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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Pixels (**1/2) – Perhaps you were expecting Tennyson?

Pixels-movie-poster

Pixels – 2015

Director Chris Columbus
Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski. Matt Lintz
Screenplay Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling

There will always be films like this. A comedian past his prime is relegated to following trends started by better films (Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph) as a vessel to do the same film he’s been doing since Billy Madison. The story, a down on his luck good guy (Sandler) just getting by defies the odds and accomplishes some challenge, scoring a way above average woman (Monaghan) along the way. There are plenty of good guy buddies (James and Gad) and one bad guy buddy (Dinklage). There is an old-fogie contingent (Cox) who will never understand these newfangled ways.

The story always starts with some sort of disappointment. In this case, Sandler’s Sam Brenner coming in 2nd place in a Donkey Kong competition. This disappointment turns a future at Massachusetts MIT into a past at Mississippi MIT. There should always be some sort of hip kid (Lintz) who serves as a path from the protagonist to the woman of his dreams. This woman must reject Sandler at first, and then they will be thrown together by some task and that will lead to a brand new family where everyone is so happy.

The challenging task is a planet that got a message sent from Earth back in the early ’80’s. They took it as a threat and responded in kind. Earth is taken by surprise, which is easy to do when Sam’s friend William Cooper (James) is inexplicably serving as president. There is no attempt at explaining what makes Cooper worthy of being president, but suffice to say America’s standards can’t be that high in a Sandler comedy, where flashbacks of 1982 regularly reference things that were popular in 1986.

Back to the threat. It’s video games. They are attacking the world. Sometimes the invaders are the bad guy in the game, sometimes they are Pac-Man. The only reason one can learn for this is that there is a scene where Pac-Man looks cute but then does something unimaginably horrific. The payoff only works if Pac is a bad guy.

What’s to like in a movie like this? Well, Sandler for one. He fits in this role like a glove. And if he is rarely surprising, he rarely guesses wrong. We want to see him make fun of a room full of the President’s men. We also want to see him get the girl. He has reached that stage where he understands what he brings to the table, unlike, say, Robert Conrad in Battle of the Network Stars. No one is watching that to see you succeed, Bob.

James offers the same deal. Personally I was just glad there were no fat guy jokes. And if it made no sense to see him running a war room, it sure is nice seeing him get down, Hitch-style while at a formal event. Josh Gad is reaching that space, too. He’s almost as lovable as he is annoying. His act curtailed enough to keep from appearing threadbare. Dinklage’s character, underwritten as it is, succeeds only in that he is played by Peter Dinklage.

I am glad to see Monaghan still getting roles. She is engaging, even if in a limited role. The soundtracks to Sandler films are always fun too. It’s obvious that he and his friends like the same stuff me and my friends liked. Okay, I had no friends. Well, I did. But I worked at it, and now I am down to just two. At least I don’t have to help anyone move any more.

So yes, this is a Sandler film. And it is average. And yes, that is redundant. I didn’t go into it expecting Sonny to get killed at the toll booth, but I also didn’t expect to see Deuce Bigelow land in an old lady’s bed, either.

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

X-Men: Days of Future Passed / The Rogue Cut: We can go anywhere from here

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X-Men: Days of Future Passed – 2014

Director Bryan Singer
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Screenplay Simon Kinberg based on Days of Future Passed by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

Theatrical Version:

The X-Men movie series has infuriated those who love the comics as  well as many who love the movies series itself. For those who love the comics its been an endless – some say haphazard – onslaught of characters ripped out of their own stories and thrown into the backdrop of “What’s Wolverine doing now?” episodes. These critics also insist that the key interplay between Magneto and Xavier has been downplayed, outside of X-Men: First Class. This ignores certain truths about Marvel itself, that has never had problems reinventing characters in multiple story lines – different universes even – whenever the creative impulse hits.

As for the movies, the biggest problem until now is how each of the visions and various stories intersect, diverge or are in some cases, prematurely ended. X-Men: The Last Stand and the first of the Wolverine movies are the biggest violators of the implied agreement between story-teller and audience. Each film has taken liberties, though, to be sure.

In the same way as Star Trek‘s reboot in 2009, the beauty of X-Men: Days of Future Passed gives everyone what they were looking for, and more.  We get:

  • Xavier and Magneto contemplating the weight of their friendship in the midst of crisis
  • A bone throw for Kitty Pride (who was the hero of the comic series) as the portal for time travel
  • Halle Berry’s continuous mis-fire as Storm is kept in her place
  • Jennifer Lawrence gets to kick ass in blue, if not much else.
  • Dinklage  delivering to us his version of Bolivar Trask with minimal screen time, which is certainly more advanced than the Bill Duke version we see in The Last Stand.
  • Nicholas Hoult and Kelsey Grammer as Beast.  Hoult’s performance always begs for more screen time, while Grammer seems the perfect result for Beast.
  • Evan Peters in a remarkably sly turn as Quicksilver, perhaps the best segment of the film.
  • And what would X-Men film be without Wolverine getting 2/3 of the screen time?

The conceit to time travel movies is, really, they can go back to any time to get it right. If they go back real close to the event, well you know it’s because they have to ratchet up the tension. Everyone knows that Bolivar Trask could be eliminated at birth, but that would make it a bit cruel. Singer’s skill is making all of this flow as if it were in real-time. His story lines gather and then diverge effortlessly. There is not an ounce of clunk to the early 70’s scenes, even if the “present time” seems as forced as it did in the comic. We all know there has to be a deadline. This time, plenty of people get dead on the way to that point. Some even pull it off twice.

The acting is good throughout, with special mention to Hoult, Fassbender and McAvoy. Hoult’s Beast is a character that begs for its own story line. It would be great to see how we get from his uneasy early years to his confident older ones.

Fassbender’s character has the clearest delineation to McKellen’s performance.  Both are very driven and quite consistent with their rationale.

As his counter, McAvoy is all over the place.  It was a brave place to take the character, but he does a great job showing us what was on his troubled mind and not just saying it.

It’s easy to take Jackman for granted, since he’s been in every one of these films. The miracle is that he has evolved from Eastwood with a growl to a multi-dimensional bad ass. This time is a clear extension of everything he’s gathered from The Wolverine.

The best part about the movie is the epilogue. Seeing the result of the work is heartening because we get to see mistakes corrected without worrying about the consequences.This result will no doubt not give everyone a good feeling. Some might even feel like it’s pulling the rug out. It’s alright for this reviewer. Like merry go rounds, the ride is fun, even if it just goes in a circle.

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

The Rogue Cut

It is easy to understand why people become leery of the X-Men enterprise, especially when it comes to their home video releases. I bought 1.5 and wondered why the heck I did, and I followed through with purchases for every subsequent film, even following them to Blu-Ray. It is perhaps because I never read the comic and rarely followed any of the animated scenes that my patience has not frayed, even when the talk of Days of Future Past included news of a thread of scenes that would involve Rogue that were eventually excised from the theatrical cut. Most assumed that these few scenes would appear on the video release. By the time that arrived, the sequence had turned into a whole new cut of the film to be released at a future date.

If one decides that this is the place to draw the line…think again.

The Rogue Cut is like the bloom of a rose the day after you thought it had reached maturity. Instead of beginning to wilt, it flows even more thoroughly from its core, giving the bloom a depth and resonance it never had previously. The interesting thing about it though, is that it’s not only or even primarily because of the sequence of Anna Paquin scenes that this version of X-Men succeeds.

The best thing for viewers of the film is a fleshed out perspective of several characters, including Magneto, Mystique and Beast. The arc between past and present has more resonance and clearer connections. The weakest part of the film was that it never felt like it mattered what was happening in the present because even if it is riddled with challenges, the characters were able to continue manipulating time. This is changed for the better. Midway through the last act, they have a mission that takes them away from the stronghold. Accomplishing that mission is not without its cost. The consequence actually leads to a logical reason for a final battle, instead of just having the bad guys show up, because, well, it’s the last act.

The extra 17 minutes don’t feel extra at all. They are fully integrated within the story. Even when it changes the story slightly, this feels like the definitive version. There are some flashback scenes that go through every previous film, making their telling still relevant even if we know they will be ultimately stricken from the official record. It feels like this is the only way the story could have ever ended up. This is the new canon.

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

Cool Papa E Reviews The Chronicles of Narnia Series

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – 2005 

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Starring William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Liam Neeson (v), Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Ray Winstone (v), Dawn French (v)

Written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Review: Much pressure was applied upon the makers of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but then, it also had much going for it.  The success of The Lord of the Rings, along with the unexpected success of The Passion of The Christ allowed a built in audience ready for family, fantasy and religious viewers.  Still, to make a franchise, they had to succeed with their first shot.  Succeed, they did.  The 10th Highest grosser in all of Disney history to that point was among the highlights.  As a movie, it comes across as a fairly accurate translation, for better or worse.  The good aspects are the kids, who handle the unfamiliar fantasy territory with all the wonder required to make the movie believable to adults.  The battle sequences are good, if not the miracle of LOTR, and give a sense of time and place.  Aslan, however, is much like he was in the book.  Everyone talks of His Majesty, and shows Him reverence when He is on-screen.  He comes across as a “you had to be there,” experience, though, just like He had in the book.  Overall, though, Swinton provides a menace to the Evil Queen that exceeds the written form, thereby elevating the material.

Best Sequence – The eagles soaring overhead providing a clearing for the Narnians to begin their resistance to the oncoming attackers.  Great visuals and a wonderful maneuver.

Worst Sequence – It goes over so well in subsequent plays, that it’s harder to be critical.  I will go with the frozen caricatures.  Could have looked a lot more like the real thing, and there was really no reason, at this point, they would not.

Rating – **** out of *****

Prince Caspian – 2008

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Starring William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Liam Neeson (v), Tilda Swinton, Eddie Izzard, Ben Barnes, Sergio Castellitto, Peter Dinklage

Written by Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Review: The second film in the Chronicles of Narnia series begins in Shakespearian fashion: a castle, a prince in peril, a Queen bearing the child of the Prince’s Uncle…and this is all before the Kings and Queens are summoned to return.  The shock we discover after Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy arrive, is that it’s been 1300 years in Narnian time since they had lived nearly half of a lifetime as rulers of the enchanted land.  In that time, Narnia has been taken over by a race of humans, called Telmarines.  The mystical connection between humans, animals, fauns and dwarves has long since been broken.  The Prince, named Caspian (Barnes) escapes the castle with his fellow countrymen in pursuit.  The message behind the tale is somewhat muddled in the fighting and intrigue, but the four have grown quite comfortably in their roles.  They show development equal to the adventures that they have experienced.  The effects are quite subtle and the overall experience subdued for an action film.  It fits well within the context of a family adventure, making it somewhat thrilling for children and adults.  There is no foolishness for the sake of plot, other than the awkwardness between Caspian and Peter.  Other additions to the cast, in the form of new characters Reepichip and Trumpkin, are incredibly well portrayed by Eddie Izzard and Peter Dinklage.  Dinklage, in particular, has become one of my favorite actors in the few short years when I first saw him in The Station Agent.  His Trumpkin is a grouchy, honest and proud dwarf.  One can see what brought them to be agents of the White Witch at a time, but can also believe that they became devout believers in Aslan.  Dinklage accomplishes all of this with very few words.  As Reepichip, Eddie Izzard provides the attitude to match the incredibly portrayed moves of a master swordsman.  Unlike the whirling dervish that is Yoda in the 2nd and 3rd Star Wars prequels, the little mouse is made into do absolutely incredible and believable maneuvers.  The story is really quite silly, but it takes itself seriously.  This helps one get to the willing suspension of disbelief required to take in the tale.

Best Sequence – The surprise attack from underground on the open plain shows ingenuity in what is normally a typical scene.  This, as well as the evolution of the eagles in all of the sequences (attacks and counter attacks).  Some of the best vantage points in the entire series have come from their perspective.

Worst Sequence – The clunky, awful sword fight between Peter and the King Miraz is so bad as to be out-of-place.  It is obvious neither of the actors did much dueling off camera.

Rating – **** out of *****

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Directed by Michael Apted

Starring William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Liam Neeson (v), Tilda Swinton, Simon Pegg (v), Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Gary Sweet

Written by Christopher Markus,  Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni

Review: The third film in the series feels a bit like a departure, given that only Lucy and Edmund remain to take the journey from the last film.  Meeting up with King Caspian and Reepichip on a voyage to rescue seven of his father’s contemporaries, long since banished by his Uncle Miraz.  The journey takes them one a quest to rescue civilization from The Lost Islands.  More silliness, this time augmented by the testing, in particular, of Lucy’s confidence in herself and the evolution of bravery in her annoying cousin, Eustace (Poulter).

The destinations this time are interesting, if lacking in any amount of sustained suspense.  There is never really any amount of doubt that our heroes will survive their trials.  That said, Lucy (Henley) has grown into a beautiful screen presence and Edmund (Keynes) has the potential for considerable action performances in the future.  Pegg, as Reepichip, is just as electric, if not as biting wit as Izzard provided.  His scenes are still a highlight, as is his sense of logic in grooming Eustace into a useful companion, instead of just a complainer.  Thank goodness, because by the end of the film, it is clear that the others aren’t coming back.  Aslan (Neeson) is even more relegated to cheerleader this time, even if his scenes do not have the burden of being repetitive.  Overall, the film is not necessarily a step forward, but in no way a step back.

Best Sequence – The revelation of the identity of the dragon was a special moment, and the actions of the dragon throughout the rest of the film are inspired character development, impressively done.

Worst Sequence – The overthrow of the slave traders was not so inspired.  It just kind of happened.  Also, the monster at the end of the film is truly horrifying for younger viewers.  I would wait until kids are around 10 before presenting it to them.  It’s not poorly done, just not for kids, so much.

Rating – **** out of *****