Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frances McDormand Delivers in Dark Comedy Reminiscent of Fargo
Twenty-years-ago, Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for Fargo, a delightful whodunit set in a tiny Minnesota town inhabited by a cornucopia of colorful local yokels. In that Coen Brothers’ black comedy, she played a dedicated police chief who was tireless in her efforts to crack a murder case, despite being pregnant.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a similarly-dark mystery set in the Midwest that’s also full of folksy characters. But this go-round, McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, the mother of a teenager (Kathryn Newton) whose beaten and raped corpse was found lying in a ditch along a lonely stretch of road.
It’s been seven months since the slaying, and the Ebbing police seem to have lost interest in apprehending the perpetrator. So, in order to light a fire under the department, Mildred rents a trio of billboards near the murder scene on which she asks Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in 20-foot high, block letters why he hasn’t yet made an arrest.
Unfortunately, the ploy backfires. Yes, it embarrasses the chief. However, it also generates public sympathy for him, given how everybody in the tight-knit community knows he’s been battling pancreatic cancer.
Undeterred in her quest for justice, Mildred subsequently prevails upon Willoughby’s dimwitted deputy (Sam Rockwell) to pick up the ball. But Dixon’s a revenge-minded racist who’d rather hassle than help the mom in mourning while arresting African-American citizens for minor infractions of the law.
Written and directed by Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh (for Six Shooter), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a thought-provoking social satire, which paints a chilling, yet plausible, portrait of just what it might be like to fight an entrenched patriarchy comfortable with a status quo favoring white males.
Look for Frances McDormand to land another Oscar nomination for a superb performance where she convincingly conveys the profound distress of a grief-stricken mother desperate for answers.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for violence, sexual references, ethnic slurs and pervasive profanity
Running time: 115 minutes
Studio: Blueprint Pictures
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Sentimental Tale of Redemption Credits A Compassionate Charles Dickens for the Way We Celebrate Christmas
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is considered the preeminent novelist of the Victorian Era because of his touching and timeless tales that shed light on the plight of the poor. He probably began developing anempathy for the less fortunate at an early age. That’s because he had to drop out of school to work in a factory to support the family after his bankrupt father (Jonathan Pryce) went to a debtors’ prison.
Charles’ challenging childhood ostensibly served as the source of inspiration for such coming-of-age classics as The Adventures of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. But the book, which has had the most profound effect on Western culture, is A Christmas Carol, since it irreversibly altered how we celebrate the holiday.
That notion is the genesis of The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standiford’s historical narrative recounting the events in December of 1943 leading up to Dickens’ publishing A Christmas Carol. Now, that opus has been adapted to the big screen by Bharat Nalluri (MI-5) as a sentimental tale of redemption.
As the film unfolds, we find a cash-strapped Dickens (Dan Stevens) living beyond his means and struggling to support his family. Truth be told, he didn’t even marry his wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), and have the first of their ten kids until 1836. That anachronism makes one wonder to what extent the picture conveniently takes further license with the facts in order to spin a heartwarming yarn.
Anyhow, with debt collectors closing in, we see Dickens fighting writer’s block to crank out another best-seller after releasing three bombs in a row. Luckily, key elements of A Christmas Carol, like the characters Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and The Ghost of Christmas Past (Anna Murphy) come to him in a variety of way, ranging from dreams to an offhand observation made by his humble, Irish housekeeper (Donna Marie Sludds).
He proceeds to publish the novella on Dec. 19, and the first edition sells out before Christmas. More importantly, the manuscript’s moving message about catching the spirit of the season made a lasting impact that still shapes the way we observe the holiday.
Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets
Running time: 104 minutes
Production Studio: Parallel Films / Rhombus Media
Distributor: Bleecker Street
OPENING THIS WEEK
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun
For movies opening Dec. 8, 2017
BIG BUDGET FILMS
Just Getting Started (PG-13 for profanity, suggestive material and brief violence) Unlikely-buddies comedy about a retired FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones) and a former Mafia lawyer (Morgan Freeman), both residing in a luxurious Palm Springs resort, who reluctantly join forces to take on the mob. With Rene Russo, Joe Pantoliano and the late Glenne Headley.
The Shape of Water (R for violence, profanity, sexuality and frontal nudity) Cold War suspense-thriller set in Baltimore in 1962, about a lonely, mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) working in a top-secret government laboratory whose life is changed forever when she and a sassy colleague (Octavia Spencer) make a shocking discovery. Support cast includes Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg. (In English, Russian and sign language with subtitles)
INDEPENDENT & FOREIGN FILMS
Big Sonia (Unrated) Bittersweet biopic about great-grandmother, businesswoman and haunted Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski who, after losing her tailor shop’s lease at the age of 91, recounts for posterity the horrors she witnessed at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Majdanek, which included watching her mother being marched into the gas chamber.
Hollow in the Land (Unrated) Suspense thriller revolving around a woman’s (Dianna Agron) effort to clear her murder suspect brother’s (Jared Abrahamson) name after he flees from the scene of the crime. Supporting cast includes Shawn Ashmore, Rachelle Lefevre and Jessica McLeod.
I, Tonya (R for violence, pervasive profanity, and some sexuality and nudity) Warts-and-all biopic recounting the rise and fall from grace of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the American figure skater whose bodyguard (Paul Walter Hauser) and ex-husband (Sebastian Stan) hired a mobster (Ricky Russert) to break the legs of her primary rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), weeks before the two were set to compete against each other in the 1994 Winter Olympics. With Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale and Julianne Nicholson.
Miss Kiet’s Children (Unrated) Poignant profile of Kiet Engels, a schoolteacher who has dedicated her career to helping recent refugees make the cultural adjustment to life in Holland. (In Dutch with subtitles)
November Criminals (PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, teen sexuality, drug use and brief violence) Adaptation of Sam Munson’s young adult novel about a couple of high school seniors (Ansel Elgort and Chloe Grace Moretz) who attempt to solve the senseless murder of a classmate (Jared Kemp). With Catherine Keener, David Strathairn and Cory Hardrict.
The Pirates of Somalia (Unrated) Adaptation of journalist Jay Bahadur’s (Evan Peters) best-selling memoir of the same name recounting how, in 2008, he embedded himself with African hijackers holding Western ships for ransom. Support cast includes Melanie Griffith, Russell Posner and Barkhad “I’m the Captain Now!” Abdi. (In English and Somali with subtitles)
Quest (Unrated) Inspirational documentary shot over the course of a decade, chronicling an African-American family’s struggle to survive in a North Philly ghetto.
The Rape of Recy Taylor (Unrated) Civil rights documentary, set in 1944, recounting a black rape victim’s quest for justice in the Alabama courts with the help of the NAACP’s Rosa Parks (Cynthia Erivo). With Robert Corbitt, Tommy Bernardi and Alma Daniels.