“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: Let Frances McDormand become “The Lobster”

As far as I can determine, Ebbing, MO is fictitious. I’ve been in the Missouri Ozarks myself a couple times, once in 1983 when I stayed in Joplin (later to be hit by a tornado) and visited the AOG headquarters in Springfield out of religious curiosity. In December 1992, after Clinton got in, I had flown to Memphis and driven up to Sikeston and west across US 60, where it’s flat until you suddenly encounter the gentle uplift of the Ozark plateau.

But Martin McDonagh filmed “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in the foothills of the North Carolina Blue Ridge, perhaps near Brown Mountain, where the ridges look larger than they really would.  I like to see movies set in specific places really filmed there.  There are shots of a hillside quarry that I don’t recall seeing in my own numerous adventures in the NC mountain country.

By the way, I think I drove through Branson in 1983, and my mother and aunt went to a concert there once upon a time.

But let’s get to the movie, a black comedy that gets Lobster-wicked. Frances McDormand (the pregnant detective in “Fargo”) plays Mildred Hayes, a single divorced mom out for justice after losing a daughter to rape a few years back. Since the town police chief (Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson [“Natural Born Killers”, 1994]) has failed to solve the case, Mildred coughs up multiple grands to rent three billboards on a “mountain” road outside town.  The early scene where she pays “Red” (a freckled Caleb Landry Jones) the bounty sets the tone for what follows. Soon she has a session with the dentist (“Little Shop of Horrors”) where she stabs the dentist in the thumbnail with a drill. Bill is ready to arrest her, but coughs up blood all over her and is quickly diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. (Lance Armstrong coughed up blood when his testicular cancer metastasized, and we all know about his spectacular recovery, his bicycle races, and his own fall.)  Now I get into spoiler territory, out of necessity. Bill ends his own life, not out of anger over Mildred, but because he doesn’t want to become a medical spectacle.

Then there is the angry gay cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who goes on a rampage and throws Red out the window, and does other stuff and gets fired.  Mildred thinks he torched her signs, and winds up torching toe police department herself. All of this set up an opportunity to solve the case and lead to a vigilante, extra-judicial (like Duterte) revenge conclusion. Bill writes post-suicide letters to a number of people, telling them their good sides.  Dixon, even fired, gets the idea that he can redeem himself, even though he is badly burned and disfigured when the police station is torched.  He goes into a bar (Ebbing isn’t big enough for a gay bar per se, and gay bars rarely have brawls compared to straight bars), and overhears a man bragging about raping a girl.  He thinks he finally found the suspect.  And even if he is the wrong guy, he and Mildred can enforce the death penalty themselves on someone.  Along the way, she pretends to date the dwarf James (Peter Dinklage) even if he isn’t physically he perfect “catch”. It gets Shakespearian.

Bill has two young daughters, whom he indulges, like on a fishing trip.  But Mildred’s kids are more adult, particularly Robbie Hayes, of college age, played by Lucas Hedges, who looks muscled up and buff for this role, ready to protect mom.  Lucas, as in all of his roles, talks like a polished, educated young man, better than the people in the surroundings that reared him.  It’s as if being a successful person were more about genes than mere upbringing and parenting. Mildred checks that he is sleeping soundly on the early morning that she goes out with Dixon to enforce extra-judicial capital punishment on the rapist,  because she knows her son would stop her from doing it.  But the movie declines to show the final execution that we know will happen, no questions asked.

My overall reaction was that this satire makes fun of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”, the poor white trash who rose up out of the politics of resentment to put Donald Trump in the White House, with the help of the Russians, who sent fake news to people like this.

The Amazon link above is for the screenplay script.  This one will be taught in classes.

The bar scene has curious musical accompaniment: the andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata #1 in C, K. 279 (not the famous #15); the slow movement sounds almost like Scarlatti.  The film music score is vt Carter Burwell, whom I think I have heard of (maybe met) through the Metropolis Ensemble.

Bell Mountain in the Missouri Ozarks, Wiki.

First picture is Mother’s from near Branson; second is mine near Brown Mountain in NC (near the filming location).  And, oh, yes, in 2002 I almost wound up working for “the state” as a contract programmer in Jefferson City (per diem while I was still living in Minneapolis).

Name:  “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director, writer:  Martin McDonagh
Released:  2017/11
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E Street, Thanksgiving Day, afternoon, fair audience
Length:  115
Rating:  R
Companies:  Fox Searchlight, Film4
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, November 23, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

“Staying Vertical”: A filmmaker goes on a bizarre road quest in rural France

Staying Vertical” (“Rester vertical”) is a bizarre new erotic mystery film by Alain Guiraudie (“Stranger by the Lake”). The film sometimes seems like high class porn with a story, but we really wonder whose narrative is really being told.

A thirty-something filmmaker Leo (Damien Bonnard) explores a rural area in Provence looking for material for a new film, an contacting people who come across as alter-egos.  As the film progresses, we learn he gets money wired by a benefactor or sponsor (Sebastien Novac) whom we will eventually find may have some supernatural motive of his own.  (I’m reminded of the 1980 film “Wolfen”, as well as all the cattle mutilation stories).  When he gets back to some secret motel he tries to write a screenplay (in Final Draft).  But most of the time he hangs around this sheep farm, crashing and trying to make himself useful.

He has taken a liking to the teen Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) who is properly suspicious as he takes are of his dying dad. But soon he settles with a farm family and hooks up with the daughter Marie (India Hair) and quickly has child with her.  We learn that the film is spanning many months when the film shows the childbirth explicitly. Soon (without explanation) Marie leaves him to care for the baby as he wanders in his own wildnerness.

There are a couple of bizarre sequences where Leo kayaks (with the baby) through a bayou to a cabin in the woods occupied by a sage nurse, who hook his body up to electrocardiographs and brain monitors.  Conveniently, he has little chest hair.  Then he gradually starts attracting attention of other older gay men who fear he cannot take care of the baby.

Near the end there is sequence where Leo gives Yoan’s dying father an erotic  wish to remember for eternity as he dies.  Imagine if you stay fixed in time as you die in your last moment.  Maybe that’s what I would want.

The film presents a very loose way of life, crashing in people’s homes or farms and expecting to be offered radical hospitality, and even winding up homeless and destitute with child, begging from strangers (pandhandling), and somehow recovering.  It’s odd that a screenwriter would need to learn to live this way, off the books and off the radar, very good at creating his own immediate, local social capital.  But sometimes, like the Rich Young Ruler, one can have too much to lose.

The film showed at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and supposedly some women walked out.  There is the impression that a lot of sex acts happen “out of need”.  The comments about the euthanasia-sex scene occur at about 20:00 in the QA.  Another comment is that in the film men care for other men than for women.  Oddly, the director doesn’t perceive the film as suspenseful.  But I did – what is going on?

Wikipedia scenery from Provence, link.

Wkiipedia scene of Brest, France, where the urban scenes were filmed, link. (Bayeux and Caen are the closest to here I have gotten, in 1999).

Other image: Mine, near Mineral VA (2011 earthquake site) and “Twin Oaks” intentional community, which I have visited before.  Also, near Lincoln Center.

Name: “Staying Vertical”
Director, writer:  Alain Giraudie
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: Private screener free on Vimeo from Strand; was at New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center
Length:  101   (Language: French with subtitles)
Rating: Not given but would normally be NC-17. This is what Roger Ebert would have called a legitimate film for adults, that needs to be very explicit, especially to deal with unusual sexuality and personal identity issues
Companies:  Strand Releasing, Wild Bunch
Link:   Strand    Book date May 2, DVD available May 17 

(Posted Friday May 5, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

“Passengers”: lost on a space ship with a lover for 90 years, but no real chance to play Adam and Eve

Name:  “Passengers
Director, writer:  Morten Tyldum. Jon Spaihts
Released:  2016/12
Format:  2.35:1, 3D
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, sneak, small crowd, 2016/12/22
Length:  116
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Columbia, Village Roadshow
Link:  official site

Passengers”, directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts, turns out to be a rather formulaic dramatic thriller, with indie-sized cast, set on a spaceship (maybe it has an Alcubierre Drive), but it could have just as well have been a hotel, casino, or cruise liner, even the Titanic.

The ship has three interlaced living threads, all linked together in an interesting lattice; but inside it’s mostly cookie cutter luxury stuff.  A Trump-like corporation sells passage to other inhabited colony planets, where people can start over. (It must own the planets.)   They need to be prepared for “colonial living”, something that reminds me of the era-defined colonies on the rama-station in my own screenplay “Epiphany”.  The people who escape earth do so by having enough money.  In my screenplay, they have to be pretty and “angelic” or fundamentally virtuous enough.  There seems to be no room for losers, but that’s Trump.

The gig is that you hibernate for the 120 years it takes to get there.  You wake up four months early, and take your training.

The “situation” is that mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up when his hibernation chamber fails, after the ship goes through an asteroid swarm. It’s still 90 years to landing.  He’s entertained by a droid robot bartender with no legs (Martin Sheen), but has to go it alone for fifteen months.  In time, he gets too curious about a female Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) he sees in the chamber, and, yes, he wakes her up and takes away her intended life, which had been to travel to another world, write a book, and then return, assuming Earth really does have a civilization 250 years from now (maybe a world like “Revolution” after an EMP attack). She also finds she is writing about herself for the first time.

Eventually a couple other character work in, especially the engineer Gus (Laurence Fishburne). Andy Garcia appears briefly as the captain.

One way the plot could have gone would be Putin-like: wake up everybody else and make them have enough children en route.  That would require too much cast.  Instead, we have a solution a bit like that of “Gravity” (an maybe even “Wicked“).

There are a couple interesting points about technology.  One is that the issue of “open access” comes up, in that Preston needs “access” to the technical manuals to help fix things (without having to deal with a paywall).  Another is how they do the artificial gravity – it’s not explained well, but it doesn’t seem to be centrifugal.  There’s a swimming pool scene that shows what happens when gravity is suddenly lost. Oh, the ship has a fusion reactor, maybe designed by Taylor Wilson.  It makes a flyby of red giant Arcturus (some unreliable astronomy).


A couple of films for comparison would be “All Is Lost” (with Redford) and “Castaway” (with Tom Hanks and  tennis ball “Wilson”).

Pratt, now 36 and Minnesota born, looks good again.  I remember him as Bright in Everwood (starting in 2002), and met him (with Gregory Smith) at an event at King of Prussia mall in August 2005.

(Posted: Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 at 11:45 PM EST)

“The Edge of Seventeen”: Straight film follows an earlier gay film by same name with appealing high schoolers negotiating first loves

Tilikum Crossing bridge (Portland, Oregon) with a streetcar and MAX train passing. Mt. St. Helens in background. Photo by Steve Morgan, March 2016.
Tilikum Crossing bridge (Portland, Oregon) with a streetcar and MAX train passing. Mt. St. Helens in background. Photo by Steve Morgan, March 2016.


Name: The Edge of Seventeen
Director, writer:  Kelly Freemon Craig
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, 2016/11/19
Length 104
Rating R
Companies: STX;  Strand (1998 film)
Link: site

The Edge of Seventeen”, by Kelly Fremon Craig, is a dramedy in the heterosexual high school world of Portland Oregon (filmed partly in Vancouver) that may be distantly related to a gay film with a similar title in 1998, which we’ll come back to.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a junior (and the junior year is the hardest) seems to be looking for her bearings, even to the point of confiding at a high level in her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) who winds up later giving her a ride, and having to keep a safe distance to stay out of trouble.   In an early scene, she tinkers with underage drinking, and winds up over the toilet bowl.  Her older brother, a senior, Darian (Blake Jenner, from “Everybody Wants Some”) seems like a teen Clark Kent waiting to show off his self-teleportation powers – except we never find out that much about him, even when her best friend Kirsta (Harley Lu Richardson) starts dating him.

So Nadine has to find love on social media, and vacillates between another Smallviille-type, this time an Asian-American geek Erwin (Hadyen Szeto), who fulfills the Korean stereotypes of mastering differential equations in high school, and seems to be a talented filmmaker to boot, and the rowdier and more physical Nick Mossman (Alexander Calvert).  He car scene with Alexander shows how a substantial minority of high school boys really do feel that a first experience with intercourse is a text of manhood, and can tolerate no distractions.

Near the end, the kids have a film festival, and Erwin submits the animated “Aliens’ School”, about an extraterrestrial teen masquerading as an ordinary teen in high school, with no one the wiser.  Maybe the inhabitants of Gliese 581 D really look like us and we’ve intermingled in the distant past (although the speed of light seems like a problem for providing social media contact in other solar systems).  There are people who claim, after all, that Mark Zuckerberg is an (human ET) alien (that really would worry Donald Trump if true), and that Facebook is part of a plan of world conquest.  (He’ll be old enough to run for president in 2020 – non-fake news story in a mainstream newspaper ).  A few years back, the high schoolers at a local Arlington church, during a 30-hour fast, produced a live-action short comedy “Alien Fridays” based on the same idea.  Maybe this is all stuff for the 48-Hour Film Festival every May (for which the Westover Market in Arlington has been a filming location).


David Moreton’s 1998 film “Edge of Seventeen” (Strand)  gives us a likeable high school kid, Eric (Chris Stafford), coming out in 1984 during his post-junior-year summer working in a high school convenience store in Ohio, when he falls in love with an entering college freshman Rod (Andersen Gabrych) and eventually “follows” him to college in NYC.  Eric “gets it” at least twice in the film and gets plenty of gay street smarts in the process.  Despite the time setting, AIDS and HIV are never mentioned, although using condoms does get into the script.

1st Picture credit (Wikipedia):

By Steve Morgan, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Second picture: Mine (Kipton Ohio, Oct. 2010)

Posted: Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016 at 5:15 PM EDT

“Nocturnal Animals”: fascinating layered storytelling


Name: “Nocturnal Animals”
Director, writer:  Tom Ford, Austin Wright
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1;  layered plot with slightly different filters to differentiate story lines
When and how viewed:  2016/11/18;  Angelika Mosaic, fair audience; audience smaller than expected but liked film
Length 117
Rating R
Companies: Focus Features, Fade to Black (UK, USA)
Link: official

Nocturnal Animals”, directed by Tom Ford (based in the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright) gives us a neo-noir drama with an interesting “story within a story” layering.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) owns an art gallery in LA.   The film opens with a bizarre introduction of obese naked women doing an exhibition at her business (they seem right out of David Lynch, as if the “Lady in the Radiator” from “Eraserhead” were to strip).  Susan is already starting to suspect her handsome businessman second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) of philandering, as he bugs out of a weekend with her and heads to New York for another Trump-like deal.   Saturday morning, she gets a mysterious package, getting a paper cut (I thought of Richard Kelly’s “The Box”); inside is a novel manuscript from her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).  The novel is to be published by a trade press soon.

She can’t put the manuscript down.  The movie intersperses the book with present day (using slightly reddened filters to distinguish the look). Soon the movie also gives flashbacks of her dating her gentle first husband, and her mother’s (Laura Linney, who impersonates Bette Davis here) reservations about Edward’s lack of ambition. Edward had worked in a bookstore and aimed to be a writer (getting graduate degrees that didn’t give high-paying jobs). Susan had cautioned Edward that he needed to learn to write about people other than himself, and Edward had said every writer is most concerned about his own narrative.  But they had married, and soon the intimacy had floundered.  There’s some hunt that Edward is bisexual.


The embedded novel is a violent tale where Edward imagines himself as Tony Hastings, with a wife and young daughter.  As they drive at night through West Texas, they get into what seems like a road rage incident at first, before the Tony realizes that Lou (Karl Glusman) and Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) intend to kidnap them.  Tony gets away but his wife and daughter are raped and murdered, and his manliness is challenged by his inability to protect them.  Tony is recused by a chain “cigarette smoking man” sheriff Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) who helps track down the killers.  Eventually the DA doesn’t think there is enough hard evidence against them so Bobby and Tony go on an extra-legal, vigilante mission that ultimately kills both perps but comes to a tragic end for Tony, too.  Bobby will die of lung cancer.

Susan eventually winds up in a restaurant waiting to meet her first husband again, and we don’t know if he will show up.

Gyllenhaal’s physical transformations (from age 25 or so to mid 40s) are interesting.  In the fiction section, his chest hair is back (after depilation for a couple previous movie roles), but not when he is younger.  There’s a curious scene where Bobby and Tony approach Tay Marcus, sitting naked on an outdoor potty near a burglarized desert trailer,  with Ray having an absolutely hairless chest.


The structure of the screenplay is like that of my own “Do Ask, Do Tell: Epiphany” where I set up a “contest” (so to speak) for survival on a space station, but where the backstory (of me) links back to a fiction work (also by me) which affect the outcome of the “contest”. In my screenplay, the “fiction” part of the backstory would be filmed in black and white, but I imagine the film as 2.35:1.  The Ford-Mallack acting and directorial style would work with my material.

The movie could also be viewed as a kind of heterosexual “Judas Kiss”.

The music score by Abel Korzeniowski sounds a bit like Andre Desplat’s work in “The Tree of Life” and the directing style recalls Terrence Malick.  There is a mournful piano and chamber theme in G Minor dangling all the time in the dominant D, played a lot in the trailers.

The film, while shot in LA and west Texas (or New Mexico), has a lot of funding from the UK and some interiors may have been filmed overseas.

(Posted: Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at 10 AM EST)

“De Palma”: famous director of “New Wave” suspense runs through his own narrative in his films



Name: De Palma
Director, writer:  Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Released:  2016/6/17
Format:  standard
When and how viewed: Landmark E Street, 2016/6/20, 7 PM, light audience
Length 104
Rating PG-13?
Companies:  A24  (New York Film Festival)
Link: site

De Palma: One of America’s Greatest Storytellers”, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, consists of the 75-year old director sitting an talking about his life and his movies, with many clips.  There are no interview questions, just an auto-narrative. He also says filmmakers need to prove themselves in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

He says at the end that his entire life narrative is out there for everyone to see, including any mistakes.  That is how it is for me!  He says his entire concept for film comes from visual imagery.

He grew up in an upper income family in northern New Jersey and then near Philadelphia, and went to Columbia intending math and science, in a day people needed draft deferments.  But he describes how he got into short film, and then into the business for real.

For most of the documentary he runs through his films, and many are interesting.

I remember seeing “Greetings” (1968), rated X, in Newport News VA when I was stationed at Fort Eustis, VA, between rounds of a chess tournament.  De Palma explains how he got out of the draft, including falsely claiming homosexual tendencies.

Obsession” (1976) plays on the doppelganger idea.

He moves on to “Carrie” (1976), based on Stephen King’s famous novel about a bullied girl who gets revenge through telekinetic powers at a senior prom, and he explains how he did the effects.  None of the remakes are as good.

Dressed to Kill” (1980) is one of his most Hitchcock-inspired films.  I remember the elevator slasher scene with a notorious transvestite who then goes after a witness.  I don’t recall that “she” was genuinely transgender.  I saw the film in Dallas.  I remember the “museum” (like in “Vertigo”) and the teen and the brownstone psychiatrist.  This film is one of my favorites.

Blow Out” (1981) is another favorite, where a technician records an accident and discovers on his own that it is murder.

Body Double” (1984) is another mystery about person duplication.

Scarface” (1983) was intended to show the Miami drug underworld and wound up being filmed in LA because of objections from the Cuban and Latino communities, and is one of the most graphic crime films ever made, practically NC-17.

Wise Guys” (1986) is a mob comedy, no connection to the Christian youth play that I have seen stage-produced and as far as I know still awaits being made into a film (maybe by Sony Affirm, perhaps?)

The Untouchables” (1987) is the famous mob drama partly written by Elliot Ness.

Casualties of War” (1989) is inspired by Vietnam, and tells the story of a soldier in a unit that has kidnapped a Vietnamese girl.  Note the word “victims” isn’t in the title.  This film made an “anti-war” statement as I remember.

Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) shows life on Wall Street, a controversial adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel.

Carlito’s Way” (1998) is a famous crime drama with Sean Penn and Al Pacino and a famous scene in Grand Central with a baby carriage.

Mission to Mars” (2000) was directed for Disney, provides a mysterious artificial mountain on Mars with female aliens, who claim to be the mothers of all of us.

Redacted” (2007) brings back the topic of war crimes by American soldiers, this time in Iraq.

(Published: Monday, June 20, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“The Meddler”: helicopter parent of a young screenwriter sees a lot about “the business”


Name: The Meddler
Director, writer: Lorene Scarfia (dir, wr)
Released: 2016
Format: film (2:35.1)
When and how viewed: theater, Angelika Fairfax, light audience
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Anonymous Content, Stage 6
Office site: link

There is a scene late in “The Meddler” where lonely, recently widowed Marnie (a rather Hitchcock-like name, as played by Susan Sarandon) has really gotten into interacting with a bedridden old lady as a hospital volunteer, where she explains the career and job of her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) as a television sitcom screenwriter. Writers pitch storylines (and loglines), get contracts to write scripts – often pilots and initial episodes of television series – and may get the work, and it may get released on commercial television or, if a movie, get money, get into the festival circuit, and finally get distribution.

It’s “Risky Business” (to refer to the 1983 movie with Tom Cruise), and there are more stable ways to make a living.

The film doesn’t mention that television writing may be harder than movie scripting, because scenes have to be of such precise length for commercial breaks.  Imagine writing for a soap opera (like my favorite “Days of our Lives”) for a living.


But the film does make a loop-the-loop trip back to New York to show the actual taping of a television sitcom Pilot, and how the work is done.  (I know a little about this, having worked “strike duty” when NABET was out in 1976, on the soap opera “Somerset”, while employed in I.T. by NBC.) She’s even careless to overlook double entendre in front of the TSA when returning to LA and says she had “shot a pilot”.


Anyway, Lori shows mom her home office, and says, “I need to write”.  And she begs to get her own life back. There’s actually a smartphone app based on the Twitter handle “#need-mom”, but this film didn’t “need” it.

Marnie is the opposite of me. (Lori is of my personality type – too bad I’m not hetereosexual.)  She needs social validation, so she has moved from New York (or New Jersey) to Los Angeles after her husband’s passing to “get to know her daughter”, and she certainly makes herself unwelcome.

It’s pretty predictable that the way out is to meet another man, the wiry ex-cop Zipper (J. K. Simmons. The nemesis band teacher from “Whiplash”).   Does Lori go on to earn an Emmy? I’d rather do an Oscar.

First picture: View of the 405 from Angelino Hotel in LA (my trip, 2012).

Second picture: NYC near the Park Central Hotel around 56th (mine, 2015)

Third picture: Over AZ desert (2012, from plane)

(Published: Thursday, May 5, 2016, at 5 PM EDT)