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.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family whose suburban home is haunted by evil forces must come together to rescue their youngest daughter after the apparitions take her captive.

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Kennedi Clements

Director: Gil Kenan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I was mad when MGM and Fox announced they were remaking the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist.  Like, mad.  Like, really, really MAD.  How could any studio, director, or screenwriter even hope to come close to, let alone best, a film that has aged well and still scares the ever loving hell out of anyone that gives it a spin?  Haven’t we learned from remakes lately that it’s best to leave well enough alone and maybe focus on something original…or in the absence of something original pour through the countless numbers of average films and give them a spit-polish for a new generation?

Now let me say that as mad as I was and as incredulous as I remain that a remake of Poltergeist made it through the planning stages, I’ll tell you now that this 2015 take on Poltergeist isn’t a bad film.  It’s made well, has a fair freak-out factor, and features worth-a-watch performances that don’t feel like they’re careening down the copycat highway.  Here’s the thing, though.  It’s also so completely unnecessary that I wound up just feeling bad for everyone involved because their budget and time were all for naught.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz The Great and Powerful) may have changed the names and some key plot elements from the original script by Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and he may have inserted some new millennium colloquialisms and technology that wasn’t present in the early ‘80s but he’s retained the overall gist and familial themes that worked so well in Tobe Hooper’s film.  This turns out to be a wise choice because what’s been carried over remains the most interesting thing about the film.

Downsized from his job and forced to move into a new home with his wife and three children, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) is your typical cool dad that has a witty quip at the ready but loves his family.  He’s a little ashamed that he can’t be the provider and feels guilty that his family has had to uproot their lives.  The original film featured a family that lives in a pristine new residential development but the neighborhood that the Bowens call home feels sad, another victim of a depressing economy.  The groovy ‘80s décor from the 1982 film gives way to a bland three story cookie cutter home with butter yellow walls and a heck of a lot of ghosts.

The events unfold in much the way we expect.  Family moves in, bad things start to happen, little girl starts talking to the television, a big storm arrives and the little girl vanishes.  While Lindsay-Abaire has nobly tried to put some feeling into the Bowens, the economical running time doesn’t leave much wiggle room to develop the characters as well as Spielberg did originally.  What made Spielberg’s script so jazzy for the time was putting JoBeth Williams’ stay-at-home mom front and center, a key player in the action of finding and saving her young daughter.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) mom is more passive and not only lets her husband do most of the work but lets her scared of the dark son overshadow her when the going gets rough.

Nice to see that the children cast aren’t the annoying tots that they could have been.  Kennidi Clements is a sprightly tyke, precocious enough to believe she may have been born with a psychic gift but endearing enough to make you fear for her safety.  Saxon Sharbino as the oldest daughter seems like an afterthought, a character kept in because the remake rules demanded it.  Though I had some problems with Kyle Catlett’s middle child being moved to such a prominent role at the expense of his parents, the young actor does good work with a role that might seem more at home in a PG rated thriller for kids.

Now for the bad stuff.

The original film featured Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight as a wise but unprepared paranormal psychologist who enlists the help of Zelda Rubinstein’s medium to save the day.  The remake casts Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) in Straight’s role and turns the medium into a television ghost hunter (Jared Harris, Pompeii) that was romantically involved with Adams years ago.  Adams is full-on crazy cat lady with her unkempt hair, multiple pairs of glasses, and plaid skirts while Harris is no worthy replacement for the missing medium Tangina.  I just haven’t the faintest clue what the thought process of the creation of these characters was…landing on the idea that perhaps the studio hopes to make some sort of spin-off with these two (if you must, stick around for a post-credits sequence that explains my thoughts) but it’s just unwise through and through.

Director Gil Kenan helmed the admirable animated Monster House and his Poltergeist comes across like a sequel to that film more than it feels like a remake of the 1982 Poltergeist.  In fact, in Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire’s hands the film has the overall sense of a campfire story that’s been passed down over the last thirty years.  Over time the names have changed and modern references have been inserted…but the heart of the film remains and when the ghosts come out to play there’s some marginal fun to be had.

Still…I left the film not totally disappointed in what I’d seen but so very depressed that much effort was spent on something with no lasting value.  I’m especially troubled by the thought that some audiences may see this film before ever experiencing the dynamite scare fest that inspired it.  I think it’s better than Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III…but overall it’s a bummer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Poltergeist (2015)

poltergeisthttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViWTPto3atU

Synopsis: A family’s home is haunted by a host of ghosts

Release Date:  July 24, 2015

Thoughts: I’ve so many thoughts and feelings about this particular instance of Hollywood remaking one of its tried and true classics. I’m not usually precious about a property but the original Poltergeist is one of my all-time favorite films (not just horror) and it was done so well, so right the first time that I’m cowering in a corner hoping that this remake doesn’t sully the good name that 1982 haunted house flick made for itself. I’m encouraged by the cast, led by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back) and Rosemarie DeWitt (Promised Land) but am a bit wary by Jared Harris (Pompeii) and Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) taking the place of Zelda Rubenstein and Beatrice Straight. It’s unfortunate so much of the plot is revealed here…leaving me to wonder why director Gil Kenan (Monster House) and producer Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Indian Summer) have left to surprise us with. Maybe it’s just best to leave well enough alone…

Movie Review ~ The Way, Way Back

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Over the course of his summer break, a teenager comes into his own thanks in part to the friendship he strikes up with a manager at a local water park.

Stars: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph and Liam James, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry

Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In the days and weeks since I caught a screening of The Way, Way Back I’ve taken in quite a few other films across the cinematic spectrum.  At the end of each film there was only one movie in my mind and it was The Way, Way Back.  While I tend to refrain from overselling a film (lest I lead my readers astray) when you have a picture of this quality you have to stand up and shout it out.

With all the reading I do on film and upcoming projects, this was a film I kept hearing good things about after a successful screening at the Sundance Film Festival.  When the trailer was released I was surprised at how much interesting material was packed in and that after all was said and done I still wanted to see more.  As a huge fan of 2011’s The Descendants, I was particularly curious to see what its Oscar winning screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash would devise for their follow-up to that quirky dramedy that packed a huge emotional punch.

For a film that could be seen as a mish-mash of genres from Meatballs-style summer shenanigans to family drama to coming of age heartbreak The Way, Way Back is for the most part quite focused.  That’s thanks in large part to the Faxon/Rash script that seems nicely trimmed of any excess fat and provides some wonderfully diverse actors to play against type in a manner that doesn’t seem forced.

We all know that Steve Carell can float between comedy (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) and drama (Dan in Real Life) but what he shows us here is that he can believably play a hard-edged two face with little to no redemptive features.   We see this right away when he quizzes the shy son (Liam James) of his girlfriend (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) to see how he’d rate himself on a scale of 1-10.  Prodding the teen to give an answer while the mom and Carell’s own teenager daughter doze in the car ride to their summer beach retreat, he gets the boy to give a response and then skillfully tears him down.

Arriving in a coastal Martha’s Vineyard-esque hamlet, the car isn’t even unpacked when boozy neighbor Allison Janney (…first do no harm) bursts out of her house to welcome the blended semi-family.  Janney should be nicknamed Old Reliable because she never fails in creating a memorable scene-stealer and this is no different.  If anything, Janney hopefully will get some major award recognition at the end of the year for a nuanced take on the stereotypical lush who can’t keep her opinions to herself.

As the boy silently skulks through the first few days where Carell continues to brow beat him in a way that no one seems to catch on to, he finally wanders into a local water park and meets the head lifeguard (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2) who winds up taking the boy under his wing.  Clearly starved for attention, the relationship that builds between Rockwell and James is sweetly winning because it comes with no strings or artifice.  Rockwell’s character may be a jokester but he can spot that this kid needs a friend and provides that for him – as well as opening his eyes to the fact that life is what you make of it not what someone tells you it should be.

Also co-directing, Faxon and Rash cast themselves in small roles that fit their personas and don’t seem like they are taking advantage of their power (I’m looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan).  Rounding out the cast are fine turns by Maya Rudolph as Rockwell’s superior that does her fair share of eye rolling, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry (Warm Bodies, Pain & Gain) as friends of Carell, and AnnaSophia Robb as Janney’s daughter who catches the eye of our young lead.  Collette is, as ever, completely winning even though it’s frustrating to see how long she turns a blind eye to Carell’s attitude toward her son.

The film, though, belongs to Rockwell (fingers crossed an Oscar nomination is in store for him) and James as they navigate a summer filled with the right amount of fun in the sun, conversations about acceptance that ring true, and personal journeys that carry these characters upward and onward.  By the time the film reaches its conclusion it has won the audiences affection and wraps things up with a powerful final image that tells us everything we need to know about what happens next.

More than any movie in recent memory, I was sad to see The Way, Way Back come to an end.  These are characters I think many of us can identify with because as the film tagline deftly illustrates, “We’ve all been there.”  Yes, we’ve all been there and hopefully most of us have found our way back.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Iron Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tony Stark has declared himself Iron Man and installed world peace… or so he thinks. He soon realizes that not only is there a mad man out to kill him with his own technology, but there’s something more: he is dying.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Clark Gregg, Olivia Munn

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I’m going to say it, okay?  I’m just going to come out and say it.  The time has come for me to state something publically for all the blog-world to read.  Are you ready?   I liked Iron Man 2 more than I liked the first Iron Man.  Wow…ok…that felt really great to say.  I realize I’m in the minority here and that many, many, many people would disagree but at the end of the day and after watching both films back to back I still find the second entry to be a tad more entertaining and fulfilling than the first.

Now that’s not a knock on the first film which in and of itself was a strong film and a great kick start to the Avengers franchise that we have today.  What shaved a tiny fraction of a point off for me was an iffy first half where I always find my mind wandering whenever I see it.  Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the first Iron Man is strong but I think everyone that was carried over into the second entry (good-by Terrence Howard, hello Don Cheadle) just has more to work with.

Maybe that’s because the script for Iron Man had four writers while Iron Man 2 was penned solo by Justin Theroux (recommended by Downey Jr. after writing Tropic Thunder) and the script feels more like the voice of one rather than the voice of many.  There’s more character development, a tighter beginning, and enough material to carry the film from start to finish.

After the success of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios stumbled again with yet another attempt at The Incredible Hulk.  Though that film did decent business (and included a cameo from Iron Man), it wasn’t the homerun that Iron Man was so there was even more pressure on Iron Man 2 to right a listing ship.  Aided by more action and visual effects, the movie really delivers on a massive scale…even more impressive when I saw it on an IMAX screen that awed me even as I was deafened by the booming sound design.

Adding more layers to Tony Stark, Downey Jr. feels at home in the role and Theroux adds some opportunities for Downey Jr.’s wry comedic strengths to shine.  Once again Downey Jr. and Paltrow exhibit a great chemistry and even the introduction of a sultry new Stark Company employee (Johansson) can’t drive a wedge between the two.  Johansson (who replaced Emily Blunt) is here to introduce the Black Widow that would play a part in later Avengers films and her presence adds a decent amount of anticipation for what would come next.  Rockwell and Rourke are nice yin/yang villains with Rockwell’s hyper charm working well alongside Rourke’s reserved blood boiler. 

I found the first Iron Man to be an entertaining superhero movie but nothing truly spectacular.  Iron Man 2 falls into largely the same category but it does what sequels should do – deliver something bigger while also moving our characters forward at the right pace.  It’s clear that these Avenger movies have been very carefully plotted out because they need to tie into each other at key points – Iron Man 2 fits nicely into the grand scheme of this world.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Way, Way Back

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Synopsis: Over the course of his summer break, a teenager comes into his own thanks in part to the friendship he strikes up with one of the park’s managers.

Release Date:  July 5, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s a trailer that has pretty much everything you could ask for in a comedy: a great cast, the promise of laughs not shown in the trailer, and a set-up reminiscent of the easy-going summer comedies from the 80’s and 90’s.  What surprises me is that no mention is made that the film is the directional debut of the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash).  I was a huge fan of the off-beat humor in that film so am very much looking forward to seeing what Faxon/Rash have cooked up for this summertime indie that could become a sleeper hit.