Film Review

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – A Review

Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges. Running time: 115 minutes.

Here we have the film that bears the greatest weight of expectation coming into the Academy Awards in March. Frances McDormand, it seems, is certain to claim Best Actress, and it also appears unlikely that Sam Rockwell will be denied Best Supporting Actor. Three Billboards also has a very credible chance of landing the big one; The Shape of Water is the current favourite, but Academy voters have exhibited an obvious preference for gritty drama in the Best Picture category in recent history, as well as a certain disregard for films with a fantasy or sci-fi element. Time will tell. Whatever its eventual haul of awards, this is certainly an enjoyable film, with McDonagh’s relentlessly morbid humour returning in fine fashion.

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The Atlantic

The titular billboards are rented by McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, and are inscribed with an explicitly worded inquiry as to the failure of the local police investigation into the rape and murder of her daughter. Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), to whom the message is personally addressed, is tasked with persuading the incorrigible Ms Hayes to remove the billboards, while also assuring her of his department’s continued efforts to apprehend her daughter’s attacker.

Everything progresses in civilised fashion for the first while. McDormand is resolute and stony-faced, and beautifully, hilariously impassive in the face of opposition. Harrelson is level-headed and wise, but frustrated by his opponent’s stubbornness. An abrupt twist in the narrative at about the halfway stage sees things descend rapidly into chaos.



McDormand’s performance is impeccable from the moment she appears onscreen. She brings a fierce energy to the role, and caps it beautifully in her exploration of the chinks in Mildred’s emotional armour. The film’s overarching motif is the examination of her perseverance in the face of unimaginable emotional turmoil, as well as attempts by others to undermine her. McDormand’s turn breathes life into it with magnificent style and feeling. Sam Rockwell also has tremendous fun with his dim-witted, racist cop, and proves to be a perfect outlet for Martin McDonagh’s distinctive style of black comedy.

The supporting performances are equally enjoyable. Caleb Landry Jones is effective as the unfortunate soul responsible for leasing the billboards to Mildred. Lucas Hedges also performs well as the son driven close to madness by the ineffable obstinacy of his mother.

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Flickering Myth

The script has McDonagh’s trademark earthiness to it, creating a cast of eminently believable characters and weaving comic and tragic elements with deftness. It also creates an engaging setting, which is augmented by beautiful cinematography. Unfortunately, however, the story is allowed to stagnate in the second half, and the dramatic tension which builds sensationally from the opening scenes is allowed to ebb away towards the end.

Nevertheless, McDonagh and co. have made a fine film, one that is not overshadowed by his masterful debut, and that makes a marked improvement on Seven Psychopaths, his most recent offering. Their night on the red carpet in March will be well deserved.


Film Review

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Review

Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly-Marie Tran, Benicio Del Toro. Running time: 152 minutes.

Within the first ten minutes of this movie, the Star Wars universe has produced its first “your mother” joke. Make of it what you will. Funny or not, though, it has the significance of indicating to us that Rian Johnson’s vision for this franchise does not involve adherence to the unwaveringly solemn tone that used to prevail in the galaxy far, far away. Long gone is the rigid dialogue favoured by George Lucas and co.

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Considering the fact that critics (and, famously, Harrison Ford) used to lambast Star Wars scripts of old, this may not be a bad thing. Of greater concern, however, is the utter disregard Johnson shows for consistency with the earlier material. Lackeys with primitive weapons are now a match for talented lightsabre-wielders. The Force now endows one with the ability to survive massive explosions and breathe in outer space. The casual viewer should not be concerned, but anyone going to the cinema expecting something that is actually a Star Wars sequel will be left scratching their heads.

After the aforementioned quip manages to distract First Order (the new Empire, basically) forces long enough for Resistance (the new Rebellion, more or less) fighters to claim an unlikely victory in the opening battle, the former chases the latter across the galaxy in a big, black, chrome thing that bears an uncanny resemblance to what Darth Vader used to cruise around in. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) takes in the scenery of Skellig Michael (known in the movie as Ahch-To), while also attempting to convince a now much older and crankier Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach her the ways of the Force.

The flaws are glaring, and plentiful. After the plot contrivances, the most obvious is Johnson’s script; gags aside, he hasn’t improved on Lucas’ template that much. There is much vague blabber about “power” and “destiny”, and some unprecedentedly corny utterances in the final act.

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The development of Luke and Rey’s relationship is reasonably entertaining. Ridley does a fine job of portraying her character, deftly navigating the coming-of-age narrative that has featured so prominently in the Star Wars universe since its inception. Andy Serkis and Adam Driver also do an interesting job on the interactions between Snoke and Kylo Ren, although this storyline feels almost self-plagiarised by the end (Snoke is effectively the Emperor from the original trilogy with a better costume designer). Kylo Ren does offer engaging variations on the theme of villain in black, however; where Darth Vader was clinical and collected, Ren is irascible and unpredictable. His is a character with depth and dimensions, and Driver does a laudable job of bringing them to bear.

The rest of the story, however, is poor. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) argue about how best to shake their pursuers, led by General Hux (a disappointingly hammy Domhnall Gleeson), but very little material of any entertainment value arises. Finn (an excessively enthusiastic John Boyega) and new addition Rose Tico (Kelly-Marie Tran) embark on a largely pointless and painfully predictable sideshow to find a codebreaker, although this does involve a passably amusing turn from Benicio Del Toro. We get some reflection on the tyranny of the First Order, but not enough to convince us that the whole subplot is anything more than filler, and unnecessary filler at that. At 152 minutes, this is the longest instalment in the saga, and manages to feel even longer than it is.

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One of the reasons for this film’s shortcomings is the size of its ensemble cast; too many storylines are forced upon us, and must be wrought into a mutual ending which goes way, way over the top. This does allow for the flaunting of breath-taking audio and visual effects, which have bagged a couple of Oscar nominations along with John Williams’ score, but does nothing for the broader appeal of the film.

Ultimately, while there are some redeeming elements, this film is not one of the prouder products of the Star Wars galaxy.


Film Review

Good Time – A Review

Directed by Ben & Josh Safdie. Starring Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress. Running time: 99 minutes.

Robert Pattinson certainly has come a long way since his acting debut in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 12 years ago. His generic teenaged heartthrob in that film, as well as the slightly older and far paler reincarnation in the Twilight saga, made him into a household name. His role here as Connie Nikas, an unwashed, uninspired and frankly rather unpleasant Queens bank robber, is not likely to reignite the hysterical fandom that he once enjoyed. Regardless, it is an excellent performance.

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Good Time is a film that is economical with its detail, and efficient in its focus. The opening scene takes place in a therapist’s office; it informs us that Connie’s brother Nick (Ben Safdie) is mentally handicapped, and has been taken under observation for a sparsely outlined violent incident. Cue an infuriated interruption from Connie, and before long we are in the middle of the bank robbery that sets the wheels of this film in motion. Executed with painful idiocy, the robbery’s aftermath does not go as expected, and a caper ensues which will involve deception, violence, drugs, more robbery, some dreadful decision-making and many moments that manage to be both hilarious and disturbing at the same time.

Minor players float in and out of the spotlight over the course of the 99 minutes, but Pattinson’s character largely remains the focus. He is exposed as a rash and ruthless antihero, who is wholly untroubled by the suffering of others. He is, however, fiercely dedicated to preserving his brother from harm, and unafraid to make sacrifices to achieve this end. The irony, of course, is that his chosen methods often do less good than harm, and have almost invariably toxic consequences for anyone unfortunate enough to wander into his path. Pattinson’s portrayal is cold and unflinching, and it works beautifully.

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Ben Safdie also acquits himself well, although his portrayal of mental incapacity is sometimes less than innovative. Jennifer Jason Leigh shines as Connie’s gullible white-trash girlfriend.

A gripping opening sequence sets up what could have been as good a thriller as you’ll see. Regrettably, however, the middle act features a lot of meandering, and the plot starts to lose its magnetism after too many improbable twists. Despite this, the final sequence is beautifully done, skilfully tying together the film’s overarching themes and packing a strong, emotive punch. The camerawork is a pleasure to watch, and Oneohtrix Point Never’s brooding electronic soundtrack adds a delightful layer of intensity throughout.


Film Review

Bright – A Review

Directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz. Running time: 118 minutes

Bright has given the film community, at all levels, much to chew on. With a budget of $90 million, it is not only Netflix’s most expensive production to date, but also proof that the competition it poses to the cinema industry is very real indeed. Bright heralds the beginning of an age where we will no longer have to endure the inconvenience of leaving our homes (or even our couches) to see the newest and most hotly awaited releases. This movie is paving the way for a time when every blockbuster and Oscar contender will be viewable on the landscape mode setting of a smartphone.

Professional critics have wasted no time in panning it. Somewhat predictably, Twitter’s amateur cinephiles have admonished their elitism, claiming that it isn’t all bad and that film criticism’s established snobs are merely getting stroppy at the idea that the best new movies might be accessed anywhere other than a movie theatre.

At the risk of being labelled pretentious, I must agree with my more learned counterparts. Bright is a mess.

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This isn’t necessarily obvious from the outset. We begin in dramatic fashion; Smith’s charming, relatable cop is shot by a criminal Orc, the unpleasant-looking blue-green species to which Joel Edgerton’s character also belongs. Our curiosity is piqued.

We soon learn that the film is set in an alternative present, in which elves, orcs and humans share society (although everything else appears largely the same). Relations between the three are less than harmonious, and orcs are the victims of systematic discrimination from humans, resulting in their banishment to the fringes of society. (In case you hadn’t guessed, parallels are supposed to be drawn with prejudices that exist in our own world.)

Nick Jakoby (Edgerton) is the first orc in history to join the LAPD, or to do anything at all other than commit crimes and intimidate passersby, seemingly. His ethnic background (or whatever you want to call it) invites derision and dismissiveness from his colleagues, while his decision to pursue a career in law enforcement makes him an outcast among fellow orcs.

This all appears to have the makings of reasonable fare. Will Smith’s characteristic coolness makes for an enjoyable protagonist, and the makeup artistry that goes into the creation of the orcs is truly impressive. It is once the main plot, involving the pursuit of a magical wand and supernaturally capable beings known as “Brights”, ensues that the wheels start to come off the wagon. The story is lazily conceived and the plot twists are frustratingly transparent.

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It doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. The supporting performances are disappointing, the dialogue is appalling (“if you act like my enemy, you become my enemy”; need I say more?) and the social commentary is laughably clumsy. One might even be inclined to forgive these shortcomings to some extent if there was some passable comedy on show; most attempts at humour are, however, depressingly unsuccessful.

Bright comes hot on the heels of 2016’s sub-par Suicide Squad, David Ayer’s last project. Considering the fact that he is also the man responsible for Fury and End of Watch, it is somewhat surprising that his current vein of work is so disappointing. Unfortunately, because of Netflix’s infuriating decision to commission a sequel to this sorry shambles of a film, it seems likely that things will get worse for him before they get better.

I don’t doubt that an element of elitism may influence the harsh words of some of the more established movie critics out there, and I agree that this should not be encouraged. The tweeting crusaders are barking up the wrong tree this time, however. Bright is just a bad movie.


Film Review

Daddy’s Home 2 – A Review

Directed by Sean Anders. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, John Cena, Alessandra Ambrósio.

While watching this film in the cinema a few evenings ago, I was quite unaware of the critical slating it has widely been receiving. It wasn’t as if I expected its reviews to contain effusive praise or anything; a quick glance at the cast members and a cursory awareness of the premise is more than enough to rule that out. It isn’t hard to see that this isn’t the sort of thing that the bookish cinephiles who contribute film reviews to respectable publications go wild over.

The thing is, though, this is actually quite funny. Certainly too funny to deserve a miserable 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. What’s going on, then? Is a bit of humour not enough to afford a family comedy some element of artistic validity? Well, no, because this is 2017, boys and girls, and there are some things that we are simply not allowed to laugh at anymore.

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Some background. Dusty (Wahlberg) and Brad (Ferrell) share fathering and stepfathering duties for a litter of children whose biological parentage varies broadly, Brad having married Dusty’s ex-wife (Cardellini). This dynamic engendered animosity between the two in the first film, but at the outset of this sequel the two are thicker than thieves, and are quite enjoying their shared parenting roles.

The challenge to this cheery situation comes when each man’s father arrives on the scene for Christmas. Don (John Lithgow) is Brad’s father, and is even more bubbly and emotionally expressive than his son. It is Dusty’s father Kurt (Gibson), however, that really ruffles feathers; the feathers of both his fictional counterparts on screen, and the very real folk who have denigrated this film mercilessly since its release.

While Dusty is proudly masculine, Kurt is unabashedly chauvinistic. He tells lewd jokes to children, relentlessly objectifies women and treats the kind of emotion displayed by Ferrell and Lithgow as a distasteful oddity. He admonishes his son for allowing his children to be raised by another man, and hands one of said children a rifle and encourages her to murder a wild turkey. He embodies a worldview that, according to many, should have died out decades ago. And he’s comfortably the film’s funniest character.

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The storyline is ultimately unimportant; the bizarrely structured family spend Christmas in a ski lodge that Kurt books on Airbnb (in a product placement tour de force). The usual tropes abound; improbable occurrences fuel disagreement and conflict, and everyone must find a way to settle their differences in a suitably festive manner. Some of the jokes are excellent, others are poor. John Lithgow’s abject silliness is quite funny, but neither Wahlberg nor Ferrell benefits from material good enough to really showcase their talents. It may not be groundbreaking comedy, but it is certainly enjoyable.

More than making you laugh, though, this film should make you hopeful. Hopeful that there are still people in the world, and especially within Hollywood, that are not afraid to step on the toes of political correctness in the name of comedy. And hopeful that the likes of Mel Gibson’s unlovely Kurt will still be allowed to offend whomever they please through the silver screen for many years to come.


Film Review

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) – A Review

Directed by John Avnet. Starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Cicely Tyson. Running time: 130 minutes.

It is something of an odd phenomenon, when you think about it, that the inspiration of sadness is considered a desirable quality in a film. It is difficult to think of any other setting in which people invest their time and money to make themselves weep. Odd or not, however, it is hugely prevalent; we need only look to the popularity of The Shawshank Redemption or The Notebook for proof of that.

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Before either of those films, however, came Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie possibly more reliant on heartstring-plucking than any other I’ve seen. It was recommended to me as a tearjerker, and upon voicing my intention to watch it I was told I would have to try not to cry “too much.” In that endeavour, I am glad to report, I was roundly successful.

Fried Green Tomatoes presents two plotlines; the first follows Evelyn (Kathy Bates), an unhappily married housewife who forms a chance friendship with octogenarian Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) during a visit to a retirement home. The second narrative, relayed by Ninny to Evelyn, concerns the young lives of Ninny’s sister-in-law Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and her friend Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) in the Deep South of the early 20th century.

The latter storyline emerges as the dominant of the two. Idgie and Ruth open a restaurant in the small, rural town of Whistle Stop, which provides a neat focal point for the reliable themes of racial prejudice, familial loyalty and resilience in the face of injustice. Suffice to say there is little in the way of innovation.

It is the minor plotline (which is so loosely related to the major one that it could almost have been its own film) that gives us more to chew on. Bates’ characteristic enthusiasm comes across beautifully in the character of Evelyn, and her struggles to find meaning within her life are sincere and relatable, as well as uproariously funny on one or two occasions. Her frenzied encounter with two obnoxious young ladies in a grocery store carpark is undoubtedly the film’s highlight, at least from a comic perspective. Ninny, played endearingly by Jessica Tandy, is also a likeable sort, although she is unfortunately involved in an unforgiveable plot contrivance near the end.

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It is interesting to note that the relationship between Idgie and Ruth is explicitly romantic in the source novel; this is only ever hinted at in vague terms in the movie. There are subtle nods to it, certainly, but nothing to threaten the film’s viability as a family-friendly money-spinner. This businesslike cynicism, also responsible for the relentless appeals to our tear ducts, cheapens the whole affair considerably.

It’s not all bad news; the characters have undeniable chemistry, the acting is uniformly good (Tandy bagged an Oscar nomination) and Thomas Newman’s score combines with beautiful cinematography to create a warm, likeable atmosphere. The script, which gives each character a distinct and engaging voice, was also nominated for an Oscar. It’s worth a watch, if you’re willing not to examine it too closely.


Film Review

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – A Review

Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson, Grace Van Patten. Running Time: 112 minutes.

It is always interesting to note the effects of certain triggers that have been ingrained into our collective social consciousness. When, for instance, someone begins a sentence with words like “I don’t mean to be racist, but…”, one can almost hear the intake of breaths or see the motionless winces that beg the speaker to reconsider whatever thinly veiled bigotry they are, no doubt, intent upon sharing with the room.

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A similar knee-jerk-type association seems to connect Adam Sandler and sub-par movies. Sandler has spent over two decades churning out largely rudimentary comedy. To his credit, some of this (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore) is quite funny. Some of it, however (Pixels, Jack and Jill), hovers dangerously close to the realm of unwatchability. It is the latter that has defined Sandler’s image; his name become linked, almost inextricably, to poor, crass filmmaking. His role here (although his character is not entirely dissimilar to previous Sandler incarnations) affects his reputation altogether differently, displaying an unmistakeable acting talent to which we have rarely been exposed in the past.

Danny (Sandler) and Matthew (Stiller) Meyerowitz, half-brothers who rarely see each other, spend the film teasing out their grievances with their father Harold (Hoffman), as well as with each other. Harold, a retired sculptor and college professor, is largely indifferent to the effects of his eccentricities and pomposity on those around him, particularly his children.

The film’s plot revolves around the potential sale of Harold’s home, amid concerns about his health and the stability of his relationship with his alcoholic fourth wife (with whom Emma Thompson has endless fun). The intricacies of the story are of little real concern, however; this film is about its characters. Elizabeth Marvel gives a delightfully understated performance as quiet, unassuming daughter Jean, while Stiller is effective, if comfortable, as the affluent financial manager living in Los Angeles.

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Sandler has rightly attracted plaudits for his portrayal of Danny. Slightly unhinged, and given to the explosive tantrums that have by now become a trademark of Sandler’s, Danny is quite a layered sort. Ultimately, however, it is love for his daughter (Van Patten) and frustrated affection for his father that shine through. Perhaps unfortunately for Sandler, however, his lauded venture into serious cinema has been outshone somewhat by a truly masterful performance from Dustin Hoffman. Harold’s neuroses and social clumsiness are portrayed in hilarious and thought-provoking fashion, and every mannerism comes together perfectly to create a hugely enjoyable character.

Shades of Woody Allen’s quirky style are evident in this film, primarily in the outlandish characteristics of its main players, as well as in Randy Newman’s minimalist, offbeat soundtrack. Another obvious influence is Jonathan Franzen’s wordy masterpiece The Corrections, a TV adaptation of which Noah Baumbach worked on before it was abandoned; the characterization of the three leading men in the film is strikingly reminiscent of that in Franzen’s Lambert family. Baumbach has lent his own voice to proceedings, however, and has produced a film with an original style which blends comedy and drama to great effect. It’s well worth the watch, and is available to anyone with a Netflix subscription.