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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The Good Dinosaur (***) is very average

gooddino

The Good Dinosaur – 2015

Director Peter Sohn
Starring Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn
Screenplay Peter Sohn, Erick Benson, Meg LeFauve, Kelsey Mann, Bob Peterson

Why didn’t my kids want to watch this?
Five writers means 5x the creativity, right?
So, the big asteroid missed?
Millions of years later…does that mean present day is here, or still years off?
So in the millions of years, the brontosauruses changed from real dinosaurs to these square headed things?
Who taught the dinosaurs to plant?
How do they make the thing that handles seeds?
Wouldn’t one dinosaur require about as much food as their field in about a day?
How come the smallest dinosaur is in the biggest egg? I mean, other than poorly written irony.
Arlo? So the parents like the album Alice’s Restaurant?
What do dinosaurs do with chickens? How would they crack an egg?
How do they build the small fence with twine and sticks?
Since when has anything become 100% critter proof in the first act?
What does walking in the night with lightning bugs do to conquer one’s fear?
Why don’t dinosaurs migrate to find food in the winter instead of storing a few days’ worth of food?
Are we supposed to feel irony for humans being referred to as critters?
If Arlo can’t kill a trapped critter, does that mean that I shouldn’t kill rats?
“You’re me and more.” Is that the kind of thing every parent should feel provided their kid doesn’t spend 4 days a week smoking pot?
How come the dad didn’t notice that Arlo couldn’t walk any further up the river, but has no problem walking back?
How hard is it for a full grown brontosaurus to drown in a flash flooded river?
Why is it that Disney dad’s always die after saying something cryptic to their underwhelming progeny?
What happened to Arlo’s siblings and why is his Mom doing all of the harvesting?
Since when do we blame something we chose not to kill for a bad twist of fate after that choice?
So Arlo doesn’t drown when the water is deeper for him than it was for the dad?
How come if his dad said you don’t get lost as long as you follow the river the first thing Arlo does is walk away from the river?
Who has ever had the instinct to eat something that they just stepped in?
How many of these individuals survived?
Has there ever been a weaker dinosaur than Arlo?
How does trapped prey survive the night when he can hear predators like raptors in the woods?
How can animators make lizards, trees, caterpillars and varmints look real, but make the dinosaurs look so fake?
If something is in a critter’s mouth, wouldn’t most species that can build ineffective huts understand it was food?
Why would a Styracosaurus, with all of those horns and such a tough hide be more of a wimp than Arlo?
Is it legal for underage dinos and critters to get drunk?
So the universal signal for family is stick figures inside of a circle in the sand? I thought it was stick figures on the back of your car?
Since the boy howls and his parents died, does this make him Tarzan?
So the lesson Arlo learned about being in a rainstorm is to run around helpless and pass out?
Shouldn’t they be teaching me a lesson about saving the earth by now?
So Pterodactyls are still carnivores, but Tyrannosaurs are nice?
What is the purpose to herding longhorns? Wouldn’t life be easier if they just hung in the periphery like other predators and picked them off occasionally? You know, like the raptors?
How come the raptors look like the Beatles vultures from Jungle Book?
How does Arlo go from being afraid of chickens to rough necking buffalo?
Why are the Pterodactyls be presented so coolly, like sharks the second time we’ve seen them rather than the first?
Why do I expect “S-E-X” to be presented into the sky when we see Arlo’s dad again?
Why does it take so long for the flying beasts to eat Spot when we saw how quick they were the first time?
How can something without feathers get waterlogged?
Do flash floods only happen when the plot needs them?
How come Spot’s Mom looks like Syndrome’s assistant? R.I.P. Elizabeth Peña
How can Pixar release a film that is so average in the same year they release one of their best films?
How many Pixar films have you decided that you don’t need to own?

I think I know now why my kids didn’t want to watch this.

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

Promised Land plays scientist, judge, jury, etc…

Promised Land Poster

Promised Land – 2012

Director Gus Van Sant
Starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney, Hal Holbrook
Written by Damon, Krasinski, Chris Moore

Promised Land is perhaps the laziest script I have seen make it to the big screen.  It takes a debatable subject, bends one side, to make it seem ill-informed and something to be questioned, and then it answers those questions with pictures of dead cows and old MIT engineering grads who teach high school in small towns during their retirement.  Who’s going to argue with dear old Hal Holbrook, or Jim from The Office?

On the side of ignorance and greed, we have Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, a couple of left-wing heavy hitters.  They sweep into town, use intimidation, guile and just plain lies to go into small towns and buy off properties for purposes of Fracking, which is a swear word in Battlestar Galactica.  Damon’s character is just waiting to be converted, he only needs to be embarrassed and frustrated into realizing that everything he is doing could hurt the people of each Mayberry type town they are coming to take over.  The pair of corporate Global bad guys are played in a folksy manner, worried about the size of horses they drive by and playing drinking games that get free rounds for the town.

The men in white hats, Krasinski and Holbrook, do what they do.  Krasinski plays a character named Dustin, but he might as well be called Jim, because, for purposes of this film, Damon is Dwight.  Jim gives the local school children lessons (complete with fire!) about the dangerous mystery of fracking, while Damon struggles to lie to a yokel and undersell the value of his property.  That Damon and McDormand lack the understanding to figure out why they are losing the PR game, what is obvious is that it is because they lack the understanding of the side that they are trying to represent.  Then again, the script makes it apparent that they don’t really want to.

In the middle is the affections of Rosmarie DeWitt, the indie sweetheart who most small films use to give them someone cute and apparently intelligent.  She does her job here, standing in the middle and waiting to be convinced.  Titus Welliver’s character is a little better represented.  He’s a gun shop owner who takes a shine to McDormand, because the script tells him to.  Welliver is just more convincing than DeWitt, but it really is quibbling.

The problem with this film is that it professes that more questions need to be asked.  In almost the next breath, they attempt to answer them, in a way representative of those who thought the world was flat.  The only counter to this lazy assessment is to make the other side look lazier and give it a scary name like Global Solutions.

For those who think its not possible for Van Sant to make a bad team, my first word to you is Psycho.  I follow this with the first gymnasium scene.  It was horribly written for the Holbrook ‘we need to ask more questions / we vote no’ routine.  Just when it is about to get contentious, and Matt Damon’s character is apparently struggling hard, the basketball team shows up for practice.  My questions are two: why did they schedule this meeting before basketball practice, which is almost always right after school?  How did Holbrook arrange to have everyone stand up with him at once, when only he spoke out against it?

I don’t know anything about fracking.  I know that it, like farm subsidies, dependence on foreign oil, and the war on terror, needs to be questioned.  Van Sant, Damon, Krasinski and company give you their take here.  Stay in Europe.  Don’t sail too far.  You might float right off the edge of the world.  I still don’t know what the effects of fracking are, but I know they think it is bad.

(* out of *****)

Moonrise Kingdom: I get it. I just don’t care.

Moonrise Kingdom – 2012

Director Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Howard, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban
Screenplay Anderson and Roman Coppola

The only Wes Anderson movies I own are The Life Aquatic… and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, the former is his worst movie, the latter is just about his best, after this one.  I just like Bill Murray.  He’s at his best in the two I own, and in the rest of the Wes Anderson collection, he’s just about what he is in Moonrise Kingdom: sad, pathetic and ghostly.  Murray must love working with Anderson.  He’s been in all but one of his films.

Many film critics love Wes Anderson films.  To me, they are like a chore.  Something one must get through because the word of mouth among those in the know is so glowing.  Each time (except for the one about the fox) I watch one of his films, I get the same feeling: forced quirkiness.  He has mastered the technique that he developed by now.  The special effects looking intentionally like something out of Max Fischer’s plays in Rushmore, everybody in the room looking off in the distance like they are 1000 miles away, and the main characters always a bit off, which makes them more in the moment than those who struggle to understand them.  For me, it’s not a struggle to understand all of this.  It is a real challenge to muster the motivation to care.

This time around, we are on a quaint New England Island, where everyone lives like they are off-road, but firmly on the grid.  There is a camp of Boy Scouts named “Kahki Scouts.” This is so that we understand that the authors believe the people running the scouts lack for fashion ideas.  On the other side of the Island, two parents who are attorneys (but never seen heading to or coming from work).  A boy scout (Gilman) sees the daughter (Howard) of the attorneys (Murray and McDormand), strikes up a courtship with her through notes back and forth.  One year later, they strike off on their own.

The rest of this, I will leave to you to watch.  There is not a moment where the viewer cannot tell where this story is going, even if the story tellers (and many critics) think that their vision is a unique one.  For me, it’s all the same.  People are still living lives of quiet desperation, there is still much smoking going on, and the kids are always the smartest ones in the frame.

The performances of Gilman as young Sam and Hayward as Suzy Bishop do stand out, but partly for their Asperger’s-like genius that might strike out and maim someone at any moment, or they just might make it on their own.  Surprisingly, Schwartzman provides the best performance after the kids, as the money-grubbing Scout Master of means.  Bob Balaban’s moments are pretty cool, mainly because they contain Bob Balaban.  The rest of the cast is what one can expect from a Wes Anderson film.  They are like older, more bored versions of the kids.  And the kids are pretty boring.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  It’s not like Anderson is without skill.  His best film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, put all of his quirks where they belong, in a children’s book.  It also helped that Streep and Clooney had the chops to give his dour tones a little color.  His comic strip like framing and the number of things he has going on when seemingly essential information passes is somewhat amusing.  It would make for good, re-watchable commercials.  I love my DVR so much, I likely would not see them anyway.

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