Friday, March 02, 2018


(I only have three more movies to see for my Oscar push since I saw these two and, my friends, I am going for the cycle!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This may be the modern version of old-fashioned character-driven Nice Movies like Driving Miss Daisy; small-bore, humane, poignant -- only with more swears and a lot more violence. Though its wide dark streak will turn a lot of people off, Billboards still reflects, in its funhouse-mirror way, the values of the Nice Movie: the main characters progress toward understanding, notwithstanding that the Missourians' understanding is incomplete, and based more on existential despair than Christianity. Mildred Hayes, seeking vengeance for a daughter who met a particularly grisly fate, is the hardest of hard cases — calling her a bereaved mother and a domestic abuse survivor would be accurate but absurdly inadequate; she is nearly fearless and not only capable of violence but as comfortable with it as a carpenter is with a hammer. She’s also brilliant — her snappy comebacks are downright aphoristic and, as her nemesis Chief Willoughby of the local PD notes, the billboards she puts up constitute a “chess move” to get action on her daughter’s case. But though intelligent and directed, she is also unmoored — by grief or, we get the impression from many clues, life itself. She’s smart enough to know that, but damaged enough to go on anyway, and her comic-tragic implacability sets off a series of funny-horrible incidents — the greatest example being a man absorbing the message that love may be the answer while a molotov-cocktail fire rages behind him. (Billboards’ other great coup de cinema is a reflex that innocently coats Mildred’s face with blood, which should be a hint as to the movie’s tone.) In the end, we get the best we can hope for: for the madness to wear itself down if not out, and the makings of one hell of a buddy-comedy sequel. As Mildred, Frances McDormand is shrine-worthy; when, struggling with her son for a fire extinguisher, she screams his name, it's like Mildred's whole biography has flashed like lightning across the screen. Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is now in my Top Ten Good Guys With a Badge. Big ups also to Peter Dinklage as the rare spurned swain whose angry comeback actually has a point, and especially Sam Rockwell as a white trash dumbass in whose foggy mind may be sown a seed of grace.

Darkest Hour. I guess everyone watches this for Oldman’s Churchill, since the movie treats a turning point in World War II as the PM’s personal trial at least as much as Britain’s. Oldman is very good; his great insight is to play Churchill as a brilliant but undisciplined diva; childish, messy (did Churchill really eat like that in front of his King?), so devoted to his genius that any contradiction of it feels to him like betrayal -- and when he's forced to hear what the philistines call reason, he goes practically catatonic; Blimey, 'e's lost 'is mojo!  Lest we feel that civilization was only saved by Winnie’s pique, he is given a shy and doting secretary (Lily James, who is obviously great at dialects) who appears to inspire him, and a bull session with The British People in the Tube that bucks him up for the Never Surrender speech and turns the tide. Even this absurdity Oldham carries off by his devotion to the character, which banishes at least some of our reasonable doubts. The film looks great, indeed has an impressive unified design, from the giant newsreel-font credits to the now-moody, now-brutal photography to the slightly florid clothes and etching-specific sets; only now and again does it seem to be a bit pushy, as if Joe Wright thought we could only be made to buy the In Which We Serve uplift with music video tricks. (I wonder if the near-extinction of World War II vets from movie audiences might have something to do with these liberties.) But, look, I liked The King’s Speech and it was no less pushy; sometimes it's just nice to see the good guys win.

(Previously covered here: Get Out, Dunkirk, Lady Bird, and The Post.)

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