Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

How often during this year’s barren movie scene have you been surprised? Hustle off to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for a fix. Martin McDonagh has created a movie that is made for the oddball talents of Frances McDormand and she embraces his script with abandon. It’s odd to suggest that you will laugh often and not be much bothered by the violence, but that’s true. Take a look.

The daughter of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has been raped and murdered and Ebbing’s local police department has not turned up a clue to the murderer in over a year. In her anger, Mildred rents three decrepit billboards on a seldom used highway entrance to the town for a month with an option to extend if she can raise the money. Papered with a bright red background, she paints enormous white letters. On #1: Still No Arrests. #2: How Come, Chief Willoughby? #3: Raped While Dying.

Mildred then visits the police department where all conversation is wrapped in profanity. Take that as the announcement that the rest of the movie will unfold in an odd mixture of accusations, comic moments, physical violence, and shifting alliances all delivered in obscenities.

We get to know Dixon (Sam Rockwell), second in command, who unfurls an odd character who keeps going home to his mother to refuel his brutal self for all other encounters. Woody Harrelson creates William Willoughby, the tough talking police chief who confesses to Mildred that he has cancer. His dying police chief is a grand portrait of a man who actually wants to find the truth but is wrapped in fear of dying and leaving his family. Even his search for the truth doesn’t derail Mildred’s foul mouthed verbal attack.

McDormand, looking the same in every scene with uncombed hair and jeans, lets us know with just a few atypical gestures that a human being lives within this angry woman. She creates a character like none we’ve ever seen on screen. When I promise that you’ll both laugh and shiver as she unleashes her rage, you won’t believe me until you watch that odd combination unfold violently in the hands of this unpredictable actor. She’s not just an original; she’s very good.

Other than the three billboards, there is little time spent on the town or its inhabitants. We meet just nine characters brought together by McDormand’s actions. As they destroy each other verbally and physically in that grim police station, the station itself becomes a stage for the eruption of the violence just resting in the minds of all the players.

By now you are probably deciding this one isn’t for you, but I urge you to go. If you think I’m crazy to recommend a movie saturated in fire and blood and guns and bad language, just go see for yourself what writer/director Martin McDonagh and Frances McDormand have done. And did I forget to tell you that you’ll laugh a lot?

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Word Count : 498
Running Time: 1:55
Rating : R
Date : December 3, 2017


Murder on the Orient Express

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh has remade the iconic Murder on the Orient Express with mediocre results. Agatha Christie’s 1934 book has rafts of loyalists who are usually skeptical when books, movies, and now TV shows are patterned on it. This time, they’re right, but most of us will go anyway.

The plot is irresistible for writers, filmmakers, and movie lovers. What’s more fun than legendary detective Hercule Poirot on a train as he tries to discover who among thirteen strangers has killed a man in their car? Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The sight of it is rivetingly beautiful. The train leaves the station in light snow that grows heavier as it moves into the storm. We are treated to prolonged shots of the silver sleeper plowing through the white snowdrifts until an avalanche knocks a car off the track. Cinematographer Hans Zambarloukos delivers the beauty of the train roaring through the blizzard.

The magic of any train is its movement; that’s what they do and it’s why they are loved. The movement of the Orient Express seems to wrap the train in the mystery that is unfolding inside as Poirot questions the murder suspects. The derailment in this version stops not only the train but turns the questioning into something bordering on job interviews in a cramped space. The magic is gone. Suspense is absent.

Poirot questions the tangle of strangers deftly but what they reveal about themselves has a dull feel. We watch as a fine cast is fed dialogue which they deliver in contemporary accents that undercut the atmosphere and the story. We want this to be 1934 when trains were the apex of travel. Don’t modernize it.

We watch Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacoby, Lucy Boynton Judi Dench, and other good actors as they struggle to become characters against the odds director Branagh has laid on them. The stilted questioning in the silent train seems in the stillness like a narrow hotel corridor. They try, but this part of this story is doomed.

In a welcome exception, Branagh, the actor, creates an interesting Poirot. Anyone who plays this famous fictional guy is welcome to create a new portrait of him as long as it includes the detective’s passion for truth along with his vain, intuitive, stylish, tough self. It is always fun to watch Poirot as he sifts through the lies that surround him. And the new moustache is Branagh’s personal quirk. He continues a fine tradition of bringing his own version of Poirot alive from Agatha Christie’s pages.

Is anything as romantic as a train moving through the snow? No, but beautiful filming doesn’t make up for the oddly dull search for the murderer. There is one perfect solution: go see it and thrill to the sight of the train moving through the blizzard. When the train is stuck, just leave. Go out for dinner and discuss the beautiful first hour.