Justice, like morality, is ambiguous. Accordingly, determining exactly how justice should be meted out is mired in a lot of grey. Translation: life is not black and white.
This old adage makes people uncomfortable, and it’s exactly the concept that colors Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It works so well because it acknowledges that there is no one right answer. Thankfully, as luck would have it, it’s also kind of funny.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is pissed off and tired. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire, though not necessarily in that order. The police have made no arrests, they have no suspect, and they haven’t uncovered a single lead. The case is precariously close to cold.
Driving down a rural road one morning, Mildred spots three abandoned billboards and gets an idea: she’ll shame Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. She rents the billboards for a full year and posts ads that attack him. The problem is, her idea doesn’t pan out as she plans — in fact, it works against her cause.
Not far off from a Coen Brothers venture, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a twisted and twisting nailbiter. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a sharp wit, a warped sense of humor, and an impeccable grasp of human nature. The cast is outstanding, with not one subpar performance. At times heartbreaking, this is all around a tightly assembled and enthralling film.
With Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Sam Rockwell, Alejandro Barrios, Jason Redford, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Abbie Cornish, Riya May Atwood, Selah Atwood, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Malaya Rivera Drew, Sandy Martin, Peter Dinklage , Christopher Berry, Gregory Nassif St. John, Jerry Winsett, Kathryn Newton, John Hawkes, Charlie Samara Weaving, Clarke Peters, Brendan Sexton III, Eleanor Threatt Hardy, Michael Aaron Milligan
Production: Blueprint Pictures
Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Warner Brothers
“Relax. Your daughter’s perfectly fine in my hands.”
Sean Baker’s Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/) impressed me. On the surface an offbeat odyssey of castoffs living on the fringe in West Hollywood, it’s one of those films that creeps up and hits you at the end. Comprised largely of small moments and vignettes strung together, its sum is much more — and completely different — than its parts: insightful, powerful, and quietly profound.
I was thrilled to hear that Baker has a new film, The Florida Project, out this fall. The comments I overheard from audience members while walking out of a prerelease screening were amusing but maddening: “That was realism, hard realism. Too hard.” “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” “I had to force myself to stay awake.” “I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.” Insert eyeroll here.
I disagree. The Florida Project switches gears, so it doesn’t end up where it seems to be going. The trailer makes it look like a childhood nostalgia movie, and it starts out like one. But it’s not. Often amusing but just as often difficult to watch, it paints a vivid picture that doesn’t criticize, demean, or sentimentalize its characters or their situation. I’ve heard Baker lauded for his humanism; his work definitely shows plenty of that if nothing else. His best attribute may be his willingness to let his characters develop into real people over the course of two hours or so.
To be clear, the impact of The Florida Project is not immediate. Baker’s pace isn’t quick, either. Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project starts out as a sort of Little Rascals sitcom involving the misadventures of besties Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), two grade school kids growing up in a sketchy roadside motel, the Magic Castle, that sits along a tawdry strip just outside the Magic Kingdon — a.k.a. Disney World in Orlando. A gun shop, a convenience store, a market that sells oranges, and a boarded up clinic dot the strip, which incidentally intersects with Seven Dwarves Lane.
Moonee and Scooty spend their days running around, screaming, and stirring up mischief. They spit all over a motel guest’s car. They drop water balloons on people. They spy on an elderly topless sunbather (Sandy Kane). They scam change to buy ice cream. They set a fire. They recruit a third hellion, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives next door and easily goes along with their antics probably because there’s no one else to play with. Their favorite target is weary motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
Slowly, a different picture emerges and The Florida Project becomes another film. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), can’t get it together. Feral and clearly her own worst enemy, she lives hand to mouth with her young daughter. She’s constantly about to be evicted, and she takes free meals wherever she can get them. When selling stolen amusement park passes and wholesale perfume in the parking lot of a “nicer” motel up the street doesn’t work, she turns tricks in the room.
After Halley has a falling out with Scooty’s mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), Baker literally zooms in on Moonee.
The events here are purposely mundane, and it’s hard to say exactly where the climax is. It doesn’t matter: The Florida Project works because of the way Baker executes the story. He’s just as careful about choosing what he shows as what he doesn’t. The thrill here is watching the characters develop, anyway; that’s what makes The Florida Project soar. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is superb, particularly Vinaite, Prince (who at six years old is a natural — I almost cried when she did), and Dafoe, whom I haven’t seen this good since Mississippi Burning.
Alexis Zabe’s cinematography — alternating long shots and pans with almost uncomfortably close shots — works beautifully with the gorgeously effervescent color palette. The ending is unexpectedly touching and fun. The Florida Project just might be the first Oscar contender I’ve seen this year.
With Josie Olivo, Aiden Malik, Caleb Landry Jones, Shail Kamini Ramcharan, Sonya McCarter, Karren Karagulian, Kelly Fitzgerald, Lauren O’Quinn, Edward Pagan, Cecilia Quinan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano
Production: Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, June Pictures, Sweet Tomato Films
Distribution: A24 (USA), Altitude Film Distribution (UK), Elevation Pictures (Canada), Filmcoopi Zürich (Switzerland), September Film (Netherlands), Front Row Filmed Entertainment (United Arab Emirates)
I caught the hype surrounding Jordan Peele’s first feature length film, Get Out, a comedy horror flick that takes on race—specifically, the dynamics of white power and black subordination. He wrote the script and directed the film. I went into Get Out with some doubt and maybe trepidation about how it might come off. The concept is one that seems too easy to go horribly sideways.
I guess if anyone can pull it off, it’s Peele—and I’m relieved to report that he succeeds. With an oddly compelling mix of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Meet the Parents, Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Stepford Wives, he takes on the cultural idiosyncrasies of Caucasian cultural dominance within the constructs of a horror flick. He’s got a lot of points to make, and he gets them across in a sharp but entertaining way. Like the best horror movies, Get Out makes you squirm—but it does so on multiple levels.
New York City photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is black. His girlfriend, Rose Arlington (Allison Williams), is white. She invites him on a weekend getaway to her parents’ home in upstate New York because, well, it’s time for him to meet the fam. Chris agrees, going into it nervously and not without personal baggage. His hyperactive best bud, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent who always expects the worst, is not helping.
Rose’s parents are, like the quiet town where they live, nice. Or at least welcoming. Dean (Bradley Whitford) drops silly slang, affects a bizarre accent, and praises President Obama. Missy (Catherine Keener) is more direct, asking pointed questions in a weird attempt to get to know Chris. It’s awkward and doesn’t quite break the ice, but it’s harmless. Right?
The family’s two longterm servants, maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson), carry themselves like they’ve had lobotomies. Rose’s younger brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is, um, aggressively complimentary to Chris. On top of it, the Armitages’ neighbors are not quite right, obsessed with Chris and his virility.
During the first part of Get Out, Peele keeps things light but lets a sense of creepy unease simmer. The laughs are there, but like all of the characters coming and going from the house, something is off. He makes a major shift in tone once Missy insists on hypnotizing Chris, ostensibly to help him quit smoking. What was innocuous up to now becomes nefarious.
Ultimately, the evil here is not a monster hiding under the bed, but rather something more obvious that exists in broad daylight. I could have done without the bloody finale, but it works in the context of the film; Peele plays with genre, so I see why it’s here. Either way, Get Out is a bold move that pays off.
With Stephen Root, LaKeith Stanfield, Ashley LeConte Campbell, John Wilmot, Caren Larkey, Julie Ann Doan, Rutherford Cravens, Geraldine Singer, Yasuhiko Oyama, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander, Jeronimo Spinx, Ian Casselberry, Trey Burvant, Zailand Adams
Production: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, QC Entertainment