THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Once out of our teen years (though some take a bit longer), the vast majority of us accept the obvious truth to the adage “life is not fair”. Despite this, we never outgrow our desire for justice when we feel wronged. Uber-talented playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh delivers a superb drama blended with a type of dark comedy that allows us to deal with some pretty heavy, and often unpleasant small town happenings.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving mother whose daughter was abducted and violently murdered. With the case having gone cold, Mildred is beyond frustrated and now desperate to prevent her daughter from being forgotten. To light the proverbial fire and motivate the local police department to show some urgency in solving her daughter’s case, Mildred uses the titular billboards to make her point and target the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards cause quite the ruckus as the media brings extra attention, which in turn creates conflict between Mildred and the police department, the town citizens, and even her own son (Lucas Hedges). The film could have been titled ‘The Wrath of Mildred’ if not for so many other facets to the story and characters with their own layers. Her anger is certainly understandable, though some of her actions are impossible to defend. Things can never again be square in the life of a parent who has lost a child, yet vengeance is itself a lost cause.

Mr. McDonagh’s exceptional script utilizes twisted comedy to deal with the full spectrum of dark human emotions: managing the deepest grief, anger, guilt, and need for revenge. As in his Oscar winning script for the contemporary classic IN BRUGES (2008), his dialogue plays as a strange type of poetry, delivering some of the most harsh and profane lines in melodic fashion. In addition to his nonpareil wordsmithing, Mr. McDonagh and casting director Sarah Finn have done a remarkable job at matching many talented performers with the characters – both large roles and small.

Following up her Emmy winning performance in “Olive Kitteridge”, Ms. McDormand is yet again a force of nature on screen. She would likely have dominated the film if not for the effectively understated portrayal by Mr. Harrelson, and especially the best supporting performance of the year courtesy of Sam Rockwell. His Officer Dixon is a racist with out-of-control anger issues who still lives with his mom (a brilliant Sandy Martin, who was also the grandma in NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE). Caleb Landry Jones once again shows his uncanny ability to turn a minor role into a character we can’t take our eyes off (you’ll remember his screen debut as one of the bike riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Here he plays Red, the owner of the billboards with an inner desire to carry some clout. Rounding out the absurdly deep cast are Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (the epitome of a new Sheriff in town). Every actor has at least one moment (and monologue) to shine, and one of the best scenes (of the year) involves Nick Searcy as a Priest getting schooled on “culpability” by Mildred.

Cinematographer Ben Davis has a nice blend of “big” movies (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) and small (TAMARA DREWE) in his career, and here he really captures the feel of the small town and interactions of the characters. Also adding to the film’s excellence is the folksy, western score (with a touch of dueling gunfighters) by Carter Burwell. And keeping the streak alive … it’s yet another worth-watching film featuring a Townes Van Zandt song.

Not many films dare tackle the list of topics and issues that are touched on here: church arrogance, police violence, racism, cancer, domestic violence, questioning the existence of God, parental grief with a desire for revenge, the weight of a guilty conscience, and the influence of parents in a rural setting. The film is superbly directed by Mr. McDonagh, who now has delivered two true classics in less than a decade. It’s the uncomfortable laughs that make life in Ebbing tolerable, but it’s the pain and emotions that stick with us long after the credits roll. Sometimes we need a reminder that fairness in the world should not be expected, and likely does not exist. If that’s true, what do we do with our anger? McDonagh offers no easy answers, because there are none. But he does want us to carefully consider our responses.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

July 13, 2013

way way1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those indies that has all the pieces in place to be not just a terrific “little” movie, but also a surprise box office hit.  It played well at festivals, critics love it, it has a very talented cast, it mixes humor with human emotion, and the co-directors and co-writers won an Oscar (with Alexander Payne) for writing the script to The Descendants.  It even offers the often effective coming-of-age story line in regards to Duncan (played by Liam James) as a miserable 14 year old stuck at a beach house with him mom, her obnoxious boyfriend and his snobby daughter.

The movie has a touch of “The Wonder Years” (without the narrator), but it’s a bit more caustic thanks to Steve Carell, who plays Trent, the condescending and bullying boyfriend who has no redeeming qualities that we can see (other than an inherited beach house and a nice tan).  It’s very unusual to see Carell in the “bad guy” role, but once you accept it, his lines and way way3lies cut through each scene.  Duncan’s mom is played by Toni Collette, and her character Pam is a divorced, insecure single mom trying to balance her own happiness with that of her teen-angst-filled son. Pam and Duncan are the outsiders in this beach community as we quickly learn when next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) barges across property lines (and personal space) with drink in hand and gossip flying.

Feeling further humiliated by his encounters with Betty’s cute daughter, Duncan finally gains a ray of hope thanks to Owen, the man-child manager of the Water Wizz park.  Sam Rockwell plays Owen, and quickly becomes a mentor to him by offering him a job and what I call … Water Wizzdom.  Of course, Duncan keeps the job a secret from the others in his life, and since they are mostly oblivious to his long absences, it proves again how self-centered the adults are in this little would-be family.

way way2 The well worn movie signs are all here … we recognize the characters and their struggles, in fact, we all know someone like each of the people that co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash present to us. We understand quickly that this is yet another coming-of-age tale with mostly clueless adults, and kids trying to cope on their own. Despite that, this one still mostly works. The writing and acting are such high quality that even though we are living in movie cliché-land, we still find ourselves caring about Duncan and Pam, laughing at Owen, and tossing tomatoes at Trent (Carell).

Special recognition to Sam Rockwell. Even though Duncan is the key character, it’s Rockwell’s Owen who recognizes that a little faith and encouragement goes a long way. Behind the facade of rapid-fire banter and laugh-inducing one-liners, Owen is coming to grips with a life of reality and shattered dreams. While never stooping to the typical Hollywood “win one for the Gipper” speech, Owen manages to instill a bit of confidence in Duncan … to the point where he refuses to let his mother pretend everything is OK with Trent.

way way4 AnnaSophia Robb plays the cute girl-next-door who recognizes potential in Duncan, but the filmmakers never allow this to turn into some ridiculous fairy tale. Instead we get characters who are each flawed, but real and recognizable. While all the typical pieces are present, there is enough crackle to the dialogue and quality acting to help this one rise above the usual muck. It’s a nice “little” alternative to the giant summer blockbusters. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have shown again that they have a gift for dialogue and now a talent for guiding actors.  In this, their directorial debut, they prove that they also have skills as filmmakers. We should expect the next one to be even better!

**NOTE: you may think this looks like another Little Miss Sunshine, but it really flips the percentages in comedy vs drama

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: quirkiness and caustic dialogue mixed with some humorous and familiar coming-of-age moments are what you are looking for this summer movie season OR you want to see Steve Carell play something other than a nice guy

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are seeking light-hearted summer fluff … this one is filled with uncomfortable family drama

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qoaVUdbWMs


SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

October 14, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. When a writer/director sets a standard with a film like In Bruges, the anticipation for the follow-up is palpable, especially from those of us with the demented sense of humor necessary to watch that film over and over. Martin McDonagh is a writer firs (shorts, features and plays), and a self-taught filmmaker second. He again shows his talent for interesting characters in unusual situations, and an extraordinary blend of black comedy, violence and personal struggles with morality.

This film is a smart (but dark) comedy about characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they see themselves. It’s quite self-referential and at its best is a self-parody. Colin Farrell plays a writer who is blocked after creating the perfect title … “Seven Psychopaths”. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend who runs a crafty little dog-napping business and feeds Farrell possible story lines. He even goes as far as to run an ad asking real life psychopaths to come tell their story. Yep, this plan is just running smoothly until Rockwell kidnaps the dog of a local gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

What we quickly figure out is that we are watching Farrell’s writing process unfold on screen. The bigger challenge is trying to figure out which parts are really happening and which parts are fantasy or part of the creative process. The writing and acting are very skillful. Christopher Walken plays Rockwell’s partner and delivers what may be his best performance in years. It’s very offbeat and irregular … in other words, typical Walken.  Though there are many excellent scenes, the best ones involve Walken.

The script pokes fun at the weak female characters – Abbie Cornish as Farrell’s girlfriend, and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as Harrelson’s less-than-loyal girlfriend. The film also features some of my favorite character actors. In addition to Walken, we get the great Tom Waits as a bunny loving psychopath, Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker, Zeljko Ivanek as a henchman, and an opening scene with “Boardwalk Empire” alums Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.

 As wonderful a writer as McDonagh is, we can’t help notice the influences of Quentin Tarantino and the spaghetti westerns – especially The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. His comedic tendencies wrapped in violent sequences really challenge us as viewers. Trying to find the good in those who aren’t necessarily so good adds an element and complexity as the film throws violence in our face as the characters are confronting their deeper feelings on morality. Since Farrell’s character is a writer named Martin, we are probably safe in assuming that McDonagh is working through some of these same issues himself (especially the unnecessary violence and weak women characters).  McDonagh proves again to be one of the most intriguing and talented filmmakers working, and even though this one is a tick below his last one, I anxiously await his next.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you saw In Bruges and appreciated the dark comedy and philosophical nature OR you don’t want to miss a classic Christopher Walken performance

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to be light-hearted in nature OR you can’t appreciate the character who brings a flare gun to the final shootout in the desert

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOsd5d8IVoA

 

 


THE SITTER

December 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Seeing more than 100 new movies every year means strict adherence to the “gut instincts” policy of deciding which new movies to see, and which to avoid. A day after the beat down of Shame, I was desperate for laughter, so I ignored the gut instinct and headed out to see this new comedy. Unfortunately, my gut was correct, and I am still seeking laughter.

David Gordon Green also directed Pineapple Express and Your Highness, neither my style, but both clearly comedies. Jonah Hill has quite the track record of comedy films (Cyrus), and earlier this year made his first foray into drama with Moneyball. He has also recently lost a tremendous amount of weight, so this was to be his final “fat guy” comedy.

 If you have seen the far-superior Adventures in Babysitting (1987) with Elisabeth Shue, then you know the basic premise. Hill does his mother a favor by agreeing to babysit her friend’s three kids. This proves to be more challenging than Hill’s character expected. The kids are Slater, played by Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are); Blithe, played by Landry Bender; and Rodrigo, played by Kevin Hernandez. These kids, of course, have various afflictions, phobias and disorders … but none as off the charts as Hill’s character.

 Without going into detail, the first scene is horrible and the movie somehow proceeds to get worse from there. There is bathroom humor, a run in with a drug dealer (Sam Rockwell), a bitchy girlfriend (Ari Graynor) and a confrontation with a group of African Americans featuring Method Man. Every scene is predictable, often filled with stereotypes, and generated no laughter from me or hardly anyone else in the theater. I always say that comedies are most difficult genre to review, because everyone has a unique sense of humor … but this one just offers so very little, and doesn’t even seem to try.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid the strain of actually laughing during comedies

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can find anything better to do – yard work, root canal, cleaning the septic tank, etc

watch the trailer:


COWBOYS & ALIENS

July 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With such a wonderful title, creative concept, stellar cast, the director (Jon Favreau) of Iron Man and Elf, and the collision of two distinct film genres – Westerns and Sci-Fi, we had every right to expect cinematic genius. Instead we get OK, just fine, and kind of entertaining. I believe that qualifies as a letdown.

My view of the film is that the western/cowboy portion is outstanding. The setting and characters are realistic and intriguing. Heck, there is steely-eyed  Daniel Craig as the outlaw Jake Lonergan; grumpy Harrison Ford as Col. Dolarhyde who runs the town with iron fist; loony tunes Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s son who is itching for respect; bespectacled Sam Rockwell as a barkeep called Doc; porcelain Olivia Wilde as the not-from-around-here beauty whose presence no one seems to question; and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff trying to do the right thing. We even have the obligatory kid (Noah Ringer from The Last Airbender) and a loyal dog.

 The weakness of the film is with the aliens. Many have said the film would be better without the aliens. Well, wouldn’t that make the title a bit ridiculous? We just needed BETTER aliens. These aliens are smart enough for intergalactic travel but they can’t outsmart a bunch of rustlers? And how many times did they capture Daniel Craig just to have him escape? Not to mention that their power seems to come from gold … and there is a shortage on their planet and ours! The beginning of the film is really, really good. It’s 1837 and Lonergan wakes up in the middle of nowhere, just outside the unfriendly town of Absolution. He is wearing a metallic bracelet/shackle around his wrist and no memory of who he is or where he came from. Although there are some terrific scenes, the film kind of drifts downhill after that.

 All I will say about the story is that the aliens attack Absolution by kidnapping a few residents and stealing gold. The cowboys fight back with six shooters, Lonergan’s bracelet, Wilde’s knowledge, and some help from the Indians.

What really bothers me about this one is that it should have been so much FUN! Instead, it’s mostly bleak with only a few comic lines tossed in. My guess is having NINE writers associated with the film was a real problem. Each of the characters holds some interest, but the story just kind of meanders with little direction.

 A couple of minor irritants for me: Lonergan wakes up and mugs three crusty old cowboys and winds up with perfectly tailored chaps, pants, shirt and vest; Olivia Wilde wears the same dress all the time but never really gets dirty; the cowboys shoot the aliens with guns, arrows and spears – sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t; and supposedly the aliens don’t see well in daylight. Tell that to the numerous cowboys and Indians who get slaughtered in the climatic battle. Lastly, Olivia Wilde’s character is the only one of her type. Where were her fellow “countrymen” to assist on her mission?

As I said, the cast is spectacular. It’s always nice to see Buck Taylor in a western. Clancy Brown plays the preacher. You will remember him as the prison guard in The Shawshank Redemption. Mr. Brown maintains his top position as the largest cranium of all actors. Walton Goggins (“Justified”) plays one of Lonergan’s old gang, and brings a touch of humor. And the fiddler is played by first time actor Rex Rideout. Nothing to say about that other than congrats on a terrific screen name!

The film is entertaining, but just falls short of what could have been, even what should have been. Watching Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford match wits in the old west is almost enough!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: Daniel Craig in chaps and Harrison Ford in full curmudgeon glory are enough to justify the price of a ticket

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think it will be as much fun as the title suggests

Watch the trailer:


CONVICTION (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on a compelling true story and spurred by a “60 Minutes” segment, the film tells the story of Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank) who dedicated 18 years of her life to proving the innocence of her incarcerated brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

The natural assumption would be that Betty Anne wrote letters and hounded police and attorneys so that no one would forget Kenny. The truth is far more fascinating. From an abusive and underprivileged childhood, Betty Anne rose above all and reinvented herself once her brother was found guilty of murder. She got her GED, graduated from college, then law school, and became his attorney. With assistance from Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, old evidence was re-analyzed and witness testimony was contested. The outcome is public record and more proof that fact can be stranger than fiction.

Pamelay Gray’s script is handled by director Tony Goldwyn, who is known mostly for TV projects. He is talented enough to let the story and his excellent cast do the work. Swank, of course, is the perfect choice for this role and seems quite at ease. Rockwell, one of the more under-appreciated actors around, is very strong in capturing the lovable Kenny, as well as the red-hot tempered alcoholic who was always in trouble with the law. The relationship between this brother and sister is established via childhood flashbacks and prison visits. We never once doubt that Betty Anne would commit to this challenge, even if we do question the wisdom of doing so.

Have to mention some of the rest of the cast. Minnie Driver is Abra, Betty Anne’s law school classmate who joins her in Kenny’s cause. The movie never really explains why she does this, but she adds a nice element. Melissa Leo is the cop with a chip who railroads Kenny. We see later how her life turned out and can only think she deserves every bad thing that can happen. Ari Graynor plays Mandy, Kenny’s teenage daughter and an almost unrecognizable Clea DuVall is excellent as her mother Mandy. The performance that really jumps off the screen is that of Juliette Lewis. We first see her testifying in court and then again almost two decades later as a burned out shell of a person. Her few minutes here are staggering to watch.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another melodrama, but it is really fascinating to see what the love of a sister can accomplish. I was shocked that the end trailer didn’t mention that Kenny died in a freak accident just 6 months after his release. Betty Anne is on record as saying that while tragic, at least he died a free man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the words “based on a true story” make your heart race OR you have always wondered what a drugged-out Juliette Lewis would look like (yikes!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: movies about dirty cops annoy you OR you wouldn’t lift a finger, much less dedicate your life, to help your brother or sister