Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a deeply flawed, at times idiotic, movie, and I can appreciate the backlash against it. And yet, hidden beneath all the mistakes and poor judgment calls is an aspirational, romantic fantasy about America, which I respected, as much as I can understand why others might reject it. I don’t think one can carve Frances McDormand’s blistering performance, which has been universally praised, out of the framework the director has put her in. Those who have responded positively to her Mildred Hayes are probably also responding to McDonagh’s idealized America, at least on some level.

At heart, this is a story of grief. You can lash out at its proxies but never quite land a punch on your target. That is what Mildred is doing with the billboards she rents, which bait the local police—the cancer-ridden Chief Willougby (Woody Harrelson) in particular—for never finding and bringing to justice the man who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

The backstory is muddy, as it gets tangled up in allegations that hayseed deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) beat up a black suspect in custody, and never suffered any consequences for it. However, despite it casting a pall over the police department, this incident seems to have nothing to do with their finding no leads in the Hayes case. The town’s sympathies are torn; people feel for Mildred because of her loss, but reproach her for casting aspersions on a dying, virtuous man. Harrelson, going back to territory he explored in The Messenger, is robust and reflective and unlikable-proof—though not to the degree that Willougby is an even remotely plausible husband for Abbie Cornish. Not only is she 20 years his junior, but we’re given no evidence that Ebbing would be a magnet for ravishing Welsh immigrants.

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Gravity

It’s only natural that everyone would fall for Gravity. In fact, it’s Newtonian. And yet I find something unhappy in its success without, strangely, denying the film its desserts or holding them against it. It has been freighted with the fate of movies as a medium, as if the secret formula that draws viewers from their multitude of screens back to the Big One might be extracted from its 3-D.N.A. But I fear that cure is merely a palliative—is merely novelty. The mechanism that has ennabled Gravity to break box-office records is gimmickry. One goes in for the experience of being lost in space, and beyond its intelligence, beyond its good faith in showmanship and storytelling, beyond the obvious and extraordinary talent behind its production, one doesn’t walk out of Gravity with much more than one would stepping out of a flight simulator. Sandra Bullock’s will to survive is sweet, if brittle—like the illustration of a lesson in a self-help book. But it scans, to me, as pretext—just as I was invested in George Clooney the way one empathizes with a passionate cheerleader without really rooting for her team. When tears billow off Bullock’s cheeks, the effect isn’t angled poetically, as if to allude that even they are abandoning her. It’s just physics.

The nerdery itself isn’t unfeeling. Even in Avatar it wasn’t unfeeling. But Alphonso Cuarón isn’t the technocrat that James Cameron is; his Children of Men has to be up there with the likes of The Master as one of the best films of the last decade. He spun anxious poetry out of that what-if premise—What if the human race suddenly stopped reproducing?—but maybe he’s hamstrung by Gravity‘s “ticking time bomb” imperatives: getting Bullock to her escape pod and over the death of her daughter. There’s a real tenderness that warms that sentimental hook, but why hang everything on it when you can hang it on the loneliness of space, on the sheer gravity of being alone against the universe? The empowerment narrative literally grounds our focus; somehow, the metaphor of her emotional struggle versus her struggle to survive makes the setting of the latter seem incidental, and the result is that both seem rather more mechanical than they should. In some ways, Moon (2009)—a more modest solo space walk—seems more ethereal in my memory because its melancholy was cosmic. The blue-collar astronaut played by Sam Rockwell was lost in space in a richer, more deeply frightening way than Bullock’s mopey scientist is.

Source Code

12 Monkeys ÷ (Groundhog Day + Unstoppable) = Source Code > your average blockbuster. That’s a fairly simple formula, especially compared to the one supplied by the screenwriter, Ben Ripley; and if you don’t want to know what his is—well then I suggest you close this browser and refresh Facebook for the nth time instead. If you’re still here, Ripley’s source code is like a virtual-reality program that doesn’t send its participant back in time, but gives him or her the ability to interact with an “echo” of the past, as seen from the point of view of one of its spectators. But if you want to get an avatar, you have to meet a very particular, and very rigorous, requirement: Let’s just say, it’s not something you want to be on the waiting list for. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot who was serving in Afghanistan, not only didn’t expect to find himself on said list, but didn’t bank on being in the body of someone named Sean, on a commuter train to Chicago, one beautiful April morning. So when the train explodes—well, that really catches him off guard. His mission? Find the person who planted the bomb. And, if time permits—the source code reboots after only eight minutes—grab a quick coffee in the Dunkin’ Donuts club car. (This amenity wasn’t present on any of the METRA trains I’ve ever ridden on; but if we can accept super-sized dorm rooms in movies, I guess we should be able to swallow this dollop of product placement.)

Either I’ve undergone a corporeal swap of my own in the last few sentences or I’ve simply neglected to add the other key variable to the Source Code equation: the 2009 movie Moon, the first directed by Duncan Jones, and the only—before he moved on to this. Moon was an all-too-rare hybrid: a sci-fi epic that’s indie in scope. Despite the shift in setting, from lunar surface to Midwestern metropolis, there’s a remarkable overlap between Sam Rockwell’s astronaut and Gyllenhaal’s commuter—who’s slogging between realms of reality courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, as embodied by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright. Don’t let this cast trick you: Source Code, released by Summit Entertainment, is not “indie.” But its larger scale redounds to the filmmaker’s ripening technical skills; he’s not yet a master, but he’s found solid footing on the film industry’s own two realms of reality: artistry and commerce. (“Mastery” looks more like 12 Monkeys.) It shows in his special effects—the shorthand editing (by veteran splicer Paul Hirsch) and unusually expressive computer graphics; the lovely Venice-on-Lake Michigan skyline that seems to be smiling for him and his cameraman, Don Burgess—as well as in his handling of the cast.

Gyllenhaal has had a boyish buoyancy, along with a healthy taste for the deranged, since playing Donnie Darko; and Jeffrey Wright, as he’s proved in Angels in America and elsewhere, is a maestro of made-up dialects. (He’s doing “unctuous nerd” here: a computer programmer caught in the military-industrial complex, like a gadfly that doesn’t know it’s stuck in a spiderweb.) Farmiga, playing his subordinate, is chastely brunette—her commuter was butter-blonde in Up in the Air, to enhance her status-symbol standing—and mostly hides behind a monitor; but her immobility highlights her dexterity. She gets more out of guardedness, and the way she flicks off coworkers or shifts in her seat, than some actors can cull from effusion. Only Michelle Monaghan seems a little slighted. As Sean’s lady friend—who sees Stevens as Sean—she has a deliciously feisty grin. But she’s also, technically, D.O.A., and dead love interest ≠ happy vibes. Like The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code is a formalized Twilight Zone episode fatted with thrills. (This one’s also part Quantum Leap.) But nobody, not even Jones—a marksman who aims at melancholy—can make a bull’s-eye when trying to hit both a Hollywood ending and “hard” sci-fi.

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Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 isn’t your daddy’s superhero movie. It’s your granddaddy’s. The steady torrent of wisecracks on the screen is indebted to the ’30s screwball comedies that accelerated newly audible dialogue to supersonic speed; and in this high-grade hybrid the screws are actual screws, and the balls energy-based projectiles launched from our hero’s metallic palm. The quips fly faster than the energy balls. (If our hero has any trouble saving the world, it’s only because he’s out of breath.) This two-hour movie doesn’t linger long—which is a virtue. But it poops out early. The filmmakers are so preoccupied with sequels, spin-offs, and tie-ins that the story neither concludes nor hangs from a cliff but splits like a horny amoeba. Their verbosity is by way of apologizing for the sale. I had a good time, but my ears tolled from all the ringing up.

It’s difficult to describe the plot without mistaking it with premonitions of The Avengers or Iron Man 5, but, this time around, the hotrod homunculus has to contend with two new villains—neither of whom are very super. Iron Man’s not very altered ego—Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)—faces off with daddy issues while stressing the bejeezus out of his sort-of significant other (Gwyneth Paltrow). Mickey Rourke’s Vanko has daddy issues, too, and avenges his father by way of a string of supercharged Hanukkah lights that he lashes Stark—and several other Formula One drivers—with. This display impresses a skeevy Stark Corp. competitor (Sam Rockwell) who pines for a military contract that Stark refuses to make; the unveiling of Stark’s high-tech suit of armor has ushered in an era of world peace, but Rockwell’s Hammer and Senator Garry Shandling (!) know that peace doesn’t pay the bills. (His name is Hammer, and he really is a tool; since the U.S. ain’t buying, and Iron Man’s off the market, he pawns off his gimcrackery to the Axis of Evil, which, unfortunately, is not the name of a comic-book cadre.)

Conniving cinematic moguls have all the money in the world and never know what they’re paying for. The misalliance between the Wall Street grub and the Soviet Bloc-head threatens Stark’s international armistice and—yada yada yada. This expression of impatience is as much mine as the filmmakers’: Jon Favreau, the franchise’s auteur apparent, and Justin Theroux, the solo screenwriter. (The 2008 prequel enumerated four.) If Iron Man wasn’t played for breezy irony, it would most likely have been because these filmmakers had lost their minds—like most of the recent superhero movies have. A sense of proportion is key. When it makes one feel indignation at a project that one’s working on, that sense can have a poisonous effect on the tone. But this crew isn’t snide or condescending; their tone is consistently sportive. Many of the players are reprising their roles from the first film, and nearly everyone seems to be in it for kicks. Downey acts in the manner of a well-born Bill Murray; his hauteur burbles like molasses. He, Paltrow, and Scarlett Johannson—playing Double Agent Romanoff (the laziest Slavic surname a writer could contrive)—practically race each other to see who can spew smart-talk fastest. (Johannson has a hypnotic hold on innuendo even after it’s left her lips.) Only Don Cheadle—who’s demonstrated more talent in better roles, and replaces Terrence Howard as Lt. Colonel Rhodes—delivers his lines in a way that seems a little too robotic. (Downey looks robotic. He’s absurdly hale for 45, but his playboy’s looks are as integral to the fantasy as the special effects. These stars shine brighter than the glossiest gossip rag.)

Of the newcomers, Rockwell’s festooned in three-piece suits that make him look like a wallflower at a ’70s disco; he’s downgraded from walk to waddle to match his chichi threads. I think it’s an homage to The Wrestler when Stark conks Vanko on the noggin with a folding chair; but I hope Rourke pays homage to that performance by not coasting through the rest of his roles. He Russifies well, but he and Eric Bana (the Star Trek nemesis) ought to form a support group for neglected adversaries. Vanko is a symptom writer’s block rather than a roadblock to our heroes; and when he blows Queens to smithereens, it hardly gums up traffic any more than the daily commute.

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The Hurt Locker

The press has fallen in love with The Hurt Locker. For those of us who came of age during the combat-movie drought that wars like Iraq tend to engender—and who are typically disinclined to browse that genre at Blockbuster, besides—The Hurt Locker is like a first kiss. But I hesitate to stretch the metaphor, a.) As to not detract from the seriousness that is the movie’s desert, and b.) Because it is not quite so good as to extend to the proverbial loss of my virginity.

There’s a sense of inevitability that permeates The Hurt Locker, and though it affects us on a deeper level than most procedurals do by virtue of both skill and discretion, the film stays true to that limited form. I don’t wish to be unfair; the way the filmmakers follow the procedural lockstep is integral to their conception, and part of the movie’s power stems from the singular, sensuous way they underplay the suspense scenes—poeticizing the horrors that are, for these characters, routine. The flesh is thick, and there’s a heart beating beneath it, but we can still detect that skeleton with clichés in its marrow: the trailer-park individualist who gets the job done but puts others at risk in the process; the by-the-book black soldier whose respect the lone wolf earns; and the younger, more impressionable lad who comes to idolize the loner. There’s familiarity in all this, as well as in the lone wolf’s relationship with a young local boy (Christopher Sayegh)—an Iraqi Shia LaBoeuf who, in a nice touch, endears himself to Americans by way of curse words. (It sounds as if Lil Wayne was his English teacher.)

But the director, Kathryn Bigelow, is a pro in both the banal sense and the positive one; she knows the ropes, but knows how to tug them, too. Her focus is narrow and her methods are austere, but her targets are well embodied, and pregnant with echoes of their grander context. It’s as if she made a war film in the style of The Wrestler. She stages combat effectively, appositely—the complexity of her images is almost subliminal. Rich in its invocation of atmosphere, The Hurt Locker coats the sun-baked sands of arid Iraq with a cool iridescent gel. It’s not the kind of star-glamour antifreeze required for a bland, exploitive movie like The Kingdom (2007)—a lemon; it’s more like the psychological analgesics that professional soldiers mask their anxieties with. We aren’t given babes in the woods like Charlie Sheen in Platoon; unformed baby-men whose innocence is despoiled by war are a dramatic shortcut, as easy to sympathize with as puppies under Jack the Ripper’s knife. Bigelow lets us under her guarded soldiers’ skins with a vision that’s neither tawdry nor ironic.

These troopers constitute a bomb squad in its final weeks of deployment in Baghdad: cocksure SSgt. James (Jeremy Renner), prim Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and sensitive Sgt. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is something of a legend for having disarmed 800-something I.E.D.s in his day, and approaches each new one with an aloofness that drives his teammates batty. This is pure procedural—vindicating the competent badass (and we’re cued in immediately that he’s a badass because he smokes cigarettes) who doesn’t follow the rules but gets the job done is old-bag Hollywood heroism. But the more we see James in action, the more his strut seems abreast of a fresher truth; back on the home front, he’s either a father or some woman’s baby-daddy—his ex-wife still lives with him, so he’s not sure. He’s graceful under pressure, and in the heat of combat, he’s coolly maternal to his men; yet, as Eldridge tells him, he’s one hell of a leader, but lackluster as a people person. He needs the specter of death barking up his leg like a rabid dog; without it, he can’t be all that he can be. His ravenous addiction to war is the tragedy of war.

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Moon

Duncan Jones’s Moon rises high in the sky, but twinkles somewhat faintly. It borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It’s a variation on common themes, but themes that may not be common enough. And, compared to the others, Moon is exceptionally modest and accessible. It distills ruminations from the great sci-fi megillahs and boils them down to simple human drama.

In the not-too-distant future, Earth’s “clean” energy is mined on the lunar surface. The mines require only one overseer, who’s secluded on our satellite for three years; communications to and from Earth must be prerecorded, so his only face-to-face companion is a mobile computer called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), whose operating system is half-HAL-9000 and half-WALL-E. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is finishing up his three-year contract as the movie opens. Homesick, he’s grown a grizzly beard and is surly with his programmed pal; he takes solace in videos from his family, and in making a paper model of his home town. But his reminisces get the best of him: He sees a mirage of his wife (Dominique McElligott) while driving in his lunar rover, and accidentally crashes into a giant thrasher. We then see Sam awakened by GERTY back on the station and forbidden to leave; but Sam seems to have an intuition, goes out to the thrasher, and discovers himself to be in the wreckage, as well.

If this passage seems a little hard to follow, it’s because there are now two Sams perambulating about the base. (If you don’t want to know why, you may not want to read on.) GERTY is invariably shady when the Sams question him about this, and, at first, the Sams can’t get much out of each other; they behave like one of the more unfortunate pairings forged through Craigslist. The “new” Sam thinks they’re both clones, and the old one concedes that their lives, memories, and destinies are all a sham; like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, they are secondary to corporate directives. Eventually, they seek ways to return “home”—that is, to Earth—before a repair crew arrives at the base and discovers them both there. The Sams question their humanity and authenticity, but mature before our eyes. Like the vivacious replicants in Blade Runner, old Sam seems to be reaching his expiration date; new Sam starts out brutal and impatient, but learns to respect his fellow self.

Moon runs the old what-is-it-to-be-human jag, but does so at full gallop. Fancy bouts of pontification are disposed of without detriment to the movie; the screenwriter, Nathan Parker, keeps the dialogue ever fluid and never dripping with significance. Unlike cousin HAL, GERTY—by way of Spacey’s smarmy-smooth diction—is ultimately humane, but this revelation is never lingered on. The ambiguous little smiley faces that GERTY expresses himself with are enough to make the complexity of his “humanness” clear. But, despite such touches, which make this a shimmering crescent-moon of a picture, Jones’s conception hasn’t entirely waxed.

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Frost/Nixon

In 1977, Richard Nixon agreed to his first televised interview since his resignation. It was granted not to an American journalist, but to an English talk-show host, David Frost. The erudite ex-president, desperate to improve his tarnished record for posterity, perceived that the inexperienced Frost would be a pushover; he thought he could chew through Frost’s questions, and that the inquisitor wouldn’t fight back. But the proud, embittered old politician met his match. The well-researched Frost, after days of being stepped on, finally cornered Nixon about his lies during their last taping session, and the fallen man uttered the only public apology for the Watergate scandal that he ever would. Squeezing that confession out of Nixon—for our sake, as well as for his—is what gives Frost/Nixon, the new Ron Howard docudrama about the interview, its drama and tension. The intellectual brinkmanship between Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella) gives verve and excitement to an otherwise peculiarly nonpolitical political thriller.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan adapted his own play, and though I haven’t seen it on stage, Frost/Nixon’s clash-of-titans form seems ideally suited for the theater. Richard Nixon is for modern drama what mythical figures were for Greek tragedy. His shortcomings and faults led to his downfall, and he fell hard and before the harsh eye of public scrutiny. When he crashed, what was lost was much more than his career or pride—only his starchiest opponents (such as the loyal attaché that Kevin Bacon plays in the picture) didn’t feel somehow wronged. It is easy to imagine (if not empathize with) the intense emotional burden that Nixon likely shouldered, but the Frost interview is perhaps the only artifact that might offer some showing of contrition on his part, and the closest either he (publicly) or the country ever got to catharsis in the mixed-up wake of Vietnam and Watergate. I think it’s safe to say that most of us share Langella, Morgan, Howard—and Oliver Stone’s—humanist urge to prove that Nixon wasn’t completely a monster, and that he suffered for what he did. (It’s a humanist stance that’s paradoxically laced with an unavoidable touch of malice; we still want to see him suffer, after all.) But, no matter what the moral imperative (and it sure gets rather iffy here), there’s a tendency for actors, dramatists and filmmakers to want to take a stab at the 37th president, and if it’s done with enough bravado, there’s a tendency for critics to laud that performance.

Well, fine, Langella does grace the movie with a fine performance. However, I think the part is still tuned better for the stage, where grandiose gestures are often required to provide shading. His best moment, I think, is when he explodes at Bacon’s character after a chit-chatty talk Nixon gives to a doctors’ convention; the dialogue doesn’t completely serve him, but Nixon’s pride shines through—justified pride for his legitimate achievements. Langella offers us this wounded pride more handily than he does Nixon’s guilt. Howard trains his camera on Langella for the big “it’s my fault” pay-off during the interview—a scene in which this Nixon is more effusive than the one in the actual footage (clips of which are available at the interview’s official Web site)—but, I think, moments like the one where Nixon briefly confides in his attaché following Frost’s “gotcha!” moment are much more telling. Conversely, Langella’s big scene is when he drunk-dials Frost and openly declares war—both of their reputations have a lot on the line because of the interview, and only one of them can “win” it. (Fortunately, with caller-ID these days, you can know in advance not to pick up if Richard Nixon calls you at 2 A.M.) Though great pains are taken here to make him seem like a fair old ox, this scene is like an encapsulation of Philip Baker Hall’s tipsy tirade in Robert Altman’s one-man-show about Nixon, Secret Honor—a Nixon corrupted by his own delusions.

Sheen (no relation to the Estevez family) gives a smooth, almost effeminate, performance; but between his goggle eyes and vulpine grin, it’s almost too easy to see Frost as the patsy playboy that everybody else sees him as. (The real Frost is long in the face, and got his start in the English political-satire boom of the ’60s.) Sheen’s good when Frost gets desperate, but he can be so damn mousy that you expect his preened British accent to come out in squeaks. Maybe this is indicative of the larger problem with Frost/Nixon: It almost reduces Nixon to that hunk of cheese on a mousetrap, and Frost to an uppity rodent. Morgan and Howard take pains to make Frost “nonpolitical” to the end; the requisite liberal angst is relegated to his researchers, played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell (who looks like he’s come down with a stronger case of the flu than usual). The tension is high, and the characters are given texture, but everything is simplified and pre-chewed for us for the sake of what seems, in retrospect, an artificial goal.

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