Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017): Hit and Miss (Review)

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Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a blackly comic look at small town mid-America, guilt, parental grief and not a little survivor anger. Frances McDormand (Fargo, Blood Simple) stars as Mildred, the mother of a girl raped and murdered too long ago and the police have made no head way in finding her killer. Sadly, despite much promise and a pretty good script, the result is a little hit and miss.

Woody Harrelson is Chief Willoughby; a beloved local figure of authority and calm. Mildred focuses on the chief with her three billboards of “shame”and accusation. Sam Rockwell is Dixon; one of Willoughby’s deputies, and the man is a shambling mess. 

The plot revolves around Mildred’s overwhelming guilt, which overrides her sense of grief, and it is this guilt that drives her through the entire film. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri almost feels like a modern noir thriller with darkly comic overtones. We side with both Willoughby and Mildred in this tale of attempted retribution and atonement.

Later, we can almost get behind Dixon’s attempt at solving the murder but the man is such a neanderthal that his dreams of becoming a proper detective can really be no more than a pathetic pipe dream. Peter Dinklage has a cameo as the village “dwarf.” (A term that his character tosses out after a disastrous meeting with Mildred and her ex.)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri starts out well. McDormand manages to almost match her performance in the 1996 Coen Bros film Fargo. We are behind her every step of the way, even more so when we learn her ironic and terrible secret. She and Harrelson’s character enter into a short sparring match that brings the film’s character’s to life brilliantly.

This “battle” is short-lived however and that changes the face of the entire story. Herein lies the problem with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. While the billboards themselves are an excellent plot device, their importance shifts about a third of the way through. We focus more on Dixon and Mildred and because of the deputy’s character, the film becomes a bit more than hit or miss with its tale.

The film does entertain though. McDormand is a treat, Harrelson scores much better here than with his excursion in the “Ape” film and Rockwell proves yet again that his range is very impressive, if somewhat misplaced in this role.

Caleb Landry Jones is great value in his cameo role of the one man in town who dares to allow Mildred the chance to thumb her nose at the local Sheriff’s office. (Jones is also superb in another 2017 darkly comic film, the horror offering “Get Out.”)

John Hawkes is spot on as Mildred’s smarmy ex and Abbie Cornish is delightful as his 19 year-old airhead girlfriend. In essence, no one puts a foot wrong in the film but the character’s, especially that of Dixon, act in ways that do not really fit their limitations.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a Coen Bros film (McDormand is married to Joel who, apparently, told her to take the role of Mildred as it was written expressly for her.) but…different. Overall it fires on most cylinders and has an ending that can only be described as “noir-ish.”

This is a solid four star film that keeps the viewer locked on to the events as they unfold onscreen. One can easily see McDormand nabbing another Oscar this year, even though the competition will be fierce (The Post.)

The Shape of Water (2017): Del Toro’s Return to Form (Review)

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Guillermo del Toro returns to form with The Shape of Water. This 2017 offering, co-written by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, stars Sally Hawkins as the mute girl who befriends the creature. Michael Shannon is the villain, Richard Jenkins; the reluctant accomplice and Octavia Spencer the plucky sidekick. Doug Jones plays the South American amphibious creature/god.

The theme of this film is water, naturally, as both the environment for the underwater dweller worshipped by the locals as some sort of god and as the background for most of the events of the film. The creature bears more than a little resemblance to “monster” in  The Creature of the Black Lagoon but unlike good old Roscoe Browning’s creature, this one has no zipper running up its back.

Jones’ creature looks real and, even more importantly, plausible. Hawkins is the isolated cleaning woman trapped in a 1960’s world of racism, class structure and a world run by men for men. Women are second class citizens and one who has a speech impediment is on the very bottom of the totem pole.

Del Toro gives us a heroine that we fall immediately in love with. A woman whose existence is full of routine but who has the soul of a dancer, a singer and a romantic.  Although part of her daily preparations for work include industriously masturbating in a tub of water, deep down, Elisa Esposito has enough imagination to fill in many blanks in her life.

Jenkins is Giles, her next door neighbor. He is a closeted gay, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, an artist and he is desperately trying to make ends meet and fall in love. Spencer is Zelda, the co-worker who looks out for her mute friend, and translates when required.

Michael Shannon is Strickland; the man who captured the creature and transported it to the scientific facility where it will be studied. Strickland is also, somewhat ironically, a very cold fish. He is humorless, vicious and utterly, it seems, without feeling.

Del Toro’s film asks what would have happened if the creature of the Black Lagoon had been captured at a time when the Russian’s were winning the space race and the Cold War was running full steam ahead. (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a crucial part as a scientist who is not all he seems.)

With The Shape if Water del Toro returns to his roots. The film has all the dark and terrible beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth and the whimsy of The Devil’s Backbone. We fall for the story and all its characters hook, line and sinker. The creature is not terrifying at all, we feel as much empathy as curiosity and Elisa’a inexplicable yearning and interest in the thing is not mystifying at all.

Doug Jones has given us a performance full of nuances, emotions and a certain depth that has never been seen before in a “creature feature.”

The film is classed as an adventure, fantasy, drama and it is indeed all three. It can also be seen as a romance as well as a heart pounding thriller. There are scenes that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat;  breath held as they silently urge the heroes on and others that fill the heart with warmth.

The Shape if Water has sets that are reminiscent of the underwater city in Bioshock and water does feature in practically every scene. Del Toro makes old films an important part of the story and the cast is perfect. Shannon gives us a man we love to hate and when the climax of the film arrives we are satisfied with his fate.

If there is any complaint at all about this marvelous feature it would be that the scars on Elisa’s neck are obvious from the first time we see them and we know that they will provide some sort of plot twist.

This is a full 5 star film that delivers across the board. The story, sets, costumes and performances all come together in a dark bit of art that touches the viewer’s heart. Catch this one when it comes out in the cinema (December 8) and get caught up in Guillermo del Toro’s return to form.

Get Out (2017): Blackly Comic Horror (Review)

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Written and directed by Jordan Peele (this is his maiden voyage as the man in the “big” chair) Get Out was inspired by an Eddie Murphy gag and borrows, just a tad, from other films. It is, overall, a blackly comic horror film that feels like a splendidly dark and morbid punchline.  The movie can, and does, make one feel uncomfortable and amused – often in the same scene.

We follow Chris Washington (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya) as he goes, reluctantly, to visit his girlfriend’s parents. Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is college co-ed cute – all big eyes, perfect teeth with an odd combination of droll yet goofy wit – who has arranged for Chris to meet the fam. 

All is not what it seems, however, as once Chris arrives in upstate New York, he finds his future in-laws are a combination of “trying too hard” and slightly antagonistic. Rose’s mum is a hypnotherapist who promises to cure Chris of his nasty smoking habit. Dad, a bit of east coast “whitebread,” tries to go ghetto and brother Dean is a snot.

Even without the kidnapping that takes place at the very start of the film, we feel uncomfortable and Peele manages to put the audience firmly in Chris’s shoes. The sense of unease increases even before Chris sits down with “mum” for that first unwitting hypnotherapy session.

The “big weekend” amps things up nicely as all the guests ask Chris seemingly inane and overly personal questions. (Including one strange interlude that harkens back to Madeline Kahn and “Blazing Saddles.”) He also meets, along the way, the two servants who work for the Armitage family.

All the black people he meets act oddly.  There are jarring moments: The maid’s unexplained tears, the handyman’s running in the middle of the night, the old woman with the hat-wearing young black man and the emphasis of the “white” diction used by all the above. There is another tense and weird scene where the flash of a camera gives “hat man” a nose bleed.

(This scene also harkens back to the Eddie Murphy gag about “Get out!”)

Peele has taken a concept which, initially, looks to be all about racism and turns it into a mix of neuroscience and immortality. It can also be seen as a snapshot analysis of social satire, a’la the 1989 Billy Warlock film “Society.”

(One could arguably compare the plot line with the 2005 voodoo horror film “The Skeleton Key.” Get Out addresses the same issues of living forever without all the magical hugger mugger of the Kate Hudson film…)

Get Out manages to both creep the viewer out, elicit a fair amount of chuckles and  shock in all the right places. There are sharp scary moments, the gardener running at Chris for example, and the place Chris is sent to after his session with mother disturbs on a much deeper level.

It is the mismatch of stereotypes that provides much of the comedy:  Chris’s best friend with his, mostly, improvised dialogue and the septuagenarian diction and speech patterns emerging from the servants and hat man  who  interact all too briefly with our hero at the party mixes absurdity with blackly comic moments that delight and add the right amount of quirky fear to the formula.

Get Out is a full five star film. It is full of slyly hidden black comedy that reveals itself with repeated viewings. Peele gives us a low budget masterpiece that earns each and every one of its Oscar nominations. If you haven’t already, check this one out and be prepared to be massively entertained.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017): Life of an “Also Ran” (Review)

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an interesting concept from start to finish. Part homage – it pays more than a little tribute to both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Unforgiven – with a story about a western “also ran” who did not make the pages of the penny dreadfuls of the time. Written and directed by  Jared Moshe, the film is described as a “coming of age” film. 

Lefty Brown, played brilliantly by personal favorite Bill Pullman, is a “man-child.” His implied backstory is that at one time he and three other partners terrorized the southwest territory. One of these is going to be the new senator (Peter Fonda in a small but pivotal role) and after his death, two other old friends arrive to sort things out.

The film gives us a protagonist that, at times, is both simple and sly. One wonders just how much of Lefty Brown’s “slowness” is real. There are many instances where this character appears to be more than meets the eye.

We are privy to Lefty’s journey and Moshe gives us a story that pleases almost as much as it dismays. Pullman’s character goes through his paces with a doggedness that one assumes has been his main trait since birth.

It is his very pedantic, and simple,  approach to all things that has kept him from gracing the pages of the dime novel that the greenhorn Jeremiah (played very well by newcomer Diego Josef) carries with him in the film. Jim Caviezel and the splendid Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan are outstanding as the two old pals who were once part of the “gang.” 

Kathy Baker is spot on as the bitter and angry widow who fights for what is rightfully hers and the tale, while coming across as rather dire, is interesting enough to keep one glued to the seat for the climax. At just under two hours, The Ballad of Lefty Brown successfully manages to combine a character study with the western genre. 

This is Pullman’s film. From start to finish he commands the screen with his characterization of a man destined to be forgotten by all who knew him and it is Oscar-worthy. “Lefty Brown” combines music, sets and costumes effectively to make this oddly intimate film feel like a sweeping epic, along the lines of a John Ford (Cheyenne Autumn for example) western with just a touch of Spaghetti Western for good measure.

There is not an awful lot in the way of gun play, just one short gunfight in the middle, and the violence is not overly visceral in nature. This is more of a character study as we watch a man whose life has always been, it seems, outside the action.

However, there is the hint of a backstory that is slightly evocative of the Ford classic, “The Searchers” where the marshal’s wife was kidnapped by a Native American Tribe and one of the small group wishes for the good old days when “folks’ trembled before them.

This is an American West that resembles the AMC Robert Redford retelling of this countries history. It is all corrupt politics and bad men profiting from their past. Somethings, apparently, have not changed.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a solid 5 star film that delivers some solid performances from all the leads and gives Bill Pullman a real chance at garnering some awards.  Fans of the genre will love this homage to all things western.

The Hero (2017): Downbeat and Deep Sam Elliot Rocks (Review)

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Written for Sam Elliot and directed by Brett Haley, The Hero is a loving homage to the star and his long running career as consummate character actor. This deep and downbeat drama also manages to pay tribute to all those TV westerns where Sam, along with fan favorite Tom Selleck, helped to bring the tales of Louis L’Amour to life. Elliot, in short, rocks in his performance and should, if nothing else, get an Oscar nod for this role.

This is not a fun film to watch. With the exception of the award ceremony where Elliot proves he can play “high” with the best of them, the film is a cold hard look at the profession, aging and, ultimately, death. It also, through the auspices of Laura Prepon, tells us that romance is not dead at 71.

Co-written by Haley and Marc Basch The Hero tells the story of Lee Hayden. (Can there be a better name than this for a one time western star?) Lee is 71. His glory days are far behind him and he is estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter). Lee learns that he is to receive an award for his star turn in an old western “The Hero.” 

Before he can attend the ceremony, Lee marches through his days as a voice over artist; flogging barbecue sauce, smoking pot and wondering about his existence. He meets Charlotte (Prepon) who has a thing for older men and Lee learns that he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer.

The Hero is a slow, almost languid, film. It is more interested in looking at Lee’s state of mind and the internal machinations of a man who knows he is dying. (There is a sort of irony at work here. Patrick Swayze – Elliot’s co-star in Roadhouse – died from pancreatic cancer. As this was written for Elliot, it stands to reason that this may be a slight nod to the late actor.)

The film has a fine mix of comedic moments (very low key) and a number of tearful scenes. Elliot’s resurgence in the social realm, after his award speech is broadcast on YouTube, leads to an audition. It is not a surprising scene. There is a splendid buildup to the moment in a previous scene.

Lee reads his sides with onetime costar and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman).  The lines deal with a space cowboy who is trying to save his estranged daughter. Themes of desertion, death and betrayal resonate in the brief bit of dialogue and the stage is set for what transpires later. 

Katherine Ross (Elliot’s real life wife) plays his ex with conviction and the only complaint here would be with her lack of screen time. This is, however, Elliot’s story so everyone else must stay on the periphery of the tale. The Hero strides slowly towards its somewhat ambiguous ending with a pace that is evocative of a western hero striding slowly down main street; spurs jangling, to that fateful shootout.

Prepon is spot on as Hayward’s young poetry obsessed lover. Ritter proves that whether she is playing a Marvel superhero, doomed drug addict or the  estranged daughter of a self centered actor, she  nails the character completely.

The Hero is the perfect counterpoint to the redneck comedy on Netflix where Elliot has been both miscast and misplaced. The actor can do comedy brilliantly and still manages to, with nary a word spoken, show pathos almost effortlessly.

(When Sam cries we all cry, such is his depth and honesty.)

The Hero is a full five star film, despite its somewhat lacklustre ending. The film is one that needs to be seen and savoured. Haley has put his heart and soul into this cinematic love letter to Elliot and this should net some gongs at the next Oscar ceremony.