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

Jul 22

“The Way, Way Back”: Not Your Typical Teen Movie

As someone who’s vacationed annually on Cape Cod for many years, the first paragraph of Moira Macdonald‘s review (The Seattle Times) of The Way, Way Back had me right from the start. The second, introducing the cast, helped cinch it:

Much of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s summer-breeze comedy ‘The Way, Way Back’ feels familiar, but in a good way, like a comfortably rumpled beach house you’re happy to return to year after year. The film, set in a vacation town on the Massachusetts shore, features just such a house, but not everyone in it is happy.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is there with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), whose self-important boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) owns the house. The trio, along with Trent’s aloof teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), have arrived for a sun-drenched holiday, but tensions flare between Trent and Duncan, and it looks likely to be a very, very long summer.

The preview sets it up quite nicely:

And then there’s Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, the dryly delivered “Enjoy therapy” in the trailer, and Claudia Puig (USA Today) calling it “this summer’s Little Miss Sunshine” to add extra incentive to go see it.

Honesty, Realism, Authenticity

Tirdad Derakhshani, Philly.com: “A sly, richly modulated, emotionally engaging, and brutally honest film…”

Betsy SharkeyLos Angeles Times: “Authenticity gives the movie its witty, heartwarming, hopeful, sentimental, searing and relatable edge. It is merciless in probing the tender spots of times like these, and tough-guy sweet in patching up the wounds.”

Ella Taylor, NPR: “…(I)t’s smart, funny and moving about human weakness. And it doesn’t divide the world into good and bad adults — not counting that one bona-fide creep and his clueless squeeze.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “It’s an honest movie about what it’s like to be a teenage boy, about the need for a father figure and about the frustrating helplessness of being a kid.”

The Boy’s Need for a Father Figure

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “You don’t see too many movies about the importance of fathers, and they’re rarely done this well. Rockwell is the good father figure, and Carell the awful one, but Carell is too sensitive to play a total monster.”

Leah Rozen, The Wrap: “In Owen, Duncan finds a father figure, one whose sound advice and steady encouragement become increasingly meaningful to the teenager as the summer goes on.”

An Atypical Teen Movie

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “Almost anyone who has ever been a teenager will identify with Duncan (Liam James), the nominal protagonist of ‘The Way, Way Back.’ He’s 14, and stuck in that period of early adolescence when you’re no longer a child but aren’t quite prepared, by age or temperament or both, to join the ravening, Darwinian packs of hormone-driven teens.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “Teen-coming-of-age stories drop out of Hollywood’s ass like sci-fi sequels. They’re so easy to get wrong. Yet The Way Way Back gets it wittily, thrillingly right. It turns the familiar into something bracingly fresh and funny. It makes you laugh, then breaks your heart.”

Little Miss Sunshine? Not quite. (See previous post.) But definitely sweet—and close enough.