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Hammerle On… “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird,” “Wonder”

December 13, 2017

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a spectacular film that will challenge any competitor in this year’s Oscar race for best picture. As hard as it is to imagine, Director Martin McDonagh exceeded his accomplishments in both “Seven Psychopaths” (2012) and “In Bruges” (2008).

rating-billboard.gifFrances McDormand, who will also likely be recognized in the best actress category, plays Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother in agony. Living in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, she is left in a state of grief and self-loathing as she wrestles with her teenage daughter’s recent death. The young girl was raped and burned to death, and Mildred’s pain is intensified by the fact that the crime is unsolved.

As a result, Hayes rents three billboards outside of town where she criticizes the chief of police’s failure to find the killer of her daughter. The town’s emotional reaction turns it upside down.

In the explosion of turmoil that follows Mildred’s actions, society’s multiple prejudices seep to the surface. A dwarf (the accomplished Peter Dinklage) is ridiculed, a black woman is arrested simply because she is black and police brutality is excused while overlooked.

In the end, this is a powerful film that comes close to defining the human condition. A mother mourns a lost daughter while haunted by a family argument that led to her child walking to her death. While criticized for his perceived inaction, Woody Harrelson’s police chief is left wrestling with a terrible health condition and a crime that can’t be solved no matter how hard he tries. Harrelson has never been better as you watch him try to raise his two young girls with a caring wife (Abbie Cornish) while trying to simultaneously pacify an unrelenting grieving mother.

Among a number of small roles that make this film so memorable, you won’t forget the performances of John Hawkes, here playing Hayes’s ex-husband, and Caleb Landry Jones, excelling as a bright and somewhat sarcastic billboard employee. Hawkes hides a bit of charm while he is constantly in the company of his 19-year-old girlfriend and Jones is wildly funny and clever while recognizing the importance of valuing a dollar over controversy.

However, this movie belongs to McDormand and Sam Rockwell, who also will challenge for a supporting actor nomination. McDormand’s performance is unique in every respect. Constantly wearing work clothes, no makeup and erupting in a vulgar four-letter onslaught, this is simply a commanding performance that you will never forget.

Though I loved Rockwell’s comic, heartwarming performance in “The Way Way Back” (2013), he is utterly unforgettable here as a smug, racist policeman. His Officer Dixon smolders like a human volcano ready to erupt with a poisonous lava, and there hasn’t been a more unlikeable character brought with such style to the big screen since Ben Foster in last year’s “Hell or High Water.”

And speaking of “High Water,” keep the caustic performance of Margaret Bowman as the waitress in mind as you watch Sandy Martin’s memorable role as Rockwell’s reclusive mother. Both aging women are a force of nature.

Yet for all the hate and anger that dominates this film, lurking under the surface is a bit of forgiveness. Like this year’s “The Shack,” “Three Billboards” teaches the importance of healing if we are going to find any degree of happiness. Sam Rockwell’s Dixon proves that inside every damaged human being is a warm heart and a caring soul.

“Lady Bird”

“Lady Bird” is a film that comes to life under the guiding touch of writer/director Greta Gerwig. This accomplished actress brings a magical film to the big screen in her directorial debut.

rating-lady-bird.gifTaking place in 2002 in Sacramento, California, this is an unvarnished movie focusing on a family trying to survive in that economically turbulent time. Saoirse Ronan follows up last year’s phenomenal performance in “Brooklyn” with her portrayal of Christine McPherson, a high school senior trying to determine if there is a difference between love and attention. Insisting on being called Lady Bird, she has a love/hate relationship with a mother who in many ways is her mirror image.

Laurie Metcalf gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Lady Bird’s mom, a nurse working tirelessly to hold her family together given that her husband (the gifted Tracy Letts) has lost his job. She is a strong-willed woman, and the interaction between her and her daughter provides some of the most engaging moments you will see in any film this year.

Lady Bird feels isolated in Sacramento, particularly when she must pass by magnificent homes of friends while going to her modest house located on what she dismissively describes as “the other side of the tracks.” Wrestling with the desire to flee Sacramento and attend any college in New York City, she is forced to reject her first boyfriend, Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges), after she discovers that he is gay. Hedges, who made gigantic contribution in last year’s “Manchester by the Sea,” is a pleasure to watch.

What makes this film so appealing and heartwarming is Gerwig’s ability to focus her camera on family life that is familiar to all of us. While trying to find new employment, Lady Bird’s father seeks a way to finance her college dreams. Her mother pulls no punches as she chides her daughter to face the reality that a higher education is only available in a local college.

Lady Bird struggles to find some meaning when she profoundly regrets rejecting her longtime caring but somewhat overweight best friend (Beanie Feldstein) in pursuit of friends with greater style and wealth. She learns the valuable lesson that forms the foundation of life, namely that your best friends have the biggest hearts.

This movie was a marvelous experience for me, and I think it will have particular meaning for women.

“Wonder”

“Wonder,” directed with charm by Stephen Chbosky, is a movie that all children of any age should see, particularly when sitting next to parents who will be constantly wiping tears from their eyes. Based on a best-selling book, the film follows a young boy with massive facial deformities as he dares to enter the fifth grade after being home-schooled. The film will charm the most cynical members of the audience.

rating-wonder.gifHaving previously shown his inspiring gift for acting as the young boy trapped in a garage with his mother in “Room” (2015), Jacob Tremblay gives a dazzling performance as Auggie Pullman, a kid whose facial disfigurement leaves him wearing a space helmet when he goes out in public. At the urging of his parents to finally discover life in the real world, he departs for school, leaving his helmet behind.

What you then see unfold is a sad depiction of how callous and unfeeling even kids can be. No one wants to sit with him at lunch and they only stare at the young boy as he walks down a hallway. Returning home after his first day, he feels so miserable that he regrets going out in public as a normal kid.

However, his parents, played by Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, won’t allow him to quit. Though they are personally troubled by their son’s perception that he is being treated like a circus freak, they are smart enough to know that he just has to persevere and see what awaits down the road.

As Auggie’s school life unfolds, the story also focuses on kids with other problems. His sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic) is a teenager troubled by parents she loves who devote most of their time to her brother. She fights to be considerate while wrestling with the feeling that she is being constantly treated like an extra in a play.

And then there is Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), a girl who returns from summer vacation by treating Via as a person she barely knows. As her story unfolds, you learn that this young girl lives with her divorced mother who finds alcohol the only means of soothing her agony.

There are other stories, but everything revolves around Auggie. This tiny little film gives meaning to the old phrase that time heals all wounds.

Let me close by noting a shortcoming — the casting of Owen Wilson as Auggie’s father. While Julia Roberts does what you expect her to do as Auggie’s mother, Wilson continues to appear on screen with his shaggy head of hair that makes him look like an old hippy. Furthermore, his tennis shoes worn with suits each day as he heads to an unnamed job becomes nearly as distracting as Kenneth Branagh’s unfortunate scenes of constantly wearing no heavy clothing as he ventures outside after an avalanche in the “Orient Express.”

However, Wilson has a relatively small role and the film rises above his limited talents. As I left the theater, I could only mock myself by noting that the film was about Auggie, not his dad. Besides, we should all be thankful that Ben Affleck did not play Auggie’s father.•

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Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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