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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Coco” are also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

Generally speaking, movies, in their drive to show life but with the boring parts cut out, tend to over-simplify. Typically, even a movie with a complex character at its center, like Mildred (Frances McDormand) in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” would short change the supporting players and make them one dimensional. In a lesser developed movie, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) would be brash and incompetent and his deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) would be a stereotypical one-note racist cop with no redeeming qualities who gets some kind of comeuppance at the end. Much to my delight and gratifying refreshment, “Three Billboards” is not one of these lesser developed movies.

The plot is straightforward. Approximately seven months before the start of the movie, Mildred’s daughter Angela (played in a flashback by Kathryn Newton) was raped and immolated in a vicious attack right by Mildred’s home. Willoughby, the chief of police, did a thorough investigation, but not thorough enough for Mildred. In order to motivate him into further action to solve her daughter’s murder, Mildred rents out three billboards from Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the local owner of the billboards. On them she questions Willoughby’s ability to solve the case and asks why the investigation has stalled.



If you think you know where this is going, think again. Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s master stroke is in defying convention and populating his world with characters who have subtlety and nuance. Nothing is black and white. Shades of gray abound in “Three Billboards” and the movie seeks to explore the human condition in all of its most messy yet exhilarating complexity. It’s amazing how a conversation between two people can shift from adversarial to sympathetic in such a natural way that is not forced. Quite conversely, the relationship transitions in this movie are powerfully, sometimes tragically, human.

Take Mildred for example. We can all sympathize with the devastating situation she’s in. Yet at the same time, Mildred is no martyr. She’s cold, bitter, single-minded, doesn’t smile much, and is prone to acts of violence. Admittedly, some of these acts of violence are great to see, like when she gives a pair of punk teenagers some just retribution. Others are horrible, like when she takes her gripe with the cops way too far and does something atrocious that has major consequences. She’s not above using others either, like when she takes advantage of the tender feelings of short-statured local car salesman James (Peter Dinklage). He gives her the dose of reality that no one else in the movie can—and it’s a dose she very much needs and deserves.


Yet Midred is not all anger and vitriol. She has regret. Her relationship with her daughter was not as great as it could have been, and their last words to each other were particularly bad. She also has compassion. As she’s renting the billboards early in the movie, she spots a bug on a window sill. It’s laying upside down and struggling. In an act of kindness and mercy, she flips the bug up right so it may go free. There’s also a soulful, deeply moving scene where Mildred is by the billboards and spots a doe. She’s not exactly the religious type (a scene where she tells off a priest proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt), but her monologue in the scene tips her toward at least having a spiritual side. It’s a side that she shows to no one else in the movie, not even her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), which makes it a special moment that is very moving to see.

These layers of complexity can also be applied to Willoughby and Dixon—just in different ways. It’s not surprising that McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell are all nominated for Oscars for their performances. McDonagh also has nods in the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay categories. Given how well this movie did at the Golden Globes, the odds are in their favor. My personal prediction is that at the very least, this movie will win Best Original Screenplay. Writing this good draws a lot of attention, and a loss in this category will be a major upset. The rest are more up for grabs, but a win in any or all of the nominated categories would be well deserved. Buy it on Amazon: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Murder on the Orient Express

Mystery writer Agatha Christie’s most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, is on the big screen again in director Kenneth Branagh’s (who also plays Poirot) “Murder on the Orient Express.” The world renowned detective, who sports a ridiculous signature mustache and seeks order and balance in every aspect of his life, is on the famous train headed to his next case. He’s looking for three days of rest and relaxation to recharge his batteries, so to speak, so he can face the next challenge that awaits him. Unfortunately for him, a suspicious man named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), whom everyone thinks of as a scoundrel, turns up murdered in his train compartment. It’s up to Poirot to put his rest aside and figure out who did it and why.

I’m a huge fan of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie of the same name, so going into this one I decided that as long it captured the mystery and intrigue I felt while watching the first movie, this one would be all right—even though I know the outcome. This 2017 version certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard, and viewers coming into this movie without knowing the end are in for a treat. It’s memorable for being quite possibly one of the most brilliant and fascinating solutions in the history of murder mysteries. The sheer audacity of it makes this a movie worth seeing.


The story isn’t the only reason to see “Murder on the Orient Express” either. Branagh must be given credit as a director for keeping things interesting visually. There’s only so much that can be done in the cramped quarters of a train, but Branagh’s camera finds a way to keep things compelling. A long tracking shot outside of the train before it departs, in which we see all of the players involved, and an overhead shot of the crime scene after Ratchett’s body is discovered are two of the most memorable. Some of the action moves outside at times as well, giving us a nice breath of cold mountain air to clear away the claustrophobia.

Whether you’re up for a great murder mystery, some awe-inspiring visuals, or just an engrossing story with good twists and turns, “Murder on the Orient Express” is an all-around must see. Buy it on Amazon: Murder On The Orient Express [Blu-ray]

Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman, in a knockout Oscar nominated performance, disappears into the role of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” The year is 1940 and the British Parliament has lost faith in the current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to protect the United Kingdom from the impending German threat. Churchill, not without controversy, is appointed the new Prime Minister to deal with the situation. Once appointed, he wrestles with the idea of whether or not to enter into peace talks with Germany—effectively surrendering the country to them—and also has to deal with the British troops trapped at Dunkirk with little hope of rescue.

Winston Churchill is a larger than life historical figure. He drank and smoke heavily, stated his opinions clearly and forcefully, and apparently, was known for bringing more than one secretary to tears. This can be attested to by young Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), whom Churchill puts through the ringer straight away with the first telegram she is asked to type for him her first day on the job. Luckily for him, she sticks with the job and is there to tell him the difference between flashing a “V” for victory sign with the first two fingers of his hand and flipping what can politely be called the British version of “the bird.”


Oldman captures all of Churchill’s well known mannerisms in a bravado performance that holds nothing back. “Darkest Hour” shows that Churchill was not all show and chest pounding. There’s a fantastic scene that takes place on a train, in which Churchill seeks the counsel of regular, every day Britons on what he should do in regard to Germany and in protecting the country. The people make their views clear to him, and he is their champion. This leads to one of Chuchill’s greatest and best known speeches to Parliament. As delivered by Oldman, it’s every bit as stirring and impactful as it was when it was delivered decades ago by the man himself. Buy it on Amazon: Darkest Hour [Blu-ray].

Coco

The title character of Disney/Pixar’s animated movie “Coco” is an elderly woman in a wheelchair who barely speaks. She’s the great grandmother of a boy named Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), who wants to be a mariachi musician. This is something he needs to keep secret, since his iron-fisted Abuelita (voice of Renee Victor) is adamantine about carrying on the family tradition of barring all music and concentrating on making shoes. This tradition was started decades before Migeul was born by his great-great grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) after her musician husband went on the road to play music and never came back. Why the movie is named after Coco is a very good question, which is answered by the end. Other questions are answered too, but they’re far less interesting.

The movie takes place on the evening of the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), in which relatives who have passed on are revered and remembered. After a confrontation with his family about being a musician, Miguel attempts to steal the guitar of famous mariachi Ernesto de la Cruz from a local museum. In so doing, he finds himself magically transported to the Land of the Dead, where he comes into contact with various relatives he recognizes from pictures on his family’s ofrenda (an altar where offerings are placed) as well as down on his luck dead man Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal) and finally, Cruz himself, voiced by Benjamin Bratt.


Perhaps it’s a product of seeing too many of these movies, but right from the start I had a very good idea of where this movie was going and how it was going to get there, right up to the changes of heart and life lessons learned. While “Coco” undeniably plays it safe character and story-wise, I have to give it credit for the visuals. The Land of the Dead is a rather ebullient and effervescent place, with bright lights, a happening night life, shows to see, and things to do. It’s an eye-popping place to visit with a color palette that looks more inspired by hard candy than it does by death. Folks who pass on to this Land of the Dead need not despair, as their happiness continues in the afterlife—for as long as they are remembered by the living.

In spite of being mundane, “Coco” does remind us of the importance of family, both past and present. After all, the best way to understand where we are is to understand where we came from. Gaining this understanding in such an ironically lively place as the Land of the Dead certainly helps to get the message through. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Hangman,” about a homicide detective who teams up with a criminal profiler to catch a serial killer whose crimes are inspired by the children's game Hangman, starring Al Pacino and Karl Urban; and “Just Getting Started,” about an ex-FBI agent and an ex-mob lawyer in the witness protection program having to put aside their petty rivalry on the golf course to fend off a mob hit, starring Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, and Joe Pantoliano.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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