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.

ebbing 1The 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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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 has made a fine film, one that is not overshadowed by the masterful debut that was In Bruges, 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 egregious 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.



We Need to Talk About the TV License

There have been many casualties of the inexorable proliferation of online entertainment. You need look no further for evidence of this than the gadget shop or sushi bar that used to be your local XtraVision. Rather than paying a fiver to rent a movie for the night, you can now pay eight or nine euro a month to Mr Netflix and get access to more content than you could watch in a hundred lifetimes, without ever having to leave the comfort of your couch. You can even get it all for free off a dodgy website, if you’re willing to risk malware entering your computer and spending the contents of your bank account on nuclear warheads.

This is all to be expected; inevitable symptoms of progress which we cannot impede and therefore should not feel remorseful about. Simply put, it is what it is. There is, however, one pesky anachronism that shows no sign of being swept away by the rising tide of modernisation; the television license.

Any Irish household in possession of a “television set” is required to pay an annual fee of €160, the bulk of which, we are told, is used to fund RTE, our state broadcaster. You might wonder why it is that RTE requires such a generous donation to keep its head above water when there are many, many other stations that manage this feat by selling advertisements. The website of An Post (who, for some reason, are tasked with the enforcement of the charge) tells us that “the moments we love are made possible by the License Fee.” Surely, however, if we loved them that much, enough of us would watch them that the advertising rights on them would be worth something? Evidently not.

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There are those who will say, of course, that our national broadcaster is representative of our society and thus should not be relying on the tackiness of consumer capitalism to turn a profit. This is all well and good in theory, but in real terms it is profoundly undemocratic. Who exactly was it that decided that €160 was a reasonable price to pay just for the decorum of keeping the Cillit Bang man off our screens during the break from Fair City? I’m willing to bet that most people wouldn’t object too strongly to a few more ads if it cost them less.

That aside, let us get back to the question of value for money. What are all these loveable moments for which we pay so dearly? Our very occasional sporting triumphs, I suppose, but most of those are quite capably covered by private channels anyway. Once upon a time a case could have been made for the news, but these days anything that’s even remotely worth knowing about is beamed into our pockets 24 hours a day, so that’s out too. This applies equally to political and social commentary. Years ago, we relied on RTE to keep a close enough eye on things to ensure that illegitimate children weren’t being farmed by nuns and sold, or that politicians weren’t spending all our money on tailored shirts. The dawn of the information age has left us with the ability to take care of all that ourselves.

Because, however, it is sheltered from the unforgiving glare of free-market economics, state-sponsored broadcasting refuses to shrivel up and die like other outdated institutions have. The result is an inefficient, slightly irritating and outrageously expensive thorn in the side of our society. In an age where homelessness is rampant and nobody can afford to pay rent, we are all still held to ransom to ensure that the constant stream of largely unwatchable content produced by RTE (and, lest we forget, TG4) remains uninterrupted.


Plainly, something must be done. While it might be excessive to suggest doing away with it altogether, extensive reform is necessary. We could start by calling it a “tax” instead of a license, and just attaching it to the price of a television when it’s purchased (you know, like they do with almost every other commodity known to man?). This would reduce evasion rates (which are high) to exactly zero, and eliminate the requirement for a glorified postman to knock on every door in the country in pursuit of dodgers.

Unfortunately, fat would remain to be trimmed. Nationwide would surely have to go. As would Ear to the Ground, Today with Maura and Daithi, and all the other ones that are almost certainly never watched by anyone. The Late Late Show would probably have to remain due to its status as a cultural monument, but perhaps instead of paying Ryan Tubridy more money than the Taoiseach they could hire people to operate behind the scenes and actually make it engaging or informative, or at least funny. Whoever is behind Graham Norton’s show would do just fine.

It is highly improbable that any of this will come to pass, of course. Such a lucrative cash cow isn’t likely to be sacrificed without significant disapproval from the public, and that is something that the TV license miraculously continues to escape. That is, of course, until they suggest applying it to our smartphones.


Manhunt: Unabomber – A Review

Created by Andrew Sodroski. Starring Sam Worthington, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Bobb, Chris Noth, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Brían F. O’Byrne. Runs for 8 episodes of 40-50 minutes.

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Manhunt: Unabomber is the latest Netflix miniseries to set social media alight with unreserved recommendations and gushing praise. This is almost certainly due in part to the fact that we have just exited the Christmas season; the increasingly desperate boredom that comes with being trapped indoors for days on end is sure to elicit grateful (and therefore positive) responses to any form of passable entertainment. Or so goes my theory. It certainly explains why people still watch Titanic.

There is plenty to recommend Manhunt: Unabomber ahead of James Cameron’s groaning epic. It’s a small bit longer, for one thing, and the dialogue is much less awful. Also, Brían F. O’Byrne’s American accent is infinitely better than DiCaprio’s horrendous attempt at an Irish one.

The plot concerns the true story of the titular Unabomber (a scarcely recognisable Paul Bettany), an American terrorist whose real name was Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski killed three people and injured 23 others in a terror campaign that spanned almost two decades. His method of choice, as the name suggests, was bombing.

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The story’s main focus is on the FBI’s efforts to track Kaczynski down, particularly those of Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), a criminal profiler. His submissions on the construction of the Unabomber’s profile, which are repeatedly dismissed by his superiors (Bobb, Noth), transpire to be largely accurate and are instrumental in Kaczynski’s eventual capture.

We are introduced to Kaczynski in the second episode, in the first of a series of flash-forwards which detail the preamble to his trial in 1998, two years after his apprehension. Formerly a brilliant mathematician, Kaczynski began his terror campaign in protest against the proliferation of technology in modern society.

The subject matter is fascinating, and aside from the necessary dramatization the series seems to reflect it quite accurately. Unfortunately, it works somewhat better as a documentary than as a drama. Something of a conflict emerges between the story’s two strands; the fact that Kaczynski’s identity is revealed early on mitigates the effectiveness of the actual manhunt in compelling the viewer. Different suspects and theories feature in the earlier episodes, but our knowledge of them to be incorrect renders them largely useless as plot devices.

It has been noted that the character of Fitz is cobbled together from more than one real-life operative, and that the real James Fitzgerald was not as involved in the case as the show suggests. Perhaps because of this, and despite the (largely uninspiring) insights we are given into his love life, Fitz comes across more as a storytelling tool than an engaging protagonist. Sam Worthington’s pedestrian performance doesn’t help matters.

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Ted Kaczynski, on the other hand, is a cracking villain. His disturbed worldview is communicated with startling eloquence, and Paul Bettany breathes life into him with understated, softly spoken brilliance. The sixth episode deals solely with his background, allowing us to depart temporarily from a manhunt story which has by then become somewhat formulaic. It is tragic and disturbing in equal measures, and is almost certainly the series’ highlight.

A couple of references are made to the OJ Simpson murder case (which took place not long before Kaczynski’s capture) throughout the series. It is somewhat ironic that The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (also available on Netflix) is a comfortably superior miniseries to this. Nonetheless, there is plenty to like about Manhunt: Unabomber, and it pulls the same kind of “true crime” strings, if that’s what you’re into.


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.



We Need to Talk About the Artist and the Art

Anyone with access to the Internet has most likely heard volumes about the recent spate of sexual misconduct scandals involving high profile members of Hollywood’s elite. Among those volumes has been outrage, condemnation, denial, disbelief; the list goes on. While doubt remains as to the veracity of some allegations, certain reputations, most notably those of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, have been inarguably and irreversibly wrecked. In any case, there is little more to be gained at this point by picking apart the rights, wrongs, truths or falsehoods involved. It appears safe to say that we have reached the saturation point for such speculation.

One aspect to the whole ordeal that has not been explored in such fervent detail, however, is the artistic legacy that these men will leave behind once the glare of the public eye has moved away from them.

We must exercise caution here, because this issue runs deeper than a lot of people appreciate at first glance. It is tempting to think that we can take someone like Kevin Spacey, who has been unambiguously exposed as an amoral predator, and simply bury them. It seems logical that their achievements should no longer be celebrated, and that their only mention should now be, at best, a footnote to some expression of disgust.

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The issue here is that this requires everyone to wilfully ignore facts. Spacey is a perfect example because, regardless of his crimes, he remains one of the best actors of his generation. Anyone with a moral compass will see him as the monster he is, but anyone with an appreciation for film will still recognise the quality of his performances in American Beauty, Se7en, The Usual Suspects and many others besides. The question, therefore, is this; in punishing the perpetrators of these unspeakable crimes, should we also be punishing society at large by depriving ourselves of the enjoyment of their work?

There are those that will say that it is not about punishment, that the knowledge of the sins committed is enough to make consumption of their work unpalatable on a personal level. The visibility of the offender in the work of art in question is clearly of relevance here. Countless folk have expressed their dismay that they will never again be able to sit down to an episode of their beloved House of Cards, but far fewer have announced that, because of Harvey Weinstein’s production of them, they now consider Pulp Fiction or Shakespeare in Love unwatchable. Nobody can justifiably propose that this is due to a lesser degree of involvement of the abuser. Obviously, it is our psychological wiring that makes this decision for us; out of sight, out of mind.

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Suppose for a moment, however, that such distinctions could be done away with, and that any work of art substantially contributed to by someone who has committed a serious crime was banished to obscurity. Would that be a desirable outcome for society as a whole? When all of its implications are considered, that question becomes an extremely tricky one.

How costly would it be, culturally speaking, if every movie that involved someone like Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein was lost to us forever? What if the allegations of child sex abuse against Woody Allen turn out to be true, and this fate befell his movies, some of which are said to have revolutionized the comedy genre? Since his death, it has been revealed that John Lennon was physically and emotionally abusive to his family; how much worse off would we all be if we could no longer consume the music of The Beatles?

This discussion has implications that ultimately reach further than sexual misconduct, and further even than the entertainment industry. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that some of the most talented and influential people among us are monstrously out of touch with any notion of morality. This is a regrettable but, human nature being as it is, seemingly unavoidable phenomenon.

When this is considered to its logical conclusion, the question changes from “what should we do?” to “what can we do?” If some of history’s most brilliant engineers, doctors, lawmakers, politicians or architects came to be outed as moral deviants, should their work be discarded or destroyed, regardless of the cost to humanity as a whole?

Obviously, there is a significant difference between a film or television show and practical innovations like, say, penicillin or the home computer. But to suggest that a creative work should immediately be thrown on the scrap heap the instant its creator turns out not to be a very nice individual is to suggest that such works are of very little real importance. While the performing arts may not have been as instrumental in the progression of our species as the doctrines mentioned above, they are far from worthless.

Practically speaking, this discussion will not yield much. It is highly improbable that either Spacey or Weinstein will ever contribute to a Hollywood production again, and, thanks to the Internet, it is equally unlikely that their existing work will vanish from memory anytime soon. A word of warning, however; if you are one of those people tempted to make a moral showpiece out of a boycott of the work of an actor or director based on their past deeds, it might be wise to consider just how many other sacrifices you will have to make to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.