A Different Kind of Punisher, or, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Spoiler alert: they ain’t for car insurance.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s latest film is deceptively titled. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a small name. It’s a small number of a pretty inconsequential thing in a fictional, flyover town. In the beginning, the film presents the sort of colloquial morality play one might expect from such a title, but slowly and steadily McDonagh’s latest expands to encompass matters of global karmic import.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a mother who rents out the titular billboards to condemn Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby for the unsolved, brutal murder of her teenage daughter. The crime in question is despicable and distressing, one you’d think had no place in a comedy, but then, that’s McDonagh. It is, karmically speaking, the sort of black and white matter of guilt that’d have the Punisher locking and loading, a clearly printed receipt for one eye.

But from there McDonagh introduces us to the intricacies of Mildred, Chief Willoughby and the denizens of their town, piling on character after character, none above societal reproach for any number of reasons, be they blatant abuses of power or dating far below one’s own age. As character after character wanders through the film, backs bent with those pesky burdens of nuance and context, condemnation gets murkier. The film challenges the viewer to decide where the buck stops, to decide at what point, if any, we cease to be The Punisher and start to be a jury of peers.

To its credit the film never devolves into a partisan argument for the ideal operation of the criminal justice system. There is no soap box moment here, just a series of characters who will one by one disappoint you to varying degrees with their actions and behaviors. Perhaps you’ll grow to, if not forgive, understand some of these characters. Perhaps you won’t.

“What is to be done with this?” McDonagh seems to ask the viewers, with a question mark as clear as day. “What is to be done with all this guilt in the face of all this nuance and context? How much do we trust in justice and when must we pursue proactively?”

For fans of McDonagh such as myself (full disclosure: Seven Psychopaths is one of my all-time favorite movies), the writer-director remains as bleakly hilarious and thoughtful as ever. For the uninitiated, neither it’s subject matter or narrative are easy-going, but Three Billboards’ script and characters are unlike any others you’re likely to see in theaters during awards season this year.

Straight-Up Crucichimption, or, War for the Planet of the Apes

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War for the Planet of the Apes: The Timeless Tale of a Bunch of Dead and Dying Horses

Just as you’d find it difficult to find a more thematically ambitious blockbuster this summer than War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment in the series of Planet of the Apes prequels preceded by Rise and Dawn, you’ll have a hard time finding a blockbuster that is more miserable to watch.

War is visually stunning, even beyond the uncanny-valley-defying apes and Andy Serkis’ witchcraft the cinematography is engaging and arresting. War also boasts an inspired, left-of-center score that is easily the best of the thirty-some scores produces this fiscal year by Michael Giacchino. Even the film’s comedic relief is on point.

Unfortunately, all of that takes a backseat as the film’s second act pumps the breaks and concerns itself primarily with chimp torture. I’m sure a stopwatch might prove me overdramatic, but I certainly felt as though the movie spent an hour intimidating, whipping and straight-up crucifying chimpanzees.

Those familiar with Rise of the Planet of the Apes know these prequels are no stranger to maliciously tormenting primates and the expanded scale of that torment in War provides an interesting point of contrast to the circumstances in the first film, circumstances that essentially birthed Serkis’ protagonist Caesar, who is now a revolutionary leader, but by the time you’re done making that comparison and mulling it over you’ve still got another 55 minutes of ape torture ahead of you.

Like Rosemary or Thyme, a little bit of chimpanzee crucifixion goes a long way. This movie has so much chimpanzee crucifixion.

As miserable as large parts of War can be, the film also boasts an interesting and thoughtful examination of the sacrifices required to be a leader

I’m not the first, and won’t be the last, to point out the lack of a titular War in War for the Planet of the Apes. If there is a war in the film, it takes place within the heart and mind of Caesar as he grapples with the dichotomy of being a revolutionary and being a monkey dad. The film provides insightful commentary on the responsibilities both positions entail, positing that to lead a people out of persecution and serve as a living, breathing symbol of freedom one must become both more and less than human (or chimp), surrendering certain aspects of personhood and individuality or paying steep tolls for clinging to them.

War for the Planet of the Apes is also commendable for the minimal amounts of contortion it does to lay way for the film it leads into. Unlike Revenge of the Sith or Rogue One, War doesn’t bother planting every seed for the developments that occur between it and the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, instead offering us a quick glance at unplowed fields and leaving us to imagine what the interim centuries between Apes films entail.

Though it isn’t the strongest entry in this prequel trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes is a suitable ending to a series of films that are serious contenders for the greatest prequels ever made.

Step Aside Nerds, or, True Detective is the Future

Guess what? No spoilers ahead! How do you like them apples? Feel free to have seen absolutely none of True Detective and have absolutely nothing about True Detective spoiled for you. Except the protagonists’ names. Sorry.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the films and shows that first really clicked with me as a young(er) adult. The movies I watched in high school that opened my mind to just how much a movie could achieve. I suspect everyone has a list of entertainment that meets that criteria, and I suspect a lot of our lists have a lot of the same things on them. Entertainment that raises the bar for entertainment, or morphs it entirely. Things that capture the zeitgeist in such a way as to constantly appear on a towering, sometimes pretentious, pedestal above the uninitiated.

When I was in high school many of my peers put the works of Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky on that pedestal. When I was in college it seemed perpetually occupied by The Wire. For me that first work that blew the lid off of what I knew movies to be was No Country for Old Men.

There isn’t a right answer, to be certain, but there are definitely movies and shows that seem to hold that place for people more than others, and I suspect there is a new member of that pantheon.

LOGO ATTACK

LOGO ATTACK

If I were in high school today I suspect the hushed discussions during geometry class would be exclusively about True Detective.

The eight-part HBO mini-series, which now seems poised to be the first season in an anthology series that changes stories and characters year to year, ended last night after stirring up no small amount of discussion and speculation for the past two months. And rightfully so.

True Detective perpetually presented new ideas or reframed old ones. It’s very much a study of tradition cinematic masculinity, yet it tilts the concept just enough to the left to allow for an honest examination of that masculinity’s associated tropes and pitfalls. Similarly it’s very much a cop drama and yet its ambitious storytelling sensibilities differentiate it entirely from the likes of Law & Order and other traditional procedurals.

For all the familiar ground it treads in terms of detectives and investigation the nuance in True Detective is unlike anything else. Whether it’s a gaze into space, a tracking shot or mumbled existentialism the show never remained complaisant in its titular genre.

Just a couple of bros, broing out bro style.

Just a couple of bros, broing out bro style.

And why would it have?

True Detective was set up as a mini-series. Eight episodes. In and out. A story to tell from beginning to end within a predetermined span of time. It could pace itself accordingly, dulling out questions and answers at its own pace rather than having to worry about retaining momentum for an inestimable number of future episodes in an unknown number of future seasons.

Part of what makes True Detective so fantastic is that it’s self-contained.

Season one of True Detective is over in every sense of the word. The characters are done. The story is done. It was all extremely finite and all the more precious for it.

Here’s hoping the entertainment industry takes notice.

Are you excited for Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Did you see the first Captain America? What about the seven other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Did you read any of the graphic novels? Do you keep up with the comic?

What about The Walking Dead? Do you keep up with that comic? Are you caught up on Season Four? What about All-Out War? Have you played the video game yet? Are you read for the spin-off?

True Detective is eight hour-long episodes of television.

That’s it.

Two dreamboats coming up.

Two dreamboats coming up.

Sure it was influenced by various texts you could check out for your own curiosity, but when you have watched the first eight episodes of True Detective, you have watched True Detective. There are no tie-ins, there is no source material, there is just a single, stand-alone story about Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, two characters we’ve never seen before and will never see again.

True Detective is the antithesis of geek-culture’s mythology-heavy stronghold on entertainment. And I love it for that.

If True Detective is the piece of fiction that heightens my kids perception of what film and art are capable of I’ll be thrilled for them. And appalled that my kids are watching such wildly inappropriate television.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

Is there a television show or movie that changed the way you view entertainment?

Is it the 1999 romp Deep Blue Sea?

Why not?