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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the third feature film by writer-director Martin McDonagh.

It’s also his third masterpiece.

Three Billboards also marks another astonishing film achievement for Frances McDormand, who will drill into your chest cavity and do all kinds of crazy shit to your heart as Mildred, a justifiably pissed-off mother who has a few issues with the cops in her town.

It’s been five years since Mildred’s young daughter was raped, killed and burned by unknown murderers. Mildred, who isn’t even close to getting over the tragedy, spies some old, dilapidated billboards on the way home and gets an idea. After meeting with a sloppy advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones), some guys are commissioned to put alarmingly provocative signs on those billboards.

Those signs call out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a well-meaning but emotional man who, for various reasons, is not on his best game. He challenges Mildred, claiming the billboards aren’t fair. Her retort: In the time you took to come down here and piss and moan about the billboards, another girl could’ve been butchered.

There’s no better actress to portray Mildred—with her steadfast, emotionally raw determination—than McDormand. More than two decades ago, McDormand took home the Oscar for playing Marge Gunderson in Fargo—playing one of the nicest law-enforcement individuals the movies have ever seen. Mildred is the opposite of Marge: Kindness and hugs and Arby’s aren’t big on her mind. She wants her daughter’s killers brought to justice, and she’ll burn buildings down with people inside them to get the investigation going.

Yet somehow, Mildred is just as likable and worth rooting for as Marge. That’s because McDormand is a fearless master, and she’s a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination—at the least. Mildred says and does things in this movie that will leave your jaw hanging open, and McDormand makes all of these extremes believable and almost reasonable. There’s so much happening behind those piercing eyes. It’s the kind of performance that only comes around once a decade.

What takes this film to masterpiece levels, beyond the technical brilliance that McDonagh always delivers, is that McDormand is joined by a cast that hits every note. Harrelson caps a great year as the lawman. John Hawkes is memorably nasty as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, while Jones manages many surprises as the billboard man, and Peter Dinklage makes the most of a few scenes as a town local with eyes for Mildred.

Oh, and there’s yet another Oscar-caliber performance from Sam Rockwell (who starred in McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths) as racist, momma’s-boy deputy Dixon. There aren’t too many character actors alive who could make Dixon frightening, sympathetic, funny, disgusting and worthy of redemption all at once. Dixon, the town drunk and racist homophobe who has a thing for throwing people out of windows, undergoes a transformation that is some kind of movie miracle. That’s because Rockwell, like McDormand, is one of the best.

That’s also because McDonagh knows how to write a script that keeps you in it with every line. While the film is, in part, a murder mystery, the crime takes a back seat to watching these folks play off of each other. There are scenes in this movie that will emotionally knock you on the floor. There’s one particular moment that is so heartbreaking, and so shocking, it’s a wonder anybody managed to get it on screen.

The year isn’t over yet, but it’s a fair bet to say this one is going to be topping a lot of award lists, adding to McDormand’s legacy and giving Rockwell the sort of high profile recognition he’s always deserved. As for McDonagh, not many directors have come out of the gate with three masterpieces in a row. He’s in an elite class of filmmakers—and he’s just getting started.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Baltasar Kormákur turns in a grueling testament to the hell that is climbing the world’s tallest mountain in a production that demands to be seen on an IMAX screen.

Jason Clarke does his best work since Zero Dark Thirty as Rob Hall, who helped lead an ascent of Mount Everest that resulted in the deaths of eight people in 1996. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, another of the expedition’s leaders who’s legendary for his ability to scale the mountain without the aid of oxygen. Josh Brolin is on hand as Beck Weathers, the brash Texan who has perhaps bitten off a little more than he can chew, while John Hawkes is present as Doug Hansen, an ambitious climber returning after a failed ascent the year before. Yes, some of these real people have been written a tad stereotypically, but you won’t care once the snow hits the mountain.

Kormakur has crafted a movie that puts you right in the middle of things—genuinely uncomfortable things. The effects are very good, and there’s a nice attention to detail when it comes to the perils of climbing.

The supporting cast includes Emily Watson as the mother hen at base camp, Keira Knightley as a worried wife, and a solid Sam Worthington as climber Guy Cotter.

This expedition is the one on which Jon Krakauer based his book. He was on the expedition and he’s in the movie, played well by Michael Kelly.

Everest is now playing in regular format at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342). It’s playing in IMAX/large-screen format at the Regal Rancho Mirage, as well as the Ultrastar Desert Cinema Large Screen Experience (68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City; 760-324-7333).

Published in Reviews

Life of Crime, a film based on the 1978 Elmore Leonard novel The Switch, has finally made it to the screen, nearly 30 years after producers first tried to make The Switch into a film. Unfortunately, the movie is rather drab.

The film features a kidnapping plot that has a rich wife, Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), being taken hostage; however, her philandering husband, Frank (Tim Robbins), doesn’t really care. A plan to make the movie in the ’80s was scrapped when Ruthless People, a movie starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler with a similar premise, went into production.

In the interim, Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s Rum Punch into Jackie Brown in ’97. Jackie Brown featured characters who also appear in Life of Crime: Kidnappers Ordell Robbie (Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro, respectively, in Jackie Brown. Isla Fisher also appears as Frank’s mistress, Melanie, a character portrayed by Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown.

I share this trivia about Life of Crime, because it is far more interesting than anything that happens in the actual movie.

Unlike some of the more successful Elmore Leonard film adaptations, like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight (1998), Life of Crime lacks cleverness, laughs and even a discernible pulse. It’s a mostly flat affair, boasting a decent cast trying their best with a bland script.

Writer-director Daniel Schechter opts to make Life of Crime a period piece set in the 1970s. He gives his movie a washed-out look to go along with the humorless dialogue, and the pacing of this film is at times frustratingly slow and sloppy. It’s only 98 minutes long, but it feels like more like three hours long.

Nothing happens in this movie that feels new or inspired. The kidnappers take Mickey; they find out a big ransom is unlikely because the husband is a jerk; and that’s it. There’s a side plot involving a guy named Marshall (Will Forte) trying to have an affair with Mickey that is underdeveloped, and Mark Boone Junior shows up as a kidnapping accomplice who is a neo-Nazi. His character is probably supposed to add some kind of dark comic flavor, but he’s just ugly and unpleasant.

Aniston, one of the more misused actresses in Hollywood, is given the thankless task of acting worried and tired throughout the movie. None of her comedic chops are called upon; one gets a true sense that she was left out in the wilderness by her director.

Of all the performers, Mos Def seems the most comfortable in his role. He stars in the few moments of the movie that pop and crackle with Leonard’s style. Hawkes, a reliable actor, unfortunately joins Aniston in seeming mostly lost. Fisher, like Mos Def, manages to make her scenes somewhat worth watching. At one point, the characters played by Mos Def and Fisher team up; that made me wish the whole film was just about them.

The film includes the requisite unflattering period clothes and ’70s music on the soundtrack. The 1970s could provide a cool musical backdrop, but Schechter and friends chose such duds as “Let Your Love Flow” and “Don’t Pull Your Love.” If any soundtrack could have used a nice, upbeat ’70s track by The Kinks or The Who, it would have been this one.

Life of Crime seems to entirely miss the point and spirit of its source material. Or, perhaps it’s just getting unjustly compared to work by the likes of Tarantino and Barry Sonnenfeld. Either way, I was pretty bored.

Life of Crime is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It is also playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing