Movie Review ~ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


The Facts
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Synopsis: In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I’m going to not-so-secretly admit something I’ve been holding inside for a few decades now, I never understood why Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Fargo in 1996.  Now, I don’t want to take anything away from McDormand because she’s been a consistent actress since she began but I’ve been scratching my head over the years about that win (maybe that’s why my bald spot grows bigger each year…).  Sure, her performance was rock solid and deserving of attention but I always felt it was more of supporting role that landed in the wrong category in an otherwise weak year.  I’m ok with it…I just don’t understand it.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that McDormand’s performance in the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is truly one for the record books and worthy of all the awards that can be thrown at her.  This will, I’m sure, enrage McDormand (Promised Land) to no end seeing as how in interviews she laments these types of accolades but if ever there was a role best suited for her, it’s this one.  Mildred Hayes is wily, profane, blunt, and honest and McDormand pulls absolutely no punches as she takes this woman through an emotional journey that might not heal her broken heart but slaps a strong band-aid on it so she can solider on.

At the start of the movie, Mildred is driving on a backcountry road near her house that isn’t used as much now that a new highway has gone in.  Noticing three billboards in disrepair displaying fragments of advertisements from years past, she gets an idea that sparks a furor in town, reopening old wounds for the town that have never healed for Hayes and her family.  Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered and no one has as of yet been brought to justice.  The police don’t even have any suspects or leads to go off of.  Feeling like the justice system has failed her, she rents space on the billboards and puts up two statements and a question meant to shock the police force and it’s chief (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2, in a damn fine performance) into action.

Action is taken all right, but the energy generated is more toward Mildred and creating various forms of pressure put on her to take the billboards down.  Most of the town loves its revered family man chief of police, especially his troubled deputy (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) who takes the billboards as a personal attack.  Already in trouble with a police brutality charge likely racially motivated, the deputy becomes unhinged and is willing to do whatever it takes not to help Mildred’s cause but to impel her into silence.  Lucky for her (and us), Mildred isn’t one to back down as she shows when a dentist friend of the chief chastises her and then attempts some oral surgery without anesthetic.

Director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh scored a sizable indie hit with 2008’s In Bruges and followed that up with the clever Seven Psychopaths.  As he’s shown in film and even more with his skilled plays, McDonagh isn’t afraid of a little blood, violence, and profanity and he brings the big guns to Ebbing.  People get burned, shot, bloodied, thrown out second floor windows, and most of those are only periphery characters.  All that brutality might be something to recoil from but McDonagh balances the bloodshed with multiple emotional punches to the gut in the form of developments you’ll be hard pressed to see coming.

This is a twisty, twisted narrative and it works throughout the film.  When you get to go to a lot of movies each year you begin to see sameness to what you’re watching but with Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri I felt like I was seeing a picture with a purpose.  The performances are note-perfect (especially anytime McDormand and Rockwell share the screen) with effective supporting turns from John Hawkes (Lincoln) and Mildred’s ex-husband, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) playing their son, Peter Dinklage (The Boss) as Mildred’s would-be suitor, and Clarke Peters (John Wick) as another police chief who comes into play late in the film.  I also enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) as the man who rents the billboards out to Mildred and pays a costly fee and Sandy Martin (Lovelace) as Rockwell’s ornery mother. For a movie so bleak it can be hard to stick an effective ending in but McDonagh manages to tie the picture up without a tidy bow that remains wholly satisfying.

With the emotional knob cranked up to 12, this isn’t an easy movie to watch but it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough.  It’s a story that feels like it could happen anywhere and, sadly, probably has and that makes it all the more resonant to this viewer.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

The Silver Bullet ~ Wilson

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Synopsis: A lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged man reunites with his estranged wife and meets his teenage daughter for the first time.

Release Date: March 24, 2017

Thoughts: Though MN has been the setting for several notable Hollywood releases, it’s been a while since we’ve had a locally shot project to look forward to…especially one with such a strong cast. Adapted from the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes and directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) stars as the titular character who reunites with his ex-wife (Laura Dern, Smooth Talk) to visit the daughter she put up for adoption years earlier.  Harrelson and Dern on their own would pique my interest but the two stars together in a movie shot in my hometown featuring a host of familiar local faces?  Sign me up to get to know Wilson better. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Jackie

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Synopsis: Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Release Date: December 2, 2016

Thoughts: No matter how much people try to predict it, the Oscar season is always filled with twists and turns. A few months ago, Jackie wasn’t even on the radar for many pundits but it’s sneaking in at the last minute and could upset an already full Best Actress pool.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman’s (Thor: The Dark World) performance of the former first lady is getting raves but I’m already seeing the late night sketch shows parodying her Jackie accent. She’s dead-on with it, no question, but it takes a while to get used to. Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Billy Crudup (Spotlight), and John Carroll Lynch (Hot Pursuit), look for Jackie to be part of the conversation as we move toward peak award season buzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ Table 19

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Synopsis: Ex-maid of honor Eloise – having been relieved of her duties after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man via text- decides to attend the wedding anyway only to find herself seated with 5 “random” guests at the dreaded Table 19.

Release Date: January 20, 2017

Thoughts: I seem to have attended more weddings in the past two years than I have in my entire lifetime and have enjoyed each one of them.  Not only were they unique individual celebrations but I’ve been lucky enough to be seated at some fun tables and have met new friends. This first look at Table 19 introduces us to some characters that feel the burn of the high-number table assignment and decide to do something about it. Seems I’m eternally on the fence with Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) but I’ll trek through mountains of toulle and tasteless wedding cake to see anything Lisa Kudrow (The Girl on the Train) is in. This seems to be one of those indie films picked up for a song hoping to be a sleeper hit, but I’ll walk down the aisle with it if there’s more funny stuff not shown in the trailer.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Release Date: March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Are you ready for The Grand Budapest Hotel?  No, really, are you ready?  Because I have the inkling the first great movie of 2014 will arrive once Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom opens its doors in early March.  Anderson is an acquired taste and truth be told it’s taken me a while to really warm up to his style but if it’s half as precise as Moonrise Kingdom this one’s going to be another strong entry in Anderson’s growing list of cinematic treasures.  As is always the case for an Anderson film, the trailer is more of an excuse to introduce the slam-dunk cast on board than it is to reveal plot details…I found myself saying “Like him, like her, love him, like him, love her…” as this second preview played on.  Highly anticipated to the point where it may not meet expectations, I’m trying to keep a lid on this one until I see it for myself.

Movie Review ~ The East

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson

Director: Zal Batmanglij

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It might be easy to dismiss The East as another indie granola thriller with an activism agenda but it’s thanks to a nuanced script co-written by star Brit Marling (Arbitage, Sound of My Voice) and director Zal Batmanglij and some seriously layered performances that should put your movie compass due north toward this nicely constructed film.

Indie-darling Marling has had a boon of opportunity in the last few years turning up in several well reviewed flicks that may not have made much of a dent at the box office but upped her street cred in Hollywood causing many to take notice.  Resisting the urge to snap up roles in any number of summer blockbusters, Marling instead took a more creative route by rounding up her frequent collaborator Batmanglij and gathering a crackerjack cast for her urban potboiler.

As Sarah, an agent recruited by a mysterious intelligence firm to find a way to get inside a grassroots anarchist group targeting specific big money companies, Marling convincingly gets under the skin of her character. Without laying it all out for us she shows us the complexities of the work, what it takes to burrow in and gain trust, and the toll that double life takes on the psyche.  Starting off wanting the opportunity to succeed more than having much conviction for the job, Sarah eventually winds up in the wooded compound of the members of The East including Skarsgård (Disconnect) as charismatic leader Benji and Ellen Page (Juno) as cautious rebel Izzy.

It may not seem like it on a first viewing but Marling and Batmanglij have gone to great lengths to get all their ducks lined up in a row.  As the lines get blurred between what side is actually doing the most damage, Sarah sees a new challenge in adapting to the way of life the members of the group chose to live…eventually losing herself in the world she’s created.

The whole set-up isn’t anything truly original because we’ve seen these types of undercover movies dozens of times.  What makes The East so different is the way it chooses to present the material in scenes that feel fresh and don’t spell out what the motivations are of anyone involved.  Everyone seems to be hiding something and as soon as one secret is revealed a host of new questions emerge.  The movie has a nice rhythm, allowing the characters and the tension to grow as the story progresses – not everything works out like you think it will and several times I was pleasantly surprised as a new wrinkle was introduced.

If anything, the movie is recommended on the strength of one performance.  Patricia Clarkson.  The head of the security firm that assigns Sarah, Clarkson’s character is colored with one of the most crisply sinister edges in quite some time and that’s not something that is thanks only to the script.  I’ve been a fan of Clarkson for some time but her purring ice queen is truly something to behold.

Though The East may not pop to the top of your list during this busy summer movie season, do try and seek it out when it’s available for viewing at home in the fall.  There’s a real depth to the message and a skill in the delivery that’s rare to find nowadays.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Trance

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Synopsis: An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Release Date:  April 5, 2013

Thoughts: What excites me most about director Danny Boyle is his willingness to take on different genres of films and putting his own spin on it.  From sci-fi (Sunshine) to family drama (Millions), zombie mayhem (28 Days Later) to inspiring stories of survival (127 Hours) this is a director that won’t be put in a box.  His newest effort harkens back to the film that put him on the map, 1997’s Shallow Grave (it’s no coincidence that Trance and Shallow Grave share the same screenwriter).  That wickedly clever UK import was stylish without sacrificing substance and Trance looks like a similar outing.  Assembling an appealing cast doesn’t hurt either and I’ve a feeling this will be a nice way to warm up the cold weather we’ve been shoveling through in the Midwest.

Movie Review ~ Hitchcock

The Facts:

Synopsis: A love story between influential filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville during the filming of Psycho in 1959.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  After a disastrous first screening of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s agent (Stuhlbarg) suggests “Maybe we should cut it down and release it as a two-part special for television”.  It was at that point in this breezey but hollow biopic of the Master of Suspense that I thought what a great suggestion that is that the filmmakers should have taken to heart.  Instead of giving us a film that feels like a full meal, we are served appetizers that don’t totally cure our hunger.

That’s not to say Hitchcock (adapted by John McLaughlin from Stephen Rebello’s biography “Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”) doesn’t have its saving graces because it does acquit itself somewhat with several fine performances and a dishy behind the scenes vibe that movie buffs will enjoy.  On the other hand, I left the film feeling like I watched a movie made up of anecdotes rather than a fully formed idea.  The synopsis indicates it’s a love story between Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville…OK…but then it veers off into a psychoanalysis of Hitchcock and his hang-ups on blonde bombshells….OK…yet it turns again to a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Psycho…OK…or is it really about the greater price of fame and notoriety both Hitchcock and Alma encountered?  All interesting ideas for a picture on their own but somehow they don’t work when layered on top of each other.

Being the movie buff I am, I quite enjoyed peeking into how Hitchcock discovered Psycho and against all odds made one of the classic pictures in American cinema.  Recreating the experience of filming the movie was interesting to watch unfold…as were the performances of D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas) as Anthony Perkins and Scarlett Johansson (Marvel’s The Avengers) as Janet Leigh.  Both actors steer clear of outright imitations and instead deliver convincing performances that really do remind you of these stars.  Johansson in particular doesn’t resemble Janet Leigh but I’ll be darned if I didn’t do a few double takes when hearing her speak in Leigh’s voice and nail her softly nuanced facial expressions.  Biel (Total Recall, The Tall Man) too doesn’t remind me of Vera Miles but the actress is nicely restrained in her brief scenes. 

Supporting actors get the job done, I s’pose but I’d love it if Huston could get out from under these boorish types of characters.  Collette is delightful as always and Wincott is effectively creepy acting as a bizarre muse to Hitchcock in the guise of an imagined Ed Gein. 

In promotional materials and trailers, Hopkins gave off the proper vibe as the famous director of the title.  Still…something about seeing the full performance didn’t ring true if I’m really being honest.  The dimensions are all correct and if you close your eyes the voice is almost there…but it was close but no cigar for me.  With the aid of a portly fat suit, Hopkins fills the room with his presence…but his wildly inconsistent hair and facial make-up spoil it all and you may find yourself wondering why half his face is one color and the other half is another.  While not a big budget film, I think more attention to the make-up detail would have helped Hopkins come to a more fully realized performance.  I’ll add that while the voice was going in the right direction…something about his slow delivery suggested the man was mid-stroke.

That leaves us with Mirren who simply towers above all else in the film.  As inconsistent as the film may be, it’s absolutely saved by her contributions as Hitch’s burdened wife.  Clearly his biggest supporter and best confidant, she never got the recognition she deserved and many credit her influence as the true genius behind the man.  Mirren understands this and never plays the role as so put-upon you couldn’t understand why she’s sticking around.  This is a woman who knows that with every film her husband will obsess over details and fret about success…and she takes it all in and helps him through.  The film is most successful when Mirren is taking control of whatever situation needs to be leveled off.  It probably helps that since Alma isn’t a familiar Hollywood figure, Mirren’s performance isn’t held under the same magnifying glass that Hopkins is. 

Director Gervasi achieves a nicely period looking film that does feel like it was meant for the small screen due in no part to its trim running time.  Had this been released on television (like the recent HBO Hitchcock piece, The Girl) I think it would have been a bit easier to forgive some of the film’s faults.  Like 2011’s My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady, this is an uneven film with a powerful female performance at the center.  Everything else just feels like window dressing.