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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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The Sessions (2012)

When The Session (formerly The Surrogate) debuted at the Sundance film festival, it seemed like Oscar catnip. You’ve got Oscar-pedigree cast, the limitations of disability (iron lung), and writer/director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance) certainly knows a thing or two on the subject. He’s a polio survivor himself. But the story of a man in an iron lung’s sexual reawakening, as my mother would say, is a harder sell to the public. The movie has enough bizarre intrigue to garner a curiosity factor in many, and the sweeping acting and light-hearted tone will win over many a follower. I just wished that Lewin had focused more on his central character than what’s below the waist.

Mark O’Brian (John Hawkes) is a 37-year-old virgin looking to fix that oversight. The problem is that he’s suffered from polio all his life and can only be outside of his iron lung for upwards of a few hours. He’s not paralyzed, mind you; it’s just that his muscles don’t work too well. To move forward, Mark is set up with a sex surrogate, a sort of alternative therapy that is intended to help the disabled learn how to take control of their bodies for healthy physical relationships. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) has a set of rules as she goes about her business. There will only be six sessions to limit any emotional attachment. Mark is certainly a challenge, a man who doesn’t have muscle control below his neck (he confides that he hasn’t seen his penis in over 30 years). Together they work on getting Mark experienced and aware of his own body and abilities.

The Sessions is essentially a two-actor showcase (William H. Macy as a helpful priest is really just an ear to listen/audience surrogate), an ongoing dialogue and set of interactions between Mark and Cheryl. The script could have worked as a play though film certainly does open up the viewing possibilities when you’re dealing with an immobilized character. From that stand point, The Sessions is often a fascinating and funny portrait of a world that few of us will ever comprehend. We seem to have this concept that immobility is a death sentence; In Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank preferred death over disability. There’s the standard uplifting personal tales of success, the triumph of the human spirit, that sort of thing when we talk about disability in the movies. The Sessions is different. It’s all about sex, and it’s refreshingly frank about the realities of sexuality for those with disability. The human body is an amazingly adaptable creation, so no matter the setback, there is still plenty hope of having a relatively healthy sex life. Beyond a section in Murderball, I cannot think of another movie to explore the reality of sex for those with disabilities. It’s like a wondrous combination of two topics that makes people feel uncomfortable. So, in short, this is not going to be a movie for everyone.

That’s too bad because The Sessions is an engrossing story of a man trying to experience a world of human sexuality denied to him due to cruel circumstance. Mark is a relatively nice guy, a poet, though he can be a little quick with the emotional attachment and declarations of love. Can you blame the guy? I believe some will argue that limiting the focus to Mark’s sexuality, and his desire to shape himself into a better lover, is a misuse of the narrative potential. Some will chide that the film could be the indie version of any number of horny male sex comedies. To some degree, I can agree with this assessment, mostly because I wanted to follow more of Mark’s life and the movie is only 90 minutes long. But I also think the strict focus on human sexuality is also a boon for a movie like this. The fact that you could place a movie about a man in an iron lung and, say, American Pie in the same conversation is a testament that we are losing some of the stigma of disability. This guy wants to get laid. Period. And we can be grown up about this.

Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is excellent in a role that requires him to do all his acting from above the neck. He’s convincing in every detail, down to his pained, willowy voice and his handling of a pointer for his mouth is first rate. Beyond the physical tics, Mark exists as a complex character that Hawkes is able to fully open up. He’s caustically funny, overcome with self-doubt, sweetly naïve, yet he’s also just like every other man on the planet. Hawkes doesn’t overplay the physical restrictions so it doesn’t end up being a performance dominated in showy actor traits. It’s a sweet and affecting performance that moves in small waves but makes a noted impact. Expect the man to get his second Oscar nomination this winter, as respected actor + disability is a combination they cannot refuse. Also, Hawkes is completely deserving of praise.

Hunt (Soul Surfer) has been grabbing a lot of headlines for the amount of skin she exposes, but her performance deserves more attention than a secondhand reference to her nudity. To be fair, it is copious nudity of Helen Hunt. I think she recites more lines while in different states of undress than clothed. It’s so much nudity that when you close your eyes, you may still be able to see it (not complaining here…). She does a lot of fine acting while naked. It’s hard exactly to get a bead on her character. She seems displeased with her insensitive husband, though he has to have some level of understanding to be okay with her profession. It feels like she’s looking to Mark as… something more, something else, but then it feels like her rationality returns and she returns back to the parameters of her job title. It’s a strong performance and the movie is at its best when Hunt and Hawkes are together. I just can’t help but feel if the ending wasn’t so blunted (more on that below) than maybe her performance would hit an even higher register.

The actors are so good and the movie is so tender, I almost forgive it for lacking a proper third act (some major end spoilers to follow). Naturally the number one concern you’d imagine for a sex surrogate would be the danger of building emotional attachment. This is why Cheryl limits her sessions to six max. That doesn’t stop attachments from forming. Mark and Cheryl are dreading the conclusion of the sessions, having grown close emotionally as well as physically. So to spare them lingering pain, Cheryl suggests they stop early. Mark reluctantly agrees. There, ladies and gents, is your second act break. But then rather than get a third act, the movie simply gives you a slightly extended resolution instead. Mark meets a nice volunteer at the hospital and flirts with her, crowing with pride to inform he is no virgin. But then… we cut right into Mark’s voice over telling us that he spent the last five years of his life with this new woman. We get an introduction and then immediately jump to the end of the relationship. I understand that without Cheryl’s kindness and education, Mark’s long and healthy romantic relationship would not have happened. I understand that he’s able to succeed because they broke down barriers of confidence together. This doesn’t stop the ending from feeling missing, absent the payoffs we yearn for in drama. It’s a curious and muffled close to a movie that was so interesting and audacious.

The Sessions is more than just an Oscar-bait disability movie. It’s really an arty version of a sex comedy with some extraordinary participants played by skilled actors. It has a frankness that’s refreshing and it’s never less than interesting, exploring the minutia of Mark’s life and the difficulties he overcomes. It’s not exactly a triumph of adversity, per se. It’s not exactly a chamber piece devoted to characters even though two dominate the conversation. The Sessions is a hard movie to pin down. It’s perfectly enjoyable and funny, touching, disarming, and well acted, but I can’t help but feel like Lewin should have aimed higher. To focus solely on Mark’s budding sexuality seems rather limiting for the character, and the disappearance of a final act proves bewildering, blunting the dramatic climax, thwarting further involvement. I’ve seen the film twice now and my opinion of it improved slightly the second go-round, but I’m still left scratching my head over that ending. I get it, I just don’t get why Lewin felt like racing to the end rather than exploring the conflicts and personal struggles of his characters. I suppose there’s some testament to sticking to the facts but that doesn’t matter when it comes to telling me a good story. I’m of a mixed mind here because The Sessions has plenty to recommend but I also feel that the film’s finale and light-hearted, limited sense of purpose hamstring the emotional impact of the whole enterprise. Disabled people can lead healthy sex lives. I get it. Now show me more signs of that life.

Nate’s Grade: B

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Unsettling but testing, the film Martha Marcy May Marlene is more than a mouthful. It’s about a gal, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sis to billionaire twins Ashley and Mary-Kate), who enters a creepy cult, and then in due time runs away to live with her detached older sister (Sarah Paulson). Writer/director Sean Durkin cleverly jumbles the timeline, so we follow two parallel storylines: Marcy May (her new identity) entering the cult and Marlene (her identity after fleeing?) adjusting back to the real world. At heart is Olsen, who gives a star-making turn as the troubled heroine fighting back prior programming. We get flashes of what cult life was like under charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, goin’ country once more). The sections concerning the cult are creepy but not exaggerated to break the film’s fragile realism. It’s uncomfortable stuff with lots of ritualistic raping. The film moves at a slow, deliberate pace, echoing Olsen’s dueling transformations. She’s having trouble readjusting but she can’t open up about her experiences for fear that she’ll endanger others. The film cranks up the paranoia and looks to be coming to a head when … everything just stops. End credits. Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like ¾ of a movie until you stop and think that we’re trapped in her omnipresent paranoia and that she will be essentially broken for life. While I wanted Durkin to find a way to reach that conclusion that felt conclusive and fulfilling, the ending, while abrupt, does feel appropriate. Olsen is terrific and expresses so many complex emotions even through her veneer of emotional reserve and mistrust. She has a bright future ahead of her. She’s no longer “the other Olsen sister.” Now she’ll be the “talented Olsen sister.”

Nate’s Grade: B

Contagion (2011)

For the germophobes amongst us, you probably want to skip seeing the new thriller, Contagion. Like for life. Never see this film if you’re the type that needs a paper toilet seat cover before sitting down to do their business. Contagion is a movie that makes you reevaluate basic human interaction. You may not leave the house again without covering yourself in plastic and a year’s worth of Purel. Director Stephen Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s Thirteen) has assembled an all-star cast to drop like flies like only Hollywood’s most talented can do. Contagion is an intelligent, unnerving, technically authentic thriller that will make you cringe just watching people cough.

Contagion’s main character is a virus that begins its origin in a Hong Kong casino and quickly spreads from there. A British model takes it to the UK, a Chinese waiter goes home infected, a Japanese businessman keels over dead on a return trip home, and Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from her business tripe back to Minneapolis and goes into seizures. The next day, she’s dead and soon after having her brain dug out for an autopsy. The spooked docs alert the Centers for Disease Control immediately; something is definitely wrong with Paltrow’s brain (insert Coldplay joke here). The head of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and his specialists track the expansion of the virus. He dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minnesota to coordinate inter-agency action and interview Beth’s husband (Matt Damon), who appears to be immune to the virus. He’s in shock and isolated from his remaining daughter. He’s still trying to make sense of how quickly everything fell apart for his family. Capitalizing on fear, anti-establishment medical blogger Alan Krumweid (Jude Law) steers a panicked public toward a homeopathic medical alternative that he just so happens to have a financial stake with. The World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to investigate the Hong Kong casino and overview hours of security footage to glean the origins of the virus. But she, like others, soon find themselves in ever-increasing danger as the world races against time to beat this new threat.

For those expecting an action-thriller with plenty of doctors barking moral quandaries and racing against time to escape government agents… you will be sorely disappointed. Contagion is much more cerebral, cool, like a scientific procedural that plays the premise out in a realistic fashion, which means it’s often short the fireworks that mainstream audiences have come to expect from disaster movies. The CDC is really the main setting as they try and determine the origin of the virus, breaking down the virus, and projecting its rate on infection and contamination. Soderbergh has onscreen titles indicating how large the population centers are for the plot settings, reminding us simply with text how vulnerable to danger all those people are. The real pleasure of the film is watching A-level Oscar actors puzzle out how to solve this multi-faceted crisis. The movie does a minimal amount of explanation and expects an audience to be able to keep up with its scientific analysis. Soderbergh’s film is much more in keeping with The Andromeda Strain than Outbreak (find that monkey and all will be happy again!). You witness smart people doing smart things and still making little traction. This isn’t necessarily Irwin Allen territory of disaster. It’s a disaster that seems all too reasonably possible rather than being trapped in the belly of a ship that has turned upside down. Getting sick is a lot harder to avoid especially in our modern world. Globalization has done many wonders for the world, but by making the world a smaller place it also means that we’re all much more susceptible to the spreads of pandemics. No longer can geography be held as a total defense. We’re all one flight away from the spread of the next great illness (as the end credits to Rise of the Planet of the Apes also remind).

Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) cast a wide net all over the world to see the ramifications of crisis. Things go rather quickly. By the end of the first week, the CDC is coordinating its resources and media strategy to not inflame panic. Easier said than done when ignorance and fear are in large quantities. The reaction to the news, the intra-government squabbles over resources and money, the exploitation of fear by opportune business types, the rising resentment of those left out of the loop, and even the kidnapping schemes for those known to have access to medicine. Contagion works because it gets the details right without losing track of the big picture. The film feels eerily plausible at every beat. Nurses are on strike refusing to be near the sick until uniform safety protocols are established. Funeral homes refuse to handle infected bodies out of health concerns. These are absorbing details that feel completely authentic yet would easily have been overlooked in other disaster pictures. The movie even addresses recent pandemic fears related to H1N1, SARS, and the perceived “overreaction” when these potential worldwide disasters turned out to be milder bugs. A government agent asks the head of the CDC if some terror organization could have weaponized the bird flu. “They don’t have to. The birds are already doing it,” the CDC head replies.

While Burns lies out a host of characters and scenarios with increasing tension as stakes mount and the death toll rises, Contagion just kind of drifts into an ending for the last 20 minutes. I was expecting another big wallop, some kind of sudden plot turn that reestablished an ongoing threat, but it wasn’t to be. The tension just sorts of lets out slowly like a balloon, playing against movie laws. That means that Contagion, wile tense, eschews a dramatic buildup for a climax. Burns and Soderbergh instead to play out their realistic “what if” experiment to its conclusion, which makes for a realistic if somewhat inert final act. There’s no chasing monkeys or butting with government agents willing to sacrifice infected town for “the good of mankind”; it’s just government employees doing good work and trying to minimize damages. It’s exciting to watch smart characters break down a nasty new virus and try to understand it and get ahead of it, but once they succeed, it’s not as exciting to watch the aftereffects of people getting better and returning to a normal existence (minus 30 million people on the planet – the solution to fixing unemployment?).

Because the emphasis is on the cross-sections of plot and scientific breakdown, the emotional connection to the characters is limited. There are a lot of famous faces that appear in this movie; even bit parts are taken up by the likes of Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Demetri Martin (Taking Woodstock), Enrico Colatoni (TV’s Veronica Mars). Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) is probably the closest thing the film has to an emotional center. He’s immune to the virus but he has to watch his family fall apart with the knowledge that his wife was Patient Zero. On top of that, he has to deal with the fact that she was cheating on him. That’s a healthy brew of emotions to confront in such a heightened situation, and Damon does a nice job of putting a human face to the mass tragedy. Winslet (The Reader) is superb as a CDC investigator, so duty-bound that even when she awakes to discover she has become infected she goes through protocol trying to investigate who serviced her room so that others will not share her fate. Law (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably sleazy as a moral relativist trying that uses his army of Internet followers to discredit the government’s response. Fishburne (Predators) has terrific poise as the man in charge of scrambling the response forces, keeping his cool, and being the public face of the government response until an all too human scandal tarnishes him. But perhaps the best performer is Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory, The King’s Speech). She plays one of the chief CDC scientists studying the virus and takes some extreme measures to test a potential vaccine. She has a scene with her sick father that is likely the most emotionally affecting moment in the film. Her sturdy determination even when most vulnerable is selfless.

Contagion is a smart by-the-book procedural thriller that may not be dramatic enough for audiences fed by Hollywood disaster films. The film is far more analytical and detail-oriented to its benefit and sometimes detraction. It’s got stars galore and some plenty of rising tension, but the film also follows a realistic blueprint toward a rapid world response to a new pandemic, which means that well-developed characterization is spared amidst all that fraught scientific lingo. As a result, Contagion feels more like a docu-drama than an amped-up Hollywood thriller with its finger firmly pressed upon American anxieties. Contagion is a bit overextended and data-heavy. It’s a stripped down indie in studio clothing. Soderbergh’s movie is a bit too lean and clinical to be fully satisfying and emotionally engaging, especially with its somewhat inert ending. It’ll sure make you look at free bowls of peanuts differently. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull.

Nate’s Grade: B

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