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

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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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American Made (***1/2) Liman and Cruise in Scorsese mode

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American Made – 2017

Director Doug Liman
Screenplay Gary Spinelli
Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Alejandro Edda, Mauicio Mejia, Connor Trinneer, Jed Rees

Watching Tom Cruise move through the quick cuts of Doug Liman’s story about Barry Seals secret life of transporting weapons, taking pictures for the Feds and drugs for the cartels is entertaining as hell. It doesn’t matter that it amounts to what the director calls “a fun lie based on a true story.” The general principles behind the story are true, for the most part. Our government working against its own best interests is not a new story, nor is it all that surprising. If you want to see a lighter take on a dark period that wreaked havoc on our society even to this day, you could do worse.

Liman isn’t breaking new ground here. He’s essentially making a Scorsese based on real life drama. We get to see an almost comical series of interested parties making use out of a guy who is extremely good at getting airplanes in and out of remote locations. Whether you find this amusing will depend somewhat upon your experience with the result of all of the laws broken and drugs that were brought into this country. This man’s actions affected an astonishing amount of this country’s citizenry.

My perspective is informed by my pessimistic nature and the thought if it wasn’t happening one way, it would have happened some other way.

Liman handles the material expertly. In fact, this is significantly better than two of
Scorsese’s more popular versions of this type of story, Casino and Wolf of Wall Street. Some of the scenes are absurd and their truth can rightly be questioned. Riding away from a crash landing in a neighborhood while covered with cocaine is first on my mind in this category. The acting is solid, however, and the script doesn’t perform any miracles, but doesn’t try to get all that fancy, either. The affect overall is a good movie.

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Cruise navigates the content quite easily. His charm is reserved to some flashes of that grin here and there. His main job is to just be amazed that not only he hasn’t been caught, but the another group wants to throw money at him. He might have done more with this if he’d had any actor or character to challenge him more than Gleeson, Wright  or even one of the cartel kingpins.

Essentially, if you love Goodfellas, you’ll like this one. If it’s not your cup of tea, skip it.

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

 

 

Get Out (*****) is a throwback to another era

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Get Out – 2017

Written and Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring  Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson

The best thing Jordan Peele’s first film as director (and writer) has going for it is the soft racism of low expectations. People have blindly implied that the film is a study of racism in the liberal suburbs. While there are elements of racism peppered throughout, saying that it’s even half of what Peele is trying to accomplish is to assume everything a black director makes needs to be soaked in tales of racism woes. It is also completely missing the fact that this is a first rate thriller of epic proportions.

Chris (Kaluuya) is heading out of town to spend the weekend with his girlfriend of 4 (actually 5) months, Rose (Williams). There is a tension between them about the trip, because Rose is a white woman and Chris is a young black man. They have a conversation about this and eventually Chris is set at ease when Rose comes to his defense during an interaction with police on the way there.

Once there, the messages are definitely mixed. While her father awkwardly comes across as the liberal hipster guy who “definitely would have voted a third term for Obama,” there are enough signs around that things are definitely not as they should be. Peele is an expert at many levels here. While the peculiarities could be perceived as a racial tension between the folks who live and work there, they could also be explained away in an easy enough fashion as just people who are generally out of touch and a little goofy.

Through it all, Chris has interactions going back and forth with his friend Rod, a TSA agent who stayed back at home to watch the dog. After a strange interaction with Rose’s mother (Keener), Chris no longer has the desire to smoke, but has also begun to have strange dreams. What is going on with Chris? Just as  important, what is wrong with everyone else in Rose’s hometown?

The acting in the story is first rate.There is not one performance that doesn’t fit the mood of the story perfectly. Kaluuya is a British find who has been in enough things to be known, but not enough to be the household name that this film shows he deserves to be. His friend Howrey is delightful too, in a role that might be thankless or worse in an average thriller.

Williams shows some range as Chris’ girlfriend. How she navigates the changing situation for her boyfriend indicates someone of more depth than the role normally would entail. As her parents, Keener and Whitford work on every level. They are the people who are so smart and well off, they would be impossible to want to spend any time with even if they did like you, which it seems like they don’t. Or do they?

As somewhat strange servants in the house, Gabriel and Henderson provide the strongest current of feeling in the house. What the hell is with these two, who seem so happy and sad all at once? They provide the biggest scares just by making eye contact.

Peele shows himself to be a master of suspense in a nearly Hitchcockian way. He strikes so many chords with just the right touch, it keeps the viewer in suspense. Even if they think they know some of what is going on, there are enough elements, you won’t catch everything. This is the work of a truly skilled craftsman. I cannot wait to see what he does on his own in the future.

If you like mysteries, see this film. If you like character pieces, see this film. If you like playing against expectation, see this film. If you like being scared, see this film. If you like great movies, see this one.

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