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Billboards and bingeing Easy

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. I have struggled to understand and articulate my feelings about this, the third feature from acclaimed and award-winning playwright-turned-slightly-less-acclaimed-but-still-award-winning writer-director of movies Martin McDonagh. It calls back to his debut In Bruges (2008), with its balance of goofiness and emotional desolation, but also to the more recent Seven Psychopaths (2012) in its occasional graphic violence and suggestions of universal chaos and futility. I found the former deeply satisfying on initial viewing (sweet, charming even) and have been pleased to find it rewards revisiting. The latter, despite its startlingly stacked roster of talent, a plot that seems on paper just dark and heady and zany enough to work, amounted to less than the sum of its parts. And while Three Billboards clearly represents a forward trajectory, incorporating the more successful thematic and stylistic elements of McDonagh's previous two movies, it doesn't resonate as deeply as I thought it might in the hours and days since I watched it.

Some long months after the brutal death of her teenage daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) devises a course of action. She sells her abusive ex-husband's tractor-trailer and puts a substantial deposit down on the rental of three billboards outside deeply rural Ebbing, Missouri, all visible from the front porch of her house. Big as life, shockingly crimson, they call out the town's crotchety, popular and ultimately fair-minded police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for not making more progress in the investigation. The town swells with support for the chief and antipathy toward Mildred, especially officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an ill-tempered mama's boy with a violent streak and a chronic case of perpetual adolescence. She is resolute, though, and refuses to bend to ever-increasing pressure and threats. As the situation escalates, Willoughby's life takes a tragic turn, and violence blooms in Ebbing, nourished by paranoia and closed minds.

Like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is largely defined by its sterling cast: Harrelson, Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage have all worked with McDonagh before, and he apparently created the lead role with McDormand in mind (rightly so; it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the part). John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones and Lucas Hedges are each ideally suited to their relatively small but crucial supporting roles. And like In Bruges (more so than Seven Psychopaths), the characters all speak with distinct, fully-formed voices. It seems clear in the watching that each one had a developed identity on the page, with depth and complexity that enabled the actors to step in and bring them to proper life. And I think therein lies McDonagh's most formidable strength: He is a writer of estimable imagination, range and clear perspective. He is able give voice to disparate perspectives and types, and then to find and direct actors to performances that enlarge and enlighten them.

The problem, as I see it, is in his attempts to reconcile his dark vision — one where entropy reigns and hope, while occasionally present, is fleeting — with the strictures of a cinematic narrative. I admired the chaotic bent of Seven Psychopaths but it was unsustainable in the context of a two-hour screen story. And while Three Billboards is arguably the most concise and deliberate of his movies to date, its final act still suffers a little from the sort of unraveling effect of its creator's perspective. Whether this is an artistic failing is difficult to say but from this side of the screen the last act takes away from the brisk emotional density of the movie building up to it. R. 115m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

EASY. In other outlets, this past weekend marked the release of the second "season" of Joe Swanberg's anthology series on Netflix. He's been quietly building an admirable catalog of largely self-financed, lo-fi examinations of human relationships for some time now, but Easy is his highest-profile work to date.

Set in Chicago and now comprised of 16 episodes, the series presents a raw, multi-faceted perspective on the contemporary human experience, folding in family, business, marriage, sex, religion, charity — just a few light topics. While all of the segments are loosely connected, most can stand on their own, focusing on an individual or a few pairs of characters. Easy brings the relationships of those people into sharp focus, exploring them from inside with sometimes funny, sometimes bewildering but always strikingly honest results.

Swanberg, somewhat famously, works largely without scripts, instead casting actors who can improvise in character from a narrative outline. This gives his work a deceptively free-wheeling feel — especially in combination with his unobtrusive camera technique — that opens up the lives of the characters. Easy may be his most controlled work yet but it still benefits from the freedom and exploration that can come from talented, capable actors given the freedom to explore their characters.

— John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Previews

THE BREADWINNER. Animated movie about a young Afghani girl who pretends to be a boy so she can feed her family under the oppressive regime of the Taliban. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.

THE DISASTER ARTIST. Dave and James Franco star in a comedy about the friendship between an aspiring actor and the mysterious character behind the making of the cult D-movie The Room. R. 103m. BROADWAY.

JUST GETTING STARTED. Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones play alpha seniors battling for the top spot in a resort community until one of them reveals he's in the witness protection program. PG13. 91m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). Board the Christmas train to the North Pole with eerie CG Tom Hanks. G. 100m. BROADWAY.

THELMA. Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins star in a film about a young woman who enters a romantic relationship with a classmate as her own chaotic supernatural powers emerge. (In Norwegian with subtitles.) NR. 116m. BROADWAY.

Continuing

COCO. Young musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) goes on a quest to the Land of the Dead to circumvent his family's generations-old ban on music in this Pixar animated feature. With Gael García Bernal. PG. 109m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

DADDY'S HOME 2. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg reprise their roles as "co-dads," this time struggling with their own polar opposite dads (racist boil Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) with mildly humorous and pointedly heartwarming results. A benign and forgettable signal that Ferrell isn't trying anymore. PG13. 98m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

JANE. Documentary about Jane Goodall's personal and professional life in the early days of her work with chimpanzees. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX.

JUSTICE LEAGUE. Batman (Ben Affleck) teams up with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and a butched-up Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to save the world. PG13. 121m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

LOVING VINCENT. An animated drama in the style of Vincent van Gogh created with thousands of oil paintings and depicting a man's investigation into the artist's death. Starring Douglas Booth and Robert Gulaczyk. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.

LADY BIRD. Saoirse Ronan stars in writer/director Greta Gerwig's heartbreaking, funny and terribly true film about being a teenager. Immersive performances by Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts give us an intimate look at a family from the inside. R. 93m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS. Dan Stevens and Christopher Plummer star as Charles Dickens and his creation Ebenezer Scrooge as the author struggles to write A Christmas Carol amid family and career strife. PG. 144m. BROADWAY.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Director Kenneth Branagh dons a massive mustache as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot alongside a stellar cast of suspects (Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer). Rich sets and slower pacing embraces old-fashioned movie making for a beautiful, compelling mystery. PG13. 114m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THOR: RAGNAROK. Director Taika Waititi keeps Marvel's high drama but balances it with humor and and a nimble, entertaining story. Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum excel as very different villains. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Writer/director Dan Gilroy's thoughtful film tells the cautionary tale of a quirky workhorse of a lawyer (Denzel Washington) who starts to see his career in stark relief against flashier (and less ethical) colleagues. PG13. 122m. BROADWAY.

THE STAR. This animated feature follows a donkey (Steve Yeun) and the rest of the manger crew on the road to the first Christmas. With Kristen Chenoweth, Keegan-Michael Key and Gina Rodriguez. PG. 86m. FORTUNA.

WONDER. Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay star in YA adaptation about a boy with severe facial deformity entering school speaks to our limited understanding of others' suffering, kindness and the comfort of kindred spirits — all things we could use right now. PG. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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