“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)

“My Cousin Rachel”: Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic horror and a warning about inherited wealth

As I recall, my late mother liked to read some of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels back in the 1950s. Despite the French (Norman) name, she fits well into courses in “English literature”, following the Victorian novelists, writing about their time period but with a touch or gothic horror and supernatural as well as class given romance. I remember reading two novels by Thomas Hardy (including “The Return of the Native”) in 12th grade, and some George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans (“Silas Marner”) in 10th, with the way a little girl named Eppie humbled the Scrooge-like Silas.   The best known film based on Du Maurier that I had seen before was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, with the burning of Cornwall at the end.  The other classic film, based on her story story, was Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963 (I have visited Bodega Bay twice).

My Cousin Rachel”, the new British period gothic romance film by Roger Michell for Fox, based on Du Maurier’s mature 1951 classic gothic novel, is set in the same Cornwall, and opens with a shot of the fragile coastal cliffs that will play a crucial role in the movie plot (the details of which, Rachel’s death, are changed from the book). Here let’s say that the movie and book touch on the whole moral question about the proper way to behave with inherited wealth and estates. Think of the politics: the conservatives (the GOP in the US) wants to eliminate the death tax and grow family generational wealth, Trump-style; the radical Left, like the People’s Party of New Jersey which I spied on in the early 1970s, wants to eliminate privilege and especially inherited wealth. There are questions even in how I manage my own estate (link).  A good friend from California in the Log Cabin Republicans world tells me and an entertainment attorney tells me that George Eliot’s novels dealt with the “dead hand” and the proper use of inherited wealth a few times in her novels, and this seems to be a preoccupation of English novelists. (High school English teachers, take note, even if I’m not subbing for you now; good test question material.)  People could be pursued by relatives or other interests based on the way arcane language in a will is re-interpreted, the source of a lot of handwritten-document intrigue. This whole English class system seems to fear expropriation. As if the inheritances hog wealth that could become a poorer person’s safety net, even in conservative parlance. The really radical Left regards inheritance as stealing. Even Thomas Piketty doesn’t go that far.

The central characters are Philp Ashley (Sam Clafin), the 24-year-old looking forward to taking over his guardian’s estate (cousin Ambrose, who has mysteriously died in Italy), cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the godfather Nick (Ian Glen), now supervising Philip until he comes of age at 25 and more distant relative Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainer), who has plenty of suspicion of Rachel. Let us say that Philip is assertive and dominating, if a bit of a home-body. One scene shows a real hairy chest, but in those days women didn’t have to shave their legs, either.

The plot is both Hitchockian and a bit of a stretch. Philip first suspects Rachel of poisoning his guardian. A trip to Italy and shown Rachel in cahoots with one Rainaldi. But once back home, as she moves in and as Philips gives her an allowance, he starts to fall in love with her.

Here comes the stuff about inheritance. The guardian Ambrose had left the family estate to Philip, so he doesn’t need another job and keeps the servants. But there had been another will leaving it to Rachel, unsigned because apparently Rachel didn’t have child. Philip feels conscience-bound to turn it over to her, but expects to marry her and live off the wealth anyway.

The late part of the movie turns into the love-hate. Philips has potentially procreative sex with her once (and in older families people do have sex with cousins, and it happens today in some circles, not a good idea). Philip gets sick, and suspects her of poisoning him. Their interactions become surreal (as in a stage play, something Jesse Eisenberg could come up with), as Rachel, after Philip turns over the estate to her, won’t marry him. There are hints that she has a lesbian relationship on the side, and that Rinaldi back in Italy was homosexual and wanted much younger men. Even so, I was left with the impression that at first wanted just to do “the right thing.”

Then Philip finds a clever, undetectable way to get rid of her. It’s different from the book, but pure Hitchcock.

At the end, you feel you have indeed watched a horror film. Other reviewers have criticized the film as too tame, but I found it rather compelling.

The film draws out the period look, showing how people sign legal documents with quill pens to make then so final and official.

The movie reminds me of “Raising Helen” (Disney, Garry Marshall, 2004), where a young woman has to (or gets to ) raise a sister’s child as part of an estate. And I recall the short story by John Knowles, “The Reading of the Will”, in an anthology “Phineas”, which contains the story upon which the coming-of-age prep school tragedy [anticipating the WWII draft] “A Separate Peace” film (1972, Larry Peerce) was based. Yes, he jousted the limb,

Lands End at Cornwall, wiki

Name:  “My Cousin Rachel
Director, writer:  Roger Michell, Daphne Du Maurier
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2017/6/9, evening, fair crowd
Length:  106
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, June 10, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

“Gifted”: rooting interest and courtroom drama, where I want to see documentary and real issues

Gifted”, directed by Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”, 2009), and written by Tom Flynn, takes up the subject of a gifted kid and sets up an audience rooting interest in a somewhat stereotyped way. It’s not my favorite way to handle the topic, but we’ll come back to this.

Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is the first grader, whom her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) has home schooled but now insists on sending her to public school for socialization.  She makes a scene of her brilliance in arithmetic class in front of a patronizing teacher  (Jenny Slate), who later becomes Frank’s girl friend.  The teacher and principal at the Tampa area school want so sent her to an academy for the profoundly gifted. But Frank wants her to learn to be a human being first.  I met teachers with this classroom style with elementary school kids when I worked as a substitute teacher, 2004-2007.  Although I did mostly high school and some middle school, I accidentally got some grade school (and a lot of special education).  It was actually common in kindergarten or first grade for kids to sit on the floor on a rug for arithmetic drills.

Frank had actually dropped out of teaching philosophy in Boston and moved to Florida to become a contractor prole and handyman repairing boats (replacing water pumps, especially). We aren’t told why.  But Frank’s sister had been a brilliant mathematician and committed suicide, after nearly proving one of the Millennium Prize Problems (one about fluid mechanics which probably deals with the entropy than makes forecasting tornadoes difficult). Frank had taken custody of Mary, a setup that at first recalls “Manchester by the Sea” (Nov. 25).

Enter grandma (Lindsay Duncan) who wants to take custody back of Mary, take her back to Boston and have her finish proving this math theorem.  That sets up a custody battle in front of a Florida family court judge  (John M. Jackson), with some retrospective courtroom drama.

Adding to the plot are a neighbor played by Octavia Spencer, and particularly a one-eye male cat, who loves both Mary and Frank dearly, and creates the final plot twist.

I would rather see a documentary about  a gifted teen.  Maybe see how Jack Andraka (who invented a new test for pancreatic cancer for a science fair) spent his senior year in high school traveling the world and did his homework on planes (no electronics ban, as he sold his book “Breakthrough“), or see Taylor Wilson, educated at the Davison School for the profoundly gifted in Reno, would make the power grids safer. (The book is Tom Clynes, “The Boy Who Played with Fusion“.) Young UCLA mathematician Deven Ware could also fit this mold.

I also think that profoundly gifted kids in mathematics (or in music) may present evidence of reincarnation.

My own novel manuscript “Angel’s Brother” will feature a profoundly gifted college senior in Texas whom I’ve named Sal Garcia.

Angelika Mosaic also showed a short film, “The Dark Island” with an observatory on top of a maountain showing the heavens.  Was this Mauna Loa in Hawaii?

Name:  “Gifted”
Director, writer:  Marc Webb, Tom Flynn
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2017/4/7
Length:  101
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

The film was shot around Savannah (like “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, 1997, with John Cusack and Kevin Spacey, with Cusack’s famous line, “New York is boring”).  There are also scenes in Boston around M.I.T.  The picture above is mine from 2015, central Florida.

(Posted: Friday, April 7, 2017 at 8 PM EDT)

“A United Kingdom”: a lesser known history of a mixed-race marriage, affecting African colonial politics

A United Kingdom”, directed by Amma Asante, is a romantic historical drama that portrays a lesser known story of the social, political and legal aftermath of an interracial marriage.

In 1947, Sereste Khama (David Oyelowo), while heir to the throne of the tribal British protectorate Bechaunaland, marries a white woman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) while studying in London.  His marriage causes tremendous and varied controversy when he returns.  Some of his people think he has betrayed their collective identity “as a people”, while others are persuaded by his progressive arguments about equality. But the British government fears his marriage will disrupt the apartheid society forming in South Africa (which gained independence in varying stages starting in 1910).  Further, Sereste discovers that the Brits and other Europeans want to continue exploitation of future diamond or copper mines, under colonialist or mercantilist trade policies. (Maybe that rings a little harder now with Trump in office.)

It gets mean, as Sereste is exiled, first for five years, and then for life, even by Winston Churchill.

The film has some spectacular on-location photography of Botswana (an aerial view of a savannah town from a hill), and the real house the couple lived in was used for the film.

The post romantic film score composed by Patrick Doyle (Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”, “Henry V”) is effective.

Typical scene in Botswana today (Wikipedia).

The title of the film seems ironic given the likely results of Brexit – that Scotland could break off the UK.

Name:  “A United Kingdom
Director, writer:  Amma Asante
Released: 2017
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed:  AMC Shirlington, 2017/3/12, large audience (near sellout, afternoon, small auditorium)
Length:  111
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT)

“The Wailing”: dense Korean horror, with “stranger”, shaman, and a pandemic, and a lot of symbolism, but still dangerous parallels

The Wailing” (or “Goksung”), directed by Hong-jin Na, may strike many viewers as a long (156 minutes), repetitive and cult-like Asian horror film.  But the director goes for slow-space mystery, involving immediate neighborhood, local life, and family, to give what otherwise would seem like a zombie premise some sense of real menace.

In a mountain region in South Korea, in a small village, people start falling sick with a kind of rabies, behaving wildly with violence, then bleeding out and frothing and disintegrating into rigor mortis quickly. Policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) first buys the theory that the disease could be caused by unusual poisonous wild mushrooms.  But then he learns of a new Japanese “immigrant” or “stranger” in town, and a mystery “Woman in White” (like the classic film) literally called “No Name” (Chun woo-hee).  Then his own daughter (Kim Hwan) is sickened.

What follows may seem like a confined metaphor for AIDS (at least the visual horror of some early Kaposi’s sarcoma cases) , or perhaps a bio-terror event.  Films like “Outbreak” (1995, which I saw while working as a sub in a chemistry class) and “Quarantine” (2008), and even “The Andromeda Strain” may come to mind, but this film, for all the outdoor scenery (augmented by rain machines in filmmaking) still seems rather stagey in comparison. A few of the death scenes are on the edge of real-life horror (I recall Laurie Garrett’s book “Coming Plague”, which pretty much anticipates the real life horror in Liberia (brought home to the US for a few health care workers overseas) with Ebola in 2014.  (Note: the latest news is that the Ebola vaccine is going to work.)

The movie works in a shaman (Hwang jung-min), who presumably has been exalted by overcoming an existential trial and managing to keep people loving him.   But there is real question as to his connection to the stranger, and the stranger’s death.   Then there are the ritual dances and burnings, as well as the expected plot development over suspicion of outsiders – very relevant to our own political debates today.

The film uses a lot of symbolism that is apparently familiar in oriental religion and used in manga (maybe even in Japanese Danganronpa), and some specific notions about demons and devils.   For example, a worm provides an early metaphor with what will happen. Yet, western audiences may find plenty to compare with their own perils.

Most of all, there is a continual somber mood.

There are several YouTube videos with lengthy (spoiler) analyses of the symbolism in the film.

Name: “The Wailing”
Director, writer:  Na Hong-jin
Released:  2016/5
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD; also Amazon instant available
Length:  156
Rating:  R(?)
Companies: Fox Searchlight International; Well Go USA
Link: official 

Wikipedia: garden pavilion in South Korea, link.

(Posted: Friday, December 30, 2016 at 11:45 PM EST)

“Jackie” is a rather dour retelling of the First Lady’s experience during and right after the JFK assassination

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Name: Jackie
Director, writer: Pablo Larrain, Noah Oppenheim
Released: 2016/12
Format: 1.66:1
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, 2016/12/12
Length 100
Rating R
Companies: Fox Searchlight
Link: official site

Jackie” (directed by Pablo Larrain, written by Noah Oppenhei) is a rather morose exercise in dramatizing Jackie Kennedy’s life in the week after the assassination of president John Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

The film is framed as an interview of Jackie (Natalie Portman) at home in Hyannisport in early December, 1963 by journalist Ted White (Billy Crudup). Portman’s raspy voice and intonation help make her seem self-centered, sometimes almost creepy.

But the screenplay flashes back into two layers: one of black and white segments of Jackie’s arranging the White House interiors to celebrate American history (“A Tour of the White House”, rather like a Smithsonian museum today). These way-back’s use Caspar Phillipson as a caricature of John Kennedy.
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But the more interesting, if titillating, part of the film traces the assassination itself: Jackie holding the president’s bloodied head as they speed off to Parkland Hospital; her dealing with blood-soiled garments on the flight back to Washington, then the reenactment through BW television of Ruby’s execution of Lee Harvey Oswald. “He’s been shot!” I recall that moment, riding with my parents down 17th Street in Washington the Sunday after the assassination and hearing the second event live on a car radio. A major issue is whether Jackie will walk outdoors during the funeral procession, a security risk.

Peter Sarsgaard becomes a distortion of his usual self in the extreme closeups as brother Robert Kennedy. John Carroll Lynch plays LBJ, who will draft me in less than five years, and Beth Grant is Lady Bird, and nothing right now is “so good”.

The original music score, for small string orchestra, is by Mica Levi; it often sounds post-Mahler, but with some sliding or quarter-tone glissandi in the phrasing. There is a scene where Jackie plays an LP of “Camelot” on an old record player that would have tracked heavy, in the White House (although by 1963, good turntables, cartridges and tonearms for reliable fidelity in stereo vinyl were well developed already).

Everybody, most of all Jackie herself, smokes. It’s depressing.

The film is shot in the slightly reduced aspect ratio of 1.66:1 instead of 1.85:1; I wonder why. The film was partly filmed in France (for indoor scenes).

Possible comparison’s would be Oliver Stone’s “JFK“, as well as “The Day Kennedy Died“, “Interview with an Assassin“, and “Parkland“.

(Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2016, at 9:45 AM EST)

“The Birth of a Nation”: riveting rendition of the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Tidewater Virginia in 1831

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Name: The Birth of a Nation
Director, writer:  Nate Parker
Released:  2016/10/7
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, morning, 2016/10/8, small audience
Length 120
Rating R
Companies: Fox Searchlight
Link: official

Unlike the massive (and pro-white) scale of the 1915 silent epic by D.W. Griffith (Netflix), the new film “The Birth of a Nation” from Nate Parker and Fox focuses on one incident, Nat Turner’s Rebellion (or the Southampton Rebellion) of Aug. 21-23, 1831 in Tidewater Virginia, led by Turner and rebel slaves at the Belmont Plantation.

Nate Parker’s interpretation is that the incident helps explain racial profiling and general racism today.  That may seem like a stretch.

But the environment in which slaves lived is presented as brutal indeed.  The boy Nate witnesses secret initiations where men’s chests are branded.  Plantation owners are shown as demanding a great showing of social subservience and obedience from slaves, just for the sake of authority itself.  Cruel punishments, such as a scene where all of a slaves teeth are pulled by forced and then gruel is forced down, are depicted.

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But Nate had somehow learned a little reading, which impressed the plantation owner’s wife in 1809.  She hit upon the idea of training him to become a preacher to use religion to keep slaves subordinated. At the same time, rather like a private in Army Basic, the boy was still kept in his place, made to pick cotton like everyone else.

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Nat (Nate Parker) dutifully uses the Bible (1 Peter verses  ) to convince slaves they need to obey to go to heaven.  He seems to be in favor with young owner Samuel Turner (a handsome Armie Hammer), who hosts a big dinner to enhance his political reputation. But when Nat baptizes a white man by immersion in the James River, carnage breaks out.

Nat finds other passages in the Bible to justify leading a violent rebellion.  The uprising starts with a quiet nighttime home invasion of the Turner house, where Turner and others are brutally hacked, conscious of their political crimes as they die. It’s ugly, and it shows there is no glory in dying at the hands of an enemy you have made indignant by mistreatment, even indirect.  But soon the other landowners bring their weapons, and a full battle ensues.  Nat escapes for a while, but is caught.  Near the end of the film is a scene in a swamp showing a dozen or so slaves hanging, lynched (the origin’s of Gode Davis’s idea for “American Lynching”).

The film was actually shot around Savannah, GA, and shows some pancake flat, low lying cotton fields.

(Published: Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016 at 4 PM EDT)