Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh; 2017)

Mildred’s (Frances McDormand’s) daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the events which begin Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will from here on out abbreviate as Three Billboards).  The case is cold and Mildred has heard nothing from the police in a long time.  On her drive home one day she notices the three long abandoned billboards which sit aside a road no one uses anymore unless they are lost and gets an idea to get the local police working on the case again.  She rents out these three billboards to send out a message in 20-foot tall letters, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  When the local morning newscast reports on the story of the meaning behind these three billboards, Mildred’s family’s tragedy not only becomes a hot topic dividing a town between those who defend local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and those who defend Mildred, but also spirals out of control seemingly contagiously spreading tragedy throughout the small town of Ebbing.

The dramedy is an art form which seems to have been gaining popularity since the late ’90’s or so and has now become so popular it is practically trite.  Three Billboards, however, despite its marketing is not a movie I would apply the term dramedy to.  I would call Three Billboards the far less often used tragicomedy.  This is a film in which horrible decisions are made and horrible things happen to people who themselves are not horrible over and over again.  It’s a story about how the way we react to the troubles in our lives can spread and spiral out of control until our own personal tragedies have now inflicted tragedies on those all around us.  Before you stop reading right here wondering why you would ever want to inflict such misery on yourself as entertainment, that is only the beginnings of this film’s wisdom.  The way it handles these tragedies can be heartbreaking or can be very funny depending on the depth of the catastrophe, but Three Billboards always handles the hurdles it throws at its characters with the film’s messages and the character’s personalities and motivations in mind.

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The movie isn’t about torturing its characters for comic or tragic effect, though.  There is a very deep, very needed message behind the suffering going on in Ebbing.  While I won’t come right out and say what that message is, I will say that it is embodied in showing the difference between how Mildred, Willoughby, and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) each handle their own grief.  While this lesson is poignant, the wisdom of the movie surpasses even the knowledge of how tragedy and grief work, beyond the central lesson of its three primary characters, but also manages to show us that writer and director McDonagh understands first and foremost that none of us can ever be perfect and therefore does everything in a completely non-judgmental, non-preachy way.  He simply gives us very realistic, three dimensional, relatable characters in a very recognizable situation and lets it all speak for itself, except with far more clever dialogue than normally comes out of the mouths of normal people.

It will be no surprise to learn that with this cast (in addition to McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson, we also have Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Zeljko Ivanek – you’ll know him if you look him up) the acting is incredible.  In a story that demands it has truly real people dealing with truly horrible situations the entire experience rides on the shoulders of the ensemble, not just their personal performances but on how well they work with each other, and they exceed expectations.  Not a single action seems forced, not a single spoken word awkward, and no one tries to steal some spotlight when it isn’t their turn to shine.  Special mention in this department needs to go to Sam Rockwell.  Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson do what they do here, and they do it well, but Sam Rockwell gives the performance of a lifetime so far above and beyond anything I’ve seen him in before, I really had no idea he was capable of this level of performance, and yes, I have seen Moon.  He has to play a character who is seemingly contradictory, who is at times the most loved and other times the most hated person in the entire story, and who for a good chunk of the climax of the film has to carry the movie’s emotional weight on his shoulders, and he not only pulls it off but he does so in a way which doesn’t draw too much attention to himself.

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The visual part of the storytelling in Three Billboards definitely does justice to the phenomenal writing and acting on display.  It’s far from the most spectacularly shot film this year, but its still quite gorgeous and enhances the mood nearly perfectly.  Perhaps even better than the cinematography is the editing.  The film does have a minimal amount of stunts and action, but the vast majority of the film relies on speech and silence for its power, and those who put together the final cut got that pacing exactly with never a moment that seemed like it was dragging, nor a scene which seemed rushed.  We linger on a moment exactly when the emotional power demands it and we move on before that emotion is lost.

Ultimately what Three Billboards does best is give us perspective.  Not all cops are bad, but neither are they saints.  Victims are not always innocent, but neither do they “deserve it”.  Three Billboards examines subjects like domestic abuse, racism, police brutality, and no matter what your political leanings and intellectual and emotional state you will see something from a new, surprising point of view which will make you sit up and realize that nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.

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Final verdict:  I don’t recall having ever seen a film that understands grief and tragedy quite as well as Three Billboards.  I’ve certainly never seen one that handles it in quite the same manner.  This is a film that understands both the intellectual and the emotional elements of tragedy, and how our reactions to our own tribulations can affect any and all around us.  It’s a movie about the cause and effect of being human and can be heartbreaking one moment while bringing absolute joy the next without ever being judgmental, manipulative, cloying, nor sentimental.  It uses humor not so much to make us laugh but to enable us to keep watching and to ferret out the wisdom which seeps through every element of this fantastic film.  This film may be difficult for some to watch, but even for them, I am labeling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri essential viewing.  I’m not quite ready to slap the label of masterpiece on it, yet, but it’s close enough that I am very tempted and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I decide it is in the future.

Stronger (Green; 2017)

The Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013 is one of those events that will long linger in the collective unconscious of the American public in a “where were you that day?” sort of remembrance.  One of the survivors of the blast named Jeff Bauman gained instant fame when he was not featured in a photograph alongside his rescuer which made its way into national television broadcasts and graced a great many printed publications as well as new websites and also was able to give authorities information which ultimately led to the discovery of the bombers’ identites.  Stronger is Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) story adapted from the book of the same name written by Bauman himself focusing less on the day of the bombing and more on his physical and mental recovery from the permanent injuries he was left with that day.

Your typical biopic is an exaggerated version of the events surrounding a person’s life.  While most writers and directors do honestly seek to honor the subject of their film as well as educate the public about someone they admire or at least find fascinating, they also realize that real life is often dull and able to be better covered in a documentary if accuracy is the goal over entertainment.  Look to my latest review of American Made as a perfect example.  While I’m sure most of the events covered in the film happened, I am just as sure that Barry Seal cannot have been the source of constant “What? Me Worry?” witticisms and unfazeable charm which Tom Cruise portrayed him as nor could the events unfolded in such a laugh riotous manner.  While I learned a lot about the contras and the drug trade during the ’80s, I also understand that American Made needs to grab my attention through entertainment because I am not going to theater to take a history course, and so the portrayal of characters and events need to be tweaked to fit the stylings of a film rather than be shown to us in stark realism.  What sets Stronger apart from the typical biopic is that it seems far more authentic than most films of its ilk for better and for worse.

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You can tell that the characters in Stronger come from a specific person’s, in this case Jeff Bauman’s, point of view.  We see the people in his life as a group of well meaning, but ultimately seriously flawed individuals.  They want to help Jeff, and a great many put their own lives on hold to do just that, but all give in to the temptations of procrastination and distraction because helping Jeff adjust to his new life and situation is really difficult on both a mental and physical level.  Some characters turn to drinking all the time, some make excuses for him and for themselves, some plant themselves in a place of denial, but nearly all show a truly authentic dichotomy in their wanting to help Jeff but then coming up with excuses not to, especially Jeff himself.  But, one character, Jeff’s on and off girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) is the long suffering character put high on a pedestal that we all recognize in our lives, that one person we know can rescue us from our travails even if in actuality they can’t and who we come to rely on and take advantage of until we are harshly reminded just how much worse our lives would be without them.

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Stronger also shows wisdom and authenticity in showing that the road to recovery isn’t really about grit and determination or that the most difficult steps take place in rehab.  It shows us people who need to learn about themselves in this new world they have entered, people who are used to things one way and who need to give up that one way no matter how difficult it is.  It’s a film that understands tragedy happens not just to one person, but to everyone around that person whether family, friend, or coworker.  Stronger also shows us that the things hardest for us to overcome are those that are not obvious even to ourselves.  Bauman learning to walk again using prosthetics is barely even an afterthought in the film, Stronger is more about his learning to be in crowds again and recognizing that he even has a problem with it, about not letting other people live his life for him now, and even about the little things we all take for granted that now became entirely different now that he’s lost his legs.  These are the things Stronger decides to show us, and this is why I call Stronger wise.

Since Bauman himself wrote the original book, we can easily understand where the wisdom and authenticity in the screenplay comes from (it comes from an incredible amount of self understanding and introspection – the easily applies to us, not Bauman).  None of that would have played on screen, though, were it not for the absolutely phenomenal performances given by Stronger’s cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal always gives us riveting characters, but here he outdoes even himself in both his physicality and in his character work.  The Jeff Bauman he gives us is a remarkably nuanced character who never falls into any sort of stereotype nor generality and always appears to be the multifacted, often even contradictory personalities we truly are.  Add to that the fact that he has to convince us he is a man who has no legs who once did, and he more than convinces, and you have a portrayal which I can nearly guarantee will be nominated for an Oscar come next year.  Walking down that red carpet with him I could also see Tatiana Maslany in her equally hyperrealistic performance of Jeff’s long suffering on-and-off girlfriend.  She gives us a rock who doesn’t even understand herself why she is making herself into one, who truly loves Jeff, but is also truly constantly disappointed in him, and this is the burden she has to come to grips with.   While Stronger obviously couldn’t have even existed were it not for Jeff Bauman, it wouldn’t have the depth and poignancy it does without Erin, and the title of the film applies just as much to her as it does to him – maybe moreso.

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As fantastic as the characters are and as amazingly insightful the screenplay is, Stronger still has one Achilles’ heel which will turn off many audience members, and that is that with its remarkable realism comes a lack of spectacle and excitement.  Stronger is a character piece and a think piece through and through.  The most exciting events in the movie ever get are the anticipation of the bombing itself toward the start of the film, and the loud arguments shouted between people here and there throughout.  This isn’t a story which features physical struggles nor acts of bravery.  It’s a movie about internal torment and relationships, and thus it’s most often a very slow burn of a film.

Final verdict:  If you are a fan of biopics, then get yourself out to see Stronger sooner rather than later.  This is a shining example of the genre which approaches its subject matter which seems both familiar and entirely new at the same time due to the fact that it tackles its story so realistically.  It’s neither a feel good story, nor is it a total downer, but rather a realistic view of a regular life turned topsy-turvy through unavoidable tragedy.  If you are not a fan of biopics in general, this one is a little tougher of a sell.  You may not want to pay full price in the theater to check it out, but there is so much to take from Stronger, I’d ask that you at least give it a look one day down the line when you can stream or rent it.  You will never be thrilled, but you’ll almost certainly find yourself with new understanding.

A Monster Calls (Bayona; 2016)

We’ve all experienced that story in which the prose is exemplary and the plot intense, but you just don’t connect with the main character.  The sporting event where everyone on both sides plays their hearts out and gives a spectacular showing then the final result is based on a bad call by the referee.  Watching A Monster Calls is very much the same sort of experience.  There is so much which is spectacular, but which then ends up being marred due to flawed technique.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve year-old aspiring artist whose mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.  His attachment to his mother due to her state, and the additional stress in his life makes him a target for bullies, one bully in particular (James Melville), add to this an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an absentee father (Toby Kebbel) and Conor has nowhere to escape to except his art and his imagination.  When a tree monster (Lian Neeson) shows up to help Conor in a fuzzy manner, Conor begins to change in ways that scare those around him.

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This set up and opening of A Monster Calls is handled so well it could be used to teach exactly how to handle the show don’t tell rule of screenwriting.  Not once is the word cancer said out loud nor does anyone talk about Conor being an artist, but all these details come across easily and quickly getting us into the story naturally.  Unfortunately, as the story progresses the skill put into the story telling becomes less and less consistent until by the end the characters are literally just blurting out loud how they feel, what they are doing, and what lessons should be learned.  The ultimate lesson is quite a doozy, too, one that takes some bravery to both tell and to allow to sink in so it’s even more unfortunate that by the time we are having it expressed to us it’s done in the crudest possible way.

One element of A Monster Calls that is consistently great, though, is the artistry on display.  The camera work is wonderful with shots through frosted glass windows to obscure what’s happening behind but still giving you an idea, extreme close up shots of pencils and ink so close that shavings are falling onto the paper and ink spreading out to fill its intended area, the titular Monster often quite literally coming out of the woodwork, and so on.  The camera work, the set design, and special effects are all handled wonderfully and with great care giving us a visual experience on par with films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Amelie.  The special effects are also a large part of the show don’t tell element which while inconsistent is done really well when it is done at all well as we see the Monster mirroring the body language and movement of Conor.  While the Monster normally takes on the dominant role when the two are on screen together, a careful viewer will see that the Monster follows Conor’s every move letting us know that what we are seeing is just a projection on his part, and this is the only way the film makes this absolutely clear aside from the audience understanding that this is a realistic film and monsters don’t really exist.

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To further add to the wonderment of the visuals, A Monster Calls has two sections of film that are done using hand drawn animation.  The animation uses a very rough style, but most certainly a stand out one.  The faces of characters can’t be made out, inks run and blend together forming new images and scenes as they do so, the color pallettes are chosen to express a mood, and in the second of the animated pieces, the “real” world of Conor and the Monster begin to blend in with it making for a very beautiful piece and an additional story element that couldn’t be seen coming.

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The acting in A Monster Calls is well done across the board.  Lewis MacDougall who before this had only played a minor role in the film Pan carries the movie excellently.  We absolutely buy into his pain and even the more subtle aspects of the character’s psychology, and this is very much a psychological study, come across well, at least until the closing parts of the film when the writing gives away too much, too quickly, and too crudely, but that is hardly MacDougall’s fault.   Felicity Jones as Mum does a decent job being pathetic and likable, which honestly is really all she is called upon to do.  Sigourney Weaver nails her role as Grandma giving us another nuanced performance (in everything but her accent, I honestly could not tell if she was supposed to be English or American)  in which she has to show that she loves Conor very much, but that is largely due to Mum being her daughter, and also that she will not stand for his acting out.  It’s often a fine line to walk, and she not only walks but dances along it.

A Monster Calls does so much so well, that it’s a near tragedy that it can’t remain consistent.  Two or three brilliant scenes will go by, tugging on your emotions in just the right way, instilling you with awe from the glorious visuals in front of you, and getting across important information to you without your even realizing it’s done so, and then, the Monster will show up and give a rote speech that he is going to do this, and this is why, and this is when crashing you back down to Earth and reminding you that you are just watching a movie, all your belief in this fantasy shattered, and what hope does a monster have if you don’t believe in it?

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Final recommendation:  If you love film primarily for the visual artistry of it, then this is a must see.  The director Bayona and the cinematographer Faura had a beautiful and creative vision that they portrayed wonderfully.  If story is the primary reason you go to the movies, however, it’s a little harder to wholeheartedly recommend.  The story is excellent for the most part, and I feel it deserves to be seen solely for the bravery of its message, but the fact that that message is delivered far too clunkily much of the time and could be a trigger for people who have recently lost a loved one makes me want to say this is not a film for the more casual movie goer.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan; 2016)

For those, like me, who are not the greatest at geography Manchester-by-the-Sea is not only the name of the latest film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, but it is also a town in Massachusetts roughly 30 miles northeast of the city of Boston.  The film, of course, takes place in the city, but drops the hyphens when writing its name, and it is this small fishing and touristy town of roughly 5,000 residents which gives the movie so much of its atmosphere.   The character’s accents are Boston, their attitudes small town, and the structures 100 percent New England.  Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler left the town years ago to become a handyman in Boston due to a tragedy which takes some time to find out about, but you suspect right away when you hear people speaking in hushed tones about how he’s “that Lee Chandler”, and has to return when he finds out his brother Joe (played by, strangely enough, Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights and Bloodlines fame) has died.  The very introverted and withdrawn Lee is more shocked than anyone to find out that one of the provisions of Joe’s will is that Lee is now to be Joe’s son Patrick’s legal guardian.

Manchester by the Sea is a pretty remarkable film that defies any easy description.  It focuses on a series of tragic events in the lives of the Chandler family, but despite that it’s not a film I would classify as a tragedy nor a movie about overcoming hardships.  It’s central character is very closed off purposely, but much like real introverts its not something he does consciously so he’s more than welcome to let others in if they show a desire, and this isn’t a movie about him learning a lesson or changing as a person.  Ultimately, what Manchester by the Sea is is a look at a family separating and coming to terms with the events in their lives that caused the separation and where their new place in each other’s lives now needs to be.

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If you thought that paragraph was convoluted, you should see our marriage.

If you’ve hear about this Manchester by the Sea prior to this, you have most likely heard about it because of Casey Affleck’s performance, and the praise he is getting is definitely deserved.  Affleck gives a very low-key, understated, downright morose performance, yet still manages to command your attention every second he is on screen which is nearly every second of the running time of the movie.  While he is the standout, there is not a bad performance to be seen here.  The already mentioned Kyle Chandler is wonderful as one of the few outgoing, lively characters to be seen here, Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler Lee’s nephew and new ward is outstanding and a great foil to Affleck, and Michelle Williams, while in a smaller role than many of the others, gives an incredibly realistic and nuanced performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi.  Every performance here just feels so real, and as you go further down the rabbit hole that is the life of the Chandler family gets even more so showing how much talent and thought is behind each and every one of these individuals you see on the screen.

Kenneth Lonergan is the off screen star of the piece as both writer and director, both roles which a tackles with immense talent.  The screenplay he gives us is very complicated and needs to show us an entire history so we can make sense of the present of the film, and never does it become hard to follow nor overly melodramatic.  While I admit to thinking at times that there are so many tragic incidents in this family’s back story that I was close to inappropriate laughter once or twice near the end of the movie’s second act, it was only a little hard to swallow because of the number of occurences, never because of cause and effect or character reaction.  Everything flowed naturally and realistically, and absolutely oozes with New England character as a bit of icing on this particular slice of life story.

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Here we see two Chandlers, not to be confused with Bing.

Manchester by the Sea is a great example of a realistic character piece.  It’s a very slow burning movie which through its portrayal of a broken man and his broken family sneaks up on us and leaves us in a state of emotion far stronger than we’d noticed.  You feel for Lee, Patrick, Randi, and everyone else we meet in this story, but it takes one of the film’s few and spaced about but intense emotional scenes for us to realize just how much they’re situation has gotten under our skin.   The movie is tragic, but never melodramatic, uplifting, but never schmaltzy, and ultimately therapeutic in how it shows that while life may never be easy, never be what we expect, and doesn’t offer pat solutions, we all understand this and we will be there for each other, even if not always exactly in the way we thought.

Rating:  8.0 out of 10

A side note about the movie which doesn’t belong in the movie proper:  I saw this film right after watching Nocturnal Animals, am struck with how much these two films are mirror images of each other.  Nocturnal Animals is an often pretentious movie about upper class and hillbilly stereotypes being cruel to each other and bringing about more and more cruelty for very petty reasons, while Manchester by the Sea is about a working class family going through tragic event after tragic event and showing how they do what they can to overcome what life throws at them and ultimately manages to make us cautiously optimistic.  I just find it interesting that two films getting major buzz at the same time for very much the same reasons can be such polar opposites in nearly every other way.