Movie Review: Black Panther

Too many characters, too long, too much plot but, at its root, lacking a meaningful theme. This is what I think about Marvel’s exhausting new comics movie for Disney, Black Panther, which pounces, confuses and contradicts.

Five tribes converge in an African kingdom where a substance called vibranium once crash-landed, leaving the tribal nation rich in this superpowerful resource, which must be mined and developed to perform wonders. This place is called Wakanda and Wakandans hoard the stuff, which they mine, keep and profit from for themselves, concealing it from the world, despite its healing abilities. Some might say ‘but it’s only a comics movie’ and dismiss any other thought. As for me, I did wonder, and you might, too, about what Wakanda’s closely guarded windfall could do for people with cancer, for instance.

This is the main problem with the politically tinged Black Panther, which mixes nationalism, genetics and collectivism to address, question and challenge ideas without dealing with them. Being a Marvel movie, many merely want to know if Black Panther has fights, fun, humor, cleverness and action, all the marks of Disney’s Marvel Studios brand. So, yes, it has those to varying, uneven and inconsistent degrees. Humor is flip and scattered. Fun comes in spurts. Fights are too fast, cleverness isn’t clever enough and action is solid. Visuals are, as usual, computer-generated.

Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the Fruitvale Station director (using a Bay Area angle here, too), Black Panther doesn’t settle on a theme. It ends up in a squishy mix of notions summed up by the arbitrary term social justice. It might have been called ‘Social Justice Warrior’, though this would run afoul of those who claim that title. Black Panther, with no overt relation to the 1960s black supremacist movement, opens with its first social justice mission to ‘bring back our girls’, the phrase associated with a campaign to reclaim girls kidnapped and raped by Islamic terrorists in Africa and forced to become veiled Moslems. The campaign omitted those facts and so does the movie, instead using the initial mission to introduce its leading lady and gentleman, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Chadwick Boseman as her ex-boyfriend, Wakanda’s leading monarch. Knowing what the audience knows could happen to the girls, this packs stakes, severity and context into the plot. Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and Nyong’o, Patsy the raped slave in 12 Years a Slave, rise above the script.

They’re not in Black Panther enough. Yet they carry the movie while sharing it with too many characters. Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood) plays the king’s mother, Andy Serkis (War, Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) plays a wild-eyed villain who comes off like a drunken Englishman, Forest Whitaker (Phenomenon, Rogue One, The Crying Game) plays a kind of referee, Letitia Wright (Cake) plays a sassy royal sister with amazing tech skills and Winston Duke (Dwight on Modern Family) plays a rival tribal leader. Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Marshall) has an important role. Danai Gurira steals every scene as a warrior. Michael B. Jordan (NBC’s Parenthood), who played the title character in Coogler’s Creed, plays the arch-villain. There are several other characters, too, including a tribal farm leader played by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya. They are each overwhelmed.

With horseback riding across the countryside and a sweeping score that briefly replaces the predominant drumbeat, the audience enters the great kingdom introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda comes with clipped, cliched narration as the story begins. A king is designated, then challenged (also cliched) during a waterfalls conference with leaders and warriors from the five tribes. All of this royal shuffle arcs into a plot to smuggle the powerful substance, which leads to the perils of poverty, presumed errors in judgment and what went down during that tie-in to the Bay Area. Wakandans speak English with foreign accents yet they also speak in a foreign language with subtitles and it’s never clear why. There are bands of all-female or all-male warriors — with all this same sex togetherness, I looked for gays in the military with none in plain sight — and the only enlistment shared by both sexes is subservience to nation, blood and the rule of the monarch.

For all the palace intrigue, it is natural to want to know who’s behind Wakanda’s smuggling amid painted faces and masks, decorative gear and furnishings and body and facial mutilation. Also, why are ritualistic displays practiced in a country so modern, enlightened and technologically advanced? An answer partly comes with the closest Wakanda has to a national slogan: Praise the ancestors! Even when sponsoring gladiator-style fighting to determine the nation’s ruler — this is intended as admirable? — familialism is as rampant as in Buckingham Palace … or Trump White House.

Black Panther tries too hard to have its genres, plot points and philosophies every which way.

Boseman’s ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel’s universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 ‘badass’?

A late second wind gets Black Panther’s game on. When Michael B. Jordan’s angry urban black man finally kicks in, Boseman’s king finally gets some screen time and begins to doubt the ancestry worship, though never down too deep. Blood as defining one’s identity never gets challenged. Instead, it is mixed with mysticism. Black Panther, like last year’s Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok and most Marvel movies, is agnostic about ideas. Question your country is a platitude which competes with the question of foreign entanglements but it’s all housed in lightness, wizardry and fanfare. The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’

Thoughtfully halting after uttering the word duty, which she nearly brings herself to doubt, Lupita Nyong’o’s character rests on acting “for what I love.” Nakia’s is an affirmation of a real King’s noble line about being judged by the content of one’s character. One senses in Black Panther‘s restless pacing and prowling that it’s stalling to keep from being stalked, hunted and downed by the social justice bunch.

TV Review: ‘The West Wing’ (Season One)

The West Wing debuted on NBC on September 22, 1999. The long-running drama, which aired until 2006, was developed after the success of 1995’s The American President, a good movie written by Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game) and directed by Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, Misery, The Bucket List, The Story of Us). Its writers and consultants included former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers and former Carter White House press secretary Patrick Caddell. The show centered upon the daily work of the White House staff of a Democrat who had been elected president of the United States. Dramatically, The West Wing succeeds because it is purposeful, engaging and comes with a degree of authenticity. It helps that the show revolves around relevant, controversial issues and ideas.

Buy the DVD

The West Wing never goes deep, despite its reputation, and I never watched a single, entire episode partly for this reason. What I’d sampled during its early to mid run struck me as sanctimonious, smug and superficial. I recall that I hated how the characters talked. I remember thinking that the dialogue, which is essentially the foundation of the program, was contrived. Every line, whether uttered by a bit player or a leading man, seemed overly designed to reach the plot’s outcome. These characters aren’t like real people, I thought at the time. They seemed more like puppets for certain political positions.

In light of today’s lousy political discourse, and knowing that a show can be better understood in time, I watched the first season on Apple TV (so without the original broadcast’s commercials). Though I confirmed some problems, the first season of The West Wing is entertaining.

On one hand, as a procedural about executive government, it’s not exhausting. This show is light, topical television programming. I don’t typically engage in what’s known as binge watching, nor do I think the best series are best seen in clusters of episodes. I think the best shows, like the best novels, require time to watch in intervals, as against watching in a steady stream, giving the viewer time to think about its themes. This is how I viewed The West Wing. One can watch and indulge in the character personality and plot conflicts, i.e., getting a bill through Congress, streamlining press communications, protecting the president’s daughter, without getting too steamed or invested in the show’s political philosophy. By the way, its political philosophy settles with age. At the end of the 20th century, Democrats sought to temper their welfare statism with realism. This makes watching The West Wing‘s first season an exercise partly in wide-eyed nostalgia.

On the other hand, the facts of reality and, in particular, America’s dreadful, dire political status quo (especially the current chief executive and his staff, Congress and last two American presidents), give one an appreciation for the show’s depiction of leaders and their staffers who take American politics and government seriously. Sorkin does not create safe spaces to hide, ignore or evade controversy. The West Wing is not all personality, all the time, with bitchy, gossipy ankle-biters constantly jockeying for status, position and power, which would be realistic, perhaps, but also boring and depressing. Besides, for tripe, smears and gossip all you have to do is read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or watch MSNBC or Fox News, which ape tawdry, tabloid press with names like BuzzFeed, Gawker and Breitbart. The West Wing in its first season touches on what’s become of politics and the press but its initial 22 episodes aired before 9/11, which I call Black Tuesday, and the wreckage that’s come in its wake. It’s impossible not to see a show about running the presidency without thinking about what’s become of the nation, the presidency and the press.

Indeed, the hard, bitter truth hangs over the first episode. In the series premiere, refugees from Communist Cuba are a plot point. But, here, contrary to what would happen in reality two months after the episode aired, the Democratic president’s White House chief of staff asserts that the moral position is to let the illegal immigrants, because they are fleeing from a totalitarian regime, come to America. In The West Wing, the refugees are a nameless, faceless collective — Democrats then and now only welcome immigrants in collectives — and the Democrats generally seek to admit them. Yet, within weeks of this first episode, the child refugee from Communism named Elian Gonzalez — the individual who floated alone after everyone else on his raft including his mother had drowned or been eaten by sharks — was on his way to being refused refuge in America by the entire United States government, and overwhelmingly opposed by the press and public, with the executive branch ordering the child removed at gunpoint, an action which made today’s anti-immigration purge possible.

The show’s first episode underscores this fact/fiction contrast, which is both a monstrous contradiction with America’s founding ideals and a historic plunge into darkness for the nation of the Enlightenment. It shows that Trump, as with ObamaCare’s worst tenets and other examples of anti-capitalism, merely finishes what Democrats started (and vice versa). The West Wing, in this sense, dramatizes what some viewers take as idealism (which I take instead as indicative of Sorkin’s and Clinton-era politics).

Other striking differences in the highly-rated show’s first season include depictions of Americans exercising their pre-surveillance state freedom to walk in front of White House, pagers (remember those?) and predominantly white male principals preaching and practicing against this or that government intervention for this or that group, cause or gain without premise-checking. One of the show’s most embarrassing plot points, which goes to one of its weakest links, is the hiring of a black man named Charlie (Dule Hill, soon to be on House of Cards and recently on USA’s Psych) by a condescending leading character named Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, recently in Get Out). Lyman shoehorns Charlie into a job as personal assistant to the President without so much as letting Charlie finish a sentence. Indeed, in the opening credits, Hill’s Charlie is the only character whose action sequence includes the appearance of another major character; as if Charlie exists in the White House only as an extension or appendage to Lyman’s paternalism, which is neither really dramatized on the show’s terms nor earned. It’s as if Charlie’s tethered in the opening credits to some sort of moral credit for Lyman, who, of course, has nothing to do with Charlie’s skills, merit and performance. Lyman simply hires Charlie for a job Charlie says he doesn’t want because he has the power to do so and thinks it’s good for Charlie. Both characters rarely interact after the hiring episode. When they do, it’s always pegged to Lyman hiring Charlie.

Whitford’s Lyman is the most problematic character, the one I found most annoying when I tried to watch The West Wing during its original run. Besides pushy, bigoted hiring practices, Josh Lyman makes anti-gay comments against a senator and is so greedy for power that he regards the shootdown of an American Air Force pilot as a political opportunity. Lyman does apologize for that last transgression to the White House chief of staff, who’s a veteran, but he is also the least introspective, least enjoyable character. Lyman’s constantly walking around the White House flailing his arms and flapping his lips often without advancing the plot. He only seems human when he’s trading barbs and conversing in the show’s rapid, rambling style with women, particularly his secretary, Donna (Janel Moloney), one of the drama’s two characters (both female) to raise objections to the smug men. The women characters, including a somewhat stereotypical deaf character played by Marlee Matlin, react to the men with arch, dry replies — men do the thinking — making them more like accessories.

Another irritating point is the use of the acronym POTUS, which became the Obama-genuflecting media’s go-to term of endearment for that disastrous American president, who spied on and persecuted journalists and whistleblowers alike. The widespread use by Washington types of this acronym proliferated in proportion to the decline of the West — like Pennsylvania Avenue barriers erected by President Bush after Black Tuesday, using the term POTUS is a way of detaching the office of the presidency from its accessibility and accountability to the people — and, unfortunately, I think it traces to this popular TV show.

Rob Lowe co-stars as Sam, who runs White House communications, representing Sorkin’s doubts about government intervention in people’s lives. Lowe does some of his best work in certain, if sporadic, scenes, though Sam doesn’t get nearly enough to do as Lyman dominates the show. Other characters include the dark, grumpy observant Jew and far leftist Toby (Richard Schiff), recovering alcoholic Leo (the late John Spencer, LA Law), and press secretary CJ (today’s heir to roles played by Eve Arden, Allison Janney, Path to Paradise, Mom, I, Tonya), who is the most fully developed character thanks to Janney’s superior skills. Martin Sheen (TV’s Sweet Hostage, The Subject Was Roses) plays the president as blustery, crisp and sugary, stern when necessary in making military decisions, with post-Grease Stockard Channing as his doctor wife and pre-Mad Men and Handmaid’s Tale Elisabeth Moss as his college student kid. Also, look for John Amos (Kunta Kinte in Roots), the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Tucker Carlson debating on CNN in the background and Karl Malden (On the Waterfront) as a priest opposing the death penalty.

Watch for the smart and often clever interplay, an asset which is commonly known, as it can be sharp, humorous and entertaining. Don’t expect each episode to make you think, though characters brush up against principled thoughts and actions, such as contemplating a stay on the death penalty and approving gays in the military, and kick back for an uncanny glimpse of those who think they’re decent men and women helping the president to shape policy, make laws and govern the country.

Most of all, relish the rapid rambling for the occasional breaks with specific emotional rewards, as when White House Chief of Staff Leo grants a pardon to a leaker over his past drug use, which enhance The West Wing. It’s hard not to care about characters in their most sincere and better moments, such as when the president stands by Sam after he meets a law school student who’s moonlighting as a prostitute to give her a graduation gift and a London tabloid photographer being paid $50k to get the picture drives off to violate their privacy.

Other plot points, such as the last episode’s cliffhanger involving an assassination attempt after subplots about the endangered (and now destroyed) Space Shuttle Columbia and the plight of an American Stealth fighter pilot in Iraq deepen the viewer’s appreciation for rotten policy, good government and decent political discourse and inadvertently take stock of how far and fast we’ve dipped into this steep decline.

Updated Articles Archive

One of my resolutions this year is to add articles more often to my site’s backlog, so I’ve included, if not yet sorted, eight pieces to the Writings tab and checked that item off my list (read my new year’s post here on spring course offerings, fiction and other goals). The newly added articles appear on separate website pages, so they are not blog posts, with hyperlinks on headlines in bullet points included below. For various reasons, I may have to remove these articles at some point, so if you’re interested in any of these, read them sooner than later.

The oldest article went to press in 1999. It’s a roundup of then-newly printed works by Ayn Rand, anchored by two reviews of books published by the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) peppered with or consisting of essays or writings by Rand, whose birthday, incidentally, is tomorrow. I haven’t re-read my thoughts on those books in years. I think the reviewed versions may have been updated with new editions by the organization’s ARI Press. The reviews are generally favorable. A related article is among the most recent pieces: the first interview with ARI’s new CEO, who discussed seeing Rand lecture near Harvard, where he was enrolled in business studies, his favorite course by Leonard Peikoff and what being an Air Force commander adds to the challenge of leading an organization dedicated to advancing Objectivism.

Three other exclusive interviews appear. Composer Alexandre Desplat, nominated for an Oscar for scoring The Shape of Water, spoke with me from Paris about Charlie Hebdo, Islamic terrorism and his methodology in making music for movies, including predominantly his 2015 movie, Suffragette. That same year, Leonard Maltin, whom I’ve interviewed several times since we met, talked in depth about classic movies and the third edition of his Classic Movie Guide.

I had been asking him for years to do an extended interview in person and, finally, we did, at his home. The interview ended right on time as a TV crew came in for set-up and perhaps you’ll agree with me that it’s our most serious exchange. The third movie-related interview took place a year later with a historian who knows all about the slave rebellion depicted in a controversial film, The Birth of a Nation (2016), which opened to widespread praise in a film festival only to lose critical darling momentum when its writer and director was linked to a rape victim who later killed herself. This pre-Me, Too Hollywood derailment only made me more serious about judging the merits of the movie, distributed by Fox Searchlight, the studio responsible for the powerful 12 Years a Slave, so I’m glad I went to the young scholar who studied the facts which form the basis for the motion picture. The exchange amounts a history lesson on the truth about slavery in America.

A couple of articles report on interviews conducted by others for the annual classic film festival — the only movie festival I’ve consecutively covered — hosted by Turner Classic Movies in Hollywood. Read my account of Club TCM’s detailed tribute to Leonard Maltin, who got personal about his early career in book publishing, movie journalism and an affiliation with the Walt Disney Studios and my 2016 report on TCM’s rare and respectful one on one exchange with one of America’s last glamorous movie stars, Faye Dunaway, who talked about Network, Barfly and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Finally, I’ve added an article from a local edition of the Los Angeles Times which I conceived, researched and wrote on assignment. This is the tale of a mid-range shopping mall nestled in a prime location in the shadow and hum of LA’s newest freeways. The property would begin with publicity visits from movie stars and Olympic athletes amid concern about lost business in a neighboring suburb whose government was so frightened that they passed regulations to stop people from shopping there. Its decline began when two of the most feared Los Angeles serial killers stalked — and enticed, captured and murdered — children at the mall.

Newly added articles include:

Oscar Nominations 2017

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Oscar nominations for last year’s movies this morning. The annual awards ceremony, to be hosted on March 4 on ABC by ABC’s late night show host and political activist Jimmy Kimmel, will be the 90th annual Academy Awards. With each passing year, the popular televised ceremony loses its luster.

The show’s glamour is long gone, as whatever eloquence, beauty, elegance, flair and brightness is on display is perpetually, and increasingly, diminished, contradicted and ridiculed by the dim, grotesque and always vulgar mediocrity, bigotry and blankness of its hosts, presenters, skits and clips. The Oscars have become an annual display of groupthink, like a national political convention — rote coronation, bromides and propaganda — as entertaining and informative as an episode of most of the harping on MSNBC or the pap on Fox News Channel. This year’s Me, Too-driven hysteria, compounding the Academy’s bigotry rationalized by its faith in egalitarianism (cloaked in the terms diversity and inclusion) will surely detract from any celebration of the art and science of movies and having made them.

This year, the Best Picture nominees mostly match the projections. With one exception, I have seen and reviewed each of the nominees, so I’m including the links here for those who love movies as much as I do. Please note that most of these reviews offer negative or mixed estimates of the Oscar-nominated pictures, though I found Dunkirk compelling, and have not seen Lady Bird, which is also nominated. I think the scathing and timely indictment of America’s Me, Too culture of trial by public opinion, I, Tonya, is one of 2017’s best, possibly the best, picture, though I haven’t seen every major movie.

I am glad that The Greatest Showman, Fox’s flawed but enjoyable box office hit — which had an extraordinarily low 12 percent drop in this week’s box office receipts — and a showcase for two rising and extremely talented songwriters, received recognition for its music with its “This Is Me” nomination for Best Song (though almost any of its tunes are better than anything else I heard last year).

Oscar’s nine 2017 Best Picture nominees, with a link to each review, are:

  • Get Out a good comedy-horror movie themed to oppose interracial relationships
  • Phantom Thread an elaborate comedy-horror movie
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a religious folk take detached from reality
  • The Shape of Water a long, lush fantasy depicting an anti-American theme
  • Lady Bird
  • The Post a bland and somewhat dubious but involving account of journalism
  • Darkest Hour an interesting film for its topic, Winston Churchill, alone, lacking in historical sweep, grandeur and drama
  • Call Me By Your Name as with last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, an immersion in evocative pictures; not a love story
  • Dunkirk a powerful three-pronged war movie which underdramatizes its climax

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Misery loves company in writer and director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is nearly as thematically bleak, Irish and tragic as his similarly themed In Bruges. That everybody hurts, to paraphrase REM’s hit ballad, is not an original premise. As with In Bruges, immersing in the movie’s setting and subculture capably and sufficiently refreshes the premise, however, leading to a sense that something meaningful is about to happen or be resolved.

And, as with McDonagh’s violent Euro-fable, this violent movie exists to challenge the audience on moral grounds. It is too obvious, pointed and belabored, though the cast of absurd characters, biting lines and mythical pictures keep the audience guessing and wanting to know more. Cinematically, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is less a whole motion picture than it is a Christian morality play detached from reality; homage to its Southern Gothic-Catholic godmother, Flannery O’Connor.

This doesn’t mean it’s without value, as long as you know its purpose going in. Misty pictures and poetic Irish music introduce a story that’s more about a place than a character. The place is in the middle of the country, a stopover, really, as its wisest character suggests, where you go when you don’t know where else to go. Is this the South? The Midwest? Both? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does not commit. If it commits to anything, it’s a vow not to vow. It’s downright absolutist in its anti-absolutism.

Leading the way in her ridiculously old Ford station wagon is craggy anti-heroine Mildred (Frances McDormand, as hard, blunt and dour as ever, and it’s sort of sad to see the once-upon Miss Pettigrew confined to this type of role). McDormand (The Good Dinosaur) is a fine actress. The performance can’t conceal that the role exists less as a character than as a means to the ending. Mildred’s a spiteful, old soul. On the one hand, she finds peace in nature, turning an insect upright, crying to a deer and never veering from her mission to get cops to investigate her daughter’s rape and murder. On the other hand, Mildred’s oblivious, even negligent, to the fact that she poisons peace, love and life wherever she goes. Mildred is toxic.

The whole town is toxic, from the mean old mother of a bigoted, bad policeman named Dixon (Sam Rockwell, Cowboys & Aliens) to Mildred’s wife-beating ex-husband, the entire police force and a town midget (Peter Dinklage). Even Mildred’s pot-smoking best friend, who seems to have stepped out of another movie, is morally gray, concerning herself strictly with Mildred’s welfare at the expense of her own. The town’s police chief (Woody Harrelson, Wilson) is as inexplicably ineffective as he is inexplicably popular. The point here is that everyone is morally mixed, gray and, down deep inside, inexplicably dark. Like In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri rationalizes splattering blood because it purports to confer upon us muted rays of hope and light. But nothing in this movie ever feels realistic; it never feels anything but fabled and fictitious.

Stomping around in a blended buzzcut with a snipped off ponytail, Mildred cuts a scowling figure in Ebbing, Missouri, flicking and littering her cigarette butts, accosting children, insulting strangers and doing it with the righteous indignation of a woman wronged. Though the audience eventually learns that there may be more to Mildred’s role in her daughter’s demise than is first apparent, Mildred maintains the moral high ground in a town that doesn’t appear to care about justice, love or life. That it’s all supposed to be hilarious (it isn’t), particularly with the hick cop Dixon as comic foil (who’s as funny as a dying toad), is intended to infuse the elegiac finale.

Amid racism, cancer, attempted murder, suicide and perfectly framed pictures of two characters on two swings overlooking three billboards — with Mildred’s cutely named Southern Charms Gift Store as a kind of weigh station — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri curves into a gauzy conclusion, cued by a folk singer wailing about the night they tore old Dixie down. I won’t ruin the ending, which, as quaint as it is, never tears anything down. It doesn’t even rip. Like the movie’s dining table (or the insect) being set back upright after a brawl, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri merely provides a fleeting, lyrical reset; more passing observation than examination, trucking right through the middle without letting off its load.