Coco

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach.

Pixar are pretty much unmatched in the field of animation. Their back catalogue is filled with certified classics. In recent years there have been complaints that the studio has suffered a dip in quality, with the amount of sequels being singled out as the problem, but even when Pixar are below their usual high standards, they are still head and shoulders above their peers. For every Monsters University there is a Toy Story 3, and for every Good Dinosaur there is a Inside Out. Going into Coco, you can only hope that this measures up against those gems.

Coco is the story of Miguel, a Mexican boy who feels that he is cursed as his family has banned music, and he loves music. When they thwart his plans to play a talent show during the Day Of The Dead, he attempts to steal his deceased hero’s guitar. He believes his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, is his great great grandad, the man who left his wife and baby, and set off the families hatred of music. The Day Of The Dead is a festival in which the deceased can pass back into the land of the living, but when Miguel steals the guitar he enters into the Land Of The Dead. He will be trapped there permanently unless he gets the blessing of his dead relatives, but they won’t give it to him unless he refuses to play music ever again. This leads Miguel to enlist the help of Hector, a man who is being forgotten by his last relative which will lead to his second death, to get him to Ernesto so he can get a blessing and still play music.

Coco is a gorgeous movie. The world building, the use of green, purple and orange hues creating a vibrant colour palette, and the look of the characters. It’s astonishing that 18 years on from Toy Story, animation has progressed this much. It’s jaw-dropping what Pixar have managed to achieve in this movie. Other animation houses don’t even come close. There are times when you question if what you are seeing is completely computer generated or not, it is that photo-realistic. There is so much fun to be had in exploring the Land Of The Dead as well. The way the world is built is fantastic, it’s intriguing, innovative, and intricate.

Music is an integral part of the film. There was remit for this to go so wrong. The mariachi Disney fan fare at the beginning is as close as this film gets to pastiche, and the rest of the musical sequences are so heartfelt, honest, and true, the songs become the emotional back bone of the movie, and this is an emotional movie. The same can be said about the way the Mexican culture is used, the obvious affection shining through in every frame.

Pixar have dealt with death before, but here it is a central theme, along with legacy, family, and the old chestnut of being yourself. If you’re not crying by the end of the movie you’re a colder person than me. Unkrich and Molina also have fun in subverting some of your expectations. Ernesto’s message of seizing your moment, which Miguel puts so much stock in, turning sinister by the end, adding another dimension to a film that could have been very by the numbers. The set-up, whilst complicated, leads to a very simple plot, but this is a kids movie, and yes, Pixar have used this outline before, but who cares when it looks as good as this, and still resonates hard on every level.

Coco is another classic in the Pixar library. A film about family, and the memories you leave behind. This take its place next to Inside Out, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and the Toy Story Trilogy as some of the finest modern day animations. It will thrill the kids and delight the parents. Sitting through the trailers for other animated movies that are being aimed at young audiences, and it’s almost laughable how far ahead Pixar are. They treat all their audience members with respect and intelligence, and fill their movies with genuine love and affection. Looking at the OSCAR nominations for Best Animated Picture, and seeing Coco sitting next to The Boss Baby really highlights how far behind everyone else is.

9/10

Den Of Thieves

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Christian Gudegast

Starring: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

What can you expect from a heist movie starring Gerard Butler and 50 Cent? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I took my seat to watch Den Of Thieves without seeing the trailer, and not knowing the plot synopsis. Like most modern day heist thrillers, this film takes a lot of its cues from Michael Mann’s Heat, and whilst first time director Christian Gudegast (he has previous experience as the screenwriter of films including London Has Fallen) doesn’t hit those heady heights, his debut behind the camera isn’t wholly unsuccessful.

The film plays as battle of wits and skill between a gang of thieves, and a gang of cops. The emphasis here being that the cops are as morally bankrupt as the thieves. The thieves include get away driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), right hand man Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and are led by mastermind Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber). They are planning one last job which will have them set for life, stealing from the federal reserve. On the other side are Los Angeles’ Major Crimes Unit, a rag tag group of cops led by a grizzled Gerard Butler as Nick O’Brien.

This is as cliched as it gets, but that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had here. The action is visceral and intense. The direction is great when focusing on the heist aspect of the film. It’s tense, taught and well paced. The last act of the film is an incredibly well made action thriller. It’s clear that Gudegast knows how to handle the action, and this film will act as a great calling card for him. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is great as well, previously standing out in Straight Outta Compton, he steals the show again here. His Donnie coming out as the only likeable character. If the whole movie had been the first ten minutes and the last 40 minutes it would be a perfectly serviceable thriller.

It’s when the movie isn’t focusing on the heist that it starts to lose its footing. It shares some of the DNA as Heat. It’s a heist movie set in LA, focusing on the battle between a criminal mastermind and a cop out to get them. That’s where the similarities stop though. Heat was about two consummate professionals trying to outwit each other. Here the cops are defiantly not professionals. Turning up to crime scenes drunk. Torturing suspects. It’s made clear that the cops are just as horrible as the thieves, which is a problem because when the showdown comes I don’t know who to route for. Heat also had Al Pacino as the cop, and let’s be fair, Gerard Butler is no Al Pacino. He does give it a shot, but it just doesn’t work.

It’s clear that Gudegast is a better director than he is a writer. It’s the scenes in between the action that really let it down. There are on or two good moments. A tense encounter at a shooting range being one of them, but the main dialogue heavy scenes are so clunky. The male posturing is so over blown I thought at first they were playing it for laughs, but no, this film is completely straight faced. Butler is given a family to try and raise the stakes, but he’s such an asshole you don’t believe he actually cares about them. The rest of the two crews are given no back stories, no family ties, hell I don’t think half of them are given names. It all adds up to a finale in which I honestly felt that if all he characters were to be killed, I wouldn’t care about any of them. Which raises the question, what is the point of all this?

As action spectacle, Den Of Thieves is completely serviceable. In the moments it does works it’s really good, but these moments are undercut by such awful, non-sensical filler. Christian Gudegast has shown that he has the chops to direct tense and tight action sequences, but needs a better script. Leave your brain at the door when seeing this one.

5/10

The Shape Of Water

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg.

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the greatest directors working today. His Spanish language movies being some of the best made in the 21st century. His English language output has, so far, been mainly studio blockbuster fare, with films such as Blade 2, Hellboy 1 and 2, and Pacific Rim. These were all great, and had plenty of heart, but felt like Del Toro paying his studio dues. His last film Crimson Peak felt like a return, and now with The Shape Of Water, Del Toro is finally starting to challenge his Spanish language output. A film truly worthy of the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Shape Of Water follows Sally Hawkins’ Eliza. A mute cleaner at a government facility in the 60’s. Her usual daily routine is interrupted with the arrival of the facilities latest asset. A creature of the black lagoon style amphibian man. Brought in by head of security Richard Strickland (played menacingly by Michael Shannon). What follows is a love story as Eliza learns more about the amphibian, and they start to connect. When Eliza discovers that the creature is to be killed, and dissected, she hatches a plan to break the creature out, enlisting the help of neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Russian spy Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Del Toro’s film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies of the year. It’s a true love letter to cinema. Every frame stunningly lit, inviting the audience in until it becomes all absorbing. This is a heightened version of the 60’s, creating the feel of a fairytale for adults. It’s a film about fantasy, it’s characters are outsiders who find comfort in each other, and their escapism. You have to question wether or not the film isn’t happening in Eliza’s head. The dream like quality of the movie, and Richard Jenkins’ narration adding to the bedtime story nature of the film. Eliza and Giles’ obsession with old movies, and how these influence their lives. Eliza starts by mimicking a dance routine, until she’s the star of her own fully blown Hollywood production. It’s not hard to imagine Del Toro as a boy, an outsider finding solace in films, dreaming up this story whilst watching Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s in the rare moments that the real world starts to break in, that we can really question this reality. TV news broadcasts showing police brutality quickly shut off, racist and homophobic characters, the threat of the Cold War, it’s the real world which makes the outsiders retreat further into their fantasies.

Del Toro populates his film with so many interesting characters, making you want to know more about them. Take the man at bus stop holding a cake with one slice missing. It’s the only time you see him, but you know there’s a story behind him. The actors who portray these characters are equally as impressive. Sally Hawkins finally getting the roles and recognition she deserves, and she is breathtakingly good, filling her Eliza with a naive innocence, and a raw sexuality. Octavia Spencer makes good work with the screen time she’s given. Doug Jone turns a scary looking creature into something you care for, which is no mean feat. Richard Jenkins is fantastic, and Michael Shannon is Michael Shannon. His villain a man who has bought into the fantasy of what a man should be in the 60’s, representing all the toxic masculinity that comes with it.

Music, and how music is used in film is also incredibly important to The Shape Of Water, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is beautiful, haunting, and mesmerising. Eliza lives above a theatre called the Orpheum. This means house of Orpheus. Orpheus being a character of Greek myth who uses music to charm. Eliza and the creature first connect over their shared love of music. Orpheus was eventually killed by those who couldn’t hear his music. Which is incredibly apt for a film about the people who live on the margins and feel like they are invisible.

There’s no shortage of things I loved about this film. It’s funny, moving, tense, and heart breaking. It’s a love letter to the power that cinema has. It shares a lot in common with Pan’s Labyrinth, in particular a main character who is referred to as a princess, and then descends into a fantasy world. It’s Guillermo Del Toro’s best English language film, and in his filmography only comes second to Pan’s Labyrinth, which really is saying something.

10/10

The Post

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, David Cross, Sarah Paulson, and Jesse Plemons.

Spielberg. Streep. Hanks. Three of the biggest names in film. Teaming up together for the first time. You’re already expecting a quality film, filled with importance, and gravitas. I’m first in line for every new Spielberg film. The idea of this master craftsman directing two of the greatest actors of our generation is enough to send anyone’s expectations sky high.  Spielberg makes two types of movies these days: family blockbuster, and historically important dramas. For every Jurassic Park there is a Schindler’s List, for every BFG there is a Lincoln, and this year we have Ready Player One and The Post. An important historical drama that can come across too much like an intellectual exercise.

The film follows Kay Graham, owner of The Post, and Ben Bradlee, The Post’s editor. Kay, played by Streep, is a woman battling for respect in a mans world. She’s in the middle of turning The Post into a public company, whilst still retaining her families control. This will all go smoothly unless a crisis puts the sale in jeopardy. This crisis appears in the form of the Pentagon Papers. A government report on the Vietnam war, which if released would have turned the American people against their involvement in the war, perhaps ending the war six years earlier. The New York Times publishes these papers, but are soon shut down by the Nixon administration. When the papers are obtained by The Washington Post, Graham finds herself caught between the future of her company, and Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee’s desire to publish the papers in order to hold the government accountable.

The film is a fantastic study of shifting power dynamics. Whether it’s between the government and the people, those with the moral high ground and those without it, or between men and women. The setting of the film may be the struggle to publish the papers, but the heart of the film is Kay Graham’s struggle as a woman in a mans world. Spielberg directs these scenes with a fierce intelligence. Nothing is coincidental. Take the scene where Graham arrives at Wall Street, as she climbs the stairs past a group of women to reach the top and a room full of men, which is perfectly mirrored near the end of the movie. Or the scenes between Bradlee and Graham where the camera suddenly goes high, pointing down at Streep, making her look small in the frame, and how the camera slowly lowers as she fights back, turning the two of them into equals. This is a director at the top of his craft.

The sublime ensemble cast are all fantastic too, with Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk emerging as a real standout next to the heavy hitters of Hanks and Streep. The film is at its most fun when following Odenkirk, a reporter on the search for the Pentagon Papers. During these moments, where the film is a journalistic thriller along the lines of All The Presidents Men, is when the film really starts to flourish. It’s thrilling, entertaining, and fun. Spielberg wrings the minutiae of reporting, and publishing a newspaper for all the tension it’s worth. When in the newsroom his camera never stops for breath, constantly moving and swirling around the corridors and offices. It throws the audience directly into the situation.

It’s a superbly well made film, but somehow manages to feel unsatisfying. Like having the greatest chef in the world and the best ingredients, but finding your meal has been undercooked. After a great prologue, the film suffers a dull half hour, incredibly heavy with exposition. It’s all important stuff, but the delivery is far from compelling. The film also has some pacing issues, slowing down whenever Streep is on the screen. Streep is her usual fantastic self, but the way Spielberg tells her part of the story comes across as too much of an intellectual exercise, both for the director and the audience. It robs the films climax of the emotional heft it should have had.

Superbly acted. Well made. Entertaining in parts. Spielberg’s The Post is a fascinating story with some real parallels with the modern world. It’s a shame that it too often comes across as an exercise in making a good film rather than being great one.

7/10

Deep Cuts: Mother! – A Closer Look

2017, Uncategorized

This week marks the release of Mother! on DVD and Blu-ray. It coincides with the announcement of the Razzies. Where both Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem have been nominated for worst actor awards for their work on the film. Writer and director Darren Aronofsky also got a nomination for worst director. Now, it’s clearly a divisive film. It left both audiences and critics confounded. I, personally, loved the movie. Pushing the boundaries of what popular film could be. It’s not perfect, but the craft behind it is unquestionable. I saw it in the cinema, and was completely gripped. It’s a film which demands the audiences attention. You get out of the movie what you bring to it. In our new Deep Cuts feature we will be taking a deeper look at the films which spark the most conversations. If you haven’t seen Mother! yet, do so now, as there will be spoilers ahead.

Why has Mother! received such harsh criticism? One reason is that audiences were sold a horror film starring the biggest female star in Hollywood. There was talk of it being a spiritual sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, and whilst it was clearly influenced by that movie, and has elements of horror, it wasn’t the film that the audiences were sold. Another reason is that some people just didn’t understand the movie. The film is working on many different levels. It requires you to look beyond the surface level. I had a good measure of the film about twenty minutes in, and whilst I was shocked with how far Aronofsky pushed things, I was never surprised by what happened. It all made logical sense to me. I can understand though, that if you had a different reading of the movie the last 30 minutes would be completely confusing. There’s also a case that those who didn’t like it did understand it, and either disagreed with the central messages or just didn’t enjoy it. Both of which are completely valid positions.

I’m going to attempt to unravel Mother! and show you why I enjoyed it so much, and what I took away from it. First off I’m going to have a look at the different readings of the movie. It’s a film that could be read as a bible allegory, an environmental plea, a look at the creative process, and a study on the treatment of females. Or is it just a movie about a woman who doesn’t want strangers in her house? Like I said, you take from the film what you bring to it. Darren Aronofsky released a statement before the film was released in order to give it some context, but my advice would be to go in blind.

We are tipped off from the beginning that this is a film that’s not meant to be taken at surface value. Ask yourself some questions. When is the film set? It’s very vague, the technology, clothing and look of the film are provoking a sense of timelessness. Where is it set? Again, a question that is never answered. The house is literally in the middle of nowhere. We also never see our main character venture past the porch of the house. Who are these characters? They’re never named, which provokes analysis. Aronofsky even tells us to look deeper, when Lawrence’s character literally looks past the surface level of the house to the heart beating within. A clear indication that the events of the movie should not be taken too literally.

So let’s have a look at Mother! as a bible allegory. This is where the events of the film begin to make the most sense. Javier Bardem is credited as Him, with a capital H. He is a poet, who creates. He is a creator. Not too much of stretch to see him as God, or at least as a God figure. We see him at the beginning placing the stone down and bringing the derelict house back to life. When Ed Harris’s Man appears this is the arrival of Adam. Bardem is fascinated with Harris. The creature that God loved above all was man. We see Harris on all fours by the toilet, a wound to his rib. In the Old Testament, Eve was created from Adam’s rib, and the next morning Michelle Pffiefer turns up. We have our Adam and Eve. They become obsessed with the strange piece of glass that Bardem keeps in his office. They are told not to touch it, but they do, and they break it. Paralleling the bite taken from the forbidden apple. Bardem kicks them out of his office, and boards it up. Closing off Eden. Then Harris’ and Pffeifer’s sons turn up. Where one proceeds to bash the other one over the head with a door knob, killing his brother. Cain and Abel. If you’ve followed it so far, then you will be able to see where the film is heading. At the funeral the house fills up, until the sink breaks, and water is sprayed everywhere. Lawrence tells everyone to get out, and he house is cleared. In this reading of the film this is clearly the great flood of which only Noah and his family remained of humanity. This reading isn’t too much of a stretch seeing as Noah was the last movie Aronofsky directed.

Now the film gets a little bit messy. Bardem and Lawrence have sex, and she becomes pregnant. Bardem regains his inspiration and writes his next piece of work. This could be seen as him creating again after the flood, or read as him writing out the New Testament. We even get the great line as his working where Lawrence tells him “I’ll just get started with the apocalypse.” It’s a line of foreshadowing, but also hints at the cyclical nature of the film. What follows is where the film loses a lot of people. If you weren’t with the film up to this point you’re going to think the next half hour is the maddest thing you’ve ever seen. The house gets more and more packed, as Bardem’s new piece gets more and more popular. I believe we are then treated to a condensed timeline of the human race, and all the ills we have created. All of human sin is exposed. A religion is set up around Bardem, and the violence seems to stem from this. It of course culminates in Lawrence giving birth to what is symbolically Jesus. Bardem takes him from her, and gives him to the people. Who kill him. They soon start a religion around him, and start to eat of his flesh. Literally this time. Not symbolically. Bardem pleads with Lawrence that she needs to forgive them. We get another great line near the end, where Lawrence asks Bardem “What are you?” to which he replies “I am I.” In much the same way God answered Moses from the burning bush. It’s the final hint to the audience. We are taken from the book of genesis to the apocalypse.

You’ll have noticed that in this reading, I haven’t mentioned Jennifer Lawrence much. That’s because I believe a basic grasp of this allegorical reading is needed to access the other readings of the film. To understand who Lawrence is, we first have to acknowledge who the others are. If this is a re-telling of the bible, and Bardem represents the Father, then you can only surmise that Lawrence is the Mother, the overlooked female counterpart. A very simple pitch for this film could be what if God has a spouse? If you dig into this idea, and peel back another layer, then you could read the film as a critique of how both the bible and society have sidelined females. She is completely devoted to Him, and only wants Him to be as devoted back, but he has this urge to create. His first creations, Adam and Eve, can’t believe that she’s renovated the house herself. She’s never asked her opinion if she even wants the guests to stay. In a classic case of gaslighting, she’s made to feel like she’s the odd one for not wanting strangers in her house. She’s made passive in the story by His actions. The atrocities of the third act highlight how this then becomes reflective in society. We see her being stared at suggestively, called a cunt, groped, they try to force her to be a sex slave. It’s a compilation of the worse ways society treats women, and it all stems from how Bardem has treated her previously. This culminates in Him taking her baby. He says that he is the babies father to which she spits “I’m his Mother!” This final act gives the people free reign to beat Lawrence to a pulp. Again, it represents the ultimate indignity forced upon the female image. In fact, if what we see at the end of the film is the rise of Christianity, a male dominated religion, we are also seeing the end of an era where other religions had both male and female Gods. A time when they were both equally respected. Lawrence’s beating is a representation of the fall of the female idol. I also found it interesting that Bardem’s office held resemblances to the Oval Office. He sat trying to work and getting the credit for his writing, whilst it was Lawrence who had built the house.

This unearths another layer to the film. In other religions the female figure is representative of both fertility and the earth. Taking fertility first, the whole film could be read as a metaphor for the female experience, in particular the experience of motherhood. You could argue that in the beginning of the movie she is in her adolescence. The arrival of Harris and Pffeifer awakens her sexuality. The eating of the apple is the original sin, the move from innocence to something else, a metaphor for puberty. This is followed by their son killing his brother, which leaves a vagina shaped blood stain on the floor boards. Which drops down into the basement before exploding everywhere. Her first period. It’s only after this that Bardem, the older man, will have sex with her, and she can conceive. Notice how once pregnant, her contractions seem to make time jump forward round the house. The closer together they get the more crazy and surreal the house becomes. Here it could be argued that Aronofsky ties together the trauma of childbirth with every other trauma woman kind has suffered. This is only surpassed by the shock and trauma of letting that child go.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly is to look at Lawrence’s connection to the house. If we take our bible allegory, the house must represent Earth. Lawrence as the female figure, can be seen as Mother Earth, or at least someone who is in touch with what the house feels. In this reading the film is a commentary on the way in which we treat the planet. It is the humans that Bardem is so obsessed with that are destroying everything she built. When Ed Harris arrives he brings with him both alcohol and a cigarette. He lights up in the house and Lawrence tells him not to smoke in the house, but the damage is done. The next time Lawrence looks into the heart of the house, a black rot has started to appear. We even see a dying bee. Lawrence throws away his lighter, she tries to prevent Man having access to fire. In this reading we see Lawrence as the one responsible for kicking the guests out the house. It’s her flood, she’s the one who uses nature to rid the earth of this pest. This isn’t the end though, because the flaw that was in the people before the flood is still built in. The more pollutants seen in the house, the more the house’s heart starts to shrivel up and die. As the house fills up we see people ripping it apart, everything that Lawrence’s character has built gets destroyed. When she says it’s hers the people respond that the poet said they could share it, but their version of sharing it is to tear it apart. They all have to take a piece of it for themselves. The house soon fills up to the point of over crowding. This claustrophobia being used to portray over population. The greed of humanity is on full display, and the way we treat the planet being reflected in the way the people treat the house.

It’s here where Aronofsky’s message comes through. In the final moments when Lawrence has been beaten (she’s another representation of how we treat the earth) where Bardem tells her she has to forgive. She can’t. She uses the lighter from the beginning of the film to burn the house down. It could be read as the final reckoning for all our sins, but I read it differently. It’s a warning of how the world will end. The fire and pollution we cause, heating up the earth until we are all gone. The message is clear. Your God might forgive you for your actions, but the earth will not. This adds to the complexity of Lawrence’s performance, when asked to speak at the wake, she’s lost for words, the same way that the Earth is speechless. Here we begin to understand her passivity, and it’s heartbreaking.

There are of course many more readings of the film. An examination of the older husband, younger wife dynamic. A study of the creative process, Bardem neglects his wife in order to chase the love and adoration of his fans. He finds validation in his work, but doesn’t get it from his wife. There is a cyclical nature to the film as well which speaks to the ego of the creator, Lawrence dies and gives Bardem the ability to create again, so he changes her rather than himself or his creations, meaning that the outcome will always be the same.

Watching the film was an emotional experience for me. It made me sad to think of how we treat the world and how the world treats women. Aronofsky doesn’t offer any real answers, but I left the film thinking, and I had an urge to discuss it. I didn’t understand all of it. I have no idea what the gold liquid Jennifer Lawrence was drinking was supposed to represent. This is a film which is designed to provoke. So say you don’t agree with the message, say you felt it was too full on, or too preachy. But don’t say it’s a bad film. Bad films don’t push the boundaries like Mother! They don’t provoke discussion like Mother! They don’t demand anything of you. Mother! demands a lot. It treats film as a true art form. For me, it was one of the purest pieces of cinema released last year.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed our first deep cut. Want to carry on the conversation? Just leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Martin McDonagh

Starring: Francis McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, John Hawke, and Peter Dinklage

 

Three Billboards is the third feature film from writer and director Martin McDonagh. If you’ve seen his other two films, Seven Psychopaths, and In Bruges, then you might know what to expect. He’s a director known for subtle genre subversion, and darkly black comedy. Three Billboards continues this trend with a great deal of confidence, and you get the feeling that McDonagh has really fine tuned his style. Creating a film that works on many different levels, and doing so much more than its black comedy tag would suggest.

It’s the story of Mildred Hayes, played superbly by Francis McDormand, whose daughter was brutally murdered. When the police fail to catch the killer, she pays to put up three billboards which pointedly ask the police why they haven’t found him yet. This question being directed at Chief Willoughby, here played by Woody Harrelson. This starts a “war” between the police and those in the town who support them, and Mildred and those in the town who are against the police. Willoughby will have to do his best to keep those on his side in check, especially loose canon Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, whilst Mildred will have to navigate a town in which her actions have enraged a lot of people.

The film succeeds on so many levels. It’s a great subversion of the western revenge genre. Here, there is no one to aim the revenge against, as the police who would usually saddle up and go off to find the killer don’t know who they are after. This creates a perceived lack of agency from Mildred, which turns the police into the villains. It’s shot like a western, and the score brilliantly invokes this as well. It’s also a brilliant, character driven story. There’s not one character that does something that doesn’t make sense. Their actions, and arcs all seem logical. The actors completely sell this with some phenomenal performances. Especially Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell. McDormand is the emotional anchor. Being both heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure. She’s doing something which she feels she has to do, but you get the feeling that she’s not sure if it’s the right thing to do. Rockwell gets a character which could have been seen as completely unlikeable or completely goofy, but their is a subtlety to his performance which allows his character to develop, and gives the audience the opportunity to root for his reformation.

This review so far has focused on how much of an emotionally complex movie this is, focusing on some pretty heavy subject matter. This belies how funny the movie is. It’s dark without ever feeling dour, as it’s just so entertaining. McDonagh achieves all this through mastery of tone. The tone of this movie is spot on. The darkest moments being undercut by the funniest moments. An example of this is just after the darkest, saddest, and most tragic scene, which cuts to a completely oblivious Rockwell dancing to Abba. It never feels forced either, all the laughs stemming from the characters and how they deal with the awful situations they find themselves in. This mastery of tone also extends to how well the characters are written. McDormand the exact right mix of tough and vulnerable. Rockwell the exact right mix of psychopathic and stupid. Their respective arcs feeling completely earned.

The film is also extremely timely. McDonagh aims his cutting dialogue at everyone. No one escapes unscathed. Whether it’s the Catholic Church, or Police brutality. At one point Harrelson explains that you can’t get rid of all the racist cops because you’d only be left with three, who would be homophobic. It’s a slice of America under Trump. The way the media can be used to direct peoples anger and hate through mere suggestion. Facts aren’t important. The central message and theme of the film also ties into this. It’s about hate, and how meeting those who hate with hate just creates more hate. It’s a film whose worst character is given the room to change and reform because of a guiding hand. It’s so well written that the audience are allowed to feel for the most unlikeable character. Ultimately, it’s a film about forgiveness.

Three Billboards is such a hugely enjoyable movie. You will cry. You will laugh. You will think, and you will leave the theatre completely satisfied, but with thoughts and themes to ruminate on for days. It’s well written, well directed, and acted fantastically by a great ensemble cast. It’s sure to be a real contender during this awards season. See it now.

9/10

Downsizing

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Alexander Payne

Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis

 

Alexander Payne isn’t known for sci-if. His previous films have all been, mostly, great character studies of men. Whether  it’s a father and son’s relationship in Nebraska, male bonding in Sideways, or George Clooney struggling with a comatose, unfaithful wife in The Descendants. So it was a suprise to see that he had directed Downsizing, a film with a sci-if high concept, but don’t let the trailers trick you, this is still a male driven character study. It has a lot of ideas, and a lot to say. Maybe too many ideas. Maybe too much to say.

The film takes place in a world not too far removed from our own. Where scientists in a an effort to prevent over population have developed a method in which people can be shrunk to a height of around five inches. Whole communities are set up, for people who decide to under go the procedure known as downsizing. We are then introduced to Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek, and his wife played by Kristen Wiig. They are an average couple who are struggling to get by, and so decide to downsize, as in relative terms their small savings in the real world makes them millionaires in the small world. This is all just setting though as the film soon turns into an exploration about finding your place in the world, and a quest for happiness in a society that has become increasingly commercialised.

There are some really enjoyable moments in the film, but they are too few and far between. The way Payne builds the world is painstakingly realistic, and the first act of the movie works as social commentary and satire. The term downsizing is usually in reference to someone who is moving to a smaller house that better fits their needs. Here, the joke is that you downsize your body in order to buy a McMansion, to live beyond your means. At one point a character explains that you don’t downsize because of the environment, you do it to get small and rich, unless your poor, in which case your just small. The idea of downsizing is sold like the American dream, your chance to have it all,  but someone still has to maintain and clean this stepford-esque community. In the film these workers are portrayed as foreigners, who live in a slum just outside this idyllic community.  It won’t be lost on the audience that to get to this slum the bus has to pass underneath a giant wall. The film sets up this world beautifully, but the satire doesn’t seem to have a point. It’s neither funny enough, or cutting enough to really say anything.

It’s after the initial first act that the film really loses its way. Tonally it’s all over the show. Trying to mesh together comedy, romance, social satire, and an environmental message, but failing miserably. If the tone isn’t cohesive, than the films overall message is just as muddled. At points, the film becomes preachy about the environment, but at the same time seems to settle on a message of enjoying your life now, and not worrying about the future. It’s as if Payne had two films in his head, one a social satire on consumerism, and the other a film about human excess and the impact on the environment. Confusingly he’s decided to tie it together with the story of a man struggling to find happiness and his place in a consumer driven world. Worse is how two dimensional Matt Damon’s performance is. Described at one point as “a good guy, but also little bit pathetic guy”, by Christoph Waltz, it’s like Matt Damon took that line of dialogue and based his whole character on it, never looking to delve any deeper. He flits between despondency, to complete awe, and back again. The decisions his character makes just as confusing as the tone.

There are some nice performances here though. Christoph Waltz is his usual winning self, saddled with a character which could come across as thoroughly unlikeable, Waltz turns the charm up to 11, and you can’t help but be engaged by him. Hong Chau is a revelation as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese protester who was downsized by her government, and then shipped to the US in a television box, resulting in her losing half a leg (see what I mean about the film’s focus). She lights up the screen in every scene she’s in, and steals all the films best laughs. Other actors are terrifically underserved. Kristen Wiig barely registers, and there are cameos from big names which just end up going nowhere.

You get the feeling that there was a good movie to be found here. The world building is great fun, and when Damon does become miniaturised, it’s really enjoyable watching the mechanics of how the world works, but there’s just not enough of it. The problem is this is just setting, and the fact that they are small has no real bearing on the plot of the film. If Payne had kept it as a focused social satire it could have really worked. I read a definition of the difference between a social justice warrior, and a social justice activist. An activist has a cause and an agenda that they are focused on and are actively participating in the change of,  whereas a social justice warrior flits between every hot button topic, but doesn’t give anything enough attention to really elicit change. In that regards this film is adefinitely a Social Justice Warrior, which is a shame because it feels like such a wasted opportunity.

 

5/10