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Oscar Quest Movie Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Seven Nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay. Directed by Martin McDonagh.

In the beginning of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Red Welby, the guy in charge of the billboard company, is reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. We get two chances to catch this and any English major worth the degree must agree that we have to take this as a clue to the meaning of the events that follow.

O’Connor’s characters (referred to by analysts as “grotesques”), often smug, racist and self-righteous, believe themselves to be worthy of redemption because they are Christian, white and not dirt poor. They are capable of treating others horribly, but justify this because they believe that their moral code makes them superior. It also keeps them separate and alone. They sometimes experience moments of clarity that shake their worlds, moments of grace that come in times of crisis. They realize in these moments that their world view is artificial and stupid and they must learn (though often temporarily) to open their hearts and to accept the worthiness of others—and the imperfections in themselves. This can change them for the better, or it can just make their lives unlivable.

In Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri, there is enough guilt and grief and regret and vindictiveness and grotesque behavior for a whole volume of O’Connor stories. These people do horrible, unthinkable things to themselves and each other. But, in their angry, hopeless search for justice and redemption, there are moments of clarity—O’Connor would call it grace—that prove that life has value and that living is worth all that we have to go through to keep on doing it.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes is a force of nature in this film, seeking justice for the unsolved murder of her daughter. Powerless to change anything, she has to do something, so she buys billboards and puts up signs that blame the local police chief for her unbearable lack of closure. This sets off a chain of events that reveals many characters’ capability for vindictiveness and violence. But it also reveals their humanity and capacity for forgiveness. As in O’Connor stories, moments of crisis often bring moments of clarity and it is in those moments when characters can find a way to go on even in the face of the unthinkable. And that is what happens here.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a study in character. We become immersed in this world and feel sympathy for people who are not, on the surface, particularly sympathetic. But we may find them to be more like us than we’d like to think and that is why, in our own moments of clarity, we understand them and forgive them.

The quality of this film rests in the hands of its script and its actors. Its three actor nominations, best picture nod and original screenplay nomination show where the strengths of Three Billboards lie. It’s those things about movies that I find the most valuable—the words that make a solid, compelling story and the people who say them. These are the hardest things about a movie, I think, to get right. It so seldom happens that when it does, like now, we need to notice.

Oh, and keep an eye on Red Welby.



















Gearing Up for Oscar 2

The 2018 Oscar nominations are out!

When I was teaching, this was the time of year in my film class when we kicked into high gear, taped ballots to the wall, kept track of our viewing in real time and applied all the things we had been learning in class to real-life, for-better-or-worse, up-to-the-minute, history-making movies. We considered plot and character, of course, but those discussions were often eclipsed by our attention to camera placement, editing techniques, production design, directorial idiosyncrasies and the effectiveness of the soundtrack. My students often complained that they couldn’t just “sit down and watch a movie” anymore and that their friends were getting sick of their constant commentary on a director’s use of tight close-ups or Dutch angles or parallel editing. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

It was all very energizing, this ushering high school kids through Oscar season. There was an urgency to it—new day, new lesson plan—and I was all in. I would see as many of the nominated films as I could so that I would be able to make educated comparisons and connections and predictions and fill in the gaps for the kids whose lives couldn’t accommodate going to the movies four times in one weekend. Not that mine could, either, but I saw it as my calling.

I took Oscar season very, very seriously.

When I retired from teaching, my enthusiasm for Oscar Quest waned. Getting to the theater became less of a priority. Too cold. Too late. Too expensive. Too crowded. Too much crinkling. So dark. Must feed the cats, read those emails, finish crocheting that doily. I’ll wait for nominees to show up on On Demand. Or Netflix. Or STARZ.

Or not.

It’s so easy to let yourself go.

So, this year, I’m going to do my best to make amends. Viewing, reviewing and predicting has begun in earnest. Doilies be damned.

I’m off to a late start. I should have been paying attention to the Oscar Buzz and chosen likely films to see in November and December. Many of them were out there. Waiting for the nominee list to come out feels a little like cheating. It means a lot of the chaff has already  been stripped away with no help from me. But it also means that I can focus my time and ticket money on the wheat and what fun that will be! Imagine being given the opportunity to see only good films. That’s what we’ve got here. It’s like movie Christmas—and it only comes once a year.

You can do it, too. Go to Click on NOMINEES. When you get to that page, click on PRINTABLE LIST to get your own ballot—a beacon to guide you through the season. Then see as many films as you can to be ready for Awards Night on March 4.

There are at least twenty films that I should see between now and March 4. As of today, I have seen two. Wish me luck.

As I see films, I’ll post a brief review here on my blog. I’ll make a concerted effort to avoid spoilers, so don’t be afraid to read them. Here, for example, is my review of The Shape of Water that appeared on my author Facebook page (D. Margaret Hoffman) yesterday:

Oscar Quest–The Shape of Water: 13 nominations including Best Picture.
This is a beautiful film. The performances are flawless and the look of it evokes the late 50s, early 60s world that shaped so many of us. The sights and sounds and sensory-ness of the film carry the day. The story, sadly, is one we’ve seen so many times that it’s hard to escape the cliché of it all. The misunderstood creature, mistreated by the government and coveted as a subject of study by scientists becomes the love interest of the lonely misfit who must then risk everything to save its life. ET. King Kong. Avatar. Fill in your favorite here. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed the performances, the music and the visuals–many of which are Oscar-worthy. But the plot ultimately let me down. Tears formed but never fell.

And that’s it. Short, sweet, to the point and from the gut.

Sometime before 8pm on March 4, I’ll post my choices for as many categories as I feel qualified to predict. We’ll see how I do. Those who have watched me do this before know that, if I’m on my game, I can be a contender.

I’m a little rusty, but here goes.

Welcome to Oscar Quest, 2018.






As if it wasn’t hard enough the first time, I am asking you to VOTE FOR ME AGAIN.

Remember the poll that I told you about last week? Your response was terrific—all I could ask for. Except then the poll people decided to lift the one-vote restriction after seven days so that everyone who voted for me in the Just the Right Book poll last week can now VOTE FOR ME AGAIN. (Well, I guess everyone who voted for anyone can vote again, not just those who voted for me. But I’m not interested in them.)

So, if you voted for me anytime between December 1 and December 7, YOU CAN VOTE FOR ME AGAIN, on all of your devices, on Thursday, December 14. From what I can tell by the clock on the tally page of the contest, voting ends on December 14, around 7 pm.

So, if you have a minute and you’re not put off by my groveling,  please click the link below on Thursday and VOTE FOR ME AGAIN.

Thanks. You’re awesome. I promise I won’t ask again.





A Thanksgiving To-Do (Or Don’t) List: Ten Things To Do To Insure a Happy Thanksgiving 2

  1. Eat Pie. This comes first on the list for a reason. Pie doesn’t come along every day. If we leave it until the end, we could miss it or fail to appreciate its life-affirming qualities. Pie is life. Live it.
  2. Show up. Your family likes to see your face every once in a while. If you are a student, an athlete, a writer, a teacher, an up-and-comer, a commuter, a musician, a health-care person, a working parent or a chronic worrier, your tendency might be to use Thanksgiving Day as a “day off,” or, worse, a day to catch up on things that have spiraled out of control—like laundry or homework or grading or general sanity. But don’t do it. Not today. Treat Thanksgiving as a “day on.” Get up. Get dressed. Bring your game face and come ready to play. Eat pie. It’s therapeutic.
  3. Watch the Macy’s Parade. Snoopy is not flying over Manhattan for his health.
  4. Boycott Football. It’s dumb and it’s dangerous and it makes grown men cry. Where’s the fun in that?
  5. Nap. There’s nothing like a family snooze after a big meal. It’s what the people on the couch who say they’re watching football really plan to do anyway.
  6. Stay Out of the Stores. The Christmas Shopping Crazy Time will come soon enough. There will be plenty of time and plenty of stuff left to buy after Thanksgiving   If you want to get up at 4 AM on Friday morning, have fun with that. But shopping on Thanksgiving Day only rips families apart and insures that there’ll be an extra private jet under Sam Walton’s Christmas tree. Staying home means that  someday he’ll get the message and let all of his employees have the whole day off to be with their families and to get first dibs on the pie.
  7. Walk. How about a family stroll to clear the head, aid in digestion, fight the urge to shop and make room for more pie?
  8. Eat Real Whipped Cream. Better yet, whip it yourself. Sprinkle it with lemon zest or cinnamon or chocolate shots. What the hell. It’s just once a year. If it’s possible to improve upon the magnificence of pie, this is the way.
  9. Drink Wine. This should be self-explanatory.
  10. Do Not, Under Any Circumstances, Utter the Name of Any Politician, Elected Official, Past-Elected Official, Wanna-Be Elected Official, Failed Candidate, Alt-Right Crusader, Cabinet Member, Former Cabinet Member, White House Advisor, Former White House Advisor, Press Secretary, News Network, TV Talking Head or Alleged High Profile Sex Offender At Any Time, In Any Context or In Any Corner of Any Room. You will not win the argument that will ensue, no matter what side you’re on. (And, let’s face it, we’re all on a side these days.) You will only risk getting one of those beautiful pies in your face–and that would be a terrible thing to do to pie.

In summary, be nice. Be thankful. Enjoy your family. Appreciate the bounty. Eat. Exercise. Socialize. Have a little wine. Keep your wallet in your pocket and your big mouth shut. Oh, and don’t forget to save yourself a piece of pie for Friday. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!






See what I did there?

This is a novice attempt at a clickbait title—one with a connotative, emotional punch that may not necessarily reflect its denotative, literal, dictionary-definition self. I hope that when you read this you think, “Oooh! Confession time! Juicy tidbits! Must click!”

Bold faced, upper case and in your face—with some italics thrown in for good measure.

Did it work?

Because, you know what?  I’m just trying to figure out how to get your attention. It’s called marketing. And you know what else? I suck at it.

It’s as if I were held back for the third time in Remedial Marketing 101, cowering in the back of the room where, with any luck, the teacher can’t see me. If only I could figure out a way to let her know that I’m really good at other stuff—just not this.

In my time as an essayist and an independent publisher, I have learned many things about the art and craft and business of it all. Now, I can write a book (as in creating, editing, revising, finalizing text) and I can produce a book (as in formatting, cover production, arrangement of text and creating a final product both in paper and digital formats) and I can win awards for said written and produced books (as in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Award for Volume One from the Independent Book Publishers Association), validating the effort.

But that’s not enough. Now I have to sell the damned things, too!

I can only wear so many hats.

There are lots (and lots and lots) of ways to market books when you are an indy. There are organizations and publications and websites and social media posts and webinars and workshops and consultants and conferences and magicians and guardian angels and fairy godmothers galore to help you succeed or, if you’re not careful, to take your money and run.  In fact, the market is swamped with them. It’s a full-time job to sort through rabble and to separate the legitimates from the cheats. Some of them are very good at what they do and are quite reputable. Others are very good at, well, marketing—if you catch my drift. 

You can also tackle it yourself. I’ve done some reading and some conference attending and some networking. I’ve set up a booth at craft shows and farmers markets. I’ve given talks and workshops and I’ve participated in author panels and readings in schools and libraries. I have a media presence through my website, this blog, an author Facebook page and an existing Twitter account. (I must admit that I really don’t get Twitter. Do you?) All of these activities (and more) are recommended by those in-the-know, and some of them have actually been fun. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement, positive feedback and fresh air.

And every time I sell a book, I get that Sally Field “You like me! You really like me!” moment that makes it all worthwhile.

But there are other paths that I need to take if I want my book sales to actually pay the bills—or maybe even just pay for themselves. I need to be more ambitious, more confident, more aggressive. A good product, I’ve learned, isn’t enough unless it’s paired with a good Marketing Plan. In fact, the MP is almost more important than the product. We all know of bad products that make good money when the MP is strong enough. As Mark Twain (the crowned prince of self-promotion) said in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

So buyer beware, right?

But you don’t need to beware of me because of all this self-promotion stuff runs counter to my nature. More than that, pursuing these paths takes me away from the reason I started all this in the first place—the writing.

It’s a quandary, all right.

We write to be read, and we strive to be the best writers we can be. But the pursuit of readers, who complete the circle and make the writing meaningful, requires a whole other set of skills. I’m working on them, but they don’t come naturally to me.

I’m reading a book about Ernest Hemingway and it has interested me to learn about what a relentless self-promoter he was right from the beginning. If humility was in his genes, it was recessive for sure. This didn’t make him the most appealing guy to be around and lots of people didn’t like him. But it got him noticed and, eventually, published. Is this what I have to do to launch a writing career? Run with bulls? Be flat broke? Move to Paris to rub elbows with all of the “right” people?  Marry four of them? Throw tantrums in the street when people piss me off?  Risk everything? Seems like a lot to ask.

I’d rather just write.

So, for now, that’s what I intend to do. It’s not a great career move, but I’d rather spend my time getting the words on the page while the getting is good. I’m working on the third and final volume of Saving Our Lives and I have a fourth project floating in my head that will take my work in an entirely new direction. Maybe after these projects are put to bed, I’ll improve my marketing skills beyond what they are now.

But I won’t like it.

So WHAT HAVE I DONE??  Nothing terrible, you’ll be relieved (or disappointed) to know. I have written and produced two books that are out there on Amazon and Barnes and Noble waiting for buyers—but mostly for readers. I think they’re really good, even though I feel weird saying it. The holidays are coming. My books would look great poking out of the top of a stocking. Or artfully displayed around your menorah. Or stuffed in your turkey. Or tucked into the bottom of your birdcage. And, while you’re busy reading them, I’m going to see if I can pound out a couple more while the juices are still flowing. I’ll let you know when they’re ready so that you can make some room for them on your bookshelf.

See what I did there?