THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: raw emotion and dark hilarity

Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a powerful combination of raw emotions and dark hilarity, Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a small town woman consumed by the unsolved murder of her daughter.  Mildred doesn’t have the power to solve the murder herself, but she has the power to make everyone else uncomfortable until she finds justice and closure.  She buys billboards that personalize the stalled murder investigation, laying the blame on the popular town sheriff (Woody Harrelson).  She intends to rile people up, and, boy, does she succeed.

There are consequences, both intended and unintended.  In addition to the murder mystery, there are two new whodunits related to the billboards and some violent outbursts by two of the characters.  There’s a heartbreaking letter, and two more utterly unexpected letters.

The murder of one’s child is shattering enough, but Mildred also piles guilt on herself.  The murder has enraged the entire family, including Mildred’s son (Lucas Hedges of Manchester By the Sea) and her ex-husband (John Hawkes).  All three express their rage in different ways.  This is a showcase role for McDormand.

Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

This might be Woody Harrelson’s best performance.  His sheriff is an island of common sense, decency and levelheadedness in a turbulent sea of upset and idiocy.  The character of the sheriff is a remarkably fine father and husband in ways that are fun and interesting to watch.   The sheriff is facing his own mortality, and his feelings are hurt unjustly, but we only see glimpses of the pain in Harrelson’s eyes.  This is a performance that would have been in the wheelhouse for Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck, and Harrelson nails it.

Sam Rockwell plays Dixon, one of the sheriff’s deputies.  Dixon is an unfortunate muddle of bad instincts, no impulse control, stupidity, racism and rage.   Then he gets an unexpected opportunity for redemption…

Sandy Martin also sparkles as Dixon’s Momma.  It’s a very small part, but Martin practically steals the movie  with her white trash Svengali. Martin’s 128 screen credits include roles in Transparent, Big Love and as Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite (she’s the one who says Knock it off, Napoleon! Just make yourself a dang quesa-dilluh).

Samara Weaving is really perfect as the inappropriately-young-girlfriend-on-the-rebound of Mildred’s ex.  Weaving is drop dead beautiful with a remarkable sense of comic timing and a mastery of deadpan.  Fully invested in her character’s goodhearteredness and  airheadedness, she reminds me of Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Banks as a comic actor.

Peter Dinklage plays a character that provides comic relief and one important plot point, and he brings an unexpected and profound feeling to the part.

Here’s one thing that is uncommonly great about Three Billboards:  the story would have worked with characters of far less dimension, but the roles written by Martin McDonagh and performed by the cast elevates Three Billboards.  Mildred could have been only a shrew, the sheriff could have been only a cardboard foil and Dixon could have been only a buffoon.  Instead McDormand, Rockwell and Rochwell add layers of complexity to their characters, and Hawkes, Martin, Weaver and Dinklage each contribute more to the mix.

Three Billboards is brilliantly written by director Martin McDonagh.  McDonagh’s 2008 In Bruges was either the funniest hit man movie ever or the darkest and most violent buddy comedy ever.  Three Billboards shares the same dark/funny flavor.   Three Billboards also has a really fine soundtrack with a couple of spaghetti western-inspired cues.

The emotion in Three Billboards is genuine and deeply felt.  There are some especially grim moments, peppered with lots of laughs.   As I ponder this film, I keep coming back to the characters, the performances and the surprises in the story. Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri was an audience favorite on the festival circuit and is a Must See in theaters now.

LBJ: a Cliff Notes portrait of LBJ, traced through three relationships

Woody Harrelson in LBJ

Woody Harrelson captures the essence of Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s LBJ.  The best thing about this movie is the main character – probably the most complex and self-contradictory in American history.

LBJ was amazingly talented, aspirational, mean, charming, vulgar and surprisingly needy. LBJ was so masterful and tough and powerful, yet extremely thin-skinned for a politician.  His eternal grasping seems rooted in personal desperation.  LBJ had the need to dominate others and get everything he wants all of the time, and still needed to be loved (which is impossible when you are running over everyone else).

With all of his personal flaws, no American Presidents (except maybe Lincoln and FDR) have been able to roll up a record of legislative accomplishments in two short years to match the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.  Yes, this was a guy who was able to end legal racial segregation and systemic repression of voting rights and to bring medical security to the elderly and the poor.  (And then be capable of an equally huge policy mistake – the escalation of the Vietnam War.)

How do you tell the story of a larger-than-life character in only 90 minutes?  LBJ focuses on an eight-year period of LBJ’s career.  We first see him in 1956 as Senate Majority Leader, at his most energetic, masterful and powerful.  We then see him in his period of frustration and weakness as Vice-President.  The JFK assassination makes him President, and the film concludes after the enactment of Civil Rights Act in June 1964.

LBJ shows us the many sides of LBJ by tracing three of his personal relationships:

  • Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), the leader of Southern segregationists and one of LBJ’s most important mentors.  LBJ rose to power with Russell’s guidance and loyalty, but LBJ, to find his own place in history, needed to destroy everything Russell stood for.
  • Lady Bird Johnson (a superb Jennifer Jason Leigh), the only person who could handle the vulnerable, needy, whiny, disconsolate LBJ.
  • LBJ’s nemesis Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David). Because RFK was a martyr, the public tends to forget about his nasty and “ruthless” side, which did exist.  LBJ and RFK took an instant dislike to each other in the early 1950s, a situation which built into a profound and fundamental mutual hatred.
  • Bill Pullman plays Senator Ralph Yarborough, a very minor character in history, but one who serves here as a composite for liberal politicians and for those bullied by LBJ.

The highlights of LBJ are found in that fateful week in November 1963.  At Dallas’ Love Field, it’s clear that JFK’s star power has eclipsed the weakened and resentful LBJ even in Texas.  Then we see LBJ just after the assassination, taking command and plunging into action, taking command and knowing exactly what to do when everyone else was paralyzed by shock.

The history in LBJ is very sound.  I’ve read and re-read the over three thousand pages of Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Johnson.  Much of LBJ’s dialogue is word-for-word historically correct; I’ve even heard the real LBJ himself utter these words on phone calls that he taped himself.

Woody Harrelson is excellent, capturing both the human tornado and the vulnerable sides of LBJ.  The fine actors Randy Quaid, Rip Torn, Michael Gambon, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber and Tom Wilkinson have all had their cracks at playing LBJ on the screen.  Woody is significantly better than all of those guys, but I still prefer Bryan Cranston’s LBJ in All the Way.

Yes, it’s a Cliff Notes version, but LBJ, with its top rate performances by Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is a fine historical introduction and pretty entertaining, too.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Woody Harrelson in LBJ

DVD/Stream: Woody Harrelson’s overlooked gems

Woody Harrelson in RAMPART

Woody Harrelson has come a long way from his cheerfully amiable dunderhead bartender in Cheers.  As an actor, Woody swings for the fences and is attracted to larger than life roles.  He’s also famous/notorious as an off-screen provocateur.

And Woody works a lot.  This year, he’s featured in War for the Planet of the Apes,  Wilson, The Glass Castle and LBJ.

Here are some of Woody’s overlooked gems:

  • Rampart: In a sizzling performance, Woody plays a corrupt and brutal LA cop trying to stay alive and out of jail. If you’re looking for Woody Harrelson’s best performance, you should try this movie.  Available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, YouTube and Google Play.
  • The Messenger: Woody plays a veteran soldier helping a younger one (Ben Foster) through his new assignment: visiting military next of kin to inform them face-to-face of their loved one’s death in combat; Despite the challenging material, most people will appreciate Woody’s brilliant performance.  Available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.
  • Zombieland: Woody plays a master zombie killer is this riotously funny satire of zombie movies. Zombieland also features performances by Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Amber Heard and Abigail Breslin very early in their careers, and a priceless cameo from Bill Murray).  Available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
  • True Detective, Season 1: It’s a dark tale of two mismatched detectives – each tormented by his own demons – obsessed by a whodunit in contemporary back bayou Louisiana.  Woody is very good – but Matthew McConaughey’s performance may have been the best on TV that year. Available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from HBO GO, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: True Detective

true detective
My DVD/Stream of the week – perfect for binge-viewing on the holiday weekend – is the eight one-hour episodes of HBO’s True Detective. It’s a dark tale of two mismatched detectives – each tormented by his own demons – obsessed by a whodunit in contemporary back bayou Lousiana. Woody Harrelson is very good – but Matthew McConaughey’s performance may have been the best on TV this year.

The two detectives are shown pursuing a case together in 1995 and then being interviewed separately about it in 2012.  In the 2012 scenes, McConaughey sits at a table, his eyes dead but occasionally flashing, behind a coffee mug and an increasing lineup of empty beer cans.  He chain smokes and stares down his interrogators – doing very little with frightening intensity.  McConaughey has recently delivered brilliant performances in excellent movies (Mud, Bernie, The Paperboy, Killer Joe, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club) – and this may be his best.  McConaughey is reason enough to watch True Detective.

True Detective is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from HBO GO.

Seven Psychopaths: just not the sum of its parts

Upon leaving the theater, The Wife asked the revelatory question: “How come it wasn’t as good as its parts?”.  True, Seven Psychopaths is well-acted by a very deep team of my favorite actors and is embedded with belly laughs, but, as a whole, it’s just not that satisfying.

Colin Farrell plays an alcoholic writer struggling to get past the title of his new screenplay. He expertly plays the straight man against an assortment of raging oddballs.  Sam Rockwell is brilliant as the writer’s not-a-good-influence friend who, underneath a shiftless exterior, is profoundly psychopathic. Christopher Walken hits another home run as a dignified eccentric. And Woody Harrelson plays a pedal-to-the-metal raging psycho crime boss as only he can.

The supporting cast includes the immortal Harry Dean Stanton, Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Michael Pitt (The Dreamers, Boardwalk Empire), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Olga Kuylenko and the always reliable Zeljko Ivanek.   The best performances are by Tom Waits (as a bunny-petting retired serial killer) and Linda Bright Clay (as Walken’s tough-as-nails wife).

But the story isn’t tight enough.  Writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) (who doesn’t admire Quentin Tarantino) here only delivers Tarantino Lite.  Instead, I recommend McDonagh’s brilliant In Bruges (and The Guard which McDonagh produced).  For those who like dark, dark comedy with lots of violence, Seven Psychopaths is entertaining.  For everyone else, nothing special.

DVD of the Week: Rampart

In a sizzling performance, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt and brutal LA cop trying to stay alive and out of jail.  Woody’s Dave Brown is always seeking control.  He manipulates his superiors.  From behind his badge, he unleashes sadistic brute force on every other unfortunate within his sight.  Yet he is a man out of control, whose impulses to bully,  to drink and to seduce increasingly endanger his job security, his finances and what is left of his relationship with his family.  He is already skating on the edge of self-destruction when one brutal incident is caught on video and goes viral a la Rodney King.

Rampart benefits from the one of the best large supporting casts – less an ensemble than a series of great single performances as individual characters tangle with Dave Brown.  Ben Foster (The Messenger) is brilliant as a homeless man with too many drugs and not enough meds.  Robin Wright is also superb as an emotionally damaged lawyer who sleeps with Dave until his paranoia takes over.   Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube are two LA officials who see Dave as a walking, talking threat to public order and the City treasury.  Ned Beatty is the retired cop who has kept his finger in the police corruption racket. The Broadway star Audra McDonald plays a cop groupie that Dave meets in a bar.   As one would expect, Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon are excellent as Dave’s two amiable but bullshit-proof ex-wives.  Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky are especially effective as the daughters, who figure in Rampart‘s most breathtaking scenes.

Rampart is a singularly visual film – we always know that we are in the sunwashed, diverse, sometimes explosive anarchy that is LA.  The movie is structured and shot to heighten the experience of both the chaos that Dave causes and that the chaos that he feels.  This is Oren Moverman’s second effort as writer-director, the first being the searing The Messenger, also starring Harrelson and Foster.  Moverman keeps Rampart spinning along wildly as we wonder what will happen next to unravel Dave Brown’s life.

If you need some redemption to leaven a very dark story, this is not the movie for you.  Rampart reminds us that not everyone finds redemption.  It made my list of the Best Movies of 2012 – So Far.

Rampart: a sizzling portrait of a man spinning out of control

In a sizzling performance, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt and brutal LA cop trying to stay alive and out of jail.  Woody’s Dave Brown is always seeking control.  He manipulates his superiors.  From behind his badge, he unleashes sadistic brute force on every other unfortunate within his sight.  Yet he is a man out of control, whose impulses to bully,  to drink and to seduce increasingly endanger his job security, his finances and what is left of his relationship with his family.  He is already skating on the edge of self-destruction when one brutal incident is caught on video and goes viral a la Rodney King.

Rampart benefits from the one of the best large supporting casts – less an ensemble than a series of great single performances as individual characters tangle with Dave Brown.  Ben Foster (The Messenger) is brilliant as a homeless man with too many drugs and not enough meds.  Robin Wright is also superb as an emotionally damaged lawyer who sleeps with Dave until his paranoia takes over.   Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube are two LA officials who see Dave as a walking, talking threat to public order and the City treasury.  Ned Beatty is the retired cop who has kept his finger in the police corruption racket. The Broadway star Audra McDonald plays a cop groupie that Dave meets in a bar.   As one would expect, Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon are excellent as Dave’s two amiable but bullshit-proof ex-wives.  Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky are especially effective as the daughters, who figure in Rampart‘s most breathtaking scenes.

Rampart is a singularly visual film – we always know that we are in the sunwashed, diverse, sometimes explosive anarchy that is LA.  The movie is structured and shot to heighten the experience of both the chaos that Dave causes and that the chaos that he feels.  This is Oren Moverman’s second effort as writer-director, the first being the searing The Messenger, also starring Harrelson and Foster.  Moverman keeps Rampart spinning along wildly as we wonder what will happen next to unravel Dave Brown’s life.

If you need some redemption to leaven a very dark story, this is not the movie for you.  Rampart reminds us that not everyone finds redemption.

DVD pick of the week: The Messenger

The Messenger:  A soldier’s (Ben Foster) new assignment is visiting military next of kin to inform them face-to-face of their loved one’s death in combat; after you see this movie, you won’t complain about your own job for a while.  Despite the challenging material, most people will appreciate this movie because of the brilliant supporting performances of Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton. There are only 3 or 4 “notifications”, which set the stage for the characters played by Foster, Harrelson and Morton.  The plot is leavened by laughs and the possibility of romance.

Some Pre-Oscar thoughts

Best Supporting Actor:  Christolph Walz completely deserves to win Best Supporting Actor – and he will. Me and Orson Welles’ studio made a huge mistake and pushed Christian MacKay for Best Actor instead of Supporting for his amazing performance as Orson Welles; MacKay belongs among the nominees here. And the funniest performance as a Supporting Actor – maybe in the decade – is Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman in A Serious Man; Melamed creates a hilariously pompous and blatantly manipulative character as the guy who seduces the protagonist’s wife and then expects the hero to bend over backwards to make everything convenient for them; I’ve never seen such an earnestly self-entitled character. Woody Harrelson is also great in The Messenger.

Best Documentary: The Cove is nominated for Best Documentary, and I’ve heard that it is very, very good. But it’s been a strong year for documentaries. My favorite,
Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, may actually be a 2008 release. But I think that Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 and Tyson are nomination-worthy. Other goods documentaries this year include Outrage, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, The September Issue, More Than a Game, The Way We Get By, It Might Get Loud, and Thrilla in Manilla.

Best Animated Feature:  Just saw The Secret of Kells, and I have no idea why it has a high Metacritic score or why it is nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Best Supporting Actress:  Penelope Cruz is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Nine, but her better performance was in Broken Embraces.

Best Foreign Language Film: And why wasn’t Broken Embraces nominated for Best Foreign Language Film? It was one of my top five films of the year, and the Academy loves Almodovar. I am rooting against The White Ribbon – a brilliantly made film that tells a disappointingly shallow story. The White Ribbon is a depiction of a village in which every father is emotionally, physically and/or sexually abusive, all of the kids are very creepy and a mysterious someone is doing some very, very bad things. That could all work toward a good film, if the message were something a little deeper than “Germany’s WWII generation had very mean parents”.