Tag Archives: frances mcdormand

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Review

6 Dec

Martin McDonagh is a man of many talents. For years he’s been writing plays in Europe and has received much acclaim. Not only that, but every foray he’s made into film has also been a success. In Bruges took critics and audiences by surprise and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, didn’t get the recognition that In Bruges did, but it worked as a darkly subversive comedy that broke all the rules of narrative. Well, I’m thrilled to say that McDonagh has really outdone himself this time with what is far and away the best film he’s ever made, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the kind of movie that will give you a physical response that’s similar to a bag of bricks being dropped on your stomach. As the credits rolled, I almost couldn’t move because I was just so stunned at what I just saw.

It’s been 7 months since Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) daughter was brutally murdered and the police have come no closer to solving the crime and bringing justice to the killer. After seeing three unused billboards on a small road outside of town, Mildred decides to buy the ad space and put up three signs that ask why the murderer hasn’t been caught, with much of the hostility directed to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). These billboards spark new life in the case of Mildred’s daughter but it also reveals a much uglier side to the town of Ebbing, Missouri. The town is quickly divided between those who support the billboards and Mildred’s crusade, and others who sometimes violently oppose it, including one of Willoughby’s officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As tensions flare, Ebbing turns into a Cold War zone and it’s a time that will change the small town forever.

There’s so much to praise in Three Billboards that it’s hard to know where to start. What really had me overwhelmed the most was the whole concept of the film, but also how it was written. From the time the billboards are put up, tension builds quickly, and there are a few times where that tension explodes only to return with a vengeance. This film is relentless in its storytelling and barely gives the audience time to breath. Martin McDonagh is known for his ability to deftly blend dark comedy and brutally realistic drama, and this is the height of that. This movie is a lot sadder than it is funny, but there are plenty of belly laughs to have throughout the film’s narrative. When you aren’t laughing, however, McDonagh takes the dramatic side of the story and weaves it in a way I’m sort of unfamiliar with. There are few movies that really, genuinely shock me, but this one went places I never expected. This made the whole experience feel 100% fresh and new.

What really makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri work so wonderfully is emotional depth of the story. I’m not talking about if it makes you happy or sad or base feelings felt by the characters, but something that’s been lurking underneath the facade of the town for years. This is a story of hate exploding in an area not built to properly contain it. It’s a natural reaction felt by normal people living in a world that has become overwrought with anger and opinions mixed with violence. This is an incredibly timely film that also can be viewed as timeless. There’s no moral center in this film. No character serves as the hero. Each one is deeply flawed with thoughts that are so incredibly politically incorrect, you may find yourself with your mouth hanging open. At the end of the day, however, these are still people trying to find a comfortable place in a world that has become undone, and the town of Ebbing is just a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Now that I got all deep there, let’s talk about something more plain to see. Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career that rivals her role in Fargo. She brash and mean but also sad and incredibly vulnerable. Equally fantastic is Woody Harrelson who has one of the most complex roles in the entire movie. I have to give a major shout out to Sam Rockwell, who continues to be one of my absolute favorite actors in the business. Give him any role, and I bet you he can nail it. This is all award caliber stuff here, folks, so keep your eyes peeled when the time comes. Speaking of that, Lucas Hedges returns after his work in Manchester by the Sea with a sort of similar role, but he still manages to knock it out of the park.

We’ve had a lot of great films this year. I always saw Wind River as my favorite with films like Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer coming in close behind. They still remain high on the list, but I don’t see how anything can beat Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This film is a genreless masterpiece that defies what you may come to expect and the physical reaction it left me with is one of a kind. Martin McDonagh has given us the best piece of his film making career and it’s something that has been firmly on my mind since the day I saw it. Whatever you do, do NOT miss out on this movie.

Final Grade: A+

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Mississippi Burning – Review

5 Jan

In 1964, 3 Civil Rights activists went missing in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Foul play was suspected, so the FBI made their presence known and an official investigation began. Over time, a handful of city officials and other citizens were ousted as members of the Ku Klux Klan and sentenced to prison for the murders of the activists. This story shows a very dark time in modern American history and is a perfect incident to be dramatized because all of the themes and hostilities that it could explore. This is where Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning comes in. Parker isn’t one to shy away from controversial topics, and this film did spark controversy, but it also works well as a piece of hard hitting entertainment. There is just one major flaw that stands in the way of this being a truly excellent movie.

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When three Civil Rights activists go missing in Jessup County, Mississippi, two FBI agents are sent to investigate. The investigation is headed by the young and hardheaded Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), who is partnered up with the experienced yet brash Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman). Upon their arrival they are warned by multiple city officials that nobody wants them there and that whatever happens in their town is their business. This is unacceptable to the two investigators who call in more agents to help with the search. This causes an uproar in the Mississippi town, and causes the KKK to become even more hostile to the African American community in this town. With more lives being threatened every day, the town suddenly seems to be at war with itself which forces the agents to change their tactics in order to achieve justice.

The strongest thing that Mississippi Burning has going for it is its fantastic cast.  Other than Dafoe and Hackman, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Michael Rooker all have supporting roles. This is one of the stronger casts I’ve seen in a movie in a long time and they all bring their best to the table. While everyone is great I have to focus the most on Gene Hackman. There are times when he really stands out and there are times where I don’t really remember him, but never is he bad. In this film he’s downright excellent and it may be my favorite performance of his I’ve ever seen. These performances work really well with getting me really into the story and into the time period, which is super important for any period piece.

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What also be remembered to get an audience into a time period are the production values and costume design. Mississippi Burning exceeds in these two areas. This is a fantastic looking movie and is well deserving of the Academy Award it won for Best Cinematography. There is a great juxtaposition of serenity in the film making mixed with much more harsh and unforgiving film making. This works great with the themes and story of the movie. The set design and costume design also looks very natural and very believable. Sometimes when a movie about the 1960s comes out, there can be some unnecessary flashiness like the film makers are trying to prove that it’s a different time period instead of trusting the audiences to see for themselves. This movie looks exactly what I’d expect a small Mississippi town to look like the mid-1960s. I wasn’t alive, of course, so this is just an assumption.

There is one major thing about Mississippi Burning that really gets under my skin and I didn’t really notice it as I was watching. It was only when I was thinking about it afterward did I realize that the representation of African Americans in this movie isn’t all that flattering. There’s mention of Martin Luther King and there are a couple of marches shown in the movie, but altogether they’re just portrayed as weak, helpless, and scared. Of course, that’s a part of history. It was a terrifying time to be alive for many people, but it was also a time to stand up for yourself and your basic human rights. There could have been more black main characters instead of just using them as mostly silent side characters. This isn’t something that made the movie any less entertaining as it was on, but it was something that kept eating at me afterwards.

Mississippi Burning is very close to being a great movie. The performances are amazing and the cinematography is worthy of the Academy Award that it won. The only issue is that there are no central black characters in a movie that is all about racism in the South during the 1960s. Even if there was just one main African American character to ground the film with that perspective, I would have been pleased. Still, Mississippi Burning is a very entertaining movie that is filled with tension, suspense, and realistic atmosphere.

Final Grade: B

Darkman Trilogy – Review

4 Sep

The super hero genre is more alive than ever before nowadays, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because most of them are very entertaining, and bad because it’s flooding the market. A name that goes hand in hand with super hero films in my opinion is Sam Raimi. Raimi successfully brought the webslinger to life in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (not so much Spider-Man 3). Before any of this, however, Raimi created a character named Darkman, a dark super hero based on characters like Batman and The Shadow, but also inspired by the old Universal monster movies. This idea spawned a trilogy of movies called the Darkman Trilogy. While two of these movies are direct-to-video with differing qualities, it can’t be denied the first film has become a cult classic.

Let’s start in 1990 with the original film, Darkman.

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Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant, but completely underfunded scientist who is on the verge of developing a new synthetic skin. Even with the hidden variables making this project difficult, Peyton still has the support and love of his long time girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand). Julie is a district attorney who is close to uncovering illegal business dealings by a major developer named Louis Strack (Colin Friels). Another party is interested in this incriminating evidence, a violent gangster named Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Durant breaks into Westlake’s lab to look for the evidence, and in the process destroys his work and severely burns and disfigures Westlake. Now thought to be dead, Peyton hides himself in a condemned factory where he rebuilds his machines that can construct any face he needs to disguise himself with, and soon begins to take revenge on Durant and his henchmen as the face changing vigilante Darkman.

Since it was first released in 1990, Darkman has become something of a cult classic. It’s over the top style and direct influences from Universal monster movies of the 1930s mixed with dark superhero action is a fantastic combination. In many ways, Sam Raimi hit the mark with Darkman, and in some ways it doesn’t quite stick. Where the movie slips up is the pacing of the story. This is an origin story, and origin stories can be tricky, especially when they aren’t based off of any real established lore. The character of Darkman came right from the head of Sam Raimi into the form a short story, so the film makers had to create a way to start the tale of Darkman. The first half hour of this movie goes frightfully quick, and it didn’t give me a chance to really care about the characters or their situations before Peyton’s transformation happens. The rest of the film goes on pretty good, with some odd speed bumps along the way, but the ridiculously fast pace of the beginning makes the character development suffer.

The movie really gets good whenever the action picks up or Sam Raimi does what he does best and goes crazy with the camera and the stylistic editing. This is a really cool movie to look at with the camera jumping all over the place and colors really popping in certain scenes. Raimi also knows how to direct action with his use of outstanding practical effects, stop motion, and blue screen to create a unique looking movie that only early-90s movies could do. Neeson also gives a pretty expressive performance as Peyton/Darkman, and it’s equally impressive given the huge amount of makeup and bandages on his face throughout most of the movie.

Darkman is a really cool, yet minor movie in the superhero genre. It’s not going to be a classic like Raimi’s later Spider-Man entries (excluding the third), but it does have a following of people that will defend it to their last breaths. While I definitely enjoyed the movie, the flaws that crop up throughout the film are very noticeable, and it’s clear that the production of this movie was pretty bumpy. Still for fans of oddball filmmaking and dark superhero tales, Darkman is a movie that deserves another look.

In 1995, Universal Studios released their first ever live action direct-to-video movie. That honor(?) goes to Darkman II: The Return of Durant.

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Years after being horribly burned and disfigured, Peyton Westlake (now played by Arnold Vosloo) still dons the title of Darkman and is still working hard to perfect his formula for synthetic skin and make it last longer than 99 minutes. What Westlake doesn’t know is that while he’s been working, Durant (again played by Larry Drake) has been alive in a coma, and he has just recently gotten out of it with plans to take over the city’s crime scene using a new super weapon designed by a mad scientist named Hathaway (Lawrence Dane). After Durant is responsible for killing the one man that may have had the secret to the synthetic skin problem, Darkman once again begins a mission of revenge against the sadistic crime lord, and this time he means to end things once and for all.

Whenever something’s released direct-to-video, I have some measure of fear that I’m about to watch a really awful movie and throw an hour and a half of my life out the window. That being said, Darkman II: The Return of Durant certainly feels like a direct-to-video movie, but it also was still a pretty entertaining film. Let’s get the garbage out of the way first. For one thing, Durant’s plan of using a super weapon designed with plutonium is way out of left field. His main goal is for a group of gun happy vigilantes to get rid of the competition so Durant will reign supreme. What? There’s so many plot holes there that it hurts to think about. The side characters in this movie are also completely useless and almost don’t even need to be in the movie at all. Most of them are just a testament to awful B-grade acting. Of course the cheesy screenplay adds a lot to that, as their characters and dialogue weren’t written well in the first place.

That being said, Darkman II is not a complete waste of time, in fact it felt like a pretty good sequel in terms of style and action. It still has this pulpy kind of fun that relishes at being way over the top. Believe it or not, I think Arnold Vosloo is a great replacement for Liam Neeson. Unfortunately, his performance is a little stifled by make up that doesn’t quite match the make up done on Neeson in the original. The only returning member from the first film is Larry Drake as Durant, and he hasn’t missed a beat in his performance. It’s still fun and easy to hate his character and he gives Darkman a villain worth defeating.

While this is definitely a step down from the original, Darkman II: The Return of Durant is not an awful movie. In fact, it’s a pretty entertaining movie that kept me watching for it’s entire run time. There are some really ridiculous plot holes and the acting is less than acceptable, but it’s B-grade minor entertainment that would be interesting to see for fans of the first Darkman. Just don’t expect anything great.

One thing these movies didn’t need was a third entry, but alas, we now have a trilogy. In 1996, the third film was released direct-to-video titled Darkman III: Die Darkman Die.

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Still trying to find the secret to permanent synthetic skin, Peyton Westlake accepts to offer of Dr. Bridget Thorne’ (Darlanne Fluegel) help to not only fix his destroyed nerve endings, but also allow him to use her laboratory. During his time there, Westlake finds the secret, but is betrayed by Thorne, who is actually working for a crime lord named Rooker (Jeff Jahey). Rooker wants to extract whatever it is that makes Westlake so strong, so that he can synthesize it and inject it into his henchmen. These super soldiers of Rooker’s will then go on to assassinate the district attorney and give Rooker unlimited power over the city. Feeling vengeful towards both Thorne and Rooker, and feeling an overwhelming desire to protect Rooker’s innocent family, Westlake becomes Darkman again to now save the city, a task more important than saving himself.

So here we have the second direct-to-video release of this trilogy, and boy have we really gone downhill. Darkman II: The Return of Durant was a pretty ok, pretty standard B-movie that had some problems, but was ultimately entertaining. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is a complete train wreck of a movie. There is such little action, hardly any humor, and a story that is so boring and out of place that I lost interest before the halfway mark was even close to hitting. The whole plot of Rooker not spending enough time with his family, and Westlake disguising himself to take care of them is so stupid I almost can’t even handle it. There’s so much bland family drama with cringe worthy lines said by a terrible child actor that I was almost embarrassed watching it. How can a cool superhero action movie turn into this?

Arnold Vosloo is back playing Peyton Westlake/Darkman and he’s still a good substitution for Liam Neeson, but his role is written really poorly in this entry. He’s either grunting with pain, screaming with anger, or being overly sentimental with Rooker’s family. Darkman’s entire story of trying to fix his skin is also too played out by this point and the amount of stock footage from the second film just goes to show how repetitive this whole movie feels. The only positive I can think of is Jeff Fahey’s performance as Rooker. He’s an over the top, smug villain with a face that you just wanna hit. He seems to be having a good time oozing evil, so the entertainment I did have with this movie came from him.

Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is an insult to the first film and a disappointment to its ok sequel. It walks a fine line of being way too familiar while also straying uncomfortably far from the source material. The story could have easily ended after the second film, which makes this third movie feel like someone just thumbtacked it on to the canon that was already present. Do yourself a favor and do something better with your time. Spend an hour and a half tying and untying your shoes. It’s more fun than watching this mess.

So there you have it. The Darkman Trilogy is a pretty uneven group of movies. Nevertheless, the first film is a super cool dark super hero film and the sequel really isn’t all that bad considering the casting changes and its direct-to-video status. The only one to stay away from is the third film. Stay far away from that. If you haven’t exposed yourself to the dark anti-hero that is Darkman, I suggest you give it a try.

Moonrise Kingdom – Review

30 Oct

Wes Anderson is one of those film makers that I trust will always make a good movie. His style inspires my own style of writing. I didn’t get a chance to see Moonrise Kingdom in theaters, but I have to say that it was worth the wait. This is the best movie he has made since The Royal Tenenbaums, and one that will stay with you for a long time.

 

In the summer of 1965, the small New England island of New Penzance is thrown through a loop when two young children in love Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), run away together. Now it’s up to the eccentric townsfolk to find them before the worst storm to ever hit New Penzance hits. Sam and Suzy give them a run for their money showing the adults that love, no matter how young, is still strong.

This is kind of a bad summary because this isn’t a very easy move to explain in just a few sentences. There’s the main plot with the two children running away, but the story of everyone on the island is just as interesting. Each and every character has their own sets of personal problems that make them eccentric and unforgettable. For a Wes Anderson movie, I had very little trouble connecting with these characters and feeling the dysfunction.

 

Part of me being able to connect with the characters has a lot to do with the performances. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand have the exact brand of awkward chemistry that is needed for a couple growing further and further apart. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton are the scene stealers as the two authority figures who just don’t have the ability to keep everything under control. Finally, in a small but worthwhile role, Jason Schwartzman rounds up the laughs as a Khaki Scout who knows exactly how the system works. It’s a motley of characters that mesh very well. Even Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward do a fine job, if not a bit too deadpan.

And of course, there’s no way I can talk about any Wes Anderson movie and not talk about the impeccable composition of the shots. Every shot is so symmetrical. Even if a character is placed at the left side of the screen, the use of empty space is experimented with so well that nothing seems uneven. Along with the composition are the colors and costume design. This all fits into the idiosyncratic style of Wes Anderson that makes all of his movies special.

 

I’m not quite sure if I can call Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson’s best movie, but it definitely ranks in the top tier. It’s a surprisingly hopeful movie amongst all the melancholy, which is a bit of a change for this director. It’s a great conglomeration of characters, stories, and messages that are both funny and tragic. I don’t just like Moonrise Kingdom, I love Moonrise Kingdom.