REVIEW: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”


Playwright turned screenwriter Martin McDonagh is three movies into his feature film career – “In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths” and his latest “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. While each film has their differences they also also have their similarities. All three are black comedy crime pictures and each prominently feature McDonagh’s brash writing style. You can decide whether that last part is a good thing or not.

McDonagh’s inspiration for “Three Billboards” came as he was driving in southeastern United States and noticed some billboards speaking to an unsolved crime. He began filling in his own elements to the story and “Three Billboards” was born. As he began penning the script two characters were written with specific performers in mind. The lead character of Mildred was written for Frances McDormand and key supporting character Dixon was written for Sam Rockwell.


The story begins seven years after the brutal rape and murder of a teenaged girl around Ebbing, Missouri. The girl’s mother Mildred (McDormand), angered by the sheriff department’s lack of progress on the case, rents three abandoned billboards just outside of town calling out the local authorities. The billboards read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Mildred’s billboards spark the ire of the townsfolk including Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), his dense and racist deputy Dixon (Rockwell), and even her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). But Mildred (a fitting reflection of McDonagh’s abrasive writing style) pushes forward which leads to a series of conflicts that make up a bulk of McDonagh’s problematic story.


“Three Billboards” is such a mixed bag. McDonagh wildly swings from absurdly goofy to deeply emotional with no real gauge for tone. A scene of oddball humor can shift to a scene of startling violence on a whim. Often the characters are the biggest victims. One minute a man is brutally beating another man and punching a woman in the face. Only a few scenes later we are asked to buy into his moral transformation. Even Mildred suffers from McDonagh’s erratic treatment. She’s an inspirational crusader and a sympathetic mother. She’s also a verbally abusive, dysfunctional parent and can sometimes be needlessly hateful and vile. McDormand goes all in and her performance is solid, but her character (like most in the film) is all over the map.

Funny enough the movie is its most effective when it turns down the volume and focuses on the quieter dramatic moments. Many of these involve Woody Harrelson, an actor often known for big and showy. His Sheriff Willoughby is probably the film’s most tempered character but he’s not immune to McDonagh’s occasional jarring dialogue. And it seems we are meant to be at least a little sympathetic towards him, but to do so the movie ignores some gaping moral holes and expects us to do the same. Sorry, I can’t.


Several other things keep “Three Billboards” from reaching the potential it teases. There’s McDonagh’s weird vision of small town America. He nails how the effects of a horrible tragedy can ripple through a rural tight-knit community. And visually the North Carolina location is a nice stand-in for the fictional town of Ebbing. But his wonky cast consists of racists, sexists, bigots, abusers, child molesters, and several other offensive classes of miscreants. Is this his rural perception? I’ll take a Coen brother’s version over this one any day.

And then you have McDonagh’s insistence on being blatantly and often pointlessly vulgar and crass. I get that it’s his thing, but forcing it into the bulk of the dialogue becomes annoying and distracting. I have no problem with a writer bringing their own style and sensibility, but it’s never a good thing when you can feel the writer constantly impressing himself on his material. Mix that with the seismic tonal shifts, uneven and often incomprehensible characters, and an overbearing desire to be as un-PC as possible regardless of how it effects the story. The result is a frustrating movie built on a good idea and featuring some strong performances yet undermined by problems too big to dismiss. Ultimately it’s a film that acts like it has something to say, but you quickly learn it’s little more than an empty hull. And for a movie about a mother seeking justice, it’s certainly has little to offer.



REVIEW: “Hail, Caesar!”

CAESAR poster

I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.


While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.

I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.


But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.

It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.

Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.


3 Stars

REVIEW: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Going into a Wes Anderson film there are several things you know to expect: a healthy dose of dry and sometimes offbeat humor, a unique visual style, and familiar aesthetics that permeate each of his movies. “Moonrise Kingdom” is no different from other Anderson efforts in terms of it’s storytelling style and visual presentation.  This is his first film since 2009’s Oscar winner “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but it’s clear from the opening credits that his dedication to his style of filmmaking is still as strong as ever.

“Moonrise Kingdom” takes place in a small community on a New England island in 1965. A very Wes Andersonish  narrator sets the table for us and we meet several of the community folks including Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) the leader of the island’s branch of the Khaki Scouts. While doing morning inspections, he discovers that 12 year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), a picked on, eccentric young boy has run away from the camp. Elsewhere on the island young Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives at Summer’s End, her home shared with her parents and three young brothers. Suzy is a reserved introvert who has no friends and finds refuge by retreating into her fantasy novels and looking through her binoculars – something that she pretends gives her super powers. It’s through her binoculars that she discovers her mother Laura (Frances McDormand) meeting secretly with the community policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Her father Walt (Bill Murray) is impervious to the signs of his wife’s secret fling mainly due to their fractured relationship.

Suzy ends up running away from home and through a flashback we learn that it’s something she and Sam had been planning since they first met at a local church play the year before. The two meet in a meadow then set out on a journey together through the rugged and rainy island terrain. Sam flexes his extensive outdoor knowledge before Suzy by pitching tents, building fires, and catching and cooking fish. Meanwhile, after discovering the kids are gone, the dysfunctional community sets out to find them.

Anderson has several interesting dynamics at work, the first being the relationship between the two kids. It’s easy to see why they are drawn to each other. Both feel detached and out-of-place. There’s a void in their lives and they find solace in the fact that they no longer feel alone in the world. Both Gilman and Hayward are stunningly good especially considering this is the first feature film for both. Anderson’s childlike deadpan dialogue flows naturally from the two characters and he really gives them a believable foundation for the budding adolescent romance. Some have argued that the romance between the two was lacking and never provided the spark to drive the relationship. I argue that there’s no huge passionate spark mainly due to the children’s age and the newness of love and romance. I feel that their attraction to each other is based more on their personal, emotional, and social similitude. Being in each other’s presence fills a substantial emptiness in their lives and let’s them know they aren’t alone. A form of love sprouts up from that and Anderson depicts it with tenderness even amid the laugh out loud moments and the hilarious, straight-faced dialogue.

My biggest problem with the way Anderson handles the children’s relationship is the way he handles his child actors in one particular scene. Intended to show a sexual curiosity and almost unwanted compulsion, there is a brief scene where Gilman and Hayward are asked to engage in something that I have no problem saying I was uncomfortable with. At the time of filming, both actors were 12-years old and the willingness of Anderson to shoot this particular scene is disappointing. It’s certainly not graphic but it’s also not appropriate and that fact that it’s used more for comic effect is even more frustrating.

But while the story of Sam and Suzy drives the main narrative, perhaps the biggest microscope is put on the community and the fact that they are each flawed individuals forced to make important and sometimes redemptive decisions. As you look at each character you see situations unfold that bring them to the point of either doing the right thing and changing the direction of their lives or watching as things crumble in around them. In a very real sense, the disappearance of Sam and Suzy is the catalyst for some pretty real and important character transformations in Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, Laura, and Walt. Even Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts are faced with their own moment of truth.

I talked about Gilman and Hayward’s performances but they’re surrounded by some equally strong work. I was particularly drawn to Bruce Willis who delivers some great laughs but through a very controlled performance that’s perfectly fitting for Wes Anderson material. Willis occasionally gets to show his acting range and this is a good Oscar caliber example of that. And I have to say, as someone who isn’t the biggest Edward Norton fan, that he was a lot of fun here. He’s goofy, nerdy, and his delusion of control that’s evident in some of the early scenes results in some of the films funnier moments. Frances McDormand is perfectly cast and Bill Murray is funny as always. I also thought Anderson favorite Jason Schwartzman was funny running around in full Khaki Scout attire.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is another Wes Anderson picture that’s a side-splitter to some but a head-scratcher to others. I laughed a lot through the film but I was also touched by its tenderness and care in addressing struggling children with feelings of isolation and insecurity. Anderson does get careless and I feel irresponsible in one brief scene but there are still several undercurrents that touch on important themes without fully diving into them. We not only see it with the children but in the community and it really worked for me. “Moonrise Kingdom” may not be for everyone but I loved its full package and stylish presentation. It’s a breath of fresh air in a comedy genre filled with raunchy movies and lazy humor. I’ll take this over them any day.