Saturday, December 9, 2017

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

In a small town on a small road, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides that she wants justice for her daughter's murder so she puts up three billboards calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for not arresting anyone. She purchases the advertising space from Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones). Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is angered by the posters and threatens everyone from Welby to Mildred to try and take them down but no crime has been committed. Complicating matters is that Chief Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer. Mildred's son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is upset by the signs because he has tried to avoid the details of his sister's death. Most of the town turns against Mildred and comes out to support Chief Willoughby. 

Mildred experiences backlash even having to drill a hole in the thumb of the dentist in one chill-inducing scene while her face is injected with novocaine. At the local bar, Dixon confronts Red, Mildred, and James (Peter Dinklage), who is addressed derogatorily. Dixon continues to find ways to terrorize Mildred getting an idea from his mom (Sandy Martin) to arrest Mildred's co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren). Chief Willoughby brings Mildred in as the dentist decides to press charges but in the interrogation room the Chief coughs blood on her face and is taken to the hospital but not before insisting that Mildred is set free. Willoughby learns that he will not last much longer so decides to take a day off with his two daughters and his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish).

Mildred faces off against her abusive ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) who left her for a much younger woman. Charlie orders Mildred to take down the signs but she refuses even as he threatens her violently and Robbie has to step in with a knife. It is revealed in a flashback that Mildred taunted her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton) about walking alone on the road where she died. Welby also has to ask Mildred for another month's rent for the billboards but before they can negotiate, a mysterious donor delivers the payment in cash. After having an enjoyable day with his family, Chief Willoughby writes a few notes and goes out to his barn to shoot himself in the head. The Chief's death leaves a ripple of repercussions and in one note to Mildred, he reveals that he paid for the billboard forcing her to defend it after his death.

Dixon is so upset that he marches over to Welby's shop and beats up the proprietor of the ad agency and throws him out the window right in front of the new replacement chief, Abercrombie (Clarke Peters) who fires him once he takes over. A man enters Mildred's store and threatens her but he leaves when Angela shows up to deliver the suicide note. Driving home that night, Mildred and Robbie find the billboards on fire. They try to put them out but it is destroyed. Mildred believes Dixon set the fires so she takes revenge on the police by throwing flaming bottles at the station. Dixon is inside, though Mildred didn't know it, and he is burned badly. James covers for Mildred and invites her on a date. On the date, Charlie arrives to taunt Mildred and James but Mildred does not take revenge. Dixon recovers from his burns and finds a suspect who he scratches the face of to get his DNA but receives a beating in the process. He gets Mildred's hopes up but it turns out to not be the killer. Mildred is able to put up the billboards again with copies of the sign. Dixon decides to take revenge on the men who he thinks is a rapist and includes Mildred. Together they drive to Idaho agreeing to decide whether to kill the man when they get there.

The film offers plenty of surprises. The twists and turns are unexpected as they are terrible. The characters are not always the most likable and Dixon inexplicably gets redemption even though he commits some of the most heinous crimes. France McDormand's performance is the most enjoyable of the film and she brings her all-star talent to Martin McDonagh's script. McDonagh also directs a plot that plays out in tragic yet comical form. I enjoyed the film for the most part but recognize some of the issues it fails to fully flesh out and the easy redemption it offers some of its more despicable characters. The film should get some awards recognition but may suffer from some controversy. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sports: College Football (Week 14 - Championship Week)

The final weekend of college football settled who was going to the playoffs and which teams were only pretenders in the top four. Some of the games were competitive while others were straight up blowouts. The Bowls are set up after the conference championships and one true winner will be crowned a week after new year's day in the National Championship.

ACC Championship

The Miami Hurricanes had a chance to knock the reigning champions off the top but couldn't come through at all. The Clemson Tigers took the game in a massive victory 38-3. Miami already had a huge loss to Pittsburgh right before this so they dropped to tenth and will play in the Orange Bowl against Wisconsin. Clemson returns to the College Football Playoffs against their Championship opponent for the last two years in a tie-breaker in the series, a Sugar Bowl against Alabama. 

Big 12 Championship

Heisman Trophy frontrunner Baker Mayfield led the Sooners past a weak TCU Horned Frogs team. With only one blemish on their record, Oklahoma moves on to the Rose Bowl where they will face Georgia. TCU faces Stanford in the Alamo Bowl. 

Big Ten Championship

In one upset of Saturday, Ohio State redeemed their rough season with a win over the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers 27-21. The Buckeyes did not earn enough respect to gain passage to the playoffs but they will take on the PAC-12 champs USC in the Cotton Bowl. Wisconsin has Miami in the Orange Bowl.

SEC Championship
The other upset came from Georgia who lost to Auburn earlier this season. The Bulldogs turned the tables and were dominant against the Tigers who were the same way toward them during their previous meetings. Auburn beat Alabama to make it into the SEC Championship but the Crimson Tide with only one loss will still push into the playoffs for the fourth straight year of their existence. Georgia takes on Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl while Auburn takes on UCF in the Peach Bowl.

The developments of the last few weeks are exciting and the end of December will be full of great football. I am going to predict that the Bulldogs upset the Sooners while Clemson beats Bama. I'll go ahead and say Clemson wins it all again, though my predictive abilities have been pretty poor lately. I would like to see Oklahoma or Georgia take home the championship but we'll see what happens.

TV Show Review: Chance (Season 2)

Hulu's original series surprised me with how interesting it was and the compelling characters. The streaming network has experimented with original content and produced some entertaining shows so I was able to give Chance a few episodes and found it to be something worth my time. The first season dealt with neuro-psychiatrist Eldon Chance (Hugh Laurie) and his obsession with a patient Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol). While Jaclyn absence from the second season was noticeable, the introduction of the vicious murderer and tech mogul Ryan Winter (Paul Schneider) made the next round of episodes chilling. Chance and his violent acquaintance D (Ethan Suplee) help victims of violent crime and find their harassers. The doctor has become comfortable in his role as a vigilante but when he brutally assaults Winter, he feels guilty and phones the police.

Chance is able to find these victims because he has been hired on at a new center run by Kristen Clayton (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Chance has struck up a relationship with Kristen which he tries to keep secret but it is obvious to Chance's longtime assistant Lucy (Greta Lee) who Chance has hired on to help him. Chance wants to distance himself from Winter but Detective Kevin Hynes (Brian Goodman) blackmails Chance into helping him much to D's disdain. They work together on the case as Hynes is obsessed about Winter and a murder he once committed, a young boy criminal informant for Hynes with whom the detective also had a relationship. Eldon is dealing with a problem on the homefront as well as his daughter Nicole (Stefania LaVie Owen) deals with the trails of growing up in a more extreme manner. Eldon realizes it may have something to do with his own personality disorders that led to a troubled past. Complicating matters are frequent disagreements with his ex-wife Christina (Diane Farr).

Chance goes out of his way to insert himself into Winter's care but the consequences are dire as one of his other patients ends up dead after describing her abuse in detail. Winter leaves the victim in a position that signals to Chance who did it while Chance has no proof. Winter works to cover his tracks and make the victim's husband take the blame. D breaks into Winter's house to learn more about him and meets Winter's housekeeper Lorena (Ginger Gonzaga). D forms a relationship with her that grows steadily through the episodes. Nicole finds herself betrayed by a friend at school so she reacts violently. She starts learning to attack from D but Chance is wary of how his daughter handles troubling situations. The parents of the girl she attacks file charges and she finds herself in legal trouble. 

Chance has his own legal trouble as Kristen suspects he might be taking vengeance against their patients' abusers. He closes in on Winter earning his trust somewhat and pushing him to lash out. Hynes loses his job over the investigation and is troubled when evidence fails to lead to an easy conviction. He jumps at the chance to arrest Winter when another detective Frank Lambert (Tim Griffin) tells him that he is going to confront the rich mogul. It turns out in a stunning twist that Lambert was working with Winter the whole time as they knew each other since they were young and have been committing murders since the beginning. Christina ships Nicole off to a reform school when she dodges jail time but remains unremorseful. Nicole escapes into hiding. Chance figures out that Lambert is the true killer after Winter confesses but ends up dead in jail. D disappears to help Lorena fight off a cartel boss who demands the child inside of her. Chance heads down to help D who ends up in a hospital after being poisoned but he misses his sentencing hearing leaving him on the other side of the law. They return to California only to take down Lambert finally before returning to Mexico where Chance renews his practice of helping victims.

Chance surprised me as a Hulu original that I started kind of skeptically willing to give it a few episodes but found myself engaged after only three or four. I was excited to see a new season come out and was able to keep up with it though I liked for a few episodes to come out so I could watch a few at a time. While the second season concludes in a way that could end the story, I would like to see Hugh Laurie and Ethan Suplee return for another season. I am also curious about author Kem Nunn's novel of the same name and hope to pick that up some time in the future. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Movie Review: The Florida Project

A charming and moving depiction of poverty near one of the supposed happy places in the world. Disney World is nearby but Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in a different realm. She hangs around an extended stay motel with her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera). The Magic Castle is run by the friendly manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who looks out for Moonee and her troubled mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee seeks out trouble spitting on a car of a resident in a neighboring motel where she meets Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who becomes a third member of their crew. Moonee shows Jancey all the fun places to go including the ice cream shop where they beg other parents and patrons for enough change to buy an ice cream. Halley, Moonee, and Scooty eat free food from Scooty's mom Ashley (Mela Murder). 

Moonee is allowed to run free and cause mischief while Halley struggles to find a job. Bobby continues to cover for Halley and steer pedophiles away from the group of kids playing around the motel. Halley comes up with scams to make money to continue to pay her weekly rent. Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey sneak into an abandoned apartment complex and Scooty uses a lighter to set fire to a pillow in the fireplace. The fire gets out of control and sets the whole complex on fire. Scooty acts suspiciously when he gets home so Ashley suspects he had something to do with the fire and decides that Scooty should not be running around under the influence of Moonee.

The rift between Ashley and Halley causes repercussions but Moonee continues to run around with her cheerful nature and her newer friend Jancey. They explore the area and hang around entertaining themselves with childish fascination at the simplest things and even extraordinary things like a rainbow. Bobby tries to keep the motel together asking his brother Jack (Caleb Landry Jones) to help him fix things up like a mattress infested with bugs or a broken ice machine. A familial controversy suggests some past history but the background of Bobby is never fleshed out. He does help Halley stay under the radar though he always demands the rent and prevents her from establishing residency by staying in one room for too long. 

Moonee remains ignorant as Halley continues to run scams buying cheap perfume and selling it at ritzier hotels and keeping Moonee in the bathtub while she has men over at night. Halley tries to mend the relationship with Ashley but she is insistent that Moonee stays away from Scooty. Halley grows angry when a tourist John (Macon Blair) returns after a night over to demand she return something she stole. Bobby helps her out once again. Ashley confronts Halley about her business when Halley tries to ask for help with the rent and Halley beats Ashley up. Her former friend calls Child Protective Services on her and they decide to take Moonee away. Distressed by the circumstances, Moonee runs to Jancey and the two of them escape into Disney World.

While the film is not strong on plot, it is full of awe-inspiring images of poverty juxtaposed with innocence and fun. Brooklynn Prince delivers an amazing performance at such a young age and deserves to be nominated in the best actress category. Dafoe and Vinaite are great in supporting roles adding an adult perspective to the childlike wonder that infiltrates a majority of the film. Sean Baker does an amazing job directing young kids and also managing to shoot the Orlando landscape with such a great style. The Florida Project will not be an easy movie to forget and says something profound about our country. 

Sports: NFL (Week 9-12)

The NFL has been through a lot of controversies but that has mostly been political. The actual games have been a bit slow which I think has accounted for some of the drop off in viewers. Due to my habit of writing a novel every November, I took a pause at the beginning of the month from writing about sports but I'll catch up with the top team in each division. I have been paying attention and got some of the better games and even watched some of the boring ones. Football will always be entertaining to me even if sometimes I do think it is rough on the players and things should change in the future. The political controversy makes the sport more appealing to me and I hope players continue to protest.

NFC East
The best record in the NFL is a team that I am totally shocked has risen to the top. After their only loss in the second week, they have won nine straight. Their most recent wins have been against weaker teams but two NFC West should prove a challenge or give them credibility as a Super Bowl competitor. They do not have much competition in their division.

NFC North
The Minnesota Vikings have taken advantage of an injured Green Bay Packers to lead the North. They have won seven straight including the NFC West top team the Rams and their divisional rival the Lions. Two games against the NFC South teams the Falcons and the Panthers should be tough but could give them the chance to prove their staying power for the playoffs.

NFC South
While the Saints hold the advantage with a win over Carolina previously in the season, the Panthers beat the Jets last week while New Orleans lost to Los Angeles. Carolina has won four straight while the Saints won eight games before their recent loss. I am hoping the Atlanta Falcons come back with a ton of wins at the end of the season to win this division.

NFC West
The Los Angeles Rams have started to capitalize on the move to the new city. They lost to the Vikings before they beat the Saints but won four in a row before the last two games. They lost to the Seattle Seahawks once but could lose the top spot if they lose to them again.


AFC East
The New England Patriots are gearing up for another run at the Super Bowl and I don't really see anyone stopping them. They've won seven straight since their second loss to the Panthers. Their schedule looks pretty easy with a lot of divisional games and one challenge from the Steelers, a preview of the likely AFC Championship.

AFC North
The Pittsburgh Steelers have risen above a rough start. After disappointing losses, the Steelers have won six straight including an exciting Monday night game against the Packers. The rest of the division is weak so they should cruise to the playoffs with only the Patriots game in three weeks as a challenge. 

AFC South
This division is weak with two top teams in the Jaguars and Titans who have both had disappointing losses. Recently the Titans loss to the Steelers before a win over the Colts. A four-game win streak before that keeps them at the top but it wasn't against top teams. Jacksonville also has a four-game win streak that keeps them tied to the Titans. They most recently lost to the Cardinals. 

AFC West
The Kansas City Chiefs started as one of the hottest team in the league but have fallen so far that they may not win the division. Three straight losses against pitiful teams make this season an embarrassment for the Chiefs while the Chargers sneak up with two recent wins.

The NFL is always full of excitement and the last month will offer five games for each team that will have crucial impact on the playoffs. Most teams have settled into their positions but their may be some upsets in the weaker divisions and the wild card teams still have to be decided. 

Sports: College Football (Week 10-13)

College football has taken all sorts of twists and turns over the last four weeks and while I have watched most of the exciting games, I was unable to keep up with my blog posts about it. The games have been amazing and full of upsets that were as unpredictable as they were exciting. My plan is to recount the last four weeks through the top four teams as we head into the conference championships. I'll finish off with a few predictions and possible scenarios if the games this Saturday go a certain. I am excited to head into the most interesting time in college football as the last few weeks have been highly entertaining.

1 Clemson Tigers
The reigning National Champions find themselves back in the top spot with a target on their back. Clemson has been promoted by default. Their only big loss was earlier in the season and they've defeated the last six teams. Their biggest challenge comes from a strong Miami team that somehow got upset last week by Pittsburgh. The ACC Championship will be a competitive battle. I think that Miami will upset Clemson as I haven't been impressed by the Tigers play and the Hurricanes have something to prove. Depending on who else goes, Miami will be third or fourth but should get into the playoffs.

2 Auburn Tigers
The SEC has been a roller coaster but I did not expect it would be so crazy that the Auburn Tigers would be on top. Their incredible defeats of the Georgia Bulldogs and then the Alabama Crimson Tide two weeks later has put them in the driver seat. They will have a rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship. The Tigers might prevail against the Bulldogs but I wouldn't be surprised if Georgia responds and earns a spot in the playoffs. Alabama's chances depend more on the other championships.

3 Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners feel like the surest bet to make it into the playoffs. Wins over Oklahoma State and TCU earned them the spot after an early season upset by Iowa State. Oklahoma faces TCU again and I don't think the Horned Frogs will win but even if they do, they won't make it into the playoffs. With the top Heisman candidate, Oklahoma will be one of the biggest threats and could move up to first or second with a win. An Oklahoma loss should mean that Alabama makes it in. 

4 Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin hasn't had a very difficult schedule but strong wins over Iowa and Michigan have them moving into the Big Ten Championship. Their greatest challenge of the season awaits in Ohio State and I think there is a strong possibility that they could be upset. The only thing I'm unsure of is if the Buckeyes can earn a position in the playoffs or if they buy Alabama that spot.

Anything could still happen and this season has been wildly unpredictable. The four teams that are at the top control their destiny but upsets could cause all sorts of chaos in the ranks right before the decision to pick the playoff teams. I'll try to write after the conference championships when the actual four teams are decided. 

TV Show Review: Alias Grace

A murder mystery and historical drama from the great author Margaret Atwood makes for a great Netflix limited series. The show begins with Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) already locked up for a murder, though the circumstances of that crime are not yet revealed. Psychologist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) interviews Grace to figure out if she is guilty or if her story is true. In flashbacks, Grace is kicked out of her father's home. She searches for work and finds a job as a maid working for Mrs. Parkinson (Martha Burns). She forms a relationship with another maid Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddlard) but Mary comes down with an illness which turns out to be a pregnancy as she was flirting with George Parkinson (Will Bowes). Forced to keep it a secret, she gets the dangerous operation of an abortion but does not survive the bleeding.

Grace believes she hears the voice of Mary and fears she didn't open a window fast enough to let her soul. Distressed, Grace faints but she wakes up under the impression that she is Mary and Grace is missing. Dr. Jordan is skeptical of Grace's claim but continues to listen to her as he daydreams about a romantic relationship with her. Grace meets Jeremiah Pontelli (Zachary Levi), a traveling salesman who finds Grace attractive. Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) recruits Grace to work as a maid at the home of Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross). Strange rumors surround Kinnear and Nancy, though a maid herself, has a more personal relationship with her employer. 

Grace settles in as she finds some things appealing about her life but she also feels stuck in this position as a maid and desires more from her life. She continues to relate her past to Dr. Jordan who seeks to solve the case but also find a cure for what ails Grace. Not all is peaceful at the Kinnear residence as the rumors continue to swirl and a helper James McDermott (Kerr Logan) is unhappy with his payment. Dr. Jordan continues to pull out the story from Grace Marks as she relates the events leading up to the murders but when she gets to the actual events, she starts to have gaps in her memory and claims that she does not remember what happened around that time.

Jeremiah shows up at the prison as he has studied hypnotist. In the past, Jeremiah came to the Kinnear house and tried to convince Grace to run away with him but she refuses when he says he won't marry her. Nancy grows worried that Grace is replacing her as Kinnear is nice to Grace so she decides that she will fire McDermott and Grace while Kinnear is away. McDermott grows angry but Grace's story also mixed up and changes in relating it to Dr. Jordan. McDermott kills Nancy by pushing her down into the cellar. He claims that Grace helps him choke her to death but Grace doesn't recall doing that though her handkerchief is found around Nancy's throat. McDermott waits for Kinnear to come home and shoots him in the barn. Grace claims she faints but when she comes to they are on the run. Eventually, she is caught and ends up in prison. Jeremiah hypnotizes Grace and Mary comes out of her claiming to have helped with the murders. Dr. Jordan is shipped off to fight the American Civil War while Grace is helped out by a man who had a crush on her as a young boy and feels guilty for helping to convict her.

Alias Grace is loosely based on a short story but Atwood fictionalized the events. The story is intriguing and Atwood at her best with harsh criticism of gender roles and a mysterious female protagonist. The series was short but entertaining. I wasn't sure what it involved and would like to pick up the book one day as I have enjoyed every novel I've read by Atwood. Her stories do well in adaptation and Gadon is great in the lead role while both Liddlard and Holcroft are great in support. I hope this show spells more adaptations of Atwood's work.