Thursday, November 2, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Borg vs McEnroe

Martin McDonagh has captured the attention of critics and movie lovers alike, despite a relatively brief stint within the industry. McDonagh burst onto the scene with his eloquently-constructed 2008 hitman comedy, In Bruges, only to follow it up with the equally impressive and wacky dog-napping comedy, Seven Psychopaths. But in a wide open year such as this, McDonagh's latest small-town crime comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, may be his ticket to the awards season's biggest dance.

It's been seven months since Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has heard from police regarding the violent rape and murder of her daughter. Desperate to keep the story relevant and with hopes that the attention will lead to an arrest of her daughter's killer, Mildred rents a trio of billboards alongside a small-town road that question the efforts of local law enforcement and their superior officer, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). But when a volatile mama's boy, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), loses his cool over the billboards, tensions escalate quickly in the town of Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards thrives on explosive humor and a timely examination of local law enforcement officers all across the country. And rather than crumbling to the divisive politicizing of speaking in false extremes, McDonagh accurately depicts the wide spectrum of policing, addressing both respectable and deplorable behaviors, as well as the stunningly beautiful ability to change. Therein lies the film's greatest strength. And as the year's end creeps closer and closer, most of the industry's attention will be placed on the sorrowfully-effective performance from lead actress Frances McDormand. Even in a crowded year for female roles, she should certainly land a nomination and quite possibly an Oscar win as well. Yet, it's supporting star Sam Rockwell who leaves a lasting impression beyond compare. While the brilliant performer has somehow managed to avoid singular recognition from any of the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and the Academy Awards, that's all about to change. Measuring up to and surpassing anything you've enjoyed him in before, Rockwell's portrayal of a short-tempered and unethical small-town cop who backlashes against the woman responsible for these unfair billboards is something to savor. All of these wonderful performances are born from a hilariously amusing screenplay and superb direction that help solidify Three Billboards as one of 2017's strongest films.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B+

One surprisingly strong Spotlight selection from this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was Janus Metz's sports drama, Borg vs McEnroe. We're all aware of actor Shia LaBeouf's peculiar social behavior, but the man can surely act. And although the film forcibly has his portrayal of outspoken tennis star John McEnroe take a backseat to the immense depth of on-court rival Bjorn Borg, the spectacular sports history of 1980's Wimbledon tournament is captured with such mastery.

Swedish world tennis champion Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is widely regarded as a machine on the court due to his lack of emotion throughout matches. On the other hand, American up-and-comer John McEnroe (LaBeouf) has built a reputation as a fiery competitor who's quick to call out a line judge and feud with people in the crowd. Polar opposites on the court but surprisingly similar in psyche, these two legends of the sport collide in a Wimbledon final that's often referred to as "the greatest match ever played".

The finest achievement from Janus Metz's immersive sports drama is its ability to mold such a deep character. The inner demons of consecutive 4-time Wimbledon champion, Bjorn Borg, on his quest to capture a record-setting 5th straight title is shockingly hypnotic. Sverrir Gudnason delivers a phenomenal performance that illustrates the psychologically painful nature of mounting pressure. There's an impactful exchange between Borg and his lifelong coach Lennart Bergelin, who's played wonderfully by acting veteran Stellan Skarsgard, and Bergelin says something to the tune of, "winning and losing are like life and death" for Borg. This bit of dialogue perfectly sums up the film and, more importantly, the athlete. Consequently, the audience is given far less attention to John McEnroe, yet Shia LaBeouf wastes no time making the most of every opportunity. Borg vs McEnroe stands as both a worthwhile sports film and a valiant piece of dramatic art. Despite an over-extended final showdown that makes a regrettably anti-climactic finish, something that can prove detrimental in the sports film genre, Borg vs McEnroe overcomes this fatal flaw with a deeply personal story depicted exceptionally by its entire cast.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

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