring  Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko

The craziest notion in the film Seven Psychopaths is the idea that Colin Farrell is any sort of writer.  I can buy the alcoholic part, even if it’s a cheap stereotype about the Irish.   But a writer?  No thanks.  I would believe an uncharismatic pretty boy actor perhaps…but back to the story.  There’s a crazy killer called the Jack of Diamonds going around knocking off members of the mafia.  There is a dog “borrowing” operation that run by two guys named Billy and Hans (Rockwell and Walken).  Billy is friends with Marty (Farrell) and Marty is a drunk.  Oh yeah, Billy stole the dog of a local mafia nut job named Charlie.  Charlie is pretty mad about this.  Stuff happens after that, but I would not want to ruin it for you.

There are some good performances in the film, most notably Rockwell and Walken.  This is Sam Rockwell at his best.  McDonagh’s dialogue rolls perfectly off his tongue.  It’s his performance alone that makes the movie a minor success.  When one  finally understands his warped perspective, it is hard not to agree with it.  Walken is as good as he has been since he’s found his late career fame.  He is subdued, which, in his case, is still more disturbed than most.  Not more than Rockwell.

For his part, Farrell has pulled out one of his better performances since McDonagh’s In Bruges.  He plays along incredulously with Walken and Rockwell, giving them enough of the lead for them to run a bit wild, but not out of control.  He spends much of the film sponging ideas off of his two nutty friends, making the idea of him as a screenwriter much more believable.

McDonagh gives evidence here that In Bruges was not a fluke.  His talent for screenwriting exceeds that of his direction, but he’s better than average there, too.  One of the best parts of the film is his exquisite self-analysis (through Walken) of his inability to write good female characters.  If there is one failing here, it is that there are more actors here than there are plot lines.  Some day, he may hit one out of the park.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Sucker Punch – Sometimes you just have to call b.s.

Sucker Punch – 2011

Directed by Zack Snyder

Starring Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Isaac Blue, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn

Written by Steve Shibuya and Snyder

Chain Gang Chicks in sepia tone.  This is the kind of movie that can only be thoroughly enjoyed by those men (or fan boys) who have never spent significant time with a woman outside of their own head.  It’s for the kind of people that think Attack of the Clones had realistic dialogue.  There are plenty of excellent vantage points in Sucker Punch.  It’s just that none of these vantage points contain anything more than the wisdom you get from inside of a comic book.

Emily Browning plays Babydoll (like there can be any other name in a movie like this), a good girl who, in the opening song, loses her mother, her sister, and her freedom at the hands of a sadistic (again, like there can be any other) stepfather who’s going for the gold in the a-hole competition.  He hands his baton of cruelty off to a shady (again…) orderly named Blue (Isaacs), who takes a couple grand to forge some documents and have her lobotomized.  She hears the entire exchange, of course, but she does nothing, even though just screaming in a crowded room would have allowed her at least an investigation into these matters.  That is not the kind of sense one exhibits in a story like this.  In the comic book world, women are made to suffer while wearing skimpy outfits.  The next thing we see, she is lined up in the chair, ready for her lobotomy.  From here, we enter her dream world.

This dream world is, of course, a brothel.  All of the girls are dancers with other duties as assigned.  In this world, Blue is the owner of the brothel.  Through a sequence of events that only can be explained as necessary to jump to the special effects, she enters into yet another dream world while dancing.  We never see the dancing.  I think this is not necessarily because the girls can’t dance.  Instead, it appears the filmmaker understands that boys these days would rather see them handling swords and guns.  So, the first of these dreams starts with an encounter with someone called The Wise Man.  This is the one good guy in the movie, sent there to tell her how to escape the other guys.  After the initial passing of wisdom, she kicks some ass and, surprise, this translates into an incredible dance, or so we hear.

Having been befriended by Jena Malone who plays (wait for it…) Rocket, she gains access to Sweet Pea (Cornish), Blondie (the brunette Hudgens, for an ironic touch) and Amber (Chung).  These girls buy into her dream of escape and promptly begin setting up dances for the brutes of the brothel.  While Babydoll dances, the brutes are mesmerized, we get to watch Snyder’s awesome special effects, and the chicks, you know, steal stuff to escape with.

These fantasy sequences are as brilliantly filmed as they are stupid.  While watching them, one wonders how a story like this one could get such incredible amounts of money to work with when a superior story, like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country has to borrow scenes from earlier films to save a few bucks.  Zombies, Robots and Dragons all sit up just so these chicks with swords, guns and lingerie can, you know, mow ’em down.  That not one of the characters outside of Babydoll is living any of this is of little consequence, and hard to figure from the preview commercials.

The performances are just a tad above the inane dialogue.  Browning leaves a small impression, and Jena Malone, so incredible in Contact all those years ago as a young Jodie Foster (I bought it), has become that girl who will forever be the friend of the one that survives.  Cornish, Hudgens and Chung look better than they act.  I wish I could say the same about Gugino.  Isaacs actually steals most of the scenes he is in, but then, he’s playing an evil jerk.  In fanboy language, that’s character.

I loved Zack Snyder’s first film, an incredibly witty and realistic remake of Dawn of the Dead.  After following this with a spectacularly homoerotic take on Frank Miller’s 300, he was a made man in Hollywood.  Watchmen was daring film that actually improved upon the original story, even if it wasn’t perfect.  The Legends of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was a good film that audiences noticed, if not the critics.  The common thread through these films are crystal clear graphics and spectacular effects.  Other than his first film and Watchmen, however, there has been a predominant sepia tone.  Most of the early pics from the upcoming Man of Steel have the same hue to them.  There also is a discernible lack of reality to the characters and their motives.  At least Dawn of the Dead had Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames.  Too bad they can’t be in every Snyder movie.

Sucker Punch is entirely watchable.  Each scene feeds seamlessly and sometimes comically into another.  Anyone not living in the basement of their parent’s home might have a smirk and move on with life.  As for the others…they’ll be dressed up at the next Comic Con, seeking the autograph of Yeoman Rand.

(** out of *****)