Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a powerful look at tragedy and activism combining into something both uniquely right and wrong. Taken from any one single characters perspective, the billboards may seem rude, cruel, gross, untrue, unjust, or completely just. In the case of Mildred, played by Frances McDormand, the billboards are justified and needed; she organized and paid for the advertisements in the first place.

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On the other hand, we have Chief Willoughby’s perspective, played by Woody Harrelson, whose name is plastered in big bold letters on one of the billboards, despite his good-naturedness and desire to find the victims assailant. The victim happens to be the daughter of Mildred, whose family and marriage has dissolved as a result of the horrific rape and death of her daughter. She lives with her son, Robbie, a young student in his late teens. He doesn’t understand the billboards and perpetually fights with his mother.

A curve ball is thrown into Mildred’s billboard plot when she learns that Willoughby has cancer. She’s stubborn, determined, and pretty narrow-minded, ignoring the sensitive angle of hoisting the terminally ill Chiefs name up in bold letters, slandering his name (which is a very good name to all of the local citizens), and insulting his young family.

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The third major perspective comes from Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell demands your attention in every single scene, acting both loosely and intensely at the same time. Dixon has a history of beating up African-American people and just being an awful cop in general. He’s the first officer to discover the billboards, reacting dramatically and only raising the stakes in terms of his raucous behavior in every proceeding scene.

The most interesting part of the narrative is how it’s set up: the dominos are put in place and we just have to sit back and see how they fall, whether that be poorly, not at all, or completely. Morals are blurry and grey like real life. No one character is heroic or admirable. There are three billboards demanding justice for the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter and three people demanding different things from each other.

Eventually, the story of the characters and their true personalities cause the plot to naturally unravel. The film authentically depicts how small town folks might respond to a bold and extraordinary action by a single citizen. They’re not always good, not always bad, but always filled with extreme passion.

A major theme of the film is misdirected hate. Dixon attacks citizens for no particular reason, mentioning past incidents and revealing his behavior on-screen through a violent encounter with the billboard salesman. The wife could hate the sheriff for his actions. The son could hate his mother, Mildred, for the billboards or for any other negative memory he has with her. The chief could hate Mildred like Dixon. Some people can choose to not hate and some just plain refuse to.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a fantastic moral and character study about personal vendettas. Its narrative swims together organically, each character’s motivations clearly defined. Engaging and thought-provoking, Three Billboards is a dark but rewarding experience that’s jam-packed with excellent performances.

The Argument – Director’s Cut


A fantastic short film about a man and his baby…and diapers. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but “The Argument” really was a unique experience for me. It amplified my fear of the responsibility of children, something I’d like to avoid. The story is about a man whose spouse is frustrated with him (we only hear her at the beginning, never see her) and is left alone with his baby when it needs to be changed and there aren’t any clean diapers.

There’s a great tracking shot, cut up into several segments, but all following the father from behind as he carries his baby through the streets and into the grocery store. The baby is crying as he rocks him slightly. There is a distinct lack of music throughout, only the sounds of the crying and the dialogue from the various characters.

After grabbing a pack of diapers recommended by a nearby customer, presumably a mother, he gets in line to buy them. He gets a few looks from other customers; we really feel like we are peering through the eyes of a desperate father scrambling to keep his domestic life together. He ends up finding out that he doesn’t have any money on him. The clerk is stubborn and doesn’t budge despite his pleas.

The clerk says herself, “It’s not my store”, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that she then goes on to chase after him through the parking lot, almost getting run over by an oncoming vehicle. She could have simply yelled out, “thief!”, and the manager wouldn’t or at least shouldn’t have put any blame on her. Maybe there’s a sign in the employee lunch area stating the requirement to physically chase any thief by foot; I don’t know.

A great ‘day-in-the-life’ short film; simple, but powerful in its depiction of the anxieties of parenthood.

Written & Directed by Clara Aranovich

Starring Melvil Poupaud and Naomi Collier.

 

The Dig – New Short Film & Review

A new short film directed by Joseph Kosinski, the filmmaker behind Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. It’s the first footage shot on the new CineAlta VENICE Full Frame Camera and, as one would expect, it looks fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that they hired Kosinski, who has been criticized for being too focused on creating brilliant, symmetrical imagery and not enough focus on narrative and character. He’s a technical artist, not a traditional storyteller.

I saw Oblivion in IMAX and was pretty blown away by the precision behind each individual shot. He creates sequences like he’s building a high-speed bullet train, not a slower, more bumpy train with twists and turns. It can be temporarily awe-inspiring, but I’ve never had the urge to go back and re-watch Oblivion. It’s an empty shell of a story.

The plot of “The Dig” is somewhat ludicrous. It features two janitors who look like LA models dressing up like janitors. They look totally out of place and their employers should be skeptical of their motives. They look like the type of people who wouldn’t even put on a janitors uniform, let alone actually work as one. As it turns out, they are performing an inside job to steal the new Sony camera (clever!).

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It’s fun to watch, though, as it’s basically just an excuse to show off the mighty prowess of the new Sony camera. Their are plenty of gliding, omniscient aerial shots, and some typical but beautiful helicopter shots of skyscrapers at night. You could count the cop car on the side of the road as one moment of decent tension, but the film is mainly a mystery involving two suspect janitors, not a Hitchcockian slow-burner.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Cinematography by Claudio Miranda, ASC.

Starring Taylor Kitsch and Lily Collins

Baby Driver (2017) – Film Review

The opening to Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” feels a bit braggadocios, a bit indulgent, and a bit too similar to a recent Apple commercial. All in one take, the opening tracking shot follows our main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, as he walks freely through the streets, crossing roads, passing murals, and avoiding bystanders. Each set piece he walks by correlates with the words in the song he’s listening to with his signature earbuds, always at hand and usually blaring full volume.

It’s a clever opening, though very self-referential: “Shaun of the Dead” featured one of the greatest one take tracking shots ever with Simon Pegg’s character bumbling through his town, ignorant of the blood and zombies surrounding him as he yawns his way through the vacant streets. The movie slows down a bit after the opening street dance/music video, getting into the reality of Baby’s life as a getaway driver for low-life, high-stake criminals.

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The leader of the operation is Doc, played smugly by Kevin Spacey. Jamie Foxx plays the confrontational character, even having a line in the movie commenting about the crazy position being filled already, by him. Jon Hamm plays a more sedated role as Buddy, another member of the crew; he wants to get the job done and get out of town with his girlfriend as soon as possible.

Baby drives as a result of a traumatic childhood experience involving a car wreck and the death of his mother. He has permanent ringing issues in his ears as a result of the accident, hence the constant music. The soundtrack is the lifeblood of the movie: the characters question it constantly, but when the music starts, Baby switches gears and turns into an 11th grade version of Ryan Gosling in “Drive”. He’s slick and intelligent, knowing the routes by heart, able to intuitively escape from seemingly inescapable scenarios.

Lily James plays Deborah, a young girl that works as a waitress at the diner where Baby’s mother used to wait tables. He’s a regular at the diner and soon garners her attention with a few of his songs and some friendly conversation. They have a runaway vibe throughout, though their relationship can’t be entirely filled out due to his responsibilities to Doc as the whiz-kid driver.

The movie has a lot of heart and clearly a lot of passion for the art of fast-speed driving. The coordination that had to happen to clear the roads and perform the spinning, sliding car donuts must have been exhausting. “Baby Driver” is an exhilarating chase movie made by one of the most inventive action directors of the decade.

The Star Wars in “Star Wars”

“Rogue One” takes the worldwide phenomena, entitled Star Wars, and serves up exactly what the title describes better than any other episode has. The final 50 minutes of the film is absolute pure adrenaline, spreading several sequences of space battles out evenly and thickly across the vast sandbox of outer-space.

The rebel X-Wing’s spin through the black, starry backgrounds like whirring darts, while the evil TIE fighters dash confidently after the rebels like submarines on auto-pilot.

The TIE fighters are the unflinching first line of the Imperial’s heavily-equipped military, while the rebels are scrapping more urgently for their lives than for the overall cause. The sense of duty can truly be felt extemporaneously through the genial, average-looking faces of the rebel pilots. Gareth Edwards cuts to the orange-clad pilots in the same manner in which George Lucas did almost 40 years ago.

 

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Edwards builds a feeling of camaraderie, making the fall and destruction of the pilots ever the more devastating. The characters are always trudging up the hill, always facing some sort of strategic disadvantage. We feel for them as a pack of truly unrelenting underdogs.

J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, must have enjoyed playing with his Jedi action figures a lot more than he did with his toy X-Wing models as a young fan. The Force Awakens had a lot to juggle and accomplish in a single 2 hour movie, and it did so fairly successfully. The space battles, however, had no sense of urgency, tension, or excitement.

What makes it all the worse for Abrams is the fact that he had introduced his prodigy pilot, Poe Dameron, as a prominent character in The Force Awakens universe. In the end, Abrams doesn’t put Dameron in a great position to shine, despite Oscar Isaac being a top-notch actor. It’s forgivable, or at least understandable, though, given that Abrams’ job was to slide wet cement under the stepping stones of the franchises’ future sequels.

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Their is nothing workman-like about Poe Dameron. He comes off as surefire and confident. He doesn’t look as vulnerable or homespun as the other rebel pilots. These pilots are essentially flying through dangerous, highly-weaponized atmospheres within the confines of jerky metallic cans. It’s not a job that offers very many long-term benefits other than life insurance, maybe.

The rebel fleet is commonly used as an ex machina plot device, a last resort to sweep in and clean up any leftover storm troopers. They are efficient, skilled professionals, trained like neurosurgeons to locate, maneuver, and eliminate waves of Imperial garrisons.

Luke Skywalker was the ultimate example of a surgical and precise pilot, squeezing his way through narrow tunnels in the Death Star’s hull, searching for the weak chink in the weapon’s armor.

In Rogue One, one of the rebel X-Wings is literally ordered to act as a shield to the rebels on the ground, hovering over the running soldiers of the resistance as if they were some sort of intergalactic secret service agents.

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Rebel resistance pushing through Imperial-controlled beach.
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Rebel ship hovers over to shield rebel soldiers on the beach.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Film Review

“The Force Awakens” is everything that the Star Wars prequels weren’t – self-referential, nostalgic, practical, and mythological. It uses the franchises deep well of origin stories to display the vastness of all of the galaxies far, far away.

The Star Wars franchise is a white canvas where the filmmakers, present and future, can draw as many stars, planets, and storylines as they can reasonably fit. It has so much potential to expand beyond the original films. Hopefully, the spin-off films will fill this void, bringing light to unseen corners of the universe.

The mainstream criticism of the first canon-advancing film produced by Disney is that it’s a fancy, dressed-up copy and paste job of the original Star Wars film, 1977’s “A New Hope”. The story template is certainly familiar, but the visual style and characters are a new breed that I like to call iconic shadows.

Many of the new characters appear and act childish and petty, like some of the hardcore fans of the Star Wars franchise. Other new characters are ambitious but yet hesitant, plagued by self-doubt about whether or not the boots they’re trying to fill are just too big and overwhelming.

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General Hux appears overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the guilt and sheer power that comes with his Death Star 2.0 device. His imitation of Hitler falls short, though his master plan doesn’t.

General Hux, in some ways, acts as a metaphor of the filmmakers themselves. They feel a duty to complete their mission successfully, though they are uncertain and afraid of the results. JJ Abrams, no matter how confident he felt during the production, couldn’t possibly know how the fans and critics would respond to his highly anticipated film.

Overall, the film succeeds at bringing back old fans of the franchise while also reaching new viewers. With a brisk pace, a fun tone, and plenty of young characters, the future of the force appears to be heading in a good direction.

Mystic River (2003) – Film Review

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Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River props up three childhood friends and puts them into adult, full-grown shoes. It’s one of the few films that pulls off this sort of generational time-lapse premise, mostly as a result of the childhood memories having been constructed in a swift, concise manner. The characters pasts aren’t dragged down by long, overdrawn back stories.

A car pulls up next to three kids on the sidewalk. They are writing their names on a wet concrete filling. A confident man climbs out of the car, declaring himself as an officer of the law to the three kids.

He demands one of the boys to come with him. They don’t realize that the man isn’t wearing a uniform or driving a patrol car, warning signs ignored amidst the oddness of the moment.

The film shifts suddenly to adulthood. One of the boys, Dave, played by Tim Robbins, has a sort of quiet, troubled look in his eyes. It’s clear from the beginning that Dave is an embodiment of suspicion: who knows what had happened after he got in the fake officer’s car?

The other two boys appear to be doing fairly well: Sean, a hothead of a boy, played by Kevin Bacon, now works as a police investigator. The third boy, Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, runs a store, employing his nineteen-year old daughter, the light of his life.

When Jimmy’s daughter doesn’t show up for work, her disappearance meshed with his own past turns into a toxic mix. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it at first and assumes she’s simply slacking off work. But when he spots a crowd surrounding a crime scene, he catches a glimpse of his daughters car. She has been murdered.

Jimmy’s daughters murder begins a long, emotional investigation. Throughout the film we discover more about Jimmy’s past, heightening our expectations of the manner in which he’ll confront his daughters killer, if he does. An extra twist thrown into the mix: the investigator of the homicide is Sean, Jimmy’s childhood friend.

The Invisible War (2012) – Film Review

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, is a movie brimming with incest and systematic injustice, probing into the issue of sexual abuse in the military in an open, graceful manner.

The film doesn’t back down from the truth. Like many great visual essays before it, it contrasts shocking statistics with real people, warts and all, on screen. The film states that twenty percent of women are raped during their military service.

It then goes on to pound the nail in even deeper with interview subjects explaining the hesitancy women have towards telling anyone, thereby likely doubling or at least highly doubting the statistics released by the military.

It’s a cautionary tale to women on what to expect when going into the service. It makes a strong argument for necessary change in the biased process of enforcement in the military. Hopefully, the culture will turn around for the better and women will be able to enter and serve in the military without fear of being harmed by their own fellow soldiers.

On The Waterfront (1954) – Film Review

“On The Waterfront” has become an American classic through the years, and the most credit, unsurprisingly, has gone to Marlon Brando, the supreme acting force anchoring the film.

Brando plays a washed up boxer, Terry Malloy, whose main source of income stems from mob deals; he works on the waterfront, where whiskey, packed and boarded, are loaded up by the tons in large fishing nets. He works hard, a common everyday laborer, but we soon discover that Malloy is very much entangled within the puppet-like strings of the mob.

Characters are often seen asking questions or talking to bystanders, as if they are talking to a blank wall; the cold hesitancy and isolating fear that the citizens feel about the mobs presence. If they slip up just once they’ve lost the opportunity for a second, or first, chance.

At one point, a box of crates fall upon a man standing directly below it; this seems to be done accidentally, a simple labor accident. Then, however, we see the mobsters smoking and gazing down into the deep cellar. They don’t care how much whiskey they’ve shattered and wasted to stage the killing. Murder is their profession and they are indeed very skilled at knocking off the rotten apples easily and economically.

Foxcatcher (2014) – Film Review

Review by Logan P. Miller

Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a deliberately paced mood piece, a feeling of melancholy flowing through every frame of the film. For some viewers, taking the time to watch these characters unfold in slow, drawn out scenes filled with gaps and uncomfortable stares, is a burden and a letdown.

The story the movie’s based on, the toxic relationship between Olympic wrestlers and their benefactor, is deliciously tabloid, a true-crime tale that’s truly intriguing and complex. But “Foxcatcher” doesn’t use the story as a leaping-off point for an over-the-top Hollywood drama, as that was far from what Dupont’s life really was; long stretches of his life really were just spent alone.

The little details matter in this film, the subtle hints at the characters doomed fates. The slightest facial tick, gesture, or grunt from any of the three main characters signals a possible spell, a foreshadowing of the tragedy that we know is coming. And in that sense, “Foxcatcher” is an actor’s movie all the way.

The film stars Steve Carrell in an unusually dark role as John DuPont, the wealthy heir to the DuPont chemical fortune. He inhabits the man, and yet doesn’t turn him into some mutated hunchback or movie caricature, either. Channing Tatum plays Mark, the ape-like surviving younger brother, whose trying to escape the shadow of his brother’s glory. He sees an opportunity to do this following DuPont’s unusually generous offer, and he rides on it, all the way to the Foxcatcher ranch.

Does every acclaimed, intense film these days have to include an on-set story about an actor inhabiting their role so completely that they actually physically hurt themselves? Is it now officially a requirement for a great performance? Bleed like DeNiro did or don’t even bother.