“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a powerhouse film

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” tells the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother struggling with the rape and murder of her daughter. Frustrated with the police investigation, she buys three billboards near her home and writes the message, “Raped while dying and still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?” across them. This sets the town into an uproar as Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and fellow officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) must confront the hardheaded Mildred and their own personal failures.

The film is an emotional tour-de-force, featuring great acting, solid directing and superb writing. It is a character examination of Mildred and Dixon in particular as they each come to terms with finding some form of justice in the world. They are as deep and interesting as novel characters, and the film in many ways come across as a long-form novel. The twists and turns of the story leave the characters facing heavier and heavier burdens and the stakes of finding Mildred’s daughter’s killer continue to grow.

There are some uneven moments throughout the narrative, especially in regards to Chief Willoughby’s character arc, and the film is decidedly not a straightforward mystery. The ending to the film is vastly different than how most of these types of films end and is sure to please some but anger many. At times, the film is clunky and some scenes don’t serve much purpose, but the emotional core and character dynamics keep the story sturdy.

The film deftly veers between comedic elements and dramatic scenes, providing an all-encompassing view of life that is both melancholic and hopeful. It is the journey that is important to these characters, their continuous striving towards a just outcome despite the obstacles in their way. And the obstacles in a world that doesn’t seem to value righteousness are indeed great.

“Three Billboards” is a harrowing look at our world that wears it’s heart on its sleeve. The fully dynamic characters and surprising plot make the film unforgettable.

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‘Lady Bird’ a well-made, if familiar coming-of-age tale

Greta Gerwig’s impassioned look at youth coming of age in 2002 is being hailed as one of the best films of the year. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it is certainly a very well-made movie.

Lady Bird’s real name is Christine (Saoirse Ronan), but she refuses to go by it. She spends her final high school year arguing with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), trying to find the perfect boyfriend and fitting in with the ‘cool’ kids in the rich neighborhood. In a Christian school, she yearns to break out of her Sacramento upbringing and hit the East Coast. As the pressures of life mount, it seems as though she is trying to be anyone but herself.

Saoirse Ronan is terrific in the lead role, totally encapsulating the angst, desire and anguish of youth. Her confrontations with her mother are heated yet loving.

There are some chuckles throughout a story that primarily focuses on the bonds we have with others and have they influence us. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, father, brother, best friend, the cool girl at school and various boys all test the boundaries of how she defines herself. It is a very universal story of acceptance of oneself.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but it is not really anything we haven’t seen before. There’s great writing, strong directing and powerful acting, but not much in the way of original ideas.

Movie Essentials: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

A rumor surrounding the initial studio screening of the film follows that one of the producers of the film, having worked hard to pump millions of dollars into the budget over an enterprise that lasted years, stood up at the film’s conclusion and promptly had a heart attack. Whether the rumor is true or not, the film has been giving viewers similar moments of shock, awe and bewilderment since.

2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a group of early humans, scrounging for food, competing with each other. They discover a strange, tall, black monolith which somehow instinctively draws them to it and soon they learn the concept of tools, the creatures taking the bones of a deceased tapir and using them to kill prey and rivals. Next, the audience is transported millions of years into the future, mankind now roaming space at ease, having discovered that same monolith on the moon, unsure what to make of it. A space mission to Jupiter finds a trio of characters, Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with the artificial intelligence program HAL 9000 trekking to the far corners of the solar system. After HAL mistakenly reports that a part of the ship is malfunctioning, Bowman and Poole talk of shutting HAL down. HAL responds by killing Poole, cutting off his air tube in space and then disabling the life support systems of the other crewmembers in suspended animation. Bowman is able to unprogram HAL as the ship comes to Jupiter, finding another floating monolith in space that transports him through the cosmos. In a desolate room by himself, Bowman watches himself quickly grow old until he is on his deathbed. He stares up at the monolith above him once more, reaching out towards it before he is suddenly transformed into the Star Child, a fetus-looking organism that overlooks Earth.

What it all means has been debated for years. Some have likened it to the journey of evolution, the growth from primitive animal to man to machine to eternal being. Others note the similarity in the storyline to that of The Odyssey (Bowman using a key to unhinge HAL similar to Odysseus knocking the eye out of the Cyclops). Some even see technology being the true center of the story, HAL at times much more human than either Bowman or Poole, who often appear robotic and unemotional.

Kubrick refused to reveal his original intentions as to what the film meant. Wisely, he did not want to sway anyone’s opinion. Screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If you understand ‘2001‘ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” However, if you read the subsequent book that he wrote of the same name, it explains that the monolith is a creation of alien life that imbues other species with intelligent life. There are no aliens in the film however, giving the monolith a far more God-like feel, an omnipotent object that is unidentifiable.

Personally, in the mind of this reviewer, the monolith has always seemed a symbol of knowledge and power beyond human understanding, a metaphor for the eternal nature of the universe that we as human beings can only ponder but not understand. HAL, our attempt to create life, goes horribly wrong because of our inability to replicate consciousness as the universe does. What Bowman undergoes at the film’s conclusion is the metamorphosis into a being of sublime eternalness, the wisdom that comes from our souls joining the universe.

This process of understanding life is illuminated throughout the film itself, our birth represented as primeval man just learning to adapt (to walk for a child), the journey of adolescence symbolized by the voyage into space and the acceptance of inevitable death as Bowman is transported to a location beyond space and time, where such material aspects are inconsequential, and where he is joined with the universe, reaching a state of Utopian existence.

Now, that is only my interpretation. There are literally hundreds of others from all over. Different religions identify with the themes of the film and their own notions of the afterlife. Scientists debate its views on evolution and the progression of life on Earth and throughout the universe. Even hippies, those primarily responsible for making sure the film has the stature it does today, see psychedelic importance in the journey away from civilization into pure bliss. There is no right or wrong interpretation, creating a legacy for the film that will never end.

Kubrick stated that he wanted to change the medium of cinema with his work. He wanted to investigate new ways of experiencing film beyond the conformity that had set into the industry. With 2001, he has given audiences a film that continues to elicit questions and tickle our minds long after viewing. Boasting special effects that still appear seamless today and having influenced a generation of filmmakers, 2001 makes the wonder of the possibility of cinema seem infinite.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a disappointment

Peter Jackson has finally finished The Hobbit series, a series that pretty much everyone knew beforehand should have been at most two films. As the third entry ends, everyone’s worst fears are vindicated. This was too long, too monotonous with too much shoved in to create three films from what should have been a very simple story.

The film begins exactly where the last left off, the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) intent on destroying Laketown. After his demise, the kingdom of Erebor, long sought by Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company, is up for grabs, with orcs and men and elves and dwarfs all converging in one climactic battle. This battle consumes most of the film, but with no real characters of consequence other than Bard (Luke Evans) involved, there’s not a lot to be emotionally involved with, and the overabundance of CGI effects (in stark contrast to the first trilogy, which heavily used effects, but in conjunction with actual props and locations) renders the spectacle more tedious than thrilling. In much the same vein as the reviled prequel Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005), Jackson has sacrificed emotion at the expense of attempting to create awe, but awe is created with a blending of grand spectacle combined with concern for characters. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers (2002) was immersive in scope, a grand attack on a large scale, but at its heart was a concern for the people of Rohan, our heroes laying everything on the line in a last desperate attempt to save humanity. The Battle of the Five Armies has several random armies fighting for gold and jewels and strategic advantage. With Bilbo, Thorn and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pretty much on the sidelines, there is not a lot to care for. Bilbo needs more to do, with more of a stake in the events surrounding him, for an audience to care.

The entire series suffers from a lack of direction, torn between adoration for the original trilogy with its hardened war analogies, and Tolkien’s original novel, more whimsical and youth-based. For every scene where the dwarfs are in danger of being eaten by trolls (youth), there is a gory battle scene involving orcs and decapitation. The lack of a cohesive vision has hurt the series overall, giving it no real identity. Audiences can only wonder what originally-planned director’s Guillermo del Toro’s films would have been like. A new director with a new style may have served the story well, differing in tone from the first trilogy while still fitting into the same Tolkien world.

Somewhere hidden in this mess of forced romances, overlong battles and dismissive comic relief (the character of Alfrid is not only not funny, he is downright painful to watch) lies a pretty good four hour film. Perhaps some fan edit will give us the Hobbit film audiences deserve. What Jackson and company have given us however are three films that pretend to deliver heart, but abuse that sentiment under an avalanche of CGI nonsense and subplots that offer nothing to the tale of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the supposed protagonist who is often relegated to secondary status, the single worst sin by the filmmakers. Bilbo’s tale, and his relationship to Thorin and the other dwarfs, should have been the heart of the film. What we have instead is a mess.

“Into the Woods” a solid film

Whenever Disney dabbles into fairy tales, especially darker ones, there’s an inherent perception that studio executives will dampen down the story and ‘Disney-fy’ it, making it more accessible for families and taking the darker tone out of it. With Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, there was fear that the studio would subdue the darker third act elements, some of them downright violent, but Disney, thankfully, has let director Rob Marshall tell the story as it was meant to be told.

Into the Woods tells the story of a Witch (Meryl Streep) who places a curse on the house of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). To remove the curse, the couple must retrieve several objects from other fairy tale creatures such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). As the tale unfolds, an escalating series of events and romances converge to bring about a dramatic finale.

Sondheim being Sondheim, the music keeps the film moving even as it struggles at times to maintain its footing with so many storylines and characters. Prince Charming played by Chris Pine, by far one of the most entertaining characters, is given far too little screentime while Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) is given far too much. Some of the CGI effects also come off as rather pedestrian and the direction at times lack focus. And while Disney should be applauded for keeping the darker tone and message of the original production, some of the intense moments are either only winked at or glossed over instead of emphasized for true dramatic effect. The strength of the characters however makes up for the film’s shortcomings.

All of the cast excels, Meryl Streep of course stealing the show, but Emily Blunt and James Corden, as the heart of the story, really help ground an emotional stake for the viewer. Even as some musical numbers fall flat for not being cinematic enough or unnecessary and some characters do not hit the mark (Johnny Depp as the Wolf in a rather hideous costume), the journey of the Baker and his Wife keeps the audience engaged in the story. The story is not a children’s tale where things end happily ever after, but a reflection on how those types of stories help us deal with the cruel world around us. That message comes across strong, and the resulting film is enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The Ideal NHL Playoff Format

The NHL season has started. The Oilers are off to a slow start. The Golden Knights have are off to a hot start. We’re currently about ten regular season games in. Then there are 72 games more. And, if you’re lucky, your team will play another 20 or so playoff games. At that point, it will be mid-June. The hockey season is ten months long. Ten long months of pounding bodies, relentless schedules and road-weary bodies. Even on the fans, and I consider myself a die-hard, it is an extensive, bloated schedule that tests commitment.

 

The reasoning for the long season is simple of course. A longer season means more tickets purchased, more TV games with paid advertisements and more opportunities to sell merchandise. Hockey, like all sports, is a business.

But the bloated schedule results in tired athletes, poorer quality hockey and viewer fatigue. It should be changed to allow the season to reach its natural conclusion and not pushed past the abilities of professional athletes.

The preseason should be moved up to the beginning of September. Then the season can start at the end of the month. And instead of 82 games, it should be shortened to 68. This will keep the players fresher and in turn will produce better hockey games. It will also add more importance to each game as points will mean more in a shorter season. The points system should also be changed to a 3-2-1 system instead of a 2-1 system. Making regulation wins 3 points, overtime/shootout wins 2 points and overtime losses 1 point will push teams to try harder to win in regulation, reducing the tendency of tied teams to play it safe late in games.

And the playoffs are entirely too long. They last two months and instead of build in quality, they lessen. The earliest playoff games are fantastic matches that utilize creativity and hard work. By the time the finals start, the last two teams are so worn down that it’s a battle of attrition, players just barely able to make simple passes, throwing pucks at the net and hoping they go in. And in June, with summer fully kicked in, ice conditions are usually terrible, resulting in poor puck management and sloppy skating.

Both the NFL and major league baseball do a great job of using a short tournament to build suspense. Baseball playoffs are three rounds and last about three weeks. The Superbowl is one game. It’s hard to maintain championship excitement over two months, no matter how compelling the playoff games may be. And more than any other sport, hockey fans are more passionate about their team rather than the sport overall. If the Flyers lose in the first round, it’s hard to get their fans to watch six more weeks of other teams play for a championship they won’t win. Most hockey fans, myself included, are team first and hockey second. Everyone watches the Super Bowl. Only two cities watch the NHL Finals.

If the playoffs were shorter, the anticipation to each game would mount and burnout would be less of a factor for the fans. And with a shorter season for the players, the quality of hockey would be better to the very last game. Stars such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, PK Subban and Steven Stamkos would still be able to display their creativity on the biggest stage of the year instead of running on fumes.

I would suggest that the top three teams in each division make the playoffs. The division winners get byes in the first round of the playoffs while the two lower teams in each division play a best of 5 playoff series. This rewards the teams that do well in the regular season, adding further incentive. The winners of the lower series go on to play the division winners in another best of 5 series. The four division champions then play the conference finals in a best of 7, but instead of being broken down into two Eastern teams and two Western teams, the point totals from each will determine who plays who. Now you could realistically align all the playoff rounds by points totals instead of geography, but that would unfairly punish teams travel-wise for simple luck so perhaps sticking with East and West up until the conference finals works best. Then the Finals remain a best of 7 and could realistically feature any two teams as long as they didn’t play in the same division.

This would ensure that the playoffs end around early May, before summer really kicks in, and, hypothetically, the quality of hockey will still be pretty high. The only deviance from this schedule would be the inclusion of the Olympics, which the NHL was foolish not to partake in next year. It’s worth pushing the season back to showcase hockey on the world’s biggest stage.

Now, this schedule will never happen. As I said at the beginning, the NHL is a business and businesses are meant to make money. If anything, the schedule will get longer before it gets shorter. But it is nice to envision an NHL season that emphasizes quality over quantity.

 

“Blade Runner 2049” a Great Sci-Fi Flick

Director Dennis Villeneuve has been steadily rising over the past few years. His films “Prisoners”, “Sicario” and “Arrival” are all solid works that hint at a filmmaker with vision and conviction. With “Blade Runner 2049”, Villeneuve practically blows the door off the cinema world and announces himself as one of the premiere filmmakers working today.

“Blade Runner 2049” features Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant, hunting down the previous generation of replicants who have broken free of society’s restraints and gone rogue. The world hates what he is, seeing him not as a person, but a sick creature pretending to be part of the human race. A mystery begins to unfold however as the bones of a dead replicant reveal a hidden secret. As ‘K’ delves deeper and deeper into the case, heroes and villains emerge and the possibility of a more pertinent life presents itself to him.

Gosling is solid in the lead role of the film, balancing the right amount of human tendencies with robotic insecurities. Side players Sappa (Dave Bautista), Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), Niander (Jared Leto) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) complete a diverse and interesting cast, but it is the characters of Joi (Ana de Armas) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) and their relationship with ‘K’ that really create the emotional core of the film. Joi and ‘K’ in particular share a very interesting arc of wondering whether or not their emotions are real.

The film tackles several absorbing existential questions regarding artificial intelligence and the ideas of living, building off the previous film’s themes in a great way. Do robotic beings have souls? Can they love? Can artificial intelligence in fact know more about life than the living? At what point do robots cease to be subordinate to man and become their own sentient race? This is a thinking man’s sci-fi film.

Special credit has to be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner for creating a world so rich and real. It is truly breathtaking especially combined with Hans Zimmer’s haunting score.

The original “Blade Runner” was able to build a world full of intricacies, but lacked great storytelling to cement it as anything more than a visual epic. This sequel builds a heart underneath that facade and give birth to something new, both paying homage to its predecessor and creating something far superior. It is one of the best films of the year, a haunting and soulful journey of consciousness that takes you into an unforgettable world so close and far from us.

Understanding films from all angles