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.

Movie Review ~ Hail, Caesar!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.

Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Films by the Brothers Coen have always been a mixed bag for me.  Like Woody Allen’s impressive roster of releases, I feel the Coens hit the bulls-eye every two movies or so.  They aren’t all winners and as much as movie gurus implore you to like even their most misguided affairs (hello Burn After Reading!) I’ve just gotten used to the fact that I’m just not going to follow that pack and say I enjoy all of their work.

Last represented (directorially) on screen in 2013 with the seriously underrated Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have gone Hollywood with their latest romp, a madcap paean to the golden age of cinema.  Like those classic films of the ‘50s, it’s chock full of recognizable stars and has the pristine period-perfect production values we’ve come to expect from the Coens.  Yet, like most mass-produced Hollywood fare produced during that era it’s curiously forgettable almost the instant you leave the theater.

I’ve come to believe that any Coen Brothers movie can be edited to look like a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the early ads for Hail, Caesar! have certainly gave the impression there’s a lot of hijinks to be had and for once it wasn’t totally off the mark.  Nicely lampooning the types of films and stars that came out of the studio system, cinephiles will rejoice at the Coens recreation of westerns, musicals, and historical epics.

On the set of the biblical drama Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, Tomorrowland) is a handsome dimbulb about to be kidnapped and held for ransom by a pack of disgruntled communist screenwriters attempting to get back at the studio that reaps the financial benefit of their artistic contributions.  It’s so very Coen Brothers to make this buttoned-up intelligent gang not the misunderstood members on the Hollywood blacklist but full-on Russian sympathizing commies.  Several months after the problematic Trumbo gained so much attention for rehashing the dark days of the McCarthy hearings and the lasting effect they had in Hollywood, I must say it’s kind of refreshing to see this fictionalized band of writers presented as the total opposite of how we’d expect, considering the time and place.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent studios we meet a cadre of classic Coen crazies like Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a beautiful Esther Williams-esque starlet, a mermaid on screen with a hard edge once her tail comes off. Then there’s Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall) as a frustrated serious film director forced to work with a yokel rising star (a hilariously spot-on Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) plucked from the set of a cowboy film to play the lead in a high society musical.  Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) sings and tap-dances in an On the Town style musical nicely choreographed to be a little dirty and showcasing yet another undiscovered Tatum talent.  Appearing all too briefly is Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) as twin gossip columnists seeking a scoop for their next column.  Like her appearance in Trainwreck, Swinton dives headfirst into the character(s), leaving you wanting more in the best way possible.  Frances McDormand (Promised Land), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), and even Wayne Knight (Jurassic Park), pop up for the briefest of cameos (why McDormand and Hill are above the title is beyond me) as various denizens involved with either the studio, the kidnapping, or both.

Tying this all together is Josh Brolin’s (Oldboy) Eddie Mannix, employed by the studio to make sure their stars stay in line, their movies stay within budget, and all problems are kept under the rug.  Loosely based on the notorious real-life Eddie Mannix from MGM, who some say was involved with Tinsel Towns most infamous unsolved crimes, Brolin’s Mannix is recast as the neutral core of the studio/film, the one people come to when they need help or advice.

Oscar nominated this year for their script of Bridge of Spies, Joel and Ethan Coen (who also adapted Unbroken in 2014) have several moments in Hail, Caesar! that fire on all cylinders.  A discussion between four holy men and Mannix about the religious sensitivity of the biblical epic being filmed is a highlight and a perfect example of the dynamic wordplay that have defined much of the Coens careers.  Then there are the frequent stretches that philosophize past their welcome and make the wait between the lighter moments seem that much longer.  Frustratingly, I’m sure these are the passages of Hail, Caesar! that Coen aficionados will recreate in their living rooms while watching Intolerable Cruelty in their Big Lebowski slippers.

Performances are on par with what we’ve come to expect from an off-killer Coen production, zany, unpredictable, and sometimes directly out of left field.  McDormand’s small role as a chain-smoking film editor feels like a Bugs Bunny character come to life while Swinton’s rapid-fire reporter seems to have emerged directly from a Howard Hawks film.  Clooney is charming in his ego-less way and while Tatum overshoots his pretty boy hunk role by a mile (even with precious little dialogue), he somehow fits perfectly into this world.  Brolin has the toughest role, the straight man, and he’s more than capable of holding it all together.

Hail, Caesar! isn’t up there with the Coen’s best but it’s a nice reminder that when they want to goof off they still know how to let loose and have fun with their friends.

 

A quick note about the ever  popular topic of diversity…recently the Cohens caused a bit of a dust-up when asked about diversity by a reporter.  Brushing off the question and never really answering the reporter, it’s interesting to consider that there are but three minority characters in the film (a Carmen Miranda like starlet and two employees at a Chinese restaurant, with maybe 8 lines of dialogue between them)…and over the course of their 17 movies, only three minorities have ever played leading/supporting roles in a Cohen film. 

Movie Review ~ The Good Dinosaur

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend.

Stars: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright

Director: Peter Sohn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s usually never a good sign when a release date for a movie is changed once.  It’s an even worse sign when it changes twice.  Then when you hear that nearly all of the cast was replaced, the director removed from the project, and reshoots were required you can rest assured that when (if?) the movie is actually released you’ll have the critical vultures swarming around looking to feast on the carcass of the wounded cinematic animal.

In this case, the movie in question is Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, finally seeing a release date a full two years after its intended November 2013 opening.  Those expecting a misfire from the studio limping into the holiday movie season will be in for a surprise because for the second time in 2015 Disney/Pixar have a hit on their hands.  For all of its fabled troubles on its way to theaters (including replacing the voices of John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Bill Hader) it’s clear from the final product that whatever tinkering and tailoring was done was necessary and worth the wait.

Featuring what I feel is Pixar’s best animation to date, The Good Dinosaur may lack the overall complex creativity of June’s Inside Out (which ingeniously taught children and adults how to own and celebrate their emotions) but it’s not short on memorable characters and moments.  I went in expecting something along the lines of The Land Before Time but got a lovely family feature that’s generous with humor and heart.

Positing an alternate timeline where the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs missed the planet completely, The Good Dinosaur takes place in the present…albeit in a present where dinosaurs never went extinct and humans never became the dominant species.  This isn’t a dark vision of what might have been but a thoughtful pondering a future were these great beasts continued to thrive for millions of years, living off the rich bounty of a land uncorrupted by progress.

Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) are a brontosaurus couple spending their lives farming and plowing the fields.  Opening with the hatching of their three baby dinos, from their first moments we can see what each of their personalities will be like: Buck is the tough one, Libby is the playful one, and Arlo is…well…he still doesn’t quite know where he fits in.  The runt of the litter (arriving in the biggest egg), he’s a bundle of dino nerves that’s scared of everything from a tiny bug that lands on his nose to the raggedy chickens he’s tasked with feeding.

Borrowing a page from the old-fashioned Disney canon, a tragedy occurs for Arlo followed by a separation from his home that sends him on a journey of discovery to find his way back to his family.  Following the river through the gorgeous untouched landscapes of nature, he’s joined by Spot, a human child that acts like a feral dog that Arlo has a score to settle with.  Eventually the two come to need each other as they face the harsh realities of nature and meet a number of wildlife along the way like a cross-eyed Styracosaurus (hilariously voiced by director Peter Sohn), a pack of threatening Pterodactyls, and a family of cowboy T-Rexes (headed by splendid Sam Elliott, I’ll See You In My Dreams) on a cattle drive.

The material is more adult-oriented than previous Pixar films and I appreciated that the film doesn’t make any excuses for the dramatic (and often scary) turns it takes.  Parents should know that it’s PG for a reason, some kids at my screening had a rough go with the beasts and some of the subject matter.  Arlo is constantly threatened with danger whether it be falling off rocks, plunging into water, or fending off a host of creatures that see him and Spot as their next meal.  The supporting players are perhaps the most bizarre creations from Pixar yet, with the Pterodactyls being most troublesome for this critic thanks to their crazed rants and appetite for food of any kind.

Pixar is no stranger to tapping into emotions and there are several passages of The Good Dinosaur where you may find tears welling up behind your 3D glasses.  While the 3D isn’t revelatory, it goes well with the impressive vistas and animals that pass you by.  Though I tried my hardest to hold it in, I cried a few times over the course of the film thanks to some developments that I could relate to on a personal level.  It won’t give you the Sally Field Ugly Cry Face that Inside Out and Up did, but don’t be surprised if the tears come when you aren’t expecting it.  I also laughed a lot, especially at some unexpected frivolity in the form of a trippy tangent brought on by Arlo and Spot eating spoiled fruit.

The feature goes nicely with Sanjay’s Super Team, the father-son centered short that precedes it and while most will give the Best Pixar of 2015 edge to Inside Out, there’s a case to be made for The Good Dinosaur too.  It’s perhaps less original in conception but in execution it showcases the absolute best animation that Pixar has created so far.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Good Dinosaur

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Synopsis: After a traumatic event unsettles a lively Apatosaurus named Arlo, he sets out on a remarkable journey, gaining an unlikely companion along the way – a human boy.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: With all eyes on PIXAR’s June offering Inside Out (already garnering rave reviews) it’s easy to forget that the studio has a second film due out in 2015. This nice little teaser for The Good Dinosaur doesn’t give much away in terms of plot and that’s perfectly OK with me because it won’t be long until a longer, more descriptive trailer arrives that shows more dino action. 2015 looks like it could be a good year for dinosaurs between this and June’s Jurassic World and with PIXAR’s history of tugging at that good ‘ole heartstrings I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the big “What If” question that’s posed in the preview. Here’s hoping this is another strong effort from PIXAR, a still aces studio that has seen some strong competition in recent years.

 

Movie Review ~ Promised Land

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources

Stars: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The ads for Promised Land make it seem like it’s a cross between Erin Brockovich and Silkwood — while there is a definite David vs. Goliath element to the plot, it turns out that the film is less interested in the business side of things and more focused in the subtle exploration of what constitutes the “right thing to do”.   In the end, the film is perhaps too subtle for its own good and ends up barely making a blip on the radar despite even keeled direction and strong performances.

Damon and McDormand are representatives for a natural gas company that is looking to lease precious farm land from a community sitting on top of a 150 million dollar payload.  Instead of going in as smarmy salespeople, the two seek to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople so they can make their pitch with ease.  It’s a tricky balancing act to perform; we aren’t sure if they believe what they’re saying/selling so it’s hard to know what to discredit.

We’re shown early on that the team of Damon/McDormand are at the top of their field, so it’s no surprise that any sort of problem with this particular town takes a while to become evident.  It’s the combination of an informed retiree (Holbrook) and the appearance of an environmentalist with a personal story to tell (Krasinski) that throws two very big wrenches in what should have been an open and shut sales trip.

I appreciated that the film kept the big city business element out of the picture – there’s very little involvement from the billion dollar company that has sent Damon and McDormand out to close the deal. Instead, we watch as the two continue to meet with their target audience to not only sell them on their plans but stand up to the claims that their mining procedures would eventually turn the soil and water toxic.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay from a story by David Eggers and the piece is very timely.  As we continue to deplete our natural resources and fight for oil overseas, there is the thought that we need to look within our own soil for a way to fuel our country.  As farming begins to disappear across the US, the leasing of land to natural gas companies may be the only way for families and communities to survive.  To its credit, the movie does make good points on both sides but because it never really takes a solid stand either way there is a feeling of neutrality that may leave some unsatisfied.

Reteaming with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, Damon delivers a nicely nuanced performance — though I found it hard to believe that it’s this particular town that opens his eyes to problems within his company.  A shoehorned semi-romance with a teacher (DeWitt) doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the movie and the implied competition with Krasinski for her hand feels a bit too pat.  Speaking of Krasinski, it’s clear that he’s got more in him than the character he’s played for nine seasons on television’s The Office but it’s strange that he’s written himself such a one dimensional role.  It also bugged me that his environmentalist character is very concerned about chemicals in the ground but could care less about scattering hundreds of pamphlets around town and Damon’s truck.

It’s really McDormand that quietly steals the show from her male counterparts.  Clearly realizing this is simply a job to support her family, she can be equal parts bulldog and supportive parental figure.  Her scenes with a local business owner (Welliver) have the kind of on the money feel that the film needed more of.  Wearing little make-up and dressed down, she looks the part and acts it wonderfully.

Swede cinematographer Linus Sandgren helps Van Sant’s even-keeled direction with a nice eye for small town life.  There are the requisite shots of American flags, county stores, and endless fields of harvest but it’s straightforward enough to not feel gimmicky.  Danny Elfman’s score is a far cry from the work he’s done for Tim Burton and it’s nice to hear something smooth and considerate from him.

Promised Land is a perfectly fine film with good people doing good work.  It’s going to fade from your memory quite fast and probably isn’t a movie you’ll revisit after it’s over.  Perhaps it’s too small of a film to really have an impact on the big screen – had it been made for television it might have worked out better.  That being said, it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of anyone involved or some of the stronger thematic material it covers.