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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 Way, Way Back (2013)

the-way-way-back-posterA throwback to the youthful summer movies of the 80s, The Way, Way Back is a delightful coming-of-age film that manages to excel at both comedy and drama. Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (co-writers of 2011’s The Descendants) graduate to directors, guiding the famous cast with ease yet squeezing enough satisfying emotional truth into the formula of a screwy, Meatballs-style comedy. We follow 13-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he spends the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her bully of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). My one gripe is that the film spends far more time than it needs to establish just how unequivocally awkward Duncan is. You will likely cringe. When Sam Rockwell enters the picture as a charming goofball water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing is when the movie ascends to a new level of comedy. The Way, Way Back hums along with its own sense of charm, presenting familiar characters/scenes but giving them added texture and relatability. You will be surprised at how much you feel for these characters, you may get a bit misty at points, especially when they behave like people and not zany cartoons. Carell as a bad guy is a real eye-opener; he’s a passive aggressive bully rarely seen in movies. James is an authentically awkward teen but you also buy every step of his journey. It’s just such a sweet, enjoyable, and cute movie, exuding charm and sincerity. Here is a movie that just makes you smile. You’ll leave The Way, Way Back feeling warm and fuzzy, and Rash and Faxon have another winner on their hands.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh only has one movie to his name but the man has already accrued legendary status in some circles. The 2008 dark comedy In Bruges didn’t create much of a blip at the box-office, but its blend of absurdist comedy, dark drama, shocking violence, and languid contemplation found a rabid cult following. I have several friends who regard In Bruges as the best film of 2008 (WALL-E still reigns supreme for me but I quite enjoyed In Bruges).McDonuagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, reminds me of Barton Fink: both are about struggling writers, both are satires of the film industry, and both have sudden splashes of violence and a serial killer who pushes the protagonist to artistic completion. In other words, Seven Psychopaths is a fun film and a great time at the movies.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is experiencing some killer writer’s block. He’s stuck on his new screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help out. The guys run afoul of another psychopath, mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), due to Billy’s side business. He kidnaps rich people’s dogs and then his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns them and collects a reward. Billy and Hans have kidnapped the wrong shih tzu, and now Charlie and his muscle is going to make them pay.

The refreshing thing about the bloody, wickedly entertaining Seven Psychopaths is that it constantly surprises you. This is such a rarity with modern movies, particularly Hollywood movies that attract as notable a cast as this one. McDonagh is wonderfully adept at throwing narrative curveballs. There were a few surprises where I literally jumped in my seat. You constantly think you have the movie figured out, and then it goes down a different alley and becomes more interesting. One of the pleasures of having psychopathic lead characters is that they are impulsive and do not have to follow the normal purview of logical decision making. They might just call the bad guys and divulge where they are hiding. They can do anything at any moment, and part of that unpredictability is what makes the movie feel so electric, so creatively alive. I must stress that McDonagh surprises in ways that feel satisfying and yet believable given the world he’s concocted. Part of the fun in the first half is just figuring out who the seven psychopaths will be. It’s not like it’s some laconic chamber piece mystery but the psychopaths are an eclectic mix from the real to the fictional to real characters doubling as inspiration for fictional ones. I think in the end there may only be six psychopaths, unless McDonagh is counting himself amongst the numbers.

McDonagh also has a blast deconstructing the very kind of movie that he’s providing. Marty bemoans writing another rote psychopathic killer movie where the violence is fetishized and the bad guys are mythologized into idols. You think the film is headed in one direction, in the Guy Ritchie-style standoffs and shootouts, and then it takes a less traveled path, one where it criticizes these sorts of movies and ponders existential questions about the nature of self-expression and death. It began as a care-free movie about thugs and writers and transformed into a movie that manages to have something to say about life, philosophy, and the cyclical nature of vengeance. Two of our three main protagonists are pacifists and remain so to their imperilment. At one point, a character narrates how this story as a proper movie would end, and it covers all the nihilistic clichés of vengeance and epic body counts. But then Marty, and McDonagh as well, wants to turn away from the expected, from violence for the sake of violence, from the exploitation of stylized suffering. McDonagh doesn’t forget to entertain while he’s making you think in between those handfuls of popcorn. The female characters in the movie (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko) are generally wasted, in different senses, but McDonagh uses this as another charge against this type of film (a boy’s night out of carnage). This is an accessible movie that can be enjoyed on a whole other meta level. I loved the various gear changes. For me it took the pulpy action material and elevated it to another level of genius.

McDonagh still maintains his darkly sardonic streak of humor that made In Bruges such a riot. I was laughing throughout Seven Psychopaths; chortles, snorts, giggles, big belly laughs. With its heedless violence, obviously this will not be a film that runs on every person’s wavelength of funny. The very opening involves two mafia hitman debating whether shooting somebody in the eye takes actual precision or just dumb luck. It’s the sort of mundane conversation you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and also the precursor to something nasty and ironic. McDonagh’s sense of humor is similar to Ritchie or the Coen brothers, but the man establishes his own sense of wicked whimsy. The absurdist dialogue is always a hoot and can generate serious malice, especially when delivered by stern psychopaths. Rockwell (Moon) in particular is outstanding and delivers a virtuoso performance of the unhinged. The man just radiates energy. You’ll feel jacked up just watching him. I keep waiting for this underrated actor to break out with each star-making turn, and his comedic zing is played to perfection in Seven Psychopaths. In contrast, Walken (Hairspray) is rather reserved as he underplays his character, one of the saner men he’s played. It feels like the passing of the torch from the older generation of psychopath to the newer generation.

Being a colorful movie about colorful bad guys, and girls, you’d expect there to be some grade-A oddballs, and McDonagh does not disappoint. Some of the psychopaths in question have little bearing on the story plot-wise. There’s Zachariah played by the impeccable Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He answers an ad that Billy set up for psychopaths to share their stories to Marty. His tale involves cross-country spree killing of serial killers, rabbit petting, and the love of his life, and partner in crime, leaving him. As far as plot, this little aside has little significance to the plot other than setting up a superb joke to end the movie with. But the character is so interesting, multidimensional, and played with equal parts aloofness and sincerity by Waits, that you can’t imagine the movie without him. Several of these psychopaths could have been the stars of their own movie, from the vigilante killing mob thugs to the tale of one father’s long path to vengeance. Even the fictional psychopath, the Vietnamese man (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance against G.I.’s, could have enough weight to carry a feature film. The amazing part of the movie is that you don’t feel like any of these characters are shortchanged. McDonagh finds ways to emotionally ground his characters, allowing the audience to empathize amidst the bloodshed and loony characters. We care about Hans and his ailing wife; we care about the friendship between Marty and Billy. It’s real for these characters and so it feels real to us, despite the hyper-real flourishes of the movie.

If you’re a fan of In Bruges, or just dark comedies mixed with sudden violence, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy with Seven Psychopaths. You don’t have to be nuts but it helps. McDonagh has crafted another winner with sharp dialogue, a twisty plot full of surprises, incisive commentary on movies and movie expectations, as well as some sincere soul-searching and poignancy. This baby has it all, folks. Above all else, it’s just a blast of fun. the actors all seem to be having the times of their lives, notably Rockwell, and the morbid laughs and off-kilter thrills should cement another McDonaugh film for cult status. Seven Psychopaths is a palyful movie along the lines of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Adaptation. It’s bursting with ideas and comments and jokes. when you leave the theater you almost want to get back in line and start the ride all over again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man was a fresh surprise in the summer of 2008, offering a superhero movie dominated by a middle-aged man’s personality and not the special effects. The story was not overwhelmed by all the demands of what we expect in a glorious summer popcorn experience. Marvel was smart to sign on the same team behind the first film, including director Jon Favreau, but setting a deadline exactly two years after the first film made me worry. There wasn’t much time to get everything together, and it should be no shock that Iron Man 2 feels rushes and absent the finesse of the first film. As much as it pains me to say it, Iron Man 2, while fun in spots, doesn’t come close to the original. You can trace much of it back to the sequel ethos that you take what worked in Part 1, make it much, much bigger and louder, and now you have Part Two. But what worked so exceptionally well in the first Iron Man movie was not the action sequences but the characters, so guess what happens when you pollute the narrative with more characters and disposable action sequences?

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a self-made superhero and now the world knows that he is indeed the metallic warrior, Iron Man. Stark refuses to hand over his technology to the government, saying he has “successfully privatized world peace.” He appoints his girlfriend/loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO so he can devote his time to ridding the world of evil and lapping up the fame that goes with being Iron Man. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) is concerned for his buddy but also eager to help play around with that super suit. But not everybody loves Tony Stark, notably Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons dealer aiming for a Pentagon contract, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian scientist who blames his father’s exile from America and Siberian internment on the Stark family. When Hammer sees Vanko’s attack at a Monaco speedway, he knows he has found an ally against Stark. Hammer whisks his newest Russian friend to New York and enlists his expertise in creating an army of super mechanical fighting suits.

The screenplay by actor-turned-writer Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) is overstuffed with people and events all fighting for screen time and narrative dominance that it starts to become unintentionally comical after a while. There are too many storylines jostling for control when any one of them could have comprised a whole movie: military demands to have the suit, Tony deals with blowback from being the most famous man in the universe, and escalation (others trying to top Stark). Don’t even get me started on how Iron Man 2 bends over backwards to advertise that future Marvel Avengers movie lead by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). I mistakenly believed that the trailers ended before my movie started. There’s a storyline where Tony’s blood is becoming infected with a dangerous chemical every time he uses the Iron Man suit, so being a superhero is literally killing him. You can work with that for some pathos, debating the needs of one man vs. the needs of society and the greater good, personal sacrifice, mortality, legacy, but it all gets way too easily resolved in an absurd way (all I’ll say is, thanks Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling!). It tries to up the ante when less would have been considerably more.

Most of the new characters feel poorly integrated, further causing distraction to any attempts at narrative cohesion. Iron Man 2 also pushes Johansson into the mix so that she can shake up the Tony/Pepper relationship and, plus, she looks good in a skintight cat suit. But her third wheel/love triangle status is barely touched upon and Johansson gets one solid action sequence where she takes out a litany of goons in a hallway with the amazing power of her spinning thighs. Johansson is mostly just another assistant to take notes in the background, although she does it beautifully. The Rourke scenes are few and far between. They establish him as an intimidating force and then he pretty much sits in a room tinkering with stuff, garbling Russian, and feeding his cockatiel for the rest of the movie. He never feels like a real threat or a true match for Tony. Rockwell is the more appealing, slimy villain of the duo, aided by Rockwell’s exasperated bellowing and desperation for the spotlight. Hammer is more interesting to me than a Russian ex-con that rarely speaks, let alone speaks in English. He’s given so little opportunity to develop Vanko as a character. And yet Gary Shandling, as a smug senator trying to make Stark accountable to the U.S. military, might be the film’s best villain of the bunch (curious side note: Shandling and Rourke look oddly similar).

The personal relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts was the heart of Iron Man. They had that snappy, droll, screwball comedy-esque give-and-take, with hints of something more underneath. This time, the movie doesn’t even speak about their relationship at all, like it never happened in the first film. That scene where she kisses his Iron Man helmet, tosses it out the belly of a plane, and he dives off uttering, “You complete me”? Not in the film. You start to wonder why the movie is being purposely vague and it gets maddening. Their relationship lacks the frustration tinged with flirtation and replaces it with agitation. Both Tony and Pepper are harried and on each other’s last nerve, which doesn’t make for much romantic traction. Their chemistry seems to have dampened. I’m kind of with Pepper on this one because Tony Stark might be even too obnoxious in this movie. Following the sequel-it is code, Tony’s egotistical behavior is expanded and he becomes prone to self-destructive behavior, getting riskier and riskier, pushing others away including, perhaps, decent portions of the audience. He’s stopped being the cocky, likeable arrogant playboy and transformed into a bit of a rich douchebag. Part of this is related to the storyline about the suit literally killing Tony, and his character’s alcoholism featured heavily in the comic books, but it’s just another plot element that feels like it was put in for momentary conflict and then easily resolved or dropped. I understand Tony will be his biggest antagonist but that didn’t stop the first Iron Man film from flying high in entertainment.

The first Iron Man had an unexpected low level of action for a summer movie, but because of the characters you didn’t care. It was that rare comic book movie where you wanted more dialogue and fewer sound effects. To be fair, Favreau and crew saved a pretty nice Iron Mano y Iron Mano fight sequence at the end. Following that narrative lead, Iron Man 2 is structured pretty much like the first when it comes to action. There’s the attack at the Monaco raceway, which features an unrealistic, cartoonish tone that conflicts with the rest of the flick. But the film’s biggest moment of sustained action is the climax involves Tony Stark versus a bunch of silly killer robots. Soulless robot drones don’t get very compelling, plus haven’t we seen a thousand movies where people combat killer robots? What’s more disappointing is that Favreau incoherently stages the action. It’s not due to any sort of hyperactive editing, no, the culprit is that the onscreen action is just moving way too quickly. As a result, much of the action feels like whooshes of color. It’s hard to adjust your eyes to the rapid movement and process what exactly is going on. Because we can’t follow the action the whole thing lacks tension, danger, and drama. I wanted to be blown away by the action, which has several trailer-ready moments of awesome, but mostly I just wanted to be able to understand what I was watching.

Despite all my complaints, Iron Man 2 still manages to be a fun time out at the movies. Downey is always immensely talented and brings great amounts of energy to the role, centering the movie on his witty charms. While his character is less engaging this go-round, Downey is still on top of his game. Rourke, Rockwell, Paltrow, and Johansson all contribute fine performances when they’re on screen. The low output of Iron Man in suit is compensated by having TWO Iron Men, thanks to Rhodes donning the metal gear and fighting alongside his pal. The opening of this movie captures your interest fairly well, though it loses it again thanks to slack pacing and an influx of new faces. The tone of the movie takes a cue from Downey and the movie as an agreeable, comedic feel without seeming overly glib. And hey, the special effects are pretty nice, too. Iron Man 2 is an adequate popcorn movie but the tragedy of the movie is that the first film was much more than adequate. I think the Iron Man film franchise is in need of a slight upgrade.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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