Tag: frances mcdormand

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri


Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The plot of Martin McDonagh’s structurally elegant and emotionally honest “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” involves an unsolved case of a girl who was raped, murdered, and set on fire, but the story is no murder mystery. Instead, it is an exploration, perhaps even an exorcism, of the psychology of some members of the titular small town who are directly involved with the case that has reached a dead end. The characters we meet may not be entirely likable but it is required that they be interesting. McDonagh continues to create work that will stand the test of time. This time around, his work asks us to consider how we might respond in the face of great injustice—especially one that happens to us and our family.

The film is a perfect showcase for Frances McDormand’s astounding range. Playing Mildred, the mother of the deceased, the veteran performer makes it so easy to summon inconsolable rage and disarming vulnerability within a span of seconds. While it is not difficult to empathize with the character as is written on the page, who has grown tired and beyond frustrated for not hearing any progress regarding her daughter’s murder, there are numerous instances where the audience is challenged to stay behind the actions of the protagonist. Like those around Mildred, she is capable of unnecessary cruelty.

Given the character’s wit and intelligence, Mildred has a knack for sniffing out weaknesses, lies, and deceit. This character trait paves the way for exciting, dialogue-driven scenes where power can shift at a drop of a hat. There is build-up, stare downs, and silence which do not follow any sort of rhythm to prevent becoming predictable. Mildred is aware that what she is about to say or do to somebody will hurt deeply and yet she does it anyway so the person she is dealing with would feel a fraction of her pain and suffering. McDormand demands that you do not take your eyes off her because Mildred is a bomb waiting to go off.

It gets the feeling of a small town just right, from the humble but busy streets to the interior decor of gift shops, homes, and local police station. But the relationships among the residents is most intriguing. Take the relationship between Mildred and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the latter being the lead investigator of the unsolved murder case. The two are constantly butting heads and yet look closer and notice there is mutual respect there. It just appears that respect may not be there all the time, especially when either gets so riled up that they see nothing but red.

Their common understanding is a great contrast when it comes to Mildred’s relationship with the other men in uniform (Sam Rockwell, Zeljko Ivanek) who consider the grieving mother’s decision to rent three abandoned billboards out in the highway as an affront or insult to who they are and what they do for the community. To them and others within the community, why couldn’t she just grieve in private like everyone else? Must the tragedy of their town be publicized constantly? Must everybody be reminded of the traumatic past?

While the material does not provide one glorified action scene, especially for a story that touches upon a murder, it is firecracker from start to finish. The characters are so fully realized that we learn about who they are and see them undergoing changes to the point where they become unpredictable. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” takes one left turn after another that it is near impossible not to be regaled by its mesmerizing dance.

Madeline


Madeline (1998)
★ / ★★★★

Twelve young girls live in a house in Paris whose matron, Lady Covington (Stéphane Audran), has gotten sick. When she dies, Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne) tells Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), a nun and a teacher, that he intends to sell the house by the end of the school year, which means that the students will have to find education elsewhere. This is especially problematic for Madeline (Hatty Jones) because she is an orphan and has nowhere else to go. Full of bravado and energy, she hatches plans to defuse Lord Covington’s attempts at selling the school.

Based on the book series by Ludwig Bemelmans, “Madeline” has no defined plot, simply the sale of the school tying together random scenes, more like a series of misadventures thrown together in a blender. This might appeal most to young children with short attention spans since it turns a corner every five to ten minutes, but older children and adults will likely to grow tired of its lack of willingness to dig deeper. For a child who might potentially lose her home, the film fails to capture the urgency of her situation. For the most part, it stumbles along until the problem must be dealt with in the final act.

Madeline has a lot of quips. She is played well by Jones because she does not turn her character into a precocious button-pusher. Despite the myriad (and sometimes unbelievable) turn of events, she seems like another child who, even though she is smart, gets into trouble at times for constantly wanting to get things her way. On that level, she is relatable to children.

To increase the intrigue and mystery, it should have spent more time developing the plot involving the Spanish ambassador’s son, Pepito (Kristian de la Osa), and his tutor named Leopold (Ben Daniels). While the former’s scenes are tolerable and occasionally annoying, the latter is established too much like a cartoon character. You know, the villain who sneers and summons menace in his eyes when no one is looking. Not once do we change our feelings with regards to the villain—or toward any character for that matter.

It is colorful; the interiors of the school has a convincing old-fashioned texture and the exteriors of Paris look like they belong in a travel brochure. There is an adorable dog that does not mind to be pet by a hundred hands. But all of it is the surface. When Madeline’s sadness is communicated, it feels perfunctory: there is pouting, sad music, and McDormand performing as if she were in a dramatic picture.

“Madeline,” directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer, is nice but forgettable. If the filmmakers had taken more risks to break the delightful but passive tone, it might have commanded a smidgen of universal appeal.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
★ / ★★★★

When Americans landed on the moon in 1969, astronauts discovered the remains of Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), a deactivated robot of alien origin. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, the rivalry between the Decepticons, robots that want to enslave the human race, led by Megatron (Hugo Weaving), and Autobots, robots that protect mankind, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), reach overdrive. Lacking proper means of transportation to return home, the evil Decepticons plan to use Sentinel Prime, former leader of the Autobots, to teleport their planet onto Earth.

Written by Ehren Kruger and directed by Michael Bay, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is filled with noises of metals scraping against each other, swish-swoosh of zigzagging bullets, and characters yelling orders or simply out of frustration. Its attempt to inject a human aspect to the war between the robot races is obvious and barely there. In addition, the picture lacks an identifiable protagonist.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is a recent college graduate without a job. But life is still good somehow because he has a spankin’ new hot girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who is more than happy to provide him daily meals. The first third of the film showcases Sam whining because he fails to acquire a fancy job right after he graduated from an Ivy League school. And since, as he mentions more than once, he saved the world twice and received a medal from the president, he feels that he should be regarded highly in society. In a other words, Sam is a narcissistic jerk who thinks a good life should come to him. Not for a second did I feel sorry for him nor did the screenplay attempt to get us to like him.

I wished the picture has focused more on the government employees, like Mearing (Frances McDormand), who has special clearance to certain kinds of information. I believe that if Sam’s character is completely excised from the film, the material would have had a chance to make characters like Mearing to be more multidimensional. At this point in the franchise, an unexpected twist might have been a great idea: she is a strong woman who does not need macho men to make decisions for her. Instead, Mearing ends up looking like a stuck-up government official instead of bona fide leader who has to make difficult choices for her country.

The action sequences still consist of junk flying around although there is one that really impressed me. While the soldiers’ plane is slowly being destroyed by the Decepticons, they have to jump before it explodes and, equipped with a wingsuit, have to navigate their way through the massive skyscrapers of Chicago. The scene gave me goosebumps because, for a second or two, the booming score is absent and all we hear is the air gliding along the suits. The Nuclear Emergency Support Team are not necessarily important characters in the film but I caught myself really caring about whether they will land safely. That is more than I can say about Sam, his girlfriend, and the robots.

I did not get the impression that the director made “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” with true passion. If he did, he would, in the least, have given the picture a proper ending. The way it ends reminded me of how young children would end a story: right after the climax, they would cutely say, “The End.” Essentially, the same thing happens here but far less cute.

Moonrise Kingdom


Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) expects it to be just another day of camping, leading, and teaching his fellow Khaki Scouts in Camp Ivanhoe. During breakfast, however, he notices that one of his students is missing from the table, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), the least popular among his peers. A letter of resignation is found in his tent, leaving everyone at a loss as to why he’s done such a thing. With a storm rapidly approaching, expected to arrive in three days, a search party is formed to get Sam to safety.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, offers a distinctive style and vision, its images cutely retro, appropriately dyed with a golden yellowish tinge, so fitting considering its 1965 milieu. And while it is an absolute pleasure to look at because of the vintage clothing, old school gadgets, and its loving attention to nature, it has a voyeuristic element about it that at times it feels like looking into a personal memory of a boy experiencing his first romance with a girl named Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), his perfect, at least for the time being, other half in that both have their share of imperfections, weirdness, and awkwardness.

When the picture focuses on the duo’s excursions around the beautiful island of New Penzance, it is at its most engaging. The script, as should be expected from a Wes Anderson film, has its own rhythm, sometimes a bit obfuscated in that it challenges our minds to drill into exactly what is being communicated. The lack of range in terms of evoking precise emotions between Gilman and Hayward work because a case can be made that Sam and Suzy are still trying to figure out who they are. Sometimes I wondered if their idea of romance is a reflection of pop culture at the time which supports their mindset of running away together and living happily ever after. Their youth has a potent spark, fueled by their need to connect with someone willing to listen and embrace because they feel like outcasts in their respective worlds.

Unfortunately, the film entertains far too many subplots and each one is not given sufficient time to be nurtured. The only strand that works involves Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray), Suzy’s parents, who tolerate a near passionless marriage, deciding to stay together for the sake of their children. Their one scene in the bedroom, occupying different beds, communicates a sadness with an underlying air of apathy—an emotion that holds more bite than hatred—that it dares the viewers to wish they would lash out on one another. At least then they may not have to guess what the other is thinking. Despite their current unhappiness, we can accept the possibility that they were probably very much in love when they were young which directly ties back to the Khaki Scout and his pen pal.

What does not work at all is the affair between Laura and a Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the cop who leads the search. Their interactions are supposed to be comic but I found them boring and lacking in energy. Perhaps this might be attributed to the Captain’s Sharp’s story—which is too broad, not containing enough specific details to warrant belief that he is a beacon of hope even though he has had his share of problems.

Further, when the storm arrives in the back half of the picture, the chaos that ensues is only mildly interesting. It is off-putting that the balance between visuals and heart is thrown out the window, heavily relying on the strength of the former while the latter is slowly reduced to a footnote until it is convenient to wring out syrupy emotions for the audience. Director Wes Anderson has a habit of doing this to his projects and it is a great frustration.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

In “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) was rushed to the hospital because she’d been beaten to a pulp and was shot multiple times. Her allies, including “Millennium” journalists Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Erika Berger (Lena Endre), attempted to do everything in their power to protect Lisbeth from men who wanted to kill her in cold blood with impunity. The men didn’t want Lisbeth to be given the chance to go to trial (from claims that she tried to murder her father), earn her freedom, and expose their dark underground activities. A key addition was Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), Blomkvist’s sister and Lisbeth’s pregnant lawyer, who reminded me of Frances McDormand’s plucky character in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” because she was brave, intelligent, and resourceful. The first forty-minutes was unimpressive and summoned the weakest points in “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” While it was refreshing to see Lisbeth being more vulnerable as she attempted to be more pleasant with her doctor (Aksel Morisse) who seemed like he was romantically interested her, the tone felt flat and almost painfully ordinary. However, the film finally started to gather momentum when our protagonist left the hospital and been transferred to jail a few days before the much anticipated trial. Watching the last hour made me feel like I was watching a poker game where everyone was all in. Since the mysterious organization had failed to kill Lisbeth multiple times, it appeared as though anything could happen. Reputations, careers, and lives were on the line. While Lisbeth’s side did have their aces, since I wasn’t familiar with Stieg Larsson’s novels, I was curious with how the aces were going to be played. There was also a lot of tension in the “Millennium” headquarters. Erika had been getting e-mails that threatened her life as well as her staff’s. She felt she had a responsibility of stopping the next publication of the magazine because its contents were directly related to Lisbeth’s case and the men about to be exposed. But Mikael insisted that they published because Lisbeth was very important to him. He believed that the publication was key to his friend’s freedom. In a way, he was torn between two women he loved, but he loved them in different ways. It was fascinating to observe his decisions because he wasn’t always fully convinced that he was doing the right thing. Another strand in the story was Lisbeth’s half-brother (Micke Spreitz), physically incapable of feeling pain, wanting to kill her. The final confrontation between siblings in the end was highly suspenseful which reached the level of intensity that “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” seemed to effortlessly possess. Director Daniel Alfredson’s “Luftslottet som sprängdes” ended on a high note. The “Millenium” trilogy had moments where it stumbled from the bumps on the road. But when it did get something right, it was outstanding.

The Man Who Wasn’t There


The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was about a man (Billy Bob Thornton) so bored by the ordinariness of his life and so into his head that he one day decided to spice things up by blackmailing his friend (James Gandolfini) after he gets an offer to be a business partner from another man with great ideas. One decision triggered certain events that caused a giant fracture in the lives of the people Thorton’s character had something to do with such as his wife (Frances McDormand), a lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), a girl who played the piano (Scarlett Johansson), and others. Since this was an Ethan and Joel Coen picture, I expected to be astute in its observation of human nature as well as the ability to show its audiences how it was like to be in the main character’s unique perspective. It was more than able to deliver those qualities and beyond because the story took turns that I didn’t expect. Each scene was crucial and it constantly evolved to make us feel for a man who made very bad decisions. While the signature Coen brothers humor was certainly there, it had a certain edge and darkness to make it more than just a film about consequences. I also liked the fact that this was shot in black and white because I thought it reflected the main character’s mindset. I noticed him always considering the very extreme of things, especially when he narrated the picture, and his weakness was that he was partially blind to the (morally) gray. The black-and-white also worked because this was essentially a noir movie. I loved the night scenes especially the ones shot indoors. The angles and composition of the shadows really made the experience that much more engaging. The atmosphere of the time period was also very well chosen because the Coen brothers were able to inject interesting (if not somewhat unexplored) mini-storylines involving extraterrestrials and the craze about them at the time. That one scene when Katherine Borowitz’ character knocked on Thornton’s door and told him certain bits of information about a hidden plot gave me serious goosebumps because it came out of nowhere. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was full of surprises and I definitely consider it as a must-see for fans of the Coen brothers, or even for people who just want to observe what lengths characters living with the ennui are willing to go through to make their lives more vibrant and regret it afterwards.

Blood Simple


Blood Simple (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Blood Simple,” directed by Joel Coen and written by the Coen brothers, is my definition of a great film. From start to finish, I was absolutely blown away because of its ability to take a genre on its head and create something truly original, or at least a breath of fresh air. Labeling this picture as a thriller may not do it justice because it contained darkly comedic scenes, horrific montages, and touching moments. To be released in 1984 and still remain that great to this day is an achievement that most pictures do not quite accomplish.

Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator named Loren (M. Emmet Walsh) to observe his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) having an affair with Ray (John Getz), a man who works in Marty’s bar. Driven to extreme jealousy and heartbreak, Marty eventually orders Loren to kill the new couple for $10,000. Little did Marty know that Loren is a calculating, risk-avoidant man and that he has a plan on his own to get the money without killing Abby and Ray. A series of strange coincidences and assumptions are added to the seemingly simple equation which eventually makes a stylish film that is able to bring up moral questions, as well as what a person is willing to do to get away with something–whether that something is to benefit one’s self or others.

First of all, I have to commend all of the four leads because I felt like they each brought something special to the table. Each of their character was multi-layered in his or her way to the point where I did not know how they would react to certain situations when certain variables were changed. Each of them was intelligent, capable of good and evil, and has a good sense on how to survive when faced with certain challenges. This being a thriller film, I knew that not all of them would survive by the end. But the interesting part was trying to figure out who would outsmart who; it was kind of like watching sharks battle it out in order to ultimately be on the top of the food chain. I must also give recognition to the Coen brothers, especially Joel, for giving the audiences one memorable scene after another. While the conversations were smart, Joel Coen was able to use colors and sound to maximize the effect of certain scenes. In most thrillers of today, the soundtrack could get so distracting that it tends to take away the power of simply observing a character move in silence. Like a good novel, the use of foreshadowing was implemented in just about the right moments so when we actually get to the crucial scene, we are swept off our feet without feeling cheated. Lastly, I mention the genre-defying tone of the movie. There were some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout but there were also some that left me cowering in a corner and wondering what I would have done if I was placed in the same position. The last thirty minutes or so were post-noir (arguably my favorite subgrenre) in its core and I relished every second of it because it was so well done.

I wish I had seen this film sooner. When I saw “Fargo,” I thought the Coen brothers would not be able to top it even if “No Country for Old Men” came quite close. However, having seen “Blood Simple,” I think it is possibly my favorite of the movies by them so far. I’ve seen a great number of fascinating motion pictures but I think this one deserves to be at least in my top twenty. The dripping ironies were just too impressive to resist (pun intended).