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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 18, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Billboards, Paddington, I'll Be Me

If you can't tell by the title that Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri is not just an independent film, but one with pretensions to being Art, and if you don't know that this means that the ending will be frustrating and unresolved, you probably need to find a film-savvy friend to vet your movie choices for you.

Because if you want a clearcut resolution of any of the issues raised by this movie, you're barking up the wrong tree. You're hunting with a pussycat instead of a pointer. You're trying to get Lassie to do your trigonometry homework.

Enough dog metaphors?

So yeah, the ending is more like a fadeout before you reached the main chorus of the song ... but that doesn't mean you shouldn't see it.

In fact, this is a powerful, moving, constantly surprising film. Frances McDormand gives perhaps the best performance of her lustrous career, playing Mildred, a mother who is deeply angry that the local constabulary has failed to make any progress whatsoever in finding the men who raped and murdered her daughter.

Driving along a road that used to have a lot more traffic, Mildred sees several old billboards that are falling apart. She stops and looks at the name of the local advertising company that's in charge of leasing out the signs.

An idea forms, and she goes to town to lease those billboards for a year, at a rate of $5,000 a month. She puts down the first month in cash, signs a contract, and that's that.

Except that the advertising company guy, Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), tries to talk her out of it. Because the messages on the three billboards are a brutal reminder of the crime committed against her daughter -- and the third billboard names Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a well-meaning cop who simply has no leads, nowhere to start investigating.

When the billboards go up, Mildred calls a reporter and her billboards make the local news. But absolutely nobody sympathizes with her, it seems. Her minister comes over to tell her that people hate her billboards -- because  they all respect and like Chief Willoughby, who everybody seems to know is dying of cancer.

Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell plays Dixon, an out-of-control cop who has a clear idea of the limits of his authority -- and doesn't care.

But I really can't tell you what happens after things get set up, because the story follows a perverse but truthful course, in which nothing turns out as anyone intends. The characters are as surprised as the audience. Some people do pretty terrible things to each other; and yet, along the way, some of them perform acts of kindness that almost break your heart because they make so little difference ... and yet they make all the difference in the world.

My wife, who is the champion at saying, ten minutes into a movie, exactly how it's going to end, didn't have a clue about the things that were going to happen. And even though the ending is unresolved, we kind of knew from the start that it wasn't going to be resolved. Not the crime, not the grief and pain of several characters we really care about.

The only character who seems to approach some kind of new direction for his life is Sam Rockwell's, and let's just say his improvement is only a small step in the right direction ... along with another huge step toward self-destruction.

You care about these people. Culturally, they're all hicks. Anthropologically, they're all people, with pain as real and deep as any tragic hero in Greek literature.

In writer/director Martin McDonagh's world, hicks aren't clowns (though the original meaning of the word "clown" is "country bumpkin"). This movie elevates them, led by Mildred in her relentless quest for justice, her determination to hold somebody responsible for something.

Much as I've loved Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, we see a very different side of him as James, one of Mildred's best friends, who comes through for her, unasked. The movie may be about Mildred's tragic course, and then Dixon's even weirder, more violent story; but it's also about James's personal tragedy, and about Mildred's surviving child, her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) in one of the briefest yet most beautiful performances by an actor this year. Everybody has a much larger story that we're only catching a glimpse of.

I remember once hearing a college student who was proud of being part of the intellectual elite, who went on and on about how those people who shop in malls or at Walmart are leading such empty, meaningless lives.

I could never have had a career as a writer if I had thought of anybody that way. All she could see in the middle-class and working-class people making purchases was their unhip clothes and their uneducated conversations. She was an outrageous bigot -- yet she insisted that she was a "liberal" who cared about the "common people." Except her only real comment about those common people was, "How can they stand to lead their unexamined lives?"

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri knows what elitists like that college student are incapable of imagining: Everyone's life is filled with hope and disappointment, imagination and disillusionment, love and hate and fear and grief. Deep, unresolvable grief.

We never get a solution to anything; we don't even know whether Mildred and Dixon will carry out their insane plan for justice at the end. But we are finally told what Mildred knew all along: how she and her daughter parted, and why she cannot move on, why she is so desperate to find a way to assuage her pain.

So yes, folks, I'm recommending Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri -- recommending it like crazy. But only if you have the heart to bear the unbearable grief and suffering of other people.

And only if you are ready to hear the f-word, the c-word, the n-word, and pretty much any other horrible word on your Tourette's list, repeated so often that it no longer serves even as punctuation. The f-word is like the space between words, it's repeated so often.

If one of your goals is to get used to hearing these harsh words repeated so often that your soul will be completely numbed, then this movie will take you a long way down that road.

I've warned you about all the stuff you'll hate about this movie -- and believe me, I hated all that stuff, too.

But I loved this movie. I hope never to see it again, but I'm glad I saw it the once. I felt their grief and pain because the filmmakers and the performers did their work darn near perfectly. But I have grief and pain of my own to remember. If I ever forget my own, then maybe it'll be time for me to watch Three Billboards again, just to make sure I still know what tragedy looks like.

You know, I was a theatre major in college, and I remember all the serious discussions about how with his play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller was trying to create a working-class tragic hero.

I have always felt that Miller failed completely with Salesman, yet never realized he had already achieved that goal with his much superior (and less psychologically pretentious) World War II drama All My Sons.

In my opinion, though, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri achieves everything that Miller attempted but failed to do with Death of a Salesman. This movie is proof that middle- and lower-class people can be the heroes of tragedy.

*

The first Paddington movie made a quarter of a billion worldwide, so of course there were profound artistic reasons to make Paddington 2.

The character of the young bear from Peru who shows up at Paddington Station in London never meant anything to me in my childhood for the excellent reason that Michael Bond didn't publish the first book about Paddington Bear until I was already seven years old (1958).

And maybe Paddington is the quintessentially English children's book hero, because he's always well-mannered and, if he's ever upset, he goes to great pains not to show it. Uncomplaining and relentlessly cheerful, Paddington is endearing precisely because he not only suffers much tribulation, he causes it as well -- but never on purpose.

When Paddington is sentenced to ten years in prison -- something that's always happening to bears, of course -- it's delightful to watch him antagonize pretty much everybody by sheer ineptitude and bad luck. Then it's even more delightful to see how, by sheer good will and hard work, he wins everybody to his side.

Colin Firth was originally supposed to be the voice of Paddington; he even came in to record the part. But he himself tells us that he was simply wrong for the part. Instead they brought in Ben Whishaw to play the part, and he was wonderful. So too were Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as Paddington's Peruvian Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy.

All the rest of the cast play humans, and the remarkable thing is that nobody seems to know they're in a silly kids' movie about a talking bear. Instead, even extravagant roles are played with utter seriousness -- excellent actors playing their parts with the same reality they would bring to any of their "real" roles.

Hugh Grant doesn't steal the movie, though as the nefarious villain he could have. Oh, yes, the filmmakers give him a huge Busby Berkeley style showstopper during the credits, but even that he played with aplomb. Part of the delight of the movie is watching Hugh Grant play a part so different from any of the parts he has played in his career of being the kind of guy that all the women in the movie (and in the theater audience) fall in love with.

My wife and I went to Paddington 2 having not seen the first Paddington movie, and unaccompanied by children, grandchildren, or waifs picked up from the street. So we can assure you: Children not required.

This certainly wasn't a comedy of guffaws and belly laughs -- it wasn't so much hilarious as pleasant.

Pleasant entertainment. Cheerful, good-natured fun. I know that those are not phrases that sell millions of tickets to a movie. But come on, these days "hilarious" seems to be reserved for comedies that start with raunchiness and plummet on down from there. So I'm here to tell you that if you're enough of a grownup not to be impressed by grossout comedy about people behaving with astonishing stupidity, maybe Paddington 2 is enough to make you think, as I did, "You know, I really had a good time watching that. I was never bored."

In my book, at least, that's a pretty good movie.

*

As I continue to watch and enjoy Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland's drama about a man who never thought he'd be President, trying to cope with all the political machinations, international grandstanders, and deep conspiracies, it struck me the other night, as my wife and I watched a saved-up episode right after watching news reports about Orange Man's complete lack of judgment about what he says and tweets, that it would be such a relief to wake up one morning and find out that through some weird disturbance in space and time, Kiefer Sutherland was president.

I know, he's only playing a character. But then, so is Orange Man. And Kiefer Sutherland has better writers, he sticks to the script, and he reminds us what a president should look like and act like. Come on, right now -- wouldn't you like to make the switch?

But it's not just anybody that I'd switch with. I can think of a lot of Left- and Right-wing newswights and politicos who, if I had to choose, would force me to prefer to continue with the clown we have.

*

By the way, for a few minutes this week, the anti-immigrant Know-nothing lobby has begun to insist that they want "merit-based" immigration rather than immigration based on country of origin.

But what do they mean by "merit"? Why, higher education and a high income level -- immigrants who will "immediately contribute to our economy."

What, garbagemen and Seven-Eleven clerks don't contribute? The arrogance and stupidity of this definition of "merit" makes my skin crawl. First, the people who already have a good income and advanced education in their home country are the least likely to have any great urge to come to the United States. Why should they? They can afford to come visit as much as they want.

America was created by immigrants who were not already winners in their home country. In fact, most of them were in situations where they had no hope of obtaining an education or a profession. They came here to get those things, if not for themselves, then for their children -- and they succeeded, to the benefit of all of us.

If you measure "merit" by the level of achievement in the home country, then sure, we'll skim a bit of the cream from China or Pakistan or a few European countries. But in a lot of countries -- maybe most countries outside the First World -- powerful elites already control education and jobs to such a degree that the only way to achieve "merit" is by being complicit in a system of corruption and oppression.

Who do you think these "meritorious" immigrants are? Osama bin Laden, he had exactly the kind of "merit" that would meet that standard of eligibility for immigration. Educated, coddled by a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, he was exactly the guy that these Know-Nothings think they want.

You know who I want? The people who have no chance in their home country, the people whose children are hungry and have to get low-paying jobs instead of higher education because there's no way the parents can ever pay for college.

I want the people who are so ambitious for their families that they'll do whatever it takes to get them a better income and better opportunities -- even if it means taking them out of their home country and bringing them to the nation that promises an equal chance to everybody willing to subscribe to the ideals of the greatest republic in human history.

And here's the biggest irony. You know what happens to a "meritorious" immigrant like, say, a doctor back in the home country? When he gets here, his medical training and experience are treated as if he had been cutting meat in a butcher shop. He has to go back to medical school to get another degree.

In other words, we humiliate him as if his life's work was garbage. Yeah, that's an incentive to come join us in America!

But if he's willing to put up with such disrespect in order to get better opportunities for his children (whether they want them or not!), then yeah, that's merit. Not the medical degree, but the willingness to do whatever it takes to come here and become one of us.

Every now and then, when you look at that cab or Uber driver with a foreign accent, think about this: Maybe back in the home country he was a college professor or a lawyer or an outspoken guy who offended the wrong thug, and now he's here, doing what it takes to survive in the land of the free.

If they long for freedom enough to sacrifice for it, then that's merit, in my opinion, and we'd be crazy to turn them away.

*

During the years when Glen Campbell owned the Billboard Top 40, pushing Country music into the American mainstream, it was easy to forget that this cheerful country boy was in fact a superb studio musician.

And all the way through the movie I'll Be Me, the documentary about Glen Campbell directed by James Keach, we see how that motor memory, that deep sense of pitch and rhythm, allowed him to continue to play astonishing guitar riffs even when his Alzheimer's robbed him of the ability to remember what song he was supposed to be singing, and the names of his dearest friends, and the memories that shaped who he was.

When I heard about Glen Campbell's farewell tour, performing for live audiences before Alzheimer's shut down his ability to perform at all, I had no desire to go see the show. We still had the songs, didn't we? Those digital recordings aren't going away anytime soon, right?

Well, I finally watched the DVD of that documentary, and I realized how much love went into those farewell performances -- the love of the fans who came to hear him and see him for the last time, and the love of the people who surrounded Campbell, who made it possible for him to connect with the audience that he loved so much.

In the film, his wife talks about how, when the audience cheers for him, it electrified him, making the hair on his neck and head stand up; he would scratch at his head in response to that tingling, prickling feeling. So when we watch him stand there, talking to the audience and playing with his hair while he struggles to find where the teleprompter is, there's something kind of magnificent about him still seeking and receiving that connection with the people who value his music.

Several noted musicians have cameos in the documentary; the first time they appear, they talk mostly about Campbell's musicianship, his influence over the music industry. Then, toward the end, the same musicians come back to talk about people they loved who had suffered the grinding slow death of Alzheimer's, and how important it was to do whatever we can to end that scourge.

Alzheimer's might have been just as prevalent five hundred years ago -- except that most people died before they got old enough for hereditary Alzheimer's to kick in. What we used to call "getting old and forgetful" we now recognize as a grim disease that strikes without mercy. Who are we, if not our memories? And if those memories are gone, if we don't even recognize the people who love us most, whom we love most, then in what sense are we the same person?

I'll Be Me is a brief love song to and from Glen Campbell. Campbell and his family and friends were incredibly generous to allow the filmmakers to take and use footage that shows Campbell's collapsing personality during his last months and weeks on tour. It feels like complete candor; nothing is held back.

And so even if you're of a later generation that didn't listen, rapt, to "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" or "Wichita Lineman" when they first came out, who didn't know his voice when it was young and pure and fresh, it's still worth seeing I'll Be Me.

Then tell Alexa to play songs by Glen Campbell. He was the real thing.

*

There was a 2010 movie called Never Let Me Go, with a dream cast: Carey Mullilgan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, three of my favorite actors.

But I had never heard of it until after I downloaded and listened to the audiobook of Never Let Me Go. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro -- whose book Remains of the Day was adapted into a wonderful movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson -- the book captured me and held me for a couple of days, listening to it every chance I got.

The book was a bestseller and the movie got a 71% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe I'm the last person in America to find out about it. But just in case you're as ignorant of it as I was, let me recommend the book.

To my surprise, it's a science fiction novel, in the sense that it takes place in a version of the very near future, in which there are certain children who are born to be "carers" and then "donors." The story begins when the narrator, Kathy, and her friends Tommy and Ruth are children in a special school for children in their situation.

What makes the book "literary" is that even though every character in the book knows vastly more about what's going on than we do, the author deliberately constructs things so that we're left guessing -- sometimes correctly, sometimes not -- about what's really going on.

But the story really isn't that much about the plot, about the dilemma from which the children, now grown up, would like very much to break away. Instead, it's about the complicated love triangle that emerges among these three friends -- and which only becomes visible toward the end of the story.

Even though I haven't seen the film, I think the casting of the three leads is pretty much perfect. When I'm emotionally ready to deal with it, I'll watch it. Meanwhile, though, I have the book.

And if there's one thing I learned from reading The Remains of the Day and then seeing the wonderful movie, it's this: I'm pretty sure I've already experienced the story in its most powerful form.

Even though "literary" writing deliberately puts up needless barriers between author and audience, a few literary writers are skillful enough to achieve clear communication anyway. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best -- he not only has the skill, he has the heart to create stories that matter.

Not only that, but in all his books, even in his fantasy novel The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro manages to reach deep inside the seeming stoicism of English culture, where showing what you feel too plainly is simply not done. Without ever violating those rules, his characters become whole people with deep feelings and human hungers and passions.

I know that Ishiguro won the Booker Prize, which usually means that a book is extremely pretentious and bad. But he also won the Nobel Prize for literature, which means (at least) that his fiction is translatable, which usually implies that it has an actual story. Ishiguro is the real thing, a "great" author whose books are readable and moving and truthful and, in the long run, clear.

Ishiguro did not leave the questions unanswered; by the end of Never Let Me Go, the characters and the readers all know what it was all about, and why none of the characters' dreams can possibly come true. And yet these were lives worth living, all of them, and the book is certainly worth reading.

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