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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced single mother working in the small town gift shop of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. It’s also been seven months since her teenage daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire. She rents out three billboards on a rarely used side road to advertise her frustrations with the slow pace of law enforcement. The billboards say, “Raped while dying,” “Seven months and no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief (Woody Harrelson) tries to pacify the grieving mother while keeping his loyal officers in check from retaliation. Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is trying to apply pressure to get the billboards removed by any means. The small town loves their sheriff and turns on Mildred, which suits her just fine. The more people that disagree with her the more it helps fuel her sense of righteous indignation. Mildred engages in an escalating series of battles with the police and town that might just make justice impossible.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a Coen brothers’ movie played straight, and it’s borderline brilliant in its depiction of homespun characters allowed tremendous emotional latitude. These are people with complex depth who are allowed the power to be contradictory. They can be vicious one moment and kind the next, wise one moment and impulsive and self-destructive the next, capable of great acts of mercy and cruelty. This achieves two things: 1) making the characters feel far more convincingly drawn, and 2) making the characters consistently surprising. This is a messy movie but I don’t mean that as any intended insult. It’s messy in scope, messy in tone, and yet it thrums with the messy feelings and messy complications of human tragedy. What happened to Mildred’s daughter is utterly horrifying and her rage is righteous; however, that doesn’t sanctify her. She makes mistakes, pushes people away, and can be cruel even to her own family. I was expecting Harrelson’s police chief to be a sort of villain, either incompetent or conniving, willfully ignoring the murder investigation. This is not the case at all and he is full of integrity and rightfully beloved in his community. As happens in many criminal cases, the trail of evidence just ran cold, but Mildred would prefer every male in the city, state, and even the country be blood tested to find a culprit. Her demands are fundamentally unreasonable and Willoughby points out the many civil rights protections in possible violation. Just because Mildred has been wronged does not make her the hero, and just because Willoughby is the face of local law enforcement does not make him the enemy. They are people with much more in common than they would ever admit. The awful circumstances of the plot have pit them against one another in an escalating tit-for-tat that serves as projection for Mildred’s blinding fury against a world that would rob her of her daughter.

The dichotomy of sweetness and terror is best exemplified in the transformation of Mildred and Dixon, one of the most satisfying and engrossing film experiences of the year. Thanks to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s deft handling, these two characters start at opposite ends and grow before our eyes. Mildred tests the limits of her resolve and anger and makes costly mistakes. Dixon begins as the screw-up with a badge (hat he literally misplaces) rumored to have tortured a black prisoner in jail. He seems like the dim-witted poster boy for unchecked masculine privilege. He feels like an enforcer of the corruption we (wrongfully) assume is at work in this small town. As Mildred descends into darker decisions, Dixon ascends and chases a redemptive arc, which is amazing considering the damning behavior he engages in at the halfway mark. These two characters start as adversaries and develop into begrudging allies in a completely organic way that doesn’t blunt either character. That transformation is thrilling to watch and terrifically satisfying on its own terms. By the very end of the movie, I was ready and willing to watch its hypothetical sequel setup, especially if it meant I got to spend more time with these carefully crafted people.

McDonagh’s film juggles many tones, effortlessly switching from laugh-out-loud comedy to crushing drama and back again. I was genuinely surprised how many times I laughed and how hard I was laughing. During my second theatrical viewing, there was an old woman in the back who was quite vocal in her bafflement about how anyone could be laughing. And if you were told the specifics of the plot and its heavy subject matter, I would tend to agree. McDonagh has a preternatural feel for how to find humor in the most unlikely of places. The humor dissipates as the film marches into its second half, a natural byproduct of having to raise the dramatic stakes and make things feel serious. This is the first grounded drama in McDonagh’s filmography (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). He doesn’t shortchange the impact of his drama by weaving in more heightened comedic moments. The characters feel realistically developed and portrayed and are allowed to exist in moral grey areas. There’s a minor character played by Peter Dinklage who is positioned as a romantic option and a bit of a fool, but by the end you feel degrees of sympathy even for him. Even this most minor of supporting characters (not a comment on Dinklage’s stature) has earned your emotions. That’s great storytelling but it’s also tremendous execution from the director. Another sure sign of McDonagh’s command for tone is that he undercuts his story’s moment of triumph. I’ll dance around spoilers but Three Billboards looks to end in a way where several characters would claim a hard-won victory, and McDonagh casually strips that away. Even though this is a movie, and even though there are moments of broad, irony-laced comedy, the complexities and disappointments of real life emerge. Even to the very end, Three Billboards doesn’t follow the expected rules of How These Things Go.

The excellent acting gives further life to these tremendous characters. McDormand (Fargo) is radiating with ferocious resentment and indignation. Her character is a walking missile that just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Her stares alone could cause you to shrivel. McDormand hasn’t been given a character this good in years. She opens up the full reserve of her deep acting reservoir, able to flit from great vulnerability to intense repulsion. She has plenty of big moments where she gets to tell off the disapproving townspeople and media members. It’s ready made for easy laughs, but McDormand is so good that she shades those moments with subtler emotional nuance. You get the laugh and you also get further character insight. It’s a performance of such assured strength that I imagine you’ll be hearing her name often during the awards season. Rockwell (The Way, Way Back) has also never been better. He has to play a similarly deep array of emotions, from idiot comedy to heroic dramatics, and at every point Rockwell is stunning. He makes every joke twice as funny. When Dixon becomes a larger focus of the story is when he undergoes more intensive introspection. He goes from buffoon to three-dimensional character. Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) also delivers a worthy performance as a proud yet wounded man who is trying to do right against a world of pressures and self-doubt.

Three Billboards is an impressive, absorbing, searing film gifted with some of the best-developed characters in 2017. The portrayal of the characters is so complex and given startling life from such amazingly talented actors. You’ll watch three of the best performances of the year right here. You get a really strong sense of just how life has been irrevocably altered from this heinous crime, not just with Mildred but also for the town as a whole. Things cannot go back to being the way they were. The characters you like can make you wince. The characters you don’t like you might find yourself pulling for. Thanks to the complexity and nuance, the film delivers a raft of surprises, both pleasant and painful. These people feel closer to real human beings. McDonagh’s brilliant handling of tone and theme is a remarkable work of vision, cohesion, and execution. This is a darkly comic movie that can make you bust out laughing and an affecting human drama that can make you cry. It takes you on a journey that feels authentic and wildly entertaining. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which should have simply been called Three Billboards) subverts typical Hollywood clichés by making sure, even during its wilder flights of comic fancy, that everything is grounded with the characters first and foremost.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Promised Land (2012)

1909Actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski co-wrote Promised Land, which has been labeled as the anti-fracking movie. I wish. While it does take a suspicious view of the practice of extracting natural gas via high-powered underground water jets laced with chemicals, the movie feels too timid to really land home its points, settling on a familiar narrative of the redemption of one man working for The Man. The character development feels like it happens overnight rather than through a gradual process. Damon begins as a corporate raider, a guy selling false hope to the economic downtrodden, and ends up an altruistic environmental fighter. I mostly found him to be a pompous jerk. The scenes with Damon squaring off against Krasinski, an environmental activist, are easily the best, giving the movie a bristling energy it otherwise lacks. Krasinski provides a fine foil and some snappy competition until a late preposterous plot turn muddies everything up. I feel like the writers, as well as director Gus Van Sant, wanted to lure in wary moviegoers with something more broadly appealing (the evolution of one man) versus a more alarmist, message-heavy movie. That’s fine, but at least give me a better story. Promised Land even falls into the trap of having he Damon/Krasinski competition come down to a woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) they both fancy. Because otherwise it wouldn’t feel serious, right? It’s a solidly acted movie, with some nice turns by veterans like Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost), but the movie just doesn’t live up to the promise of its potential.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

After the obnoxious, oafish mess that was 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel that took everything good from the first flick and undermined it and took everything awful and magnified it, I wasn’t expecting much. True, low expectations have benefited this franchise built upon merchandizing, product placement, and giant freaking robots that fight. I still remain a fan of the first film back in 2007, and I do feel like director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armegeddon) is a natural fit for this material. But after another overlong, overblown, and overloaded Transformers film, I’m starting to think that the franchise’s best days left with Megan Fox and her cut-off jean shorts.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from college and is now perusing a job in Washington D.C.’s vast center of government contracts. He’s living with his new girlfriend, Carly (Rose Huntington-Whiteley), the assistant to a rich billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and his fleet of collector cars. Sam gets a job with at a military private contractor run by a angry loon (John Malkovich). But Sam’s post-collegiate journey once again runs afoul with killer alien robots. The villainous Decepticons are plotting to steal a spaceship that crash-landed on the dark side of Earth’s moon. Inside that spaceship are teleporter orbs and a sleeping robotic giant known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, hooray). Optimus Prime, leader of the noble Autobots, revives his predecessor. Together, the group attempts to thwart the Decepicons, lead once again by Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving).

The Transformers films have been getting larger and larger in scope and destructive power; the first film messed up some L.A. streets, the awful second film trashed Egyptian pyramids (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), and now the third film pretty much obliterates downtown Chicago in stunning and overblown fashion. The climactic Windy City beatdown lasts a solid 50 minutes and may just be the greatest thing Bay has ever put onscreen, which admittedly might be faint praise to many. Perhaps the city of Chicago thought this would make for good tourism: ”Hey kids, come see the buildings that were turned to rubble in your favorite summer movie!” The impressive special effects are uniformly terrific, and the integration of reality and fantasy seems seamless. That goes without saying. I must credit Bay for creating sustainable action that is, here it goes, actually coherent. I know that “Bay” and “coherency” rarely go together, so I’m as shocked as everyone. No longer does geography become a hindrance to understanding. During this climactic Chicago onslaught, the locations are established, the objectives are clear, and the audience has a crisp understanding of the different teams, their paths, and their organic roadblocks and setbacks.

There’s a strong set piece within this 50-minute assault where Sam and company enter into a crumbling skyscraper that then teeters on its side. The organic complications allow for some nifty, almost ingenious, split-decisions utilizing a specific location, the hallmark of good action sequences. One moment they’re climbing up the floors, the next moment they’re tumbling through the floors, then sliding down the sheer glass wall, then firing at the glass to fall back inside and tumble some more. All the while a giant worm-like robot is churning through the foundation of this collapsing building. The scale of the sequence is quite thrilling for the time being. And yes, the 9/11 imagery is undeniable and relatively unearned without even a nod to solemnity or anything less than brainless summer spectacle. Sure the “cool-ness” of the individual parts never really materializes into something greater, and yeah maybe the action would have more impact if you actually felt for the characters, or knew who some of them even were, but you take what you can get in Michael Bay world. The extended climax for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is relentless and will beat you into submission, admiring the intrinsic beauty unique to Bay’s epic, albeit mind-numbing, demolition of the senses.

But Dark of the Moon is also the most visually coherent of Bay’s troika of Transformers flicks because the man has finally settled down when it comes to editing. Now no one will confuse this movie for Rope or Russian Ark (look it up, Transformers geeks), but the edit/panic button is given a slight reprieve. The shots last longer; the editing is far less frenetic and chaotically ADD-addled, and no longer does a Transformers action sequence look like jumbled, mechanical scrambled porn. Image A and Image B make a logical connection, at long last. You can tell which robot is which, for the most part. Perhaps this editing epiphany was a result of Bay’s corporate betters insisting that the film be shot in 3D (I chose to see the film in good old boring 2D, feeling that 150-minutes of Michael Bay with headache-inducing glasses was not worth the extra dough). Perhaps Bay had to consciously think about his audience’s well being so his shot selections lasted longer than his usual whirlwind of cuts. Perhaps the secret was loading Bay with cameras that weigh the same as couches. Maybe a little extra weight was all the man needed to formulate lucid action sequences.

And yet Dark of the Moon is just as stupid, outlandish, and tonally disjointed as the other movies, particularly the abysmal Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy remains at a puerile, sophomoric level. Bay’s sensibilities have always somewhat mirrored that of a snickering 14-year-old boy; the love of destruction, the fascination with things that go “boom,” the ogling of lithe feminine bodies. No joke, the first image seen directly after the film’s title is a close-up of Huntington-Whiteley’s ass ascending a staircase. I imagine there were plenty of men spasming in their 3D glasses trying to reach out and grab the circumference of a Victoria Secret model’s talents. I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.” Huntington-Whiteley’s character certainly leaves much to be desired, outside aesthetics. At least Megan Fox’s character had, you know, some character traits. I also wrote: “Amazingly enough, [Fox] manages to lose more clothes the more she runs in slow-mo, allowing the male audience members to follow the nuance of her bouncing breasts. She’s clearly not the next Meryl Streep but this girl deserves more than being wordless arm candy.” Seems apt to me. Carly is as bland as she is blank-eyed beautiful, just the way Bay likes ‘em.

The first 90 minutes of the film is spent with the humans and it’s like being trapped inside a bad comedy. There has always been a strong comedic bent to the franchise ever since the first film in 2007; however, the latter films have taken to grotesque caricature. In Dark of the Moon, the comedy is so deeply unfunny but so consistently antic, trying to overwhelm you with its bad taste. There’s a scene where Ken Jeong (yes, you read that right) corners Sam in a bathroom stall to distribute his crackpot manifesto. Then Sam’s boss walks in and, oh boy, he overhears and thinks they’re having a homosexual liaison in the men’s stall. What a hoot. Then Sam’s mother gives him dating advice, stating there’s no earthly way her son is going to nab a third “hottie” unless her boy has a giant…. and trials off (wouldn’t a mother kind of have an idea about that subject?). And then there’s the little Autobots, the size of remote control cars (perfect presents for Christmas mom and dad), who wheel around spitting smart-alecky backtalk. The entire Malkovich portion could have easily been cut from the film without damaging a soul. The Ken Jeong stuff should have been eliminated first. There’s something to be said when John Turturro’s returning Agent Simmons is the least annoying comic sidekick in this movie. But hey, at least there aren’t any overt racist depictions and jokes about robot scrotums. Nope, there’s only infantile humor and nonchalant misogyny. The comedic pit stops and non-sequitors never allow the movie’s tone to gel.

Before the movie descends into an all-out series of explosions and shrapnel, the setup actually has some genuine interest. Then it just all goes nuts at warp speed. The fact that the space race to the moon had a sinister ulterior motive, investigating alien technology, is an intriguing start. Bay even shoots the 1960s sequences like he’s ripping off Oliver Stone, swapping film stocks and black and white film to showcase his historical reinactors (three presidents get represented, including Obama). Apparently after this film and X-Men: First Class, the breakout star this summer is archived footage of JFK (man did he have a full plate, mutants and robots, and the man still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe). There’s even a cameo by the real Buzz Aldrin, which served to make me remember his better cameo on TV’s 30 Rock (“Would you like to yell at the moon with me?” he politely asked Tina Fey).  The space race was a pretense for getting our human hands on some alien technology. Of course we were warned years ahead of time via Pink Floyd but nobody could put the pieces together. But there’s more alternative history to be had. Turns out that the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl was caused by the Russians trying to operate alien/Transformer technology. I’m sure modern-day Ukrainians will adore having their deadly tragedy turned into a plot point in a stupid movie about fighting robots. The Decepticons wicked plan is to open a teleportation portal and bring their dead planet, Cybertron, to Earth. Then they will use Earth’s human population as slave labor to bring their dead planet back to life. My question is this: when you’re a huge robot the size of a building, wouldn’t puny little humans make for a terrible labor force with their stunted little legs and feeble muscles? I know there’s billions of them, but there’s a reason human beings have never turned on ants and forced them to become a labor force for our construction projects. How many more deadly things from Cybertron are secretly going to be hidden on Earth? And yet none of this is even one-tenth as stupid as Transformers’ heaven in Revenge of the Fallen.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a “popcorn movie” can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too. Dark of the Moon is saved by its long Chicago-set climax, which gives way to some staggering action set pieces. The newest Transformers movie is just as stupid as the rest (what the hell is up with the weird Igor robots tending to Megatron that just seem to grumble and grunt?) but, unlike the previous installment, it’s not offensively stupid. Dark of the Moon is an exhaustive experience whose thrilling high points even feel mechanical and pre-programmed. Is this the future of Hollywood? Bay and his army of robotics and excessive spectacle have taken over the world. When it comes to big-time summer entertainment, the machines of Hollywood are going nowhere fast and even louder.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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