REVIEW: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Poltergeist” (2015)

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The popular practice of remaking movies, all kinda of movies, has proven to be more than a fad. That’s unfortunate. There doesn’t seem to be movie that modern filmmakers won’t try to remake. The horror genre has been particularly fond of this fairly unoriginal practice. “Halloween”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, and “Friday the 13th” are just some to receive a modern (and inferior) redo. So why not “Poltergeist”?

Normally I would automatically dismiss a movie like this but several things intrigued me, namely an interesting trailer, Sam Raimi’s attachment as co-producer, and the casting of the always likable Sam Rockwell. Unfortunately the movie itself isn’t nearly as intriguing as the trailer. Raimi’s fingerprints are nowhere to be found. Rockwell feels terribly out of place.

 

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After losing his job Eric (Rockwell) and wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) are forced to move their three children to a more affordable home. Unfortunately they pick a housing development built on an old cemetery. Talk about a terrible idea. Soon the family begins to notice a series a spooky occurances, many linked to the house’s lights and electronics. Obviously in the age of flat screens, tablets, and iPhones that is a bad thing.

But things get dramatically worse and even more unexplainable. Unable to go to the cops, the family seeks help from paranormal specialists who discover the house is haunted by angry and violent poltergeists. The bumps come more often, the screams get louder, and ultimately the danger escalates as Eric and Amy try to protect and save their children.

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Minus a couple of the performances, there is nothing inherently awful about “Poltergeist”. But at the same time there is nothing new, unique, or innovative to make it stand out from the run-of-the-mill horror flicks we get by the dozens. In fact its greatest sin may be its blandness. Much like the majority of the modern PG-13 horror flicks, “Poltergeist” plays it safe and depends on too many traditional and predictable scares. I never jumped, squirmed, or was caught off guard.

So I’m left with a question I have asked numerous times. Why did we need a “Poltergeist” remake? This version is very swift and easy to watch. It has some good moments and there are a few fun nostalgic winks. But it doesn’t do anything new or exciting. It follows the same tired blueprint and fails to capitalize on its potential. Even though it’s not a bad movie, it’s not one that you will ever remember past its first viewing. That’s a shame.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

REVIEW: “The Way, Way Back”

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I love it when a movie really surprises me. Such was the case with “The Way, Way Back”. This one-half comedy and one-half drama is a wonderful and entertaining stew that caught me off guard. Written and directed by the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is a warm and authentic coming-of-age picture. It’s a smart and funny film that at times dances close to cliché but then always turns and goes in a more smart and believable direction. It really worked for me.

Liam James plays Duncan, a sullen and awkward 14-year old who is trapped in a world of selfish, adolescent adults. He is forced to accompany his divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette), her jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) on a vacation to Trent’s summer home in a small New England beach town. Duncan’s life is full of complications. He is disconnected from his emotionally needy mother and at constant odds with the annoying and disingenuous Trent. Then there are the assortment of oddball characters from his new summer neighborhood none of which give him a feeling of belonging.

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But things change a bit when Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a laid back water park manager. Owen takes a liking to Duncan and actually connects with him on a level that the struggling teen desperately needs. Rockwell is fabulous here and he gives arguably the funniest performance of the year. He’s obviously a naturally funny guy and you’ll swear you’re watching improvisation as he delivers one quick-witted funny line after another. Faxon and Rash along with Maya Rudolph have small roles as fellow water park employees and they round out what becomes Duncan’s sanctuary. It’s where feels free. It’s where he feels he belongs.

One of the film’s great strengths is that the story is told almost entirely from Duncan’s perspective. We see his perception of dysfunctional adults, broken marriages, and juvenile behavior from those who should be anchors of support. It really is the adults who are the irresponsible and objectionable ones. As one equally frustrated young character describes it – “It’s spring break for adults” and not in a good way. But there are always cleverly injected bits of humor that keeps the tone a tad lighter than it may sound. Much like their previous Oscar-winning work on “The Descendants”, Rash and Faxon’s script takes on serious life situations and laces them with subtle bits of comedy. It’s great writing that will have you laughing one minute and feeling deep empathy the next.

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This is a character-driven movie and the performances don’t disappoint. The relatively unknown Liam James is just what the lead role needed. He’s restrained and grounded which allows for so much truth to flow from the character. I also really liked Steve Carell in a role that is drastically different from what we’re used to seeing him do. It’s interesting that the biggest comedian in the entire cast has the most serious role in the film. Allison Janney is a lot of fun as a spacey next door neighbor and Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are delightfully insufferable as two of Trent’s close friends.

The story of an insecure socially displaced youth isn’t new, but often times it’s told using the same overused formulas and contrivances. “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t exactly carve a new path but it does stay out of the usual trappings. It’s refreshingly honest and surprisingly funny. There are also some fabulous characters brought to life through some good acting led by Rockwell. His performance was a real eye-opener for me. The soundtrack, the perfect pacing, etc. As I said, it’s a wonderful and entertaining stew and I was hooked from the first scene. What a nice surprise.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS