MOVIE BUFF-ET: Acting makes makes ‘Three Billboards’ stand out

Fox Searchlight

If I didn’t know better, I would have have thought I had just watched a Coen brothers movie when I exited the theater following “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

That’s not meant as a back-handed compliment to writer-director Martin McDonagh, who is best known to movie buffs for his films “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” No, it’s a full-on, face-front haymaker of a compliment. The Coens generally make impactful films.

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Under McDonagh’s lens, “Three Billboards” is impactful. It packs a wallop with fine performances by a cast led by the great Frances McDormand, who in my opinion is the best working actress this side of Meryl Streep. She might be even better.

McDormand makes her roles feel lived in. You believe and feel every bit of her anger, pain, and hopelessness as Mildred Hayes, a mother suffering from the loss of her daughter due to torture, rape and murder.

It’s been a year since her daughter’s murder with no arrests or leads when she rents three billboards on a lonesome road made almost obsolete after a freeway was built. The billboards’ message calls out popular Sheriff Bill Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, and his deputies for the lack of progress made in the case.

Without a doubt the billboards are an embarrassment to Willoughby, and one of his deputies — a drunken, racist idiot named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) — takes it a little too personally. However, we find out that deep down Willoughby doesn’t hold a grudge, and Mildred is more angry at the situation than at the sheriff or his department.

Anger, desperation, and hopelessness lead to more crazy actions in the black comedy that doesn’t end conveniently or conclusively. Telling much more would spoil the movie.

Again McDormand is excellent in the film as is Rockwell and Harrelson. All three deserve Oscar consideration for their performances. Harrelson is billed over Rockwell, but Rockwell is really the male lead, and as his story arc takes a 180-degree turn, the film finds a semblance of completeness and maybe a smidgeon of hope.

However, I wasn’t happy or fulfilled with the end of the movie. McDonagh, no doubt, was aiming for that emptiness with the film. Not all endings are happy or fulfilling, and sometimes stories don’t end in a pretty package with a bright red bow.

(R) 1 hr. 55 min.
Grade: A-

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Parallel Films

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a frantic movie depicting the artistic struggle of Charles Dickens to meet the needs of his family while still meeting an imposing deadline for a Christmas-themed book in 1843.

That book, of course, is “A Christmas Carol,” perhaps the best known story next to “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

The film stars Dan Stevens as Dickens, and it delves into his creative process and how the struggle to produce affects his family, friends, and servants. Evidently, it’s not exactly easy to orbit around a genius, who is obsessed by his characters and who works through his own problems by developing those characters.

As Dickens invents a character for his story, the character comes to life or a least in Dickens’ imagination. Christopher Plummer gives a biting performance as the mean ol’ miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who delights at poking acerbic fun at the writer’s foibles and insecurities, once he springs to life.

Haunting Dickens’ waking hours very much like Jacob Marley and the three Christmas ghosts haunt Scrooge in the author’s famous tale of redemption, Scrooge and his other characters follow the author about like a Greek chorus, making comments only he can hear.

As Dickens’ crafts Scrooge’s journey from wickedness to enlightenment, he takes his own journey, discovering how to better balance his work with the rest of his life.

I got the meta meaning of the film, and I rather liked it in concept, but I’m not sure the execution fully connected with the idea. I want to see the movie again, but probably won’t until next year’s holiday season. As it stands, I found the movie to be more interesting than entertaining. I like movies that are both.

(PG) 1 hr. 44 min.
Grade: C

Classic Corner

3 Godfathers

John Wayne, Dorothy Ford, and Hank Worden in 3 Godfathers (1948)

John Ford is one of the great directors of all time, and even his minor efforts are worth watching because of his craftsmanship. “3 Godfathers” isn’t one of his best films. It’s not even one of his best Westerns, but it remains an entertaining bit of sentimentalism that fits in well with the Christmas season. Turner Classic Movies airs the film at 11 a.m. Saturday.

The story, adapted by Ford from a Peter B. Kyne novella of the same name, features three cattle rustlers on the lam after robbing the town bank in Welcome, Ariz. A posse led by Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) chases the culprits Robert (John Wayne), William (Harry Carey Jr.), and Pedro (Pedro Armendariz) into the desert.

The film is the debut of Harry Carey Jr. as William. Wayne was friends of his dad and used the younger Carey in many of his films over the next two decades, including “The Searchers,” perhaps Ford’s best Western, in which Wayne pays tribute to the elder Carey in a shot framed through a doorway with Wayne in semi-silhouette holding his right forearm with his left hand. It was the signature stance of the elder Carey.

Ford and Wayne dedicated “3 Godfathers” to Carey, who died in 1947 and starred in Ford’s first adaption of Kyne’s novella “Marked Men” in 1919. No known copies of “Marked Men” exists.

The trio of owlhoots lose their water from a bullet hole in their water bag and then lose their horses in a sandstorm. Coming upon what appears to be a camp, the trio find a woman ready to give birth in the back of a wagon. Of course she dies after the three help deliver the baby, but not before getting the crooks to promise to take care of the child, which she names Robert William Pedro.

William, who was shot in the shoulder during the escape, likens their predicament to the Three Magi in the Nativity Story. The connection is loose. I guess the Magi did protect the baby Jesus from Herod by not informing the ruler of the babe’s whereabouts. The trio of bank robbers take a much more active role in securing the safety of little Robert William Pedro as they try to get him to the nearest town named, of course, New Jerusalem.

As stated earlier “3 Godfathers” isn’t among Ford or Wayne’s best films, but it is an entertaining movie if you enjoy Wayne, Bond, and even a young Ben Johnson as a member of the posse.

The movie does take a sentimental turn after depicting some dire circumstances, but to me that works in the movie’s favor as part of its charm.