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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Everest (***) : In the battle of you against the world…

Everest-Movie

Everest – 2015

Director Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelley
Screenplay William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy

Noted realist Franz Kafka once said: “In man’s struggle against the world, bet on the world.” Everest is the big screen chronicle of the story of a bunch of adventurers who refuse the logic of this statement. Their motivation, because it is there, defies any real logic. Instead it is tantamount to man believing that somehow their will, along with some careful planning, is enough to get them up to the peak of the tallest mountain in the world. Being the first to admit this kind of challenge means nothing for me, I am more the proponent of “slow and easy wins the race.” And it really doesn’t matter if I win the race. It only matters that I am there to help my children grow up.

When covering the real events of the 1996 Mt. Everest climbing disaster in which 8 people lost their lives, it is tough to view the film or the depiction as anything other than as a serial killer film, where the mountain is the cold, faceless killer. Everyone has a chance to survive if they make the right decisions, including not going back for stragglers. The accounts of what happened are numerous, and no one is going to accuse the studio of making the comprehensive version of the film here. In fact, one of the earliest chroniclers Jon Krakauer objected to parts of the story as being fabricated, director Kormákur stated that the reasons they chose to not use the author’s first-person account in the film because it conflicted with the plot that they created. In other words Hollywood has only one path up Mt. Everest. It is well-worn and has many points that everyone has seen before. The real reason they are making the film is for shots like this one:

everest-movie

There is no deep thinking here. No one explains anything more than armchair philosophy as to why someone would leave their family behind (often more than once) to face impossible odds and go shirtless at base camp. Even more distracting for me is the sheer number of stars in the film. I should be contemplating the second attempt of Hawkes’ Doug to get to the top of the mountain, or why Hall (Clarke) could leave his pregnant wife to work as a mountain guide. I am instead wondering why the erstwhile Sol Star has not gotten more significant roles since Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene and is Knightley ever going to be believable as Emily Watson in any film? Don’t even get me started on the Robin Wright / Michael Kelley / House of Cards connection. If one of the characters begins to sing There’s Got to be A Morning After, the disaster would be complete.

The scenery is breathtaking, and looks fantastic on widescreen. Do I believe these actors are on Everest in any capacity other than base camp? No. There are lots of places with snow in the world. Even James Bond sets. When one discovers that 16 Sherpas were killed bringing up equipment for climbers in the 2014 summer season, but that everyone in the Everest film crew survived, the absurdity of it all takes root. There will never be a movie made about those Sherpas shown on big screens of Western Civilization. The deaths of the locals don’t count.

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

Lincoln is a strong man shown in his weakest moments

poster lincoln-movie

Lincoln – 2012

Directed by Stephen Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Walter Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley, Gulliver McGrath, S. Epatha Merkerson
Screenplay by Tony Kushner based on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns-Goodwin

There is a moment in Lincoln when, after a long day and an awkward conversation with his wife, Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) ambles into the family room of the White House to find his son Tad (McGrath) asleep on the floor in front of the fireplace.  Lincoln carefully lowers himself onto the floor beside his son, with some considerable effort to avoid the pain he must be feeling.  Like a well rehearsed play, his son recognizes the sound his father is making, rises atop his back and holds close to him.  Lincoln arduously lifts himself from the floor with his son astride him and they begin the journey towards their rooms for the night.

It’s a subtle event, in the face of the momentous occasions covered in the film, but it is an important one.  In this sequence we get to peek into the soul of the man who changed the course of history in the United States.  His soul and force of will kept a nation together through its weakest moment, his foresight helped to move it forward.  In the course of events that follow, we get to see first hand how all of this happens.

As an effort,  Lincoln is filled with such detail of its subject that it overcomes the film’s lone weakness: the oversimplification of the counterpoints.  Part of this is due to the opposing view to the Republicans of the story are, by and large, racist and often times small-minded people.  There were other facets to the slavery economy that tied the country in several ways to its horrific past.  It would have taken a six-hour film to break through the surface of these issues instead of the 150 minutes employed here.

Still even with that hinderance, the task of the North is covered thoroughly here.  In short, Lincoln and his allies, Seward (Strathairn), Blair (Holbrook), Bilbo (Spader) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) are working to get passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S. before the Civil War grinds to a painful close.  They cannot wait until this time for myriad reasons, with the re-admittance of the Southern states being foremost among them.  To see Lincoln explain this is a tense pleasure.  His knack for storytelling works wonders in putting listeners at ease into accepting his move into a more serious territory.  This process is played to perfection by Day-Lewis.  Indeed every moment he is on the screen, we feel not like we are watching the man, and not an actor.  Smartly, we are not watching a saint, but a deeply troubled man.

His wife, Mary Todd (Field) is a fierce protector of her husband and children.  They are a few short years removed from the death of their youngest child and neither has handled it well.  Now, with their oldest son Robert (Gordon-Levitt), is pushing to join the Union army, and Lincoln is doing the best he can do to prevent it.  When he is unable to do so, he still manages to give him a favorable position (Fortunate Son style).  This is not enough for his wife, and the resulting fight is jarring in its demonstration of weakness on both of their parts.  It’s almost Springer-esque in the sense of voyeurism one feels watching them.  It feels like a sin to watch them work through such sadness so angrily and aggressively.

Jones’ performance is firmly within his range.  The lines of his unmoving face show more than most actors could ever dream of.  Here he plays a Radical Republican looking for more than the 13th Amendment offers…by a long shot.  His efforts are pushing the fringe Democrats away, and he must be reigned in to move forward.  His insistence on seeing Negroes as equals comes from a deep, almost sacred place.  It is an amazing journey seeing him move from myopic truth to a greater wisdom.  Then to see the revelation of his heart of hearts is one of the most tender moments of the film.

The rest of the portrayals of the film depend on where the character lies on the spectrum of slavery.  Democrats are shown to be either lame ducks to the future (Republicanism), to cowards, to blowhards and worse.  For every apparently contemplative Coffroth, there are two verbosely incompetent targets for Stevens, such as Wood and Pendleton.

These are but small complaints, though, when compared to the power that Spielberg coaxes from the story.  Very little of the significance is manufactured.  Like a sculptor, he knows the beautiful object lies within the object.  His job is to whittle away until it reveals itself.  He is learning to get out-of-the-way of himself.  The less he attempts cheap gimmicks (like the Red coat of Schindler’s List) or preaching (A.I., The Terminal), the more his obvious storytelling gifts shine through.  His politics are well-known, but they need not dominate his work.  Lincoln is nearly perfect because he resists these impulses.

A final image before the end of the story brings it to the most chilling close.  We see a powerful Lincoln, striding humbly from a post war planning meeting with his staff.  He is heading towards his doom, but because of Spielberg’s incredible story telling power, we see a bookend to the scene described at the start of this review.  Tad, watching a performance of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp at a different theater, learns about his father’s fate in between scenes when it is announced to the crowd.  Gripping the railing, Tad cries out, in the midst of the exasperated crowd.  The very next scene, his mother is led away from his father, who lies crumpled and frail on a couch too small for his frame.  The pain he felt picking up his son is gone.  The pain his son will feel missing that strong presence has just begun.

That is the enduring vision of Lincoln for me.

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

Martha Marcy May Marlene is our idiot sister done in a smart way

Martha Marcy May Marlene – 2011


Written and Directed by 
Sean Durkin
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause

So, communal life is not for you…or is it?  Martha Marcy May Marlene (MMMM) starts off with its protagonist (Olsen) looking to escape the life she was living in a group living situation in the Catskills.  Other members of the cult go after her, and one of the men catches up with her in a diner.  They have a brief conversation, where he reveals that Patrick won’t like it.  She will take her chances.  A while later, we see her on the phone, calling her sister.  She wants away from where she is.

Her older sister, Lucy (Paulson) comes to get her.  Woe for her sister and her sister’s husband.  Through the rest of the movie we see flashbacks of what she went through in the cult, and what she now puts her family through.  There is a lulling method to the presentation, a seamless thread that lets everyone know she is not aware of her surroundings at some times, and at other times, she is too aware.  Lucy, for her part, has never been too close to her sister, and she feels responsible for her  aimlessness.  Martha, the name by which she is known to Lucy, spends a lot of her time being aloof, distant, somewhat helpful, but really kind of an ass.  A couple of days into her freeloading off her sister, she discovers that the man her sister lives with, Ted (Dancy), is actually her husband.  To this, she laughs.

We find, that like in any cult, the people live like the great unwashed.  Men spend their days pretending to be farmers, women clean the house, cook and let the men eat first when they come in.  This is all subsidized by getting the women to call their parents and ask for money, and, if necessary,  stealing from the affluent.  They pretend they are artists, too, strumming the guitar occasionally while the others sit patiently and pretend to like it.  The sex, well, you know that is all sorts of messed up.  The ones messed up from before prepare the new ones for their “special experience.”  Sometimes these experiences lead to children.  None of the children are girls, though.  Patrick only has boys.

As the multi-named titular character, Olsen gives about as good a performance as one can give.  Her character is at once clouded by naïvety and experience all at once.  She is a user and willing to be used.  She is the perfect younger sibling as loser.  Her choices lead her to a spot that is dangerous, and, unable to think of another way, involves the one who loves her to pry her out.  Later, when asked why she never replaced her cell phone, she says somewhat arrogantly that she learned to live without it.  This of course, ignores the fact that she is living through the grace of others’ good will…and still others’ bad will.

John Hawkes, as cult leader Patrick, is becoming an increasingly masterful presence in everything he does.  Starting off as the pissed off gas station attendant who “never said ‘Help Us!‘” in From Dusk Till Dawn to his unforgettable Saul Star in the classic Deadwood, Hawkes has risen to the top of the list of character actors.  Here he does much with within a minimal framework.  None of his scenes are over the top.  More like a viper, laying in wait.  We never see any fraying of his edges.  We know that he is very comfortably insane, even if some of his constituents are not as comfortable.

The rest of the cast is excellent, whether suffering from the actions of Martha in the beginning, or making an alternate reality with Marcy May and Marlene.  Much of this is due to the excellent pacing of Writer/Director Durkin.  His film is a string of incredibly smooth segues that make a typical story of what it takes to live in a cult to another level.  If the movie seems a little short, it is partly because it flows so well.  It would have been nice to have more of a resolution, but what we see works well enough.
(**** out of *****)

Contagion: Elizabeth Bennet prevents the people of the world from becoming a bunch of zombies

Contagion – 2011

Directed by Steven Soderburgh
Starring
Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, John Hawkes, Demetri Martin
Written by  
Scott Z. Burns

It’s been a long time since I had given a second thought about Jennifer Ehle.  After seeing her in the classic 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, I read up on her, found out that she had done some film work, a lot of Theater work, had a relationship with Colin Firth, and they both moved on.  She lost me at “Theater.”  Too bad for me. About 30 minutes into Contagion, with the stars passing through the screen with an ease that few directors could manage, my wife asked me who it was playing CDC scientist, Dr. Ally Hextall.  So far she had stolen each scene she was in as a straightforward, yet unrestrained problem solver.  This is not an easy task, when you factor in Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould and comedian Demetri Martin as her primary counterparts.  It was not a surprise that she noticed her first, as Pride and Prejudice is one of her all time favorite adaptations.  Given that most of what she watches is what I watch, she was as happy as I was to find out the good doctor was none other than the prototype for all women who read more than they shop, Elizabeth Bennet.

Ehle clearly stands out from a remarkable cast

The command she displays on the screen causes one to wonder why she hasn’t become a major star.  It’s hard not to think that she will have something relevant to offer to the resolution early on.  Thing is, she is featured not at all in the commercials or advertising for the film, nor has she been mentioned in any of the reviews.  Maybe this is not so much of a surprise, as Soderbergh’s ability to meld all the name characters into real people who are professionals, antagonists and normal folks.  Other than Ehle’s superlative demonstration, the acting here is so unanimously good, that no one performance stands out from any of the others.  Wonderful as it is, the acting isn’t even the best part of the film.

Contagion is the best overall film about a viral outbreak ever produced.  The reason for this is simple.  Most movies dealing with the subject make the easy mistake of adding artificial drama to the situation.  To wit, in the average film, Outbreak, I never cared that Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo used to be an item.  It is a hackneyed cliché and means nothing to the dangers faced in the real world, and it just yanks any credibility out of the film.  Instead of falling into this trap, Soderbergh and Burns stay on task and keep the science in the forefront.

To this end, two factors stand out as particularly effective:

1)  The demonstrated need grow a virus long enough to create an antivirus has never been broached on film, from what I have seen.  Here we learn that this is very hard to do when the virus destroys everything it comes across so quickly.  Just getting to see the lengths scientists go through just to grow cultures in a lab brought a sense of pressure that was very easy to understand and feel.

2)  There is an intelligent  investigation of how the virus evolved and, essentially, tracing it to where it came from.  Cotillard’s character, Dr. Leonora Orantes, as a representative of the World Health Organization, shows how difficult it is to not only trace the physical evidence, but to deal with the political aspects of going to a country and letting it’s citizens know that all clues point to them.

Unfortunately, this storyline is sidetracked with a subplot that adds little to the overall scheme, while cancelling out the effectiveness of Cotillard’s performance.

I love seeing her like this, but it doesn't last long

Another questionable aspect to the film is the emphasis of blogging as a source of medical information, or intrigue, as it were.  I know that my wife, who has a degree in Medical Anthropology after studying to become a nurse in college, will consult certain sites for information when one of the girls is sick.  It’s worked pretty well, so far.  The line is drawn for us, though, once the sites approach the edge of medical science.  Law’s character, as conspiracy theorist and general agitator Alan Krumwiede, stands to the side, barking constantly.  As one who might theorize as to the potency of the coming virus and investigate deaths that go unreported or swept under the rug, I can buy his character.  What is harder to conceive is that same guy making himself a guinea pig for an alternative medicine which catches fire through the country and less likely, gives him press time with the CDC scientist Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne).

Not talking to or touching anyone else

These complaints are almost trivial, though, when compared to what Soderbergh and Burns get right.  The human element, dispensing relief and supplies months into the outbreak rings true.  This is mainly because the riots seem random, yet reasonable and eventually, society balances it out.

For these scenes Damon, playing as anonymously as possible, gives one of the most solid performances of his incredible career.  There is a deep resonance in his relationship with his daughter, and the way they cut themselves out of society, while trying to keep up civility with each other and the people they meet endures throughout the movie.  In particular, a scene at night, viewed from his sleeping daughter’s bed, is chilling in the deepest way to anyone who has ever been a guardian of a child.  It’s like a more reasonable precursor to The Road.

Similarly, Kate Winslet, as CDC Coordinator Beth Emhoff, handles an unwinnable situation valiantly and with much grace.  Her character is representative of a cast willing to give uptheir chance to be the subject of the movie for the sake of the story.  One wonders if Angelina Jolie or even Julia Roberts could do the same.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Ehle’s Hextall.   Working in an apparent bubble for much of the film, we get a chance to see a more human side of her character, just about the time we start to lose hope.  This scene gives credence to what everything she does, instead of pushing her principles awkwardly aside in desperation.  Fishburne’s, Cheever, makes a few similar choices, but instead of being breaking character, these actions add to the already established traits.  One can understand why these choices are made, and with only a small amount of trepidation, accept them.

Contagion sets the standard for how to handle large casts as well as a complex subject without trips into sentiment or excessive histrionics.  The missteps are few, and, as a result, the natural tension is palpable.  Soderbergh has reestablished himself as one of the great directors after a generally successful, but somewhat spotty decade.

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