Dec 06

“Three Billboards”: Female-Centric, Female-Reviewed

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, aptly called both “sorrowful and savagely funny” by Rolling Stone in its 10-best list for 2017, has one of the best story lines and some of the most interesting and complex characters and performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Most importantly, it has Frances McDormand in the lead. And in honor of rare female-centric films such as Three Billboards, I’ve decided to let this movie post be female-reviewer-centric as well.

Watch this trailer, which sets up the Three Billboards premise (and colorful language) really well:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times, describes the basic plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:

[McDormand] plays Mildred Hayes, a no-nonsense woman (she dresses, every day, in a navy-blue jumpsuit; the sort worn by plumbers or mechanics) who’s out for revenge. ‘I’m Angela Hayes’ mother,’ she says, in a voice so low you could jump over it. Her daughter, seven months ago, was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant; Mildred, frozen in clenched-jaw heartbreak, needs to know who to blame.

Mildred pays for three empty billboards to make the following statements:

    • “Raped While Dying.”
    • ″And Still No Arrests?”
    • ″How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

More about Mildred’s process, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, New York Times:

The billboards turn that grief into a weapon, a means of taking on the law and assorted men — a threatening stranger, a vigilante dentist and an abusive ex (John Hawkes) — who collectively suggest another wall that has closed Mildred in.

Dana Stevens, Slate, adds to our understanding of Mildred:

…(T)hough Mildred makes many choices that are reprehensible or downright dangerous, McDormand never fails to convince us of the fundamental decency of this woman, a tragic heroine struggling to find even the tiniest scrap of meaning in a comically awful world…Mildred is a tough person to be around…there are moments late in the movie when she commits acts that push at the limits of audience sympathy and goodwill. But McDormand, at age 60 one of our most gifted and least calculating actresses, fearlessly challenges us to love her character anyway.

How does the police department deal with Mildred? Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail: “The decent Willoughby (another finely crafted portrait of sympathetic masculinity from [Woody] Harrelson) tries to pacify her and rein in the most vicious of his officers, the explosively racist Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell in full psychopath mode.”

April Wolfe, LA Weeklyaddresses dynamics that ultimately may leave some viewers dissatisfied:

[Director] McDonagh painstakingly humanizes a character who we find has unapologetically tortured a black man in police custody. And then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to ask audiences to forgive and forget wrongs like police violence, domestic abuse and sexual assault without demonstrating a full understanding of the centuries-long toll these crimes have taken on victims in real life.

There’s another problematic issue too. The Globe and Mail’s Taylor: “If the film fails to solve Dixon’s emotional puzzle, another one that remains troubling is Mildred’s relationship with her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the only remnant of her family and link to her motherhood, yet apparently an afterthought in her crazed planning.”

Nevertheless, this is a movie, one with overall positive reviews, that makes you mull such things over. In closing:

...(T)here’s no better time than right now for a high-profile movie led by a meaty, complicated female character — and no better actress than McDormand to take it on. And you can put that on a billboard. Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press, regarding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

…just the bitter pill the times call for, offered with a loving cup to make it go down just a bit easier. Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good. Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

Oct 18

“The Sessions”: Sexual Surrogacy, Based on Mark O’Brien’s Life

The Sessions. Sounds like this film is about therapy, doesn’t it? Well, it is. But not about the kind we usually think of.

The Sessions is based on the true story of a man, poet/journalist Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down at age six due to polio. He first wrote about his experiences pertinent to the movie in a 1990 article called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” He died in 1999 at the age of 49.

Notably, director Ben Lewin is a polio survivor himself. Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter, describes the film, which hits some theaters tomorrow:

Using interior monologues to reveal the inner life of an essentially immobile man and interlacing levels that invoke religion, medicine, sex, psychology and art, writer-director Ben Lewin easily establishes audience sympathy for Mark (John Hawkes), a painfully thin man with an oddly twisted body who requires confinement to an iron lung for all but three or four hours per day. To get around, he’s wheeled on a gurney by a succession of assistants, principally Vera (the striking Moon Bloodgood). At 38, Mark figures that he’s ‘probably getting close to my due date’ and realizes that he’s never going to have sex unless he does something about it soon.

Watch The Sessions trailer below, which introduces Mark’s relationship with his priest (William H. Macy) as well as his surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt):

Reviews aren’t yet plentiful. But here’s a sampling:

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “At once entirely frank and downright cuddly in the way it deals with the seldom-visited subject of the sex lives of people with disabilities…”

Christy LemireSalon: “It has some difficult and heartfelt performances as well as moments of uncomfortable honesty, but ultimately writer-director Ben Lewin’s film feels too slight, too pat, and too wildly overhyped out of its festival showings. It is, in short, a nice story — but not one that’s told with any particular stylistic panache or emotional power.”

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: “The newest disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture is The Sessions, and it’s quirky and grounded enough to sneak past your more cynical defenses—the kind that would lead you, say, to label it a disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture.”

Tomorrow, more about sexual surrogacy…

Jan 13

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”: Woman Flees Abusive Cult

Another current and well-reviewed—though “smaller”—film is from first-time director/screenwriter Sean Durkin and is entitled Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). The plot according to IMDB: “Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.” Following her escape, she winds up staying with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).

Explanation of the title: Lead character “Martha” is given a cult name of “Marcy May” by the cult leader and is also dubbed “Marlene” by a fellow cult victim. She’s played by Elizabeth Olsen (sister to the more famous Olsen twins), who’s received stellar reviews.

Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) is described thusly by reviewer Anthony Lane (The New Yorker): “Like any good cult leader, he is a terrifying parody of a father figure, intent on making his kin feel at home. He has them fed, housed, and warmly encouraged—’You’re my favorite, and I won’t lose you,’ he says to Martha. He also rapes them.”

Before viewing the trailer below for Martha Marcy May Marlene, please consider whether you’re likely to become triggered by its content:

Selected Reviews

Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post: “Durkin depicts a horror that some among us actually live, where the search for family leads to something familiar and dangerous.”

Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: “Olsen inhabits Martha’s broken world completely. And at the movie’s end – a jarring, boldly ambiguous end – we’re in her head, too, not sure what is real, and what is not.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “…an utterly gripping ride that will keep you guessing until the last second about what is real and what imagined, and whether Martha has entirely snapped the tether of sanity.”