The operatic voice that opens the movie foreshadows the tragic circumstances to come. Three Billboards is not an easy movie, but it is a good one. Very dark, but ultimately hopeful, it chronicles one woman’s not-always-successful attempt to battle bitterness and despair.
At the heart of the story is Mildred, whose daughter was killed, raped, then burned. She is determined to find the killer and is infuriated that the Ebbing , Missouri police force has, in her mind, done so little to find him. Frances McDormand was made for this role. Her bitter stoicism and ruthlessness make Mildred complicated. You sympathize, but are uncomfortable with the extreme measures she takes.
From her front porch she can see three decaying billboards on a road that has been bypassed by a thruway. To prod the chief of police, she pays to advertise her frustration. They say:
Raped while dying
And still no arrests
How come, Chief Willoughby?
The town is outraged by the display, and the laconic Chief (Woody Harrelson, flawless in this role) tries to reason with her to remove them, to no avail. When he tells her he is dying from cancer, she literally doesn’t blink. She wants her revenge, and his imminent death is irrelevant to her.
Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell who disappears seamlessly into this character) gets in her face because of his loyalty to the chief, but is such a screw-up that he only makes things worse. When we see him feeding his pet turtle by hand at the home of his dominating, harridan mother, we see the root of his problems.
Mildred is angry, but she’s also guilty. Her relationship with Angela, seen in a flashback, was volatile and laced with shocking obscenities. When she won’t let Angela use the car, Angela decides to walk and taunts her mother with “I hope I get raped.” Mildred to her everlasting regret responds, “I hope you do too.”
McDormand takes a risk and succeeds. She makes Mildred hateful , but understandable. She gradually shows you a softer side to Mildred, as she puts out flowers at the billboard in memory of her daughter and even reconciles with Willoughby before his death. You want her to find the killer or at least peace.
Ostensibly a mystery, Three Billboards is really a character study of a small town and its flamboyant characters and ingrained prejudices. The writing is sharp and avoids stereotyping all these strange but very real people. And the actors that bring them to life are outstanding. Rockwell is particularly good as the rampaging Dixon. Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame gives a brief but memorable performance. Sandy Martin as Momma Dixon is frightening. Harrelson gives a nuanced portrayal of the doomed police chief. From top to bottom, this cast is outstanding.
But it is McDormand that soars above all the others. She gives you the full range of emotions that must confront anyone who loses a child, particularly in such violent circumstances. She is assured of an Oscar nomination, if not an outright win.
Lady Bird has had effusive word-of-mouth, but I don’t think it deserves it.
Yes, the performances are generally good, and it is written by Greta Gerwig, scion of the Whit Stillman/Woody Allen school of comedy. She is associated with the ultra-hip mumblecore movement that features naturalistic acting and dialogue with a focus on 20-somethings. (I’ve never heard of it either!)
But whatever the provenance, Lady Bird is essentially a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t stray too far from the normal conventions of that genre: Daughter-mother battles; sympathetic father; first relationship with boy that ends badly; a second one that isn’t much better; a best friend who is smart but uncool; drift towards the cool friend who betrays her; getting drunk, then regretful; gradual insight and maturity as well as the requisite reconciliation with the first friend and family.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some original moments. In the opening scene Lady Bird (she has chosen that name to assert illusory independence) argues with her mother and jumps from their speeding car, ending up in a bright-pink arm cast. Ironically the mother is a psychiatric care worker. The loss of Lady Bird’s virginity to the distracted and aloof second boy-friend has some funny moments and one of the best lines of the movie: “I lose my virginity, and I was on top,” she laments.
The main reason to see Lady Bird is the very accomplished Saoirse Ronan (remember how good she was in Brooklyn!) At 23 and with her steady presence, she could be old for the role but she is totally convincing as a very confused high school girl. Ronan gives Lady Bird/Christine the requisite blend of immaturity, discovery, confusion and self-awareness that makes the character very real. Her versatility should continue to bring Ronan challenging and significant roles.
Unfortunately, we have been seeing these coming-of-age movies for a long time: Sixteen Candles came out in 1984. Other than Ronan’s performance, Lady Bird breaks little new ground.
Whether you like this remake will depend on whether you 1) like Agatha Christie mysteries and 2) like her mustachioed, persnickety, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
It’s a classic manor-house murder mystery with lots of suspects, except that the crime takes place on a train. This allows for a big, all-star cast: Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Tom Bateman, among others. But with the exception of Pfeiffer, none of them have much more than a cameo.
Branagh cast himself as Poirot, and you can tell how much fun he is having with the detective’s oddities – the elaborate mustaches, finicky eating and compulsive need for order. Some may find him endearing. Since I read her novels as a boy, I’ve always thought Poirot annoying, an unsuccessful attempt by Christie to match the quirks of Sherlock Holmes.
Another peeve I have with Murder is the fake-looking CGI of the train puffing through the Alps, giving it a cartoonish feel. Much better are the interior scenes that make you wish we still had fast, luxurious trains like this.
Murder on the Orient Express is mildly entertaining, but you won’t say much more than “That was ok,” as the credits roll.