Review of “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is struggling with grief and anger after her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and burned to death less than a mile from her home. Dissatisfied with the lack of progress in her daughter’s case after nearly a year, Mildred approaches the owner of the local outside advertising company Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) about buying three billboards on the road where her daughter’s body was found with the following message: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Naturally, the billboards create quite a stink around Ebbing, Missouri. Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) visits Mildred and explains there are no witnesses and the DNA found at the scene doesn’t match anyone in the national database. Unsatisfied with that answer, Mildred intends on keeping the billboards up for a year despite Willoughby’s revealing he has terminal cancer. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is also upset by the billboards but he plans on taking a more direct approach: Harassing anyone associated with Mildred including Red and Mildred’s employer. Undaunted, Mildred intends on continuing her advertising campaign despite the public pressure as well as the complaints of her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes).

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a deceptively complex film. There are various layers of story that must be peeled back to reveal the core of the narrative. It is a movie that requires patience as it reveals itself to be something other than the status quo. It isn’t strictly a black comedy, a whodunit, a domestic drama or a thriller. It is a combination of all those genres with a little something extra thrown in that’s difficult to identify until you realize the obvious: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is life.

Director and writer Martin McDonagh has crafted a rare and beautiful thing: A script that plays with convention and turns the obvious into the enemy. There is nothing in the movie that makes you think, “Seen that before.” It takes no easy way out; the characters make painful and challenging decisions and still manage to seem real.

McDonagh has a history of making unique movies as he’s the writer and director of “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges.” He is also a very successful playwright, referred to in a New York Times article as the most important living Irish playwright with some of his plays running on Broadway and receiving Tony nominations. It isn’t a surprise that someone so successful at bringing characters to life in live theatre would also be able to create stunningly unique and vibrant characters for the screen. The fact McDonagh also has a handle on the visual aspects of cinema is the real surprise; crafting shots that are simple yet cinematic and tell a story all on their own.

McDonagh also gets spectacular performances from a stellar cast. Frances McDormand is a force of nature as Mildred. Always ready to defend herself and her beliefs with a quick curse or a long story, Mildred is not to be trifled with. She doesn’t take well to physical attacks either as a dentist finds out. Mildred is pushed into carrying out these actions by feelings of grief and guilt that are always just under the surface. If her daughter hadn’t been so brutally murdered she might only be an angry ex-wife with two mouthy kids and a humdrum life; but with Angela’s death Mildred has an all-consuming cause to occupy her mind and as she proves that can be a dangerous thing. McDormand gives a fiery performance and never shows one moment of weakness. It is a riveting portrayal of a woman that feels as if there is nothing she can’t do and with nothing left to lose despite having a teenage son left at home. Mildred is a flawed and broken woman and McDormand gives a flawless performance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

Sam Rockwell also burns up the screen as racist drunk cop Jason Dixon. Rockwell is a chameleon, able to disappear into a role so completely you assume he is the character in life. Rockwell portrays a sad man that is realizing his dreams may be out of reach and that make him angry. He takes that anger out on the suspects brought in, especially those that are people of color. He makes no apologies for his beliefs that we later on learn are not as tightly held as we might think. Rockwell creates a despicable character that you still have some sympathy for. He’s broken but redeemable. This is also a performance that could get some award season attention.

Also on the list is Woody Harrelson as Police Chief Bill Willoughby. While not in the film as much as McDormand and Rockwell, Harrelson’s Willoughby is in a way the heart of the film. Both Mildred and Jason are on the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as their beliefs and action while Bill is firmly in the middle. As can be seen in his interactions with both of them, Willoughby is attempting to be a calming force on both of them. It takes an extreme action by the chief to get both their attentions. Harrelson is fantastic and in a way steals the movie every time he’s on screen. It is a measured and calm performance that belies the depth of the character’s impact. I don’t want to give too much away but there are moments in Harrelson’s performance that will break your heart. He too may need to rent a tuxedo for the Academy Awards.

The secondary characters are also expertly performed and written. Peter Dinklage has a small (no pun intended) role as a local car dealer with a crush on Mildred. Their one and only date proves to be disastrous. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie like a coiled snake always ready to pounce. Robbie Hayes is the depressed son of Mildred and Charlie and shows the perfect amount of teen disdain for his parents while also backing off when he realizes he has crossed a line. Samara Weaving has only two scenes in the film as Charlie’s 19-year old girlfriend but makes the most of it with a couple of perfectly timed comedic performances. The entire cast is perfect and makes for a wonderful movie-going experience.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references. We see a couple of characters violently beaten in two different scenes. One is thrown out a second-story window onto the street below. There is also a suicide shown where a character is shot in the head. The sexual references are mostly mild but the context of one reference is extremely disturbing. Foul language is common throughout the film.

It isn’t often that a film can take what could have been a simple and boring story and throw in enough twists and unusual choices to turn it into a fascinating movie that demands your attention. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is just that film. With a multi-layered story, three fascinating primary characters and a cast that combines to deliver several amazing performances, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” gets five guitars.

Two new movies are opening this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Just Getting Started—

The Disaster Artist—

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Reviews of “Hail, Caesar!” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Hail, Caesar!

Movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of Communist script writers who feel they are undercompensated for their work. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works for the studio as a “fixer” who tries to keep movie production running smoothly by taking care of any problems for the actors and directors. Mannix gets a ransom note asking for $100,000 for the return of Whitlock. Whitlock is the star of a big-budget Roman Empire film called “Hail, Caesar: The Story of the Christ” and is needed back on set as quickly as possible. He also wants to keep Whitlock’s disappearance out of the two gossip columns written by feuding twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Mannix is also dealing with the pregnancy of unwed starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and monosyllabic cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being shoehorned into an upscale costume drama much to the chagrin of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). As if this wasn’t enough, Mannix is also considering a lucrative job offer from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and is also trying to quit smoking.

Joel and Ethan Coen are the talented writers, directors, editors and producers behind some of the best movies in history (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Big Lebowski,” “True Grit” to name a few). They have also given us some interesting films with unique characters and a skewed view of the world. These films aren’t quite great but are certainly worth a look. Where “Hail, Caesar” falls on the list from worst to first will probably require some time to decide and may depend on your mood when you see it but, for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of their best efforts.

Right off the bat, you know you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie. The look of the sets, the way the characters are filmed and the often amped up energy between the actors are all signatures of a Coen Brothers joint, especially one of their lighter films. Adding to the mood is the utter self-absorption of some of the movie’s characters. They cannot see past their own wants, needs and desires to consider all the trouble they are causing. They need someone like Mannix to take care of the problems they are ill equipped to handle or blindly stumble upon. The film, set in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, gives the audience a peek behind scrubbed clean facades and into the dirty lives of Hollywood stars from the era. Reading a little of Hollywood history shows there were plenty of pregnancies, closeted gays and lesbians, and substance abuse to cover up keeping the real versions of Eddie Mannix busy. Watching the small emergencies and major catastrophes Mannix deals with fill his day made me wonder if what he does only enables the actors and directors bad decision making. Of course, the answer is “yes” since he was hired by the studio to keep the actors and directors working, on schedule and within budget.

Watching Mannix work is probably the most interesting thing about “Hail, Caesar!” making the subplot about the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock almost an afterthought. Sadly, that part of the story is written that way as well. There is a great deal of Communist ideology spewed by the group of writers holed up at a beachside bungalow. Granted, it’s all done in a friendly fashion, leading to a case of Stockholm syndrome for Whitlock. Nothing about this group is terribly interesting aside from the petty sniping between members. I suppose I expected a more aggressive gang hoping to convert Whitlock as a vocal and public advocate for their cause. Instead, Whitlock doesn’t really get it and is treated like the slow cousin at the family reunion with everyone just nodding and smiling as he tries to play along. Pretty much everything at the beach house feels like filler and tends to bring the movie to a bit of a narrative stop.

Far more entertaining are the films within the film being filmed. A water ballet featuring Johansson’s pregnant DeeAnna Moran in a mermaid costume and a big dance number with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney leading a group of sailors tap dancing on tables at a bar the night before they ship out contain dazzling visuals, impressive choreography and catchy tunes. I almost wish they had just made a movie that stitched these scenes together with a Hollywood backlot story about Eddie Mannix and left the Communist kidnapping plot out. Even watching Clooney chew the scenery in the sword and sandals epic his character is filming beats anything that happens after his kidnapping. It’s the dichotomy between what Hollywood is trying to sell us and what this movie is trying to show us about the real world that drags the film down a peg or two. It’s far from awful but I could have used a bit more screwball action and a lot less Communist manifesto.

“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. The suggestive content is very mild and hardly noticeable. Smoking is common throughout the film.

One of my favorite Coen Brothers movies is “Raising Arizona.” It is goofy and sweet and features some very memorable characters. From time to time, for no reason, my wife will just suddenly announce, “Short of Edwina. Turn to the right!” which is a line Holly Hunter’s character says on her first meeting with Nic Cage. “Raising Arizona” has more memorable lines. Perhaps that’s what “Hail, Caesar!” lacks…scenes and dialog that burrow into your brain and pop up for no particular reason in conversation. While that isn’t a requirement for a great movie, it does help.

“Hail, Caesar!” gets four guitars.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Bennet family lives on a nice estate in the English countryside. The five Bennet daughters have all been schooled in Chinese martial arts as all good young women should be in a land plagued by a zombie scourge. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) meets and takes an instant dislike to Col. Darcy (Sam Riley), a well-known zombie killer, at a reception at the home of Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). Mr. Bingley sees Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) and is instantly smitten, making Jane’s mother, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips), quite happy as she hopes to marry her daughters off to wealthy families as her own is not as financially secure as she would like. The zombie plague is beginning to overrun most of London’s defenses and Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) is brought in to improve them. Darcy and Wickham have a strained history going back several years that Wickham blames on Darcy. This drives a further wedge between Darcy and Elizabeth.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” henceforth to be referred to as “PPZ,” is a brilliant idea on paper. The juxtaposition between the mannered and stuffy British upper class and the mindless hunger of zombies should have been a no brainer (pardon the expression). Sadly, this theatrical representation of a genre mashup is about as dry and dull as a British costume drama without the ravenous undead.

“PPZ” isn’t funny, isn’t scary and isn’t otherwise much of anything. It seems to have taken more of the tone of the original Jane Austen work and left any of the excitement of Seth Grahame-Smith’s modification on the page. While there are moments when Austen’s words are said during a fight scene between two characters and that does provide some visual humor it doesn’t translate into actual laughs. Perhaps Grahame-Smith’s book wasn’t intended to be funny; however, if you want a film like this to appeal to a broad audience, it needs some laughs that aren’t the polite chuckles this film only occasionally provides.

The movie isn’t scary in the least. These zombies still possess some of their former intelligence and can maintain their composure at least until they consume human brains. After they get their first taste of grey matter, they become ravenous and aggressive. The world of 19th Century England dealing with zombies is somewhat interesting and the modified history, construction of a massive wall and deep moat to block zombie progress, is a nice touch of background; but it doesn’t do much to carry the story past the opening credits.

I suppose the filmmakers were hoping to attract fans of Austen’s work AND people that enjoy “The Walking Dead.” The Venn diagram of those two audiences doesn’t have a great deal of overlap and you need an audience big enough to justify making the sequel suggested in the film’s closing image. Considering the anemic opening weekend box office, a second film seems unlikely.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. We see a few zombie heads explode when they are shot. An arm is severed and zombies often appear to have severe injuries to their faces. We also see some corpses with large holes in the tops of their heads and their brains removed. Suggestive material is limited to the occasional sight of the tops of a heaving bosom.

When I heard “PPZ” was being made I was actually a little excited to see it. I believed it might be possible to turn a one-note premise into an entertaining movie. Sadly, I was wrong. With such a serious tone and ignoring its humorous potential, “PPZ” is largely a lifeless mess.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” gets two stars out of five.

This week, comic book fans get what could be a cinematic Valentine’s card from a much anticipated character. There is also a comedy about dating and a revisit from Blue Steel! I’ll see and review at least one of these films.


How to be Single—

Zoolander 2—

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Reviews of “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed”

This week, I saw two very different movies; however, if you look at them a bit more closely, it becomes clear these two films have a fairly similar theme: Sons trying to live up to the example and expectations of their fathers. “The Good Dinosaur” and “Creed” approach their subjects from wildly different perspectives with one being aimed at children while the other is purely for adults. That said, each features a main character that is trying to be his best because of the loss (or lack) of a father. Each succeeds because the filmmakers avoid falling into the trap of depending on sentimentality to sell their tales and use great characters and compelling stories to make us cheer and weep.

The Good Dinosaur

The asteroid, which 65 million years ago put the nail in their coffin, missed and the most intelligent form of life on Earth is the dinosaur. Born on his family’s farm, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ocha) is the runt of the litter. His sister and brother are both bigger and neither seems to fear anything while Arlo is afraid of his own shadow. His poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and momma (voiced by Frances McDormand) love Arlo and do what they can to help him past his fear. Something is getting in their corn silo and eating up the crops they will depend on in the winter for food. In an effort to give him confidence, poppa puts Arlo in charge of capturing and killing the pest. The trap is sprung and Arlo sees it is a feral human boy. Attempting to escape, the boy gets tangled up in the trap lines and is being choked to death. Arlo releases the lines and the boy runs away. Poppa makes Arlo join him in tracking the boy through the woods and along the river. A storm builds up causing a flash flood and poppa is swept away and dies. Arlo feels responsible for his father’s death as well as angry at the boy. When he sees the boy in the silo again, Arlo chases him down by the river where the pair falls in. Arlo hits his head on a rock and is knocked unconscious. Waking up far from home and without the familiar landmarks he’s seen all his life, Arlo is scared and doesn’t know what to do. Unprepared for life in the wild, Arlo is sometimes helped by the boy. He protects him from predators and brings him food. Despite his feelings of anger, Arlo begins to like and depend on the boy he eventually names Spot (voiced by Jack Bright). Together, Arlo and Spot try to find their way back to Arlo’s family farm. Along the way, they encounter a tyrannosaurus family of ranchers, velociraptor cattle rustlers and a group of murderous pterodactyls.

The story of “The Good Dinosaur” is a familiar one with a protagonist in a situation for which he is wholly unprepared and teamed with a partner he initially dislikes that then begins to learn about survival and himself while learning to love his former enemy. “Cars,” “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out” and “Toy Story” among others have similar plots. While those films may be aimed at a slightly older audience, “The Good Dinosaur” manages to adapt the story for younger eyes and ears and keep their parents entertained as well.

Visually, “The Good Dinosaur” is a wonder to behold. There are times the wilderness scenery looks like something from a travelogue. Rivers flow, trees bend in the wind, grasses sway, dust clouds billow all in ways that look like they were filmed, not drawn in a computer. While the dinosaurs and humans are rather stylized and somewhat simplistic in their appearance, the way they move and how they interact with their environment feels and looks real. Pixar constantly works on their software to make CGI look and react in line with the laws of nature. It is a feast for the eyes.

“The Good Dinosaur” isn’t as emotionally complex as “Inside Out” but it still delivers a powerful message of love and acceptance. Arlo doubts himself and that he can ever measure up to his father; but his father never puts him down or belittles him and works to instill a sense of purpose and pride in his son. Arlo is a bit of an outcast within his own family. His brother and sister are both bigger and strong than Arlo. While he tries, Arlo is timid and afraid he isn’t up to the task. It is a powerful message for young viewers to see a character that isn’t able to succeed at everything he tries and still receives the support of his family. It doesn’t take much searching to find stories of real children that aren’t so lucky.

The characters of Arlo and Spot spend a great deal of time on screen together without other characters. Spot only speaks in grunts and howls leaving the majority of the voice work to Raymond Ochoa. The teenager is terrific as the young Arlo, running through a full range of emotions. The movie lives or dies based on his performance and he is more than up to the task. Another standout in the cast is Sam Elliott as Butch, the leader of the T-Rex family. Elliott has an instantly recognizable voice and seemed to have been coached into turning up the drawl and the growl. It could have come off like parody but considering he is voicing a T-Rex it actually works. As poppa, Jeffrey Wright delivers a warm and earnest performance that at first feels almost too soft and cuddly. Later, when Arlo lets Spot out of the trap, he flares up in anger and makes his dinosaur all too human. While it is brief, Wright’s performance is effective.

“The Good Dinosaur” is rated PG for action, thematic elements and peril. Arlo has confrontations with various characters along his journey home. Some involve mild violence and the threat of injury of death. The loss of a parent and the desire to take revenge are parts of the story. There is no foul language.

While it may not be a masterpiece like “Inside Out” or “Toy Story,” “The Good Dinosaur” is still a moving adventure of self-discovery. It has characters with which it is easy to identify and a message that even the youngest of viewers should have no trouble grasping. And, as with nearly all Pixar films, have a tissue handy for the last 10 minutes or so as you will likely need it.

“The Good Dinosaur” gets five stars.


Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Don or Donny to his friends, has had a troubled upbringing. His father was nowhere to be found and his mother died when he was young. Bounced from one foster home to another, Donny is an angry kid who gets in fights. He winds up in a juvenile detention facility when he is visited by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). She invites Donny to live with her because he is the son of her late husband, championship boxer Apollo Creed, the product of an affair he had. Now an adult, Donny works at a securities firm but heads to Tijuana on the weekends to compete in bar fights. He has won 15 in a row and approaches a trainer in his home town of Los Angeles to take him on but he refuses. Donny quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and convince him to be his trainer. At first reluctant, Rocky decides to take on the persistent young man. Donny also begins a relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring singer who lives in his building. After winning his first professional fight, word of his parentage is leaked. Meanwhile, the light heavyweight champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking at a jail sentence for a gun charge in his native UK. Looking for one final payday before he goes to prison for possibly seven years, Conlan’s trainer Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) contacts Rocky about pairing Donny and the champ in a fight on the condition that Donny changes his last name to Creed. Let the training montage commence.

I’ll admit I didn’t want to like “Creed.” It seemed like an unnecessary rehash of a well-worn franchise; however, the story and performances beat down my objections like a Golden Gloves boxer taking on a world champion pro. “Creed” is a knockout.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a performance that should eliminate the bad memory of the “Fantastic Four” reboot from everyone’s minds. Jordan is electric as Adonis Creed. He captures a troubled young man that is trying to make the father he never knew proud. It is a fruitless pursuit that is made moving and dynamic by Jordan’s nuanced and riveting performance. There’s far more going on in “Creed” than just a boxing movie and Jordan is the primary reason why. Donny is driven, stubborn, volatile, passionate, determined and still manages to be caring and empathetic. His relationship with Bianca, which could have been played as a distraction and in many lesser movies it would have, merely makes Donny a more interesting character.

While Donny is the focus of the story, the character that will draw many people to the movie is the aging champ, Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone gives a subtle and restrained performance. Often acting as a father to young Creed, Rocky treats Donny with tough love and respect. It is the kind of relationship many sons would love to have with their fathers. It is playful at times as well as instructional. Stallone is obviously passing the torch to the next generation.

If the film has a weakness, it is the predictability of the story. It follows the familiar path of countless movies before with the hero facing numerous challenges, becoming disillusioned with his path and separated from his friends and mentors, then finding his way back. It is a tried and true story arc that could have lessened the impact of the film; however, “Creed” succeeds in spite of its familiar tale. The performances and the soundtrack combine to drag the audience along kicking and screaming. It is a rousing, feel-good film that dares you not to be moved by Donny’s struggle.

“Creed” is rated PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and language. Naturally, there are numerous fights both in the ring and out. There is some blood from various cuts and pools of bloody water. There is a brief sex scene that has no nudity. Foul language is scattered but the film does have on “F-Bomb.”

“Creed” is essentially a remake of the original “Rocky.” While it throws in a few more story elements, if you’ve seen the original you’ve basically seen “Creed.” Please don’t let that stop you as “Creed” is a crowd-pleasing tale of hard work and dogged determination performed by a gifted main cast. It might even make you consider running up the stairs at your local museum and pumping your fists in the air when you reach the top.

“Creed” gets five stars.

This week, only one new film opens in wide release but there are others playing in my town that could have potential Oscar chances. I’ll see and review at least one of these.




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