Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It's a really good movie.

I say this upfront because I know that parts of the following review might indicate otherwise, and I wouldn't want that to be the only thing people take away from what I'm saying here. Yes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has problems in its approach to some of the topics it attempts to deal with - but that doesn't stop it from also being a really well-made and engaging movie that I liked a lot. It's writer/director Martin McDonagh through and through, a great script bolstered by some of the best performances you're likely to see this year, and that alone means that it's a film very much worth seeing, warts and all.

Set in the fictional town Ebbing, Missouri, we follow divorcee Mildred Hayes in the wake of the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela. Frustrated by the inability of the local police to catch her daugher's assailant, she erects three billboards outside the town that specifically take police chief William Willoughby to task about the lack of arrests - a decision that the seemingly tightknit community of Ebbing don't take kindly to, being as Willoughby is in the late stages of pancreatic cancer.

But this conflict is ultimately only half of what Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is dealing with - the other half being the violently racist Officer Dixon, who is well-known in the area for having tortured a person he had in custody (an act that was subsequently covered up by Chief Willoughby). It's here that the film stumbles - Officer Dixon might be an interesting character played perfectly by Sam Rockwell, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri's approach towards him and the topics of race and police brutality is... clumsy at best, to the point where you have to wonder what exactly McDonagh wanted to say with the character.

Is it that everyone is capable of change, regardless of what they've done in the past? Is it that good acts can't make up for bad? Is it that they can? Is it that racism is easily solvable, if only we try? Is it that even the worst people are nice, deep down? The vague gesturing that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes towards all these possibilities and more throughout its running time means that after just one viewing, it's impossible to say for sure exactly what McDonagh was trying to get at - and that places us in the uncomfortable position of being expected to at least somewhat root for a guy who is proud of using his power as a police officer to get away with torturing someone. It's unfortunate to say the least, and it means that while it doesn't derail the film entirely, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely becomes a less well-polished movie - if not necessarily a less entertaining one - when Officer Dixon takes centre stage.

Which means that it's the first half of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that is its strongest, focusing on Mildred Hayes and Chief Willoughby as the titular billboards bring them into conflict. This is where McDonagh's script really shines, frequently veering between laugh-out-loud hilarious and devastatingly emotional without ever suffering from tonal whiplash thanks to the sheer strength of direction and the fantastic performances given by everyone involved. Woody Harrelson is great as Willoughby, injecting this not unlikeable character with an enormous amount of sympathy and humanity (maybe too much, given Willoughby's tolerance of Dixon), but naturally it's Frances McDormand who'll be receiving most of the praise here - and rightly so. She's simply incredible, a commanding presence of tightly wound grief and rage and loss and anger and newfound purpose, spitting McDonagh's best lines with the kind of delivery that would (and does) make a clergyman blush. Any awards she might win from this role are well-deserved to say the least.

How Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri sits with you is ultimately going to vary from person to person based on their interpretation of what McDonagh might've been trying to say with Dixon, and that's totally understandable given the importance and timeliness of the topics that are, at best, poorly-handled here. Assuming good intentions, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a hugely entertaining and captivating film that gives a lot of great actors the opportunity to deliver great performances - it's just a shame that the few problems it does suffer from are around such a sensitive area.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water sets its sights on the 1950’s and the life of Eliza, Sally Hawkins, a mute janitor working at a secret science facility. One day, a mysterious trunk is delivered to the facility’s water tank by surly, violent security specialist Strickland, Michael Shannon, soon to be revealed as a fish-man hybrid, played by Doug Jones, to be studied by the military as a prisoner and test subject to hopefully uncover powerful secrets that could tip the tide of the Cold War. Eliza instantly takes a liking to the creature, bonding over their shared inability to talk, and hatches a plan with her coworker Zelda, Octavia Spencer, flatmate Giles, Richard Jenkins, and a friendly doctor, Michael Stuhlbarg, to rescue it once it becomes clear that Strickland isn’t interested in gathering data on it while it’s alive. Eliza just can’t bear to lose her one real shot at true love.

The Shape of Water
continues Del Toro’s trend of mixing his style with established genres to make something that feels familiar and yet still his own. After taking on Gothic horror with Crimson Peak and post-apocalyptic Godzilla-style monster movies with Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water sees him turn to Douglas Sirk romantic melodramas to color his tale. The production design (from Paul D. Austerberg) is a freaky fun melange of classic 1950s decor and the retro futurism of sci-fi flicks of the day, framed with relish at all sorts of kooky angles by DP Dan Laustsen. The result could best be described as Terry Gilliam making his own circus carnival version of Carol, but with more fish monsters. It’s a hyper-specific and unique sort of film that’s become Del Toro’s calling card over the years. And the look of The Shape of Water is perhaps its best trait, with a depth to its set design that always gives the eye something to latch onto even if it’s the fifth time returning to that place.

The script, written with Vanessa Taylor, makes a conscious effort here to focus on Eliza and her experience, generally leaving much of the mystery on the outskirts of the proceedings. A lesser film might have put all the focus on the fish man: his origins, his abilities, how he’ll be used by the military and so on. Del Toro isn’t concerned with any of that; he focused his exposition almost exclusively within the frame of reference of Eliza. He gives plenty of room to establishing her daily routine, cooking hard boiled eggs and watching classic movies with Giles. The Shape of Water paints such a clear picture of who Eliza is that we have a keen sense of her tender heart, her vulnerability, her kindness and her loneliness. And all of that comes down to Sally Hawkins, forced to create these shades of character and personality without benefit of speech. Her face and her body language are remarkably expressive, and she’s buoyed by actors with the quality of Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer playing her confidants. Jenkins is (unsurprisingly) especially strong here, equally lonely and outcast in his own way with an artist’s soul. Michael Shannon can uncork the menace without batting an eye, though it would be nice if there were a little more to his character than simply being a heavy. We get a glimpse of who he is with some quick asides to his home life, but I wanted a little more to sink my teeth into.

That extra bit of spice we get from Jenkins can also be found in Stuhlbarg’s character, harboring a secret that recontextualizes his actions in an enjoyably subtle way. And then of course is Doug Jones, no stranger to Del Toro films, nor is he a stranger to this specific sort of costume. This is his largest role to date, having previously played all sorts of monsters, but when put under the spotlight he proves he’s up to the challenge. His job is even more difficult than Hawkins’, buried under a mountain of makeup and prosthetics as he is, but he generates an astounding range of emotions that makes him an equal part of the central romance.

All told, this is Del Toro’s most complete and satisfying film since Pan's Labyrinth. He’s perfectly at home in the 50’s melodrama trappings, and does some fiendishly clever things with the premise (including a wonderful dream sequence that has to be seen to be believed). Despite the grimy nature of the facility and Strickland’s gleeful sadism, there’s a wholesomeness to this world, a place where people who love and respect each other can get on board with a woman falling in love with a fish because they can tell it’s real love, and real love is too important to let a silly thing like different species get in the way. That sounds flippant, but in practice, it works incredibly well. The performances from Hawkins, Jones, Jenkins and Spencer, the intricate design of every sumptuous moment framed beautifully, all of it adds up to a wonderful ode to classic melodrama through a lens only a unique mind like Guillermo Del Toro could bring to the screen. This is the Del Toro I’ve always wanted, the auteur who can back up his wild ideas and visuals with real content. It’s good to have him back.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There's a moment quite early on in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that concisely sums up writer/director Rian Johnson's approach to his entry in this new trilogy. After an opening space battle establishes the stakes of the main plot, we cut to where we left Rey at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, still standing in front of Luke Skywalker with her arm outstretched, offering him his father's lightsaber. He slowly reaches forward, gently takes it from her... and throws it straight over his shoulder and off a cliff. Like Luke, Star Wars: The Last Jedi simply isn't interested in the plot threads left hanging by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nor is does it care for what direction you thought the franchise might take - and it's all the better for it.

What we have here is what many wanted Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be - not a movie that panders to the characters and iconography of the original trilogy but one that isn't afraid to take bold creative risks with them, and while that's certain to anger the more possessive Star Wars fans, it also results in an original, imaginative and genuinely exciting film.

It might be part of an enormous blockbuster franchise, but it's also Rian Johnson's film through and through, driven by the kind of creative vision and thematic intent that's rarely seen in films of this size, and while that doesn't stop Star Wars: The Last Jedi from having problems, it does go a long way towards ensuring that those problems ultimately do very little to harm the overall experience. It's the perfect example of a film being greater than the sum of its parts, a movie in which even its weakest aspects still have something important to offer thanks to the way that they add to the overall picture. Take, for example, the most obviously flawed section of the film which sees Finn and new character Rose Tico travel to a wealthy casino planet - it might feel a touch perfunctory in the moment, but it doesn't take long before you understand how well it ties into and informs the ideas that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is interested in.

Which means that while it might be just a little rough around the edges (particularly in its first half), you could never accuse Star Wars: The Last Jedi of being a mess - it's simply too well-written, offering too cohesive and compelling an exploration of its themes and characters, for that to be a fair criticism. 

But that's only half of what makes it such a great movie - it's also littered with some of the best moments, cinematography, action scenes and character arcs that a Star Wars film has ever contained. It's not just the story that benefits from what looks like a huge amount of creative freedom - it's the film-making too, and while Star Wars: The Last Jedi is still recognisably a Star Wars movie, it's also one that seems more willing to push at the boundaries of the "house style" that Star Wars is known for. The trademark screen-wipes are rarer and less obvious, the score far less reliant on the pieces of music we already recognise, which when added to Rian Johnson taking inspiration from a wide variety of sources makes Star Wars: The Last Jedi look (and more importantly, feel) every bit as new and different as this story deserves. 

So I'll say it - Star Wars: The Last Jedi is 
one of my new favourite Star Wars films, and one of the best new entries to the Star Wars franchise. What Rian Johnson has delivered here is a truly special piece of blockbuster entertainment, and I hope that he'll be a driving force in wherever Star Wars ends up going after this. Will J.J Abrams be able to conclude this trilogy in a satisfying way? I doubt it, to be honest - but even if he can't, at least we'll always have Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Monday, 8 January 2018


Set in the early 2000's, Spotlight follows a team of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe as they look into claims that a local Cardinal knew that a priest was committing child molestation and did nothing to stop it. Spurred on by the newspapers new editor, the team soon find out that the problem is much bigger than they initially suspected, and before long they are looking for hard evidence that many cases of abuse have been covered up by the Catholic Church, which has then simply reassigned abusive priests to other parishes where they can continue to abuse children.

It's one of the best "based on real life" stories I've ever seen, genuinely fascinating as it continues to develop and you learn more about the scale of the cover-up in question. Some very cursory research I have done indicates that the story in Spotlight is accurate to the way that it happened in real life. Nothing feels overly dramatised or unbelievable, the entire film simply moves forward slowly and methodically until the article is published. There is no big twist, no ridiculous melodrama, no romantic sub-plot - Spotlight simply tells the story as it happens, and in my opinion is all the better for it.

It is worth mentioning how good the main cast of Spotlight are though, which includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber as the journalists and editors working for the Boston Globe, all based on real people. While Ruffalo and Keaton are both giving more obviously interesting performances (by which I mean taking on identifiable mannerisms and each having scenes in which their characters really get to display strong emotions), Tucci instead gives a very understated performance as lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, one that is focused on selling the reality of the situation and the resigned aspect of the character. I've been a fan of Tucci for some years now, and I don't think that is going to change any time soon - he simply never disappoints, and once again Spotlight proves how good he is in even the smallest of roles.

may not be the most visually impressive or intensely thrilling film of all time, but that isn't what it is trying to be. Instead, it tells an interesting story with the use of some good performances, and although it may rely a little too heavily on the strength of that story it never loses its sense of purpose, and as such it carries us through with ease.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Baby Driver

As far as elevator pitches go, 'a car chase movie where the action is synced to its soundtrack' is a pretty great one, especially when it's coming from none other than Edgar Wright himself. As the man behind the brilliant Scott Pilgrim vs. The World it's clear that Wright is maybe the most inventive and original writer/director working today, and with a pitch that great I was sure that as with his previous films, his latest would be another film I'd love dearly - so why is it that Baby Driver left me slightly cold?

It's something I've been pondering since seeing the film, and ultimately I think it comes down to a question of individual taste rather than objective quality. Baby Driver is just as tightly-crafted as any of Wright's previous movies, utilising his almost trademark fast-paced editing style in combination with a non-stop soundtrack and some neat choreography to create something that feels totally unique, stylistically - unfortunately, it's all in service of characters and a story that I simply couldn't force myself care about, and all the style in the world can't make up for that.

The biggest problem with the film's fairly straight forward narrative is that it relies on us caring about Baby and his relationship with Deborah without ever doing the work to make that happen. In truth, I was surprised by just how bland Baby is as a protagonist - Wright's films have always been full of vibrant, interesting characters with distinctive personalities, but Baby is little more than a generic, capable nice guy whose defining personality trait is that he likes music. Even with actor Ansel Elgort being as charming as possible, Baby's lack of depth and definable personality makes it difficult to really invest in the character, and as such the action sequences, while incredibly well-made on a technical level, lack the engagement and stakes that they could and should have had.

This is Wright's first film as the sole credited writer, and I have to wonder if that has anything to do with Baby Driver's problems. His direction here is as brilliant as ever, but the script simply is neither as tight nor as funny as his previous movies, indicating to me that he could well be a writer that needs a partner to bounce ideas off of to get the best results. That's not to say that Baby Driver isn't funny at times - there are multiple laugh-out loud moments, including a great scene where Baby cases a Post Office with an unlikely ally - but the magnitude and frequency of gags is a long way away from other Wright classics like Hot Fuzz, and that's only to the films detriment.

In fairness to Baby Driver, I'm sure I'd like it more upon re-watching it free from the dizzying expectations I had initially - but for now, it's a film that I can only appreciate for it's craft and it's soundtrack rather than genuinely like.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Battle of the Sexes

With Academy Award winner Emma Stone at the forefront as tennis champion Billie Jean King, Battle of the Sexes is great fun to watch, pitting her against Academy Award nominee Steve Carell as the eccentric, former tennis pro — and infamous male chauvinist — Bobby Riggs, as they face each other on and off the court in what was the most-watched sporting event of its time.

Set in 1973, the film finds King in a career slump. Having just left their current organization over an equal pay dispute, she and the rest of her female tennis-playing comrades decide to head to the inaugural WTA Women’s Tour for a dollar each, thus fueling the argument of whether women tennis players should earn the same amount as their male counterparts when many deemed them to be neither as good nor as entertaining as the men.

With all of this happening — and with Riggs being particularly outspoken about what he felt was lacking on the women’s side of the sport — King’s game takes a downward spiral. Losing the title of women’s world number one to her competitor, Margaret 'The Arm' Court, Jessica McNamee, the 29-year-old King is left to pick up the pieces of her game, while at the same time dismissing Riggs’ attempts to lure her into a match that would decide once and for all which gender ruled supreme on the tennis court.

Aside from having to contend with Riggs and her own professional problems, King also had some personal battles that came to light while on the WTA Tour. Although married to her husband, Larry, Austin Stowell, she was hiding a secret — one deemed deeply problematic if she planned on continuing her career in tennis. On top of this, the movie also depicts Riggs' struggles with gambling and the marital problems between him and his wife, making for a tense match of back-and-forth action on and off the court for both main characters.

Coming off of her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land, Emma Stone perfectly portrays Billie Jean King. As King's public and personal life collide, Stone’s performance is both gripping and believable. Meanwhile, Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs is a joy to behold, as he nails Riggs’ exuberance, excitement and showboating ways with ease. Suffice to say, it's hard not to focus on him when he’s on screen, especially when co-stars Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming are equally scene-stealing, possessing perfect comedic timing and delivering the most moving moments of the film.

Directed by the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, the movie is shot very much like a tennis match. It has its ups and downs, and set points and match points, but it ultimately arrives at a happy conclusion for all parties involved. That said, the final on-court showdown between King and Riggs felt anticlimactic.

Ultimately, Battle of the Sexes isn't just entertaining, but also serves to share many lessons concerning equality that still prove very pertinent today.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

The world might not have been waiting with bated breath for a new Poirot film, but I'd be lying if I said that the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express didn't pique my interest. Bright neon writing, a lengthy tracking shot from a first-person perspective before the reveal of the greatest moustache you've ever seen - Murder on the Orient Express looked radically different from what I expected, which when combined with a really impressive ensemble cast made it something I was actually excited to see.

And for good reason, it turns out. While hardly a must-see movie or the genre revitalisation I had hoped for, Murder on the Orient Express is a mostly well-made and very watchable detective yarn, the kind that you don't often see anymore. You know the story - there's been a murder on the Orient Express, and it's up to Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery. 

Before that though, we get a nice introductory scene in Jerusalem that sees Poirot solving a more minor crime, giving us plenty of time to get accustomed to both his methods and his personality. I'm no Poirot connoisseur (in fact, my knowledge of the character starts and ends at him being smart and mustachioed), but I like Branagh in the role - there is a warmth and theatricality to him that stop his eccentricities or somewhat impersonal manner from painting him as alien or distant, without robbing him of any of his intelligence. Equally impressive are the supporting cast, at least when they're given the chance to be. It was always going to be difficult to balance the needs of the story with a cast this large in a film that's less than two hours long, and while Murder on the Orient Express doesn't always pull that balancing act off, most of these performances are strong enough to leave an impression regardless. Interestingly, it's the newer actors that end up getting the most screen-time rather than the veterans - Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad are arguably the most prominent of the supporting characters, and they're both able to hold their own against the more established cast surrounding them.

The core story may be an interesting one, but writer Michael Green can hardly be given credit for it, and ultimately Branagh's execution of that story is rarely more or less than just serviceable - which isn't to say that it's bad merely that it doesn't do anything to elevate the material beyond what it already offers. Ultimately, even with its star-studded cast, relatively high budget and modern film-making techniques, you've seen this film a dozen times before, whether that be through a previous adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express or even just in the way it so closely resembles almost any other detective story.

Perfectly watchable and considering that it's a film consisting of little more than conversations, it kept me entertained and engaged for most of its running time.