Archive | January, 2018

Holy s***: a Catholic take on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

16 Jan
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Frances McDormand’s grieving, angry mother faces down Sam Rockwell’s incompetent police officer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The defining moment of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as good as any film we’ll see this year or next, comes, as it should, in the first few minutes. Frances McDormand stalks into a local advertising firm and demands to know: “What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say ‘fuck’, ‘piss’ or ‘cunt’. That right?”

It’s her first line. Quite the introduction to our no-shits-given, no-shit-taken protagonist. But the key moment is not that. It’s this: moments later, she spots a cockroach waggling its legs upside-down on the window sill. We expect her to squash it. Instead, almost tenderly, she pokes it upright with one finger. It’s an insect variation on Blake Snyder’s famous “Save The Cat” advice for rendering a flawed hero likeable, but it’s also the crux of the film.

Three Billboards may appear to be all about aggression and violence, especially from the trailer, but really it’s all about forgiveness, compassion, redemption. And not the bullshit, two-bit redemption of Hollywood’s debased currency – “his daughter died so now he’ll save this other girl and that’ll make it right” – but redemption like Christ on the Cross, flogged and pierced with a lance and crowned with thorns, nails driven through his flesh into the unyielding wood, and still saying “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do”. A silent adjunct to the opening scene is that the young advertising guy is reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find when McDormand enters – a story in which a crotchety grandmother finally finds grace moments before being violently murdered.

I’ve been getting Biblical on your ass here because McDonagh so clearly is. Not overtly, not at all: in fact, there’s a wonderful scene in which Frances McDormand’s Mildred comes home to find the local priest in her kitchen, and rips the sanctimonious so-and-so a new one over the church’s condoning of “altarboy-fucking” of which, since he’s “a member of that club”, he is guilty by association. It would not surprise me if this reflected McDonagh’s own views. But lapsed or not, you can’t take the Catholic out of a boy so easily. I should know.

Any redemption in Three Billboards is Biblically hard won: through being disgraced, sacked, burned and pummelled in the face; through losing your daughter and being abused by your husband and still resisting the urge to smash his head in; through a dozen tiny acts of compassion (one of the greatest, and you’ll understand the heft of it when you see the film, is simply handing a badly injured man a straw) that in the end trump revenge.

I’ve been told that actors will riffle through a putative script looking for their “Oscar moment”. In Three Billboards Francis McDormand is given one, or else creates one, with every single scene. But my favourite is just the look she gives when the police chief (Woody Harrelson), whom she blames for not properly investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, inadvertently coughs blood into her face. Her face registers surprise, shock – but also sudden and helpless compassion.

There is a Christ figure in the film, too, if you want to read it that way (and I do), who through the sacrifice of his willing death sets troubled souls on the path to forgiving, and being forgiven. It’s a typically McDonaghesque reversal that that death should be through suicide, perhaps the greatest sin of all in the eyes of the official Church.

Three Billboards is an astonishing film: sacred and profane; tragic and laugh-out-loud hilarious. I want to see it again. After a year of election upsets, they say there are no certainties. But if Frances McDormand does not follow her Golden Globe with an Oscar it will be stranger than seeing Trump in the White House; and if Martin McDonagh does not pick up at least Best Screenplay, I predict a riot. And I’ll be handing out the Molotov cocktails.

 

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Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.