John Shearer: A Review Of 3 Oscar-Nominated Movies

Saturday, March 3, 2018 - by John Shearer

For the eighth year in a row, I went and saw multiple movies that were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

They were “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water,” and “The Post.” Of those three, “The Post” was the most blatantly inspiring, perhaps because of my experience as a journalist who could appreciate and admire the storyline of righting the world’s wrongs through fair newspaper reporting.

But they were all worth seeing, and the other two were inspiring as well in more subtle ways.

I wish I could say I had seen all the nine nominated movies, as I would have in a perfect world, but finding or setting aside time and having to deal with other issues prevented that.

Hopefully one of these three, which will likely be “The Shape of Water” or “Three Billboards,” will end up winning Best Picture and I can say I saw the winning movie before it was honored. Because “Spotlight” won Best Picture two years ago as another movie about newspaper investigative work, that fact might hurt “The Post,” even though it seemed to have been at least as well done in my opinion.

And with the fiasco of last year, when the wrong winning movie was announced, and because the Academy voters have expanded to become more inclusive, Oscar prognosticators have been a little more reluctant to pick a winner for Best Picture this year.

That is also because there seems to be no clear-cut favorite, and some Hollywood analysts have predicted any one of possibly five movies could win.

Regardless, I hope to once again have fun watching the 90th Academy Awards ceremony on ABC Channel 9 Sunday night. I am also looking forward to seeing Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway get a second chance to announce the winner after the mistakes of last year by the Pricewaterhouse Coopers accounting firm.

Below are my three movie reviews and critiques done simply for fun. I am ranking the first two I reviewed in a tie for second, and the last one as my favorite movie.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

When I saw this movie advertised before going to see it, I thought it was an uplifting story about a woman admirably trying in a positive way to solve the rape and murder of her teenage daughter by renting three billboards to bring attention to the case.

It was sort of an uplifting story by the time it was over, but it was also a much darker storyline than I expected. That was due to both choices made by the characters and the violence portrayed.

And what was also a surprise to me was later learning that Ebbing, Mo., does not exist and that the mountainous town where it was filmed, which I assumed was in the Ozarks, was actually Sylva, N.C. – the hometown of the late Tennessee quarterback Jimmy Streater. And the now-gone billboards were filmed along a road in the Black Mountain area.

The pretty scenery and charm of this small town are also quite a contrast to the filth associated with some of the characters’ actions – and mouths, the latter of which may have been a little over the top.

The movie starts off with a low-wage gift shop worker, played by Frances McDormand, wanting to buy some expensive billboard space on three billboards on a now-little-used road. She wants to draw more attention to the case and try and get the police chief to do more to investigate it

This sets off a chain of unexpected events that are at times sad and unexpected and at other times inspirational while also still mostly troubling. While the police chief, played by Woody Harrelson, is at first angry, he admires the woman’s efforts somewhat and is sympathetic to her and tries to explain how hard it has been to solve the case.

Unfortunately, he has pancreatic cancer and decides to take his own life in the first of several unexpected twists. It occurred after he and his wife were earlier talking about cleaning out the stalls of their horse barn after a nice day of family picnicking, and his wife mentions that the horses need to be shot because they are so much trouble.

So when the chief later goes out to the barn with a gun, the viewer fears he might shoot the horses. Instead, he takes his own life in a sad and troubling scene.

But his death is the unexpected catalyst for some surprisingly positive events that eventually take place.

While many people in the movie believe the billboards are to blame for his suicide, he writes the woman a suicide note saying she is not at fault. But a racist and violent member of the police force thinks she is, so he injures the young male billboard owner and is fired by the new black chief sent in by state officials.

However, when he later uses his key he still possesses to get in the police office after hours to get another suicide note left for him by the police chief, Ms. McDormand’s character tries to firebomb the police headquarters. This obviously makes her a less sympathetic character than she normally would have been and is another surprise.

A man who has dwarfism ends up standing proverbially tall in a way by helping the burning police officer, played by Sam Rockwell, and telling the cops Ms. McDormand is with him, thus giving her an alibi. Of course, he wants her to go out with him in return.

Regarding what happens to Mr. Rockwell’s character, the police chief had told him in the note to show more love, so he begins to do that as he recovers. Ironically, he ended up in a hospital room with the billboard owner he had previously hurt, and they have an amicable conversation.

As this movie that seems to have been set around 1990 continues, he in his kinder and gentler frame of mind also thinks he might have solved the crime by overhearing someone brag in a bar about raping someone. He gets in a fight with the guy and is able to get a blood sample of him to test his DNA, but the person is not the suspect.

The movie ends with his and Ms. McDormand’s characters heading to Idaho together – as friends after being antagonists toward each other – to try and look for the man in the bar whose tag number he wrote down. They want to see if he is indeed the rapist and perhaps harm him.

The fact that these two are becoming friends at the end is one of several surprises of the movie that pop up in pleasing or not-so-pleasing ways.

Others include when she learns her ex-husband, who had been against her campaign, had set the billboards on fire, and when she learned the police chief had paid her billboard fees for another month shortly before he took his life. And another was that maybe Mr. Rockwell’s character gets in a fight simply to get a DNA sample.

The music was also interesting and perhaps played a larger role than providing background noise. For example, the song, “The Day They Tore Old Dixie Down,” plays amid some scenes that show overtones of a town with a racist past slowly being transformed. Mr. Rockwell’s character also listens to classical music, so that perhaps hints that he has a soft heart inside long before he showed it in the movie.

Overall, it was a well-done movie with several interesting twists and changes.

However, it did have several dark scenes of violence and other actions that made it a little hard to watch at times. A scene in which she is in the dentist chair and ends up drilling a hole in the doctor’s fingernail because he was obviously against her campaign is one such hard-to-stomach moment.

But the acting is great by the lead characters, and that is demonstrated by the fact that Ms. McDormand, Mr. Harrelson and Mr. Rockwell all have received Academy Award nominations for acting.

“The Shape of Water”

This movie is kind a Cold War-era fantasy about a Black Lagoon-like creature, only it has more of an uplifting theme.

It takes place in 1962, and it features countless scenes of increasingly popular mid-century furniture, houses and cars for those who like those kinds of offerings. It also has a little mid-century nudity, which might not have been part of an actual mainstream movie in 1962 and some people might not like.

But overall, the movie seems to have been well done.

The story basically deals with a creature captured in the Amazon River by a security official and brought to a government facility in Baltimore to see if studying the animal can help in anyway to get an advantage on the Soviet Union. This, of course, is in those Russia-obsessed and nuclear war-fearing days, which have kind of returned in 2018.

An attractive mute woman played by Sally Hawkins works as a cleaning lady at the facility along with Octavia Spencer’s character, and the former seems to take an interest in the creature. The fact that she had been an orphaned child found by the river makes the science fiction-like storyline of her liking the animal easier to understand.

She feeds it boiled eggs, a sharp contrast to the poor treatment by the security official and others. Also working there is a Russian-born American scientist, who is actually a spy for the Soviets. He does not want to kill the surreal animal, as his Russian counterparts desire.

The Americans are also interested only in its use to help them in the Cold War and not in its humane treatment.

Eventually the woman escapes with the creature and brings it home with the help of the scientist, Ms. Spencer’s character (although unintentionally) and the lead woman’s gay neighbor, a laid-off advertising artist who treats her like a daughter.

During the escape, the van driven by her neighbor bumps into and damages the new Cadillac driven by the security official. Although a car getting damaged is not usually a happy scene, this one is because of his brash manner as an obvious social climber in those status-seeking years of economic boom after World War II. A scene of him buying the car had earlier been shown.

While the creature is kept at home, mostly in the bathtub, she continues to fall more in love with it. The neighbor also approves of the creature. This comes despite the fact that he is scratched by the creature one time, but is quickly healed after it touches him.

The creature almost seems to have an ET-like quality of friendliness, although it is of course more ferocious when it wants to be.

The security official has been looking for the creature and eventually catches up to the perpetrators just as they are getting ready to throw it in the canal. After a shoot-out and fight, the creature jumps in the water with Ms. Hawkins’ character and she is healed and they seem to live happily ever after, apparently under water.

While not overly thrilling, the movie is good and kind of a unique storyline. Besides Ms. Hawkins, Richard Jenkins is nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of neighbor Giles, as is Ms. Spencer.

The movie also had an interesting way of making water – including rain -- so much a part of the movie, despite the fact the setting takes place predominantly on land. Even her bathroom becomes completely flooded during one scene, although that causes obvious problems in the movie theater below their loft apartment.

This movie also has a little violence and hard-to-take scenes. I am not sure what it is about fingers, but this one also has some fingers being damaged – the ones belonging to the military security official played by Michael Shannon.

“The Post”

This was the movie I was most looking forward to because of my experience as a journalist. And it did not disappoint.

The movie deals with former State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who, while working for defense contractor RAND Corporation, photocopies with the help of a couple of other people classified documents that discuss how the Vietnam War is going more poorly than government officials are saying publicly.

The documents – later called collectively the Pentagon Papers -- were to be used for historical purposes to be studied years later. But Mr. Ellsberg, who looked at the war as a mistake and had soured on it, leaks some of these documents to the New York Times, which runs them in its paper in June 1971.

The Washington Post became aware of the papers about the time the Times publishes them, and a hustling assistant editor is able to track down Mr. Ellsberg as well and get some of the papers for the Post’s use. A woman working with Mr. Ellsberg also stealthily drops a box of them into the hands of a low-level reporter in the Post newsroom about the same time as well.

The Post is ready to run the story, but the U.S. attorney general has a court injunction issued halting the publication of further articles about the classified documents by the Times, saying national security might be affected. The Post is not sure whether to run them, with its lawyers and other officials arguing against the publication and taking the safe route.

But editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, pushes for them. And so finally does Katherine Graham, played superbly by the acting legend Meryl Streep.

It is quite moving when this woman who was thrust into the role of publisher after the suicide of her husband says to go ahead and publish. It is considered a victory for the First Amendment and for freedom of speech.

It is also quite an exciting scene in the Steven Spielberg-directed movie when the old newspaper presses start running. I never knew watching typesetters at work or a running printing press could hold so much drama, but it does in this movie – helped by the music of the legendary composer John Williams.

The government also tries to halt the Post from publishing, but the Supreme Court upholds the right to print in a quick decision. It is a touching scene when some words of majority opinion writer Justice Hugo Black defending freedom of speech are read out loud in the Post newsroom when the decision is being relayed over the phone.

Also moving is a scene when Ms. Graham is shown walking out of the Supreme Court building after the hearing away from the media attention cast upon the men executives and lawyers of the New York Times. Several young women standing there protesting for freedom of speech smile at Ms. Graham, and it is obvious she has not only stood up for American freedoms, but she also stood tall for women.

I found this movie to be at least as good as “Spotlight,” another newspaper-themed movie that chronicled the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic church’s slow-footed efforts to punish child-abusing priests. As mentioned, it won Best Picture two years ago.

Whether “The Post” will win Best Picture in this year when movies dealing with unfair challenges facing women – such as “Three Billboards” and even “The Shape of Water” – might be more in the public’s and Academy’s consciousness is to be seen.

What is for sure, though, is that Ms. Graham turned out to be one strong woman, despite being new to her position as publisher and not possessing an authoritarian personality.

And Ms. Streep brings this out quite well in getting yet another Best Actress Academy Award nomination.

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