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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.

Movie Review: 12 Strong

This is a good war movie with moments approaching greatness. If you’ve enjoyed Thank You for Your Service, 13 Hours, American Sniper and other movies about the nonstop, unending U.S. military response to the Islamic jihad slaughter on September 11, 2001, you’re likely to appreciate 12 Strong for its pointed depiction of American heroism.

I figured this would be a proper, which is to say relatively straightforward and unfiltered, dramatization from its setup scenes. 12 Strong rightly begins in 1993, when Moslem terrorists first attacked the Twin Towers. Then, to other acts of war on America in 1998 and 2000. So, right off, there’s at least an attempt to provide pretext to the story of 12 heroes who volunteered to deliver America’s first post-9/11 military retaliation, which is one of the few the U.S. got exactly right.

To underscore this unequivocal rightness, the Army team’s single-minded captain (Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok) asks the helicopter pilot after the pilot tells him that the aircraft is descending over northern Afghanistan: “On purpose?!” The captain’s short, urgently repeated demand signals the caliber of soldier about to disembark and confront the guerrilla Islamic terrorist state. The band of men do not just listen, obey and follow orders: they make crucial distinctions, take command and act with swift thought and precision, leaving nothing to the aims — and sloth and errors — of others, including those in their own army.

The captain’s leadership is based on study, clarity and reason. From camping his men at an allied Afghan base 40 miles from their terrorist center target to leading the horse soldiers’ charge toward the enemy’s worst weapon, Hemsworth’s captain examines every angle, nuance and trajectory necessary to achieve his goal. Director Nicolai Fuglsig shows fidelity to the essential facts of this hard-fought, extraordinary and, yes, glorious military victory. He doesn’t adorn the movie or characters with frenzied or slow-motion moments of blood splattering and bombs exploding. There’s no showboating. There’s the hard work and grit of men fighting to avenge their country and defend their lives, fortunes and future.

The men include the silent loner (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) who becomes the fixation of an Afghan boy. And his opposite, an expressive fighter who once taught history (Michael Pena, Lions for Lambs, The Lucky Ones). Or the team’s chief warrant officer and voice of reason (Michael Shannon, Mud, The Shape of Water). Some of the 12 Strong have wives, some have kids, and most have gripes and doubts, though 12 Strong stays on track and avoids war movie cliches. They all trained for war in the Middle East and they all want nothing less than victory. 12 Strong does not deal with the fact that Bush, Obama (and, so far, Trump) equivocated, appeased and never came close to wiping out states that sponsor Islamic terrorists let alone declaring, waging and winning the war the enemy started.

The Jerry Bruckheimer (and scads of others) produced film, co-written by Peter Craig and Ted Tally and based on the book by Doug Stanton, does, however, allude to U.S. military incompetence. So-called smart bombs fall on the wrong coordinates. There’s an implication about friendly fire (remember Pat Tillman). And then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s bravado, which would thrust America into an unwinnable war in Iraq, gets an apparently and deservedly fact-based dig.

12 Strong focuses, though, mostly on what it takes to render the deadly counterstrike to 9/11. From the Northern Alliance faction leader skillfully portrayed by Navid Negahban to the sharp colonel incisively portrayed by William Fichtner, the team earns and keeps the support of superiors and natives alike to trudge through the passes and trails of the Taliban-run country. Without neutralizing moral judgment on Islam, the religion which motivates the enemy, 12 Strong puts the campaign in clear perspective. Females are slaughtered like American infidels, simply for seeking knowledge. “God is great!” goes the familiar death call as the U.S. first applies its antiquated rules of engagement (which got worse after this campaign). So don’t expect the now-incessant and tired evasion of any mention of what makes the enemy evil. A murderous mullah speaks the truth about his religion.

Also, don’t expect evasion of what makes Americans good. Though 12 Strong is a good, not great, war movie depicting soldiers in a particularly grueling combat, and I do wonder whether the team declined to wear helmets throughout the battles and trek, the two-hour film lets its heroes shine.

Thankfully lacking vulgarity, and with a stirring gallop to answer the Flight 93 passengers’ call to arms, “Let’s Roll”, 12 Strong is the inspiring tale of the twelve soldiers who rolled. They did it weeks after America was attacked in New York City and Washington, DC.  They did in weeks what experts projected would take two years. This combat picture shows that twelve men rolled with the thunderous strength and purpose that America and Americans deserved. It pretty much ended there. It hasn’t happened since. 12 Strong demonstrates with power and skill that this victory did happen.

Movie Review: Phantom Thread

Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark, brooding horror-comedy Phantom Thread lets you in on its essential theme in the opening shots. Drawings and pictures of elegant women’s clothes from when women wore clothes that accentuate the female figure appear. Then, comes a preview of the point of the movie: a musical note (well, what the audience is supposed to discern as a musical note, anyway) which becomes a loud, irritating audio distortion which can only be described as noise.

Sonic assault fits the darkly comic, ponderous soap opera film. Phantom Thread invites you for its sumptuous designs and treats you to dastardly deconstruction. All this while masquerading as an important movie with something important to show and say about the artisan and his creations, romantic relationships and life. “It’s comforting to think that the dead are watching over us,” one character says as plainly as possible in this frank exercise in depicting an eccentric fashion designer’s days and nights.

This is as profound as Phantom Thread gets.

The lead character, a designer named Reynolds Woodcock, is portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lincoln, The Last of the Mohicans) in his first role since 2012’s surprisingly good Lincoln. It’s also his re-teaming with Anderson, with whom he worked on the similarly campy and utterly empty 2007 diatribe against capitalism, There Will Be Blood. This time, Anderson (Magnolia) carefully lays out his case against the creator in finer strokes.

The result is as cutting and comical as that other film, intentionally or not. Day-Lewis, in what he says is his final movie performance, is toned down, letting co-stars and the movie’s other central parts — costumes, score, cinematography — shine. And they do, they really do. Pictures from the back of a car traveling to an idyllic hotel overlooking the waterfront take the audience into a new and inviting world of dressmaking and design. The dresses, threading and stitching are lavishly featured in 70mm. Jonny Greenwood’s mostly nonstop musical score distracts from the nothingness as intended. Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man) as a clumsy, young waitress half Woodcock’s age delivers an even performance, portraying a woman who turns good fortune into a wicked, conniving and manipulative act of sadism. Lesley Manville (Mr. Turner) stands out as the designer’s arch accomplice.

Though it touches on sexual perversion and what it means to take advantage of a delusional man of ability putting woman on a pedestal, which might have made an interesting cultural and character study, ultimately Phantom Thread is putting us on. The put-on starts with Woodcock’s syrupy come-on lines to the waif — he removes her red lipstick on a creepy first date with “now, there’s the real you” and later has her caked in red lipstick for fashion modeling — and cascades down from there. Factor Woodcock’s seriously disturbing mother complex into this puzzle, too, and midway through Phantom Thread, you start to wonder if this is another remake of Psycho. But Kriep’s waif, who apparently has no family and nothing else to do, schemes her way to fulfilling the masochist’s unspoken fantasy.

Costumes, transitions and pacing are fine. Harriet Sansom Harris (Bebe on Frasier) does a wonderful turn as a patroness of the arts in a pivotal plot point. Scenes of Woodcock at work, which means thinking, drawing and dressmaking, are well done. A running joke about his intolerance for distraction lightens the mood. But, from the nubile waif’s early reference to the sixtysomething designer as a boy to the final scenes of complicity in sado-masochism as Anderson’s view of romantic love, Phantom Thread‘s master-pupil depiction too pertly delivers its vacant point that, in the end, everyone gets all dressed up with no where to go.

Movie Review: The Post

The Post manufactures its own spin on the true story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, thousands of copied top secret pages disclosing the U.S. government’s systematic deception over the Vietnam War, to fit what redounds to a feminist perspective. This drama by Steven Spielberg (E.T.) may be the first major post-sexual harassment claims hysteria movie, given its director’s stature, though the proto-feminism of Star Wars: The Last Jedi arguably merits that distinction. If you can stand this shift, which tilts the movie’s plot, performances and theme, The Post capably depicts brave and decent acts of journalism.

But The Post is not Mr. Spielberg’s best work and, unlike the dignified Lincoln or like his tunnel-visioned Bridge of Spies or his dismal Munich, it lacks crucial context and essential dramatic points. As Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is, as usual, overly mannered, this time to distraction. Her Graham is less like a real human being and more like Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Into the Woods), all facial tics, fidgeting and halting, breathy playacting. It’s one of her worst performances and that’s saying something because Streep is already the most overestimated actress of our time. Tom Hanks (Sully, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan), on the other hand, in the less showy role, performs as well as can be expected as Kennedy crony and Post editor Ben Bradlee. Hanks is largely confined to what amounts to impersonation, a few mini-speeches and gruff concern, hobnobbing and consternation. Both leading actors give the net impression with this script that this is not at all how Graham’s and Bradlee’s decision-making and conferences over publishing the historic papers really happened.

An opening ambush scene in the wet jungles of Vietnam provides the only hint at what ought to drive any serious movie about Daniel Ellsberg’s act of defiance against the government to reveal shocking truths about what the military and executive branch knew was a futile, unwinnable war in Indochina. But other than tossed in references to soldiers, the heft of what values were at stake in 1971 are never sufficiently dramatized to the necessary degree.

What’s left is a sometimes stagy, sometimes skillful, newspaper suspense about the urgency of exercising the right to free speech (in this case, defying the status quo with the free press). The Post scores its best scenes when depicting the incestuous connection between members of the press and government officials, an incestuous link which climaxed under the Obama administration, the presidency which most closely resembles the Nixon presidency depicted here, not just because of the readily apparent parallels with Obama’s stubborn, anti-American, horrifying persecution of journalists, Apple and the heroic Edward Snowden.

Streep’s Graham is rarely shrewd or intelligent, which strikes me as far from the truth. For a widow who inherits her wealth, she chiefly spends most of her time plagued by self-doubt, which makes her sudden, abrupt decision to publish the papers seem more strikingly random and emotional, at least as portrayed by Streep. Her defining characteristic is her comfort with cronyism, complete with parties and lunches with big shots such as the former secretary of defense (Bruce Greenwood, Eight Below) most responsible for the highly irrational Vietnam War quagmire. Graham’s best line — “it’s my company” — goes completely unearned on The Post‘s terms. There’s not a single moment or scene in which she shows real interest in the creative byproduct of her newspaper, let alone making money from it.

Details of the tense hours leading to the article’s publication provide some of The Post‘s most compelling drama, though it’s muted by the focus on Graham, which takes up most of the screen time. Long takes of dogged research and lawyering at Bradlee’s home, where his wife and kid serve sandwiches and lemonade (reducing Sarah Paulson to wifely, if empathetic, sisterhood), sustain interest in these makeshift smoke-filled rooms. But newsroom scenes are dreadfully dull and uninspired, as if Mr. Spielberg consciously avoids comparison to All the President’s Men and other newspaper-driven movie classics. The Washington Post‘s competition with the New York Times similarly gets drifted (read the truth of the Pentagon Papers publication, including the Times‘ great Abe Rosenthal, here) in the Bradlee-Graham vs. old boy network paradigm shift.

The Post is not a bad movie. There’s a plot, benign characters with a sense of purpose and clear progression. But what drives the tale of reporting the Pentagon Papers in defiance of the state and the recent history of a whistleblower and those who amplified his whistling are too obviously and conveniently — and much too histrionically — downsized and revised to depict what should be spine-chilling drama. And isn’t.

Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

For a flash of lush, bright and melodic, poetic pop romanticism, nix the season’s Star Wars mumbo jumbo and opt for entertaining escapism stocked with good-looking idealists singing, dancing and performing in Fox’s gorgeous and spectacular The Greatest Showman. This is the season’s tonic of cheerful optimism to offset the dark, mediocre, macabre movies this fall and winter.

The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, 2016’s best movie, La La Land), whose songwriting gets better with every project, power and occasionally outshine the story with percussive, propulsive music. Strong melodies, more meaningful and memorable than the songs in Coco and Moana, serve the material, though the smooth staging takes getting used to. So, it’s best to arrive early, sit back and go with it. This is a simple story about a man who wants to put on a show and make audiences happy, so don’t expect religion, ghosts, monsters and hardship, loss and misery lurking beneath the surface.

It’s neither as polished and tight as La La Land nor as brilliant as the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, such as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, though philosophically The Greatest Showman, written by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks, is as unabashedly romantic as Oklahoma! This alone makes the movie a remarkable achievement in today’s rotten culture. It’s enough to make you want to forgive the fast-moving film its artificiality, flaws and lack of characterization. Circus performers, animal acts and other plot details get short shrift. Someone in the circus sings a reference to a clown but I didn’t see a single clown in the show.

But what a show. The screen bursts with color, light and striking visual scenes of song, dance and action. This idealized version of P.T. Barnum’s life is a marvelous depiction of early 20th century America and, like a repudiation of The Shape of Water, Americanism. Director Michael Gracey has a grand, lavish and cinematic sensibility. His filming of Michelle Williams as Mrs. Barnum is a wonder from every angle. The same goes for his scenes of Zendaya’s acrobatic tease of love interest Zac Efron (New Year’s EveHigh School Musical, Charlie St. Cloud) in an interracial romantic subplot, which works despite an obvious age gap. Efron’s return to the musical is both a departure from his glut of dumb hunk movie roles and something of a reminder of his natural song and dance talent. His duet with leading man Hugh Jackman (Prisoners) as Barnum, “The Other Side”, is magnificent.

“Comfort is the enemy of progress,” Barnum counters Efron’s wealthy producer character, persuading him to trade as a partner in the burgeoning circus and The Greatest Showman‘s assets include an affirmative pairing of same sex business partners, for a change, leading to one of the film’s most emotional moments. The portrayal of the entrepreneur as an undaunted artist and businessman, i.e., the showman, is a throwback to Hollywood’s classic self-made man and the movie’s shockingly innocent, savvy and realistic in this regard.

For example, Barnum’s collection of circus performers, who invite the audience to get their freak on, climaxing in the Best Song-ready anthem “This Is Me”, rally to remind the audience of the risks of facing the muckraking media and the mob. The terrific ensemble, with its bearded lady, tattooed muscleman, dwarf and other “oddities”, also demonstrates the downsides of Barnum’s publicity campaigns. With this much gritty urban conflict, as New York City’s nasty early 20th century types object to Barnum’s self-proclaimed American museum, a euphemism for the movie’s and Barnum’s assimilationism, The Greatest Showman recalls Rent by Chris Columbus, minus Rent‘s anti-capitalist digs.

Yet this Bohemian-spirited The Greatest Showman is no misanthrope and the movie showcases more, giving the audience romanticized trains, cityscapes, opera houses, ballroom dancing, if not nearly enough tightrope walking, horses, lions and elephants. See Barnum come to visit Queen Victoria. See the young lovers roll in the sawdust. See the wife and kids in soft, subdued pink and blue lament of the circus life. When a play for respectability nearly derails Barnum’s goals, themed to the lovely (if not operatic) “Never Enough”, constant inner conflict becomes universal for anyone who’s never been good enough or who never stops wanting more of the good.

The show must go on, goes the cliche. In this dazzling, fabulous and flawed musical, the show stays centered and shines. I can’t stop humming the songs and seeing this movie makes me want to see The Greatest Showman one more time. That’s, as the saying goes, entertainment. Strictly for the closet romantics who’ve ever dreamed of running away to join the show and master and experience the joy of showmanship.