Saturday, December 16, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

USA  Great Britain  (115 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Martin McDonagh             Official Site

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh broke onto the scene with the hilariously inventive In Bruges (2008), an absurd comic drama filled with repulsive dwarf jokes, ridiculous race humor, and a flurry of ethnic slurs, where the marvelously inventive dialogue is so brilliantly written that it serves as a catharsis for all modern ills.  His follow up Seven Psychopaths (2012), while thoroughly enjoyable, seemed to run off the rails, finding itself getting continually sidetracked.  In addition to movies, however, McDonagh has written four other Tony nominated plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1998), The Lonesome West (1999), The Pillowman (2005), and The Lieutenant of Irishmore (2006), where he along with older brother John Michael McDonagh, The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014), have demonstrated a niche for a scathingly incendiary, free-wheeling writing style that has all the makings of some of the best writing found anywhere in the world today.  And wherever you find writing of this caliber, unmatched, high quality performances are bound to follow.  Enter Frances McDormand, whose riveting work with the Coen brothers in Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996) have elevated her into actress royalty, where this film only confirms her status as one of America’s greatest actresses.  Written with her in mind, McDormand epitomizes an actress fully inhabiting her role, always playing fiercely independent, no-nonsense characters, where in this film, she’s tough enough to stand up to any man, and then proceeds to do so throughout the film, showing uncommon fortitude, which eventually grates on those closest to her, feeling like they already have enough of a load to carry.  As Mildred Hayes, a single mother raising two high school age kids in a tiny rural setting in Missouri not far from the Ozarks (though actually shot in the mountainous hills of North Carolina), whose ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) ran off with a lame-brained 19-year old who’s closer to a daughter than a girlfriend, making a sick statement about the maturity of the men in the vicinity, yet her biggest ordeal was losing her daughter to a brutally vicious sex crime that remains unsolved after seven months, with no possible leads in sight.  Seeing three broken-down billboards along an isolated country road exactly where the crime occurred, Mildred gets the idea of using the billboards to make a provocative statement (much like the catchy Burma Shave billboard advertisements in the days of yore), going on local TV telling the public, “My daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago, it seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.”  It is no minor coincidence that the notorious racial disturbances of Ferguson just happen to be in the same state.  And lest we forget, Missouri was a late addition to the Southern Confederacy.    

What we have in the police department is a permanent state of dysfunction, with the relatively decent Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) overseeing a bunch a derelicts, led by the hapless Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a numbskull officer with a hair-trigger temper and a reputation for crossing the line into racist mistreatment of black suspects, which is conveniently overlooked by the other members of the department.  At home, living on the outskirts of town, Dixon is a Mama’s boy, urged on by his hateful mother, Sandy Martin, always seen with a cocktail in her hand, browbeating her inept son to be more aggressively intimidating, making a statement by his very presence, but actually making others around him more nervous, as he’s a hothead, viewed as a constant embarrassment, going overboard on the most trivial matters, yet he has an endearing habit of confessing his shortcomings, even if unintentionally, and telling the exasperated truth, as if he’s always answering to his mother.  No doubt motivated by all the attention the billboards cause in town, Willoughby pays a visit to Mildred, whose initial response is classic, “The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably out there being butchered.”  Reporting there is no blood match in any national DNA database, Willoughby even acknowledges he’s dying of cancer, but Mildred is unsympathetic, claiming they could be doing more, as they’re hardly the picture of a dedicated and hard-working police department, especially with a goofball on the loose like Dixon.  The entire town, it seems, turns against Mildred, as their sympathies lie with Willoughby, a popular family man, but the more they try to get her to back down, the more resolute she is, knowing there is a greater chance of success in breaking the case if the event remains in the public headlines.  Mildred’s own son, however, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is disgusted by his mother’s antics, as it’s a constant reminder of his sister’s loss, something already dominating his thoughts, where he seems to have no peace from the subject when its continually being shoved into his face.  At school, after her car windshield is egged by anonymous students unhappy with her tactics, she kicks the shit out of a few of the closest suspects, fully demonstrating how a bad ass behaves, much to Robbie’s displeasure, as that’s only adding more fuel to the fire.  When the police start arresting her friends for some trumped up charge, this only escalates the terms of engagement for Mildred, who goes on the warpath. 

While there is a prevailing sense of humor throughout, much of it surprisingly offbeat, which typifies the director’s earlier works, but this one has greater dramatic reach, mirroring a prevailing feeling that there is something flawed about our criminal justice system, as so often the wrong criminals are charged, often languishing in prison for decades for crimes they didn’t commit, while the guilty parties are never charged, including a host of white police officers that are exonerated after killing unarmed black teenagers, a customary practice that never seems to end.  Mildred’s outrage at the lack of accountability for such a heinous crime taps into a similar mood felt throughout the country where there is no appearance of justice anymore, as no one is held accountable for some of the biggest crimes, like corporate theft and the layers of lawyers and lies that protect the guilty parties from prosecution.  In Mildred’s case, it’s like a hit and run, with no one witnessing the crime, where the culprit gets away scot free.  In a brief flashback sequence, there is an extra layer of guilt heaped upon Mildred for the last words coming out of her mouth just before Angela was raped and murdered, which only add to what is already an excruciating pain that never dissipates.  Mildred is an angry women, apparently mad at everyone, cursing out everyone she encounters with a mouth like a sailor, where she just feels like there is no justice left in the world.  Yet there are moments when her anger subsides and she turns instantly tender and understanding, where her mood shifts on a dime, such as when Willoughby coughs up blood during an interrogation, where a shock of mortality brings us all to our knees, becoming instantly sympathetic, no matter our beliefs.  These moments occur throughout the film, having a humanizing effect, even as it comically grows even more absurd.  There’s an interesting use of music, particularly a mournful Joan Baez rendition of a Civil War lament, Joan Baez - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - YouTube (3:26), which comes at a particularly incendiary moment, adding yet another layer of Civil War madness and grief, recounting the escalating saga of brother against brother unending violence that seems to perpetuate itself when every act is retaliated against, leading to a neverending stream of aggression and hostility, leaving hordes of victims in the wake, each one an inconsolable loss exactly like Angela.  There’s also an interesting use of letters in the film, each one coming from the grave, which are read out loud, offering a reservoir of wisdom and humor that seems to catch viewers by surprise, if only due to how unorthodox this technique seems to be, unearthing formidable emotions that have a healing effect on the community, where the anger and bitterness remain, but there is a chance it may subside into something else altogether, like forgiveness, perhaps even a friendship.       

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wonder Wheel

WONDER WHEEL               D                           
USA  (101 mi)  2017 d:  Woody Allen                 Wonderwheelmovie - Official site

Wow!  What an epic misfire.  Most have probably never seen a Woody Allen film that falls this far off the rails, unfunny and unchallenging, on the wrong footing from the very start, as it feels completely miscast, where viewers recognize the neurotic voice of Woody Allen in the narration, but don’t associate those words and thoughts with any of these actors, as the dialogue is simply not interchangeable.  Allen speaks with a pronounced ethnic Jewishness, which has always been a reference point in his films, but here the constant nagging tone is all wrong, as its Borscht Belt humor is carried out by Gentile actors, where the result is simply not the same, as the actors go through the motions but lack any hint of comedy or vaudeville humor, turning this into an agonizing dramatic misadventure with pretensions to Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill, the great American playwrights, but without the depth and complexity, falling enormously short.  Framed as a Eugene O’Neill dysfunctional family set in the 50’s, where everything that can go wrong does, set entirely within the raucous confines of an overcrowded Coney Island amusement park, even the living quarters, intermixed with elements of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a spinoff apparently from 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, it features an ongoing narration by a family outsider, Justin Timberlake as Mickey (normally a decent actor, but he’s all wrong as the voice of Woody Allen), an aspiring playwright who also works as a Coney Island lifeguard, who never once is seen rescuing a swimmer in distress.  Instead he intervenes in places where he shouldn’t, basically playing the field, fostering the hopes and dreams of two very different women.  First is Ginny (Kate Winslet), an emotionally-charged older waitess in an oyster bar who finds herself lost in a Blanche Dubois delirium, continually going on emotionally distraught monologues complaining of migraines and overwork, where her every last nerve is being tested.  She is a former actress whose career was derailed by a momentary lapse of judgement when she cheated on her husband, an anonymous jazz drummer who consequently left her, forever blaming herself for that mistake, sending her on an alcohol-fueled bender, leaving her with an emotionally damaged son (Jack Gore as Richie) who is clearly affected by his father’s absence, turning into a serial pyromaniac, lighting fires whenever the feeling hits him, which happens to be several times a day.  Finding a fellow alcoholic on the rebound, Ginny re-marries her current husband, a blue-collar carousel operator named Humpty, Jim Belushi, who spends the entire film doing his best Stanley Kowalski impression.  Into their lives walks Carolina (Juno Temple), the second woman, Humpty’s long-lost daughter who got herself involved with a dreamy young mob gangster with pockets full of cash, actually spilling the beans to the feds, where she’s now on the run with the mob looking for her, with shades of Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (1984).  This is a film where the sins of the parents are handed down to their own children, each an emotional basket case of frazzled nerve endings.

There isn’t a single likable character in this film, much of which is ugly and overwrought, delving into the ongoing personal insecurities and fears of people with barely enough money to scrape by, who constantly harp at one another for the choices they make, as they’re stuck in a rut that they can’t get out of, mostly feeling like caged animals.  Ginny is a whirlwind of fluctuating moods, much of it delusional, where she constantly thinks of no one but herself, growing hysterical when she thinks it’s all too much, with a claustrophobic world closing in on her, giving her no room to breathe, where she hasn’t an ounce of so-called freedom, literally suffocating before our eyes.  Humpty is a loud and blustery character who’s little more than a blowhard, all bark and no bite, that is since Ginny has removed alcohol from his daily regimen, keeping him off the sauce, as he grows brutally violent when drunk, though when times get rough, she takes a swig from a bottle she keeps hidden underneath the sink.  Timberlake’s confessional, on-going narration couldn’t be more off-putting, as it’s completely out of synch with the rest of the picture, where he’s more of a con man than he lets on, always shrouded in innocence, yet he’s a snake in the grass, never being honest with the audience, where the entire film feels like a rationalization for womanizing, yet he’s constantly being judgmental towards others without ever pointing the finger at himself.  At the center of the film is Ginny’s guilt, as she’s forever blaming herself for the pit she’s fallen into, stuck like a trapped insect, unable to pull her way out, as her husband has no ambition, leaving her having to pull the entire weight.  That heavy burden is constantly hovering over her, like a dark cloud, relentless and debilitating, as she’s been sucked into a life she hates, where everyone in it literally disgusts her, including herself, where her son’s constant obsession with setting fires is actually more of an irritation, as she never comes to grips with it, but simply blames him each and every time, having yet another panic attack.  For his part, Richie is cool with all the attention it provides, never fearing the consequences of getting caught, thinking so what, as it doesn’t hinder his actions, simply doing what he wants whenever he wants, with no interference.  From Ginny’s point of view, this is total bliss, as it’s unlimited freedom, exactly what’s missing in her overly constricted life, where she’s suffocating and can’t breathe, drowning in a life of squalor with a man she probably doesn’t even like, much less respect, but she sticks around as he rescued her from her prior emotional downfall.   

With a constantly repetitive jazz retro soundtrack that continuously plays the same song on repeat, feeling like a recurring headache after a while, the film is shot by veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who creates a mosaic of constantly shifting light and color, especially faces, where a palette of artificiality bathes the screen throughout.  Enter Mickey, who offers Ginny a doorway out, having an affair that couldn’t come at a better time, where she goes all in, like water gushing out of a broken dam, becoming an unstoppable force.  While liking the attention of an older woman and all the associating drama, which he thinks will be excellent material for his plays, Mickey remains more coy about his motives, taking it slower, enjoying the ride, not turning it into such a big deal, which is what she does at every opportunity, constantly reminding him, where he’s her lifeline to a way out.  But Carolina’s youth and good looks complicate the status quo, perking up his antennae, as she’s not like other girls in the neighborhood, having traveled around the world in luxury and style, literally blowing him away, falling for her in spite of himself.  Knowing how this would crush Jenny, he does it anyway, even if it goes against all rationale of good sense, as Carolina is the forbidden fruit.  Of course he does this behind Ginny’s back, never letting on, pretending like nothing’s happening when he knows full well there’s a spark, which changes the dynamic with Ginny, who knows something’s up, but Mickey turns into another good-for-nothing man who deceives her, unable to trust the whole lot of them, turning against all men in the process, spiraling even more out of control, taking refuge in the bottle, with Humpty eventually joining in, becoming the picture of a pathetic drama without an ounce of humanity on display, where instead it’s all bluster.  The male characters are deplorable, every one a sleaze, while the women at least fare better in their scenes together, but in the end Allen’s grim and overly fatalistic view taints all.  With mob heavies Tony Sirico and Steven Schirripa from The Sopranos on Carolina’s tail, she is dangerous merchandise, making her all the more enticing to a young unattached male like Mickey, who seems to have his own issues with illusions, where he’s like a deer in the headlights, hypnotized by her allure, unable to help himself, striking while the iron is hot.  The stage is set for a final showdown with Ginny, but like Blanche, she’s already lost in the cobwebs of her own delusions, barely recognizable as a person, losing every last trace of her dignity, where it all derails into a tailspin of unfiltered torment, each little bit only adding to the collective hell of having to endure more, wiping out any hint of reality, where all that’s left is a waking nightmare that never ends, where she can’t ever wake up, stuck in an endless Sisyphean death spiral of human misery and suffocation, becoming all-consuming, like a fever dream.  Lost in the haze, the film is back where it starts, mired in that sinking feeling of utter futility.  Spare us the drama, Woody, as behind the curtain, nothing is real.