Film review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

A film about a family in mourning following the murder of one of the children really shouldn’t have as many laughs in it as Three Billboards. That’s not to say it’s a hilarious comedy romp, but Martin McDonagh’s smart script contains so much humour that its fictional setting is brought to a more realistic place.

Frances McDormand is Mildred, a mother determined to seek justice following the rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). Seven months have passed and the local police have still failed to unearth the killer, which means her mourning has changed to anger. The focal point of her frustration is the leader of the local police, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a sympathetic but headstrong man suffering from pancreatic cancer.

She decides to take out the rent of three disused but prominent billboards on the outside of town. The rent is to last for one year and contains a targeted message towards the police force: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) wants to return to normality, whilst racist policeman Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes every opportunity to prove right the townspeople’s suspicions that he’s incompetent.

As a whole the film is extremely powerful, not least because of Frances McDormand’s tour de force in the leading role. It’s a dream of a role for an actress like McDormand, who is given free reign to be as offensive and hostile as she likes. It’s easy to get immersively lost in her delivery. She does comedy extremely well so when she needs to turn it on the black comedy is as uplifting as the shocking reality is devastating. For those used to her playing softer roles, be prepared for a pleasantly shocking surprise.

There are a number of outstandingly powerful scenes in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-worthy drama that stuck with me weeks after I viewed it. The one-shot of Rockwell that follows him from the police station, across the road, up to the billboard rental film’s offices and back again is a bold statement in filmmaking and is executed perfectly. A confrontational scene between Willougby and Mildred turns to intimacy in an instance when he coughs up some blood. The scene when Mildred finds the billboards on fire is devastating.

These are punctuated with moments of pure comedy gold. Right after Mildred drills a hole in a dentist’s thumb after he speaks out of line to her, she returns to her job with a face full of anaesthetic. Few scenes in cinema this year have been as funny has her flatly denying she was at the dentists despite being unable to speak.

Three Billboards has come under some backlash following its initial rave reviews and unanimous praise. As the dust has settled, a second wave of opinion has spread that aims criticism at the film for being overly sympathetic to the character Dixon. Some have noted that Dixon gets redemption by the end of the film, despite his character. In an article on Entertainment Weekly, McDonagh addressed the criticism. “I don’t think his character is redeemed at all – he starts off as a racist jerk,” he reasoned. “He’s the same pretty much at the end, but, by the end, he’s seen that he has to change. There is room for it, and he has, to a degree, seen the error of his ways, but in no way is he supposed to become some sort of redeemed hero of the piece.”

The current climate of filmmaking seems at times to work as a response to the social collective conscious that is so quickly opined online. If a film isn’t intended as such, then it is judged that way nonetheless. There has been a shift in the landscape for the better in recent times, with lead roles going more frequently to women, people of colour and  homosexuals. We are not at the end game for this – whilst one of the Power Rangers in 2017 was portrayed as a lesbian, a move to make Tessa Thompson’s Ragnarok character Valkyrie bisexual was quashed when the critical reveal scene was cut from the movie.

That said, not every film can tackle every angle of criticism every time. In the case of Three Billboards, we have a film centred around a woman seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter. She’s standing up for her rights and opinions and forcing a male-dominated police force to try harder. It features McDormand as the lead with every other character serving as a supporting device to her own progression.

In this instance, the focus is on the sexual assault of young women by men and the subsequent covering up by authorities, often with men at the top. It is about men hoping that a woman standing up for her beliefs will just go away quietly and forget about something that’s easier to sweep away than it is to pursue a solution to. It is a deliberately provocative film. That Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is a racist, in this instance, is relevant only to his character (a supporting character), but it is not centrally relevant to the plot itself. Dixon is an imbecile and being a racist bigot serves to support and enforce this in him.

As McDonagh concluded in his statement to EW, “It’s supposed to be a deliberately messy and difficult film. Because it’s a messy and difficult world.” Social commentary aside, he’s created his first real masterpiece and it’s a wonder to see it unfold for the first time. It is every bit deserving of the praise and accolades it has received and should not miss out on a fair run at the Oscars as a result of the backlash.

 

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Film review – Hail, Caesar! (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2016)

Hail, Caesar!, the new film from the Coen Brothers, is a film heavy on nostalgia and authenticity but light on focus to moving along the central plot. It has so many fantastic elements that seeing the final product fall short is a huge disappointment.

The film tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of production at Capitol Pictures whose job involves firefighting the many problems created by the studio’s roster of stars who seem to have an uncanny ability to mix themselves up in controversy. The studio’s next big film will be Hail, Caesar!, a biblical epic in which Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) will star. However, when a prop wine goblet is spiked by an extra on the set, he is kidnapped by a group of communist scriptwriters called The Future and held to ransom for a then significant total of $100,000, putting pressure on Mannix at a time when he is considering a career change to join the aviation industry with the Lockheed Corporation.

  
It felt at times that the Coen Brothers were so hell bent on fitting in a plethora of big-star cameos that they didn’t care that each time they did so they completely derailed the focus of the story. Take, for example, Frances McDormant’s studio film editor CC Calhoun. Her hammed-up effort is a nice comedy turn introduced at a critical point of the film. She could have easily turned into a key character, but never reappeared and thus there didn’t really seem to be much point to her appearance.

A bigger offender comes in the form of a more significant subplot featuring pregnant star Dee-Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and surety agent Joe Silverman (Jonah Hill). It’s a huge eater of time but in the end resolves itself with little input from Mannix at a time when he is deciding that he needs to stay in the film industry, presumably because he is so critical to it.

Similarly, Channing Tatum, who features as Burt Gurney, gets a great song and dance scene – a real highlight to the film – but is probably only in three scenes in total. The time spent with Johansson and Hill may have been better served with Tatum. Instead, none of the three characters really feel significant enough to elicit the response they could have achieved had more time been spent with them.

  
One character that does end up getting fully fleshed-out is the Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is introduced as a big studio star that has got where he is by his ability to perform massive stunts rather than any of his acting qualities. There are some fun scenes with Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) as he tried to get the best out of his acting abilities or lack thereof. Near the end of the film there is some subtle symbolism involving him figuratively lassoing Baird Whitlock and taking him back to the studios from the communists, a nod to the cowboy as an upholder of traditional American values. Whether or not they needed to spend so long in the film emphasising his cowboy skills to set this up is another question, but at least this character takes us on a journey and proves to be critical to the resolution of the story.

At the heart of the story is Josh Brolin’s Mannix, a man who is essentially a fixer for the studio. It is an interesting character and, along with Clooney’s bumbling Whitlock, he carries the film. His climactic scene with Whitlock underlines why his decision was made – he sees the communist issues surrounding the film industry as a huge threat to America and something he can have a significant impact on from his position. He takes what he considers to be the harder option but in doing so gives his future life more worth. 

There is an underlying message about the wider issues facing Holllywood at the time this film is set (1951) and how easy it was for people like Whitlock to get involved with communist cells. The discussions on such topics is outside the intended remit of this review, though the recent film Trumbo is a good starting point.

Hail, Caesar! offers a lot to fans of the Coen Brothers, though it feels like a hugely missed opportunity due to failings of an over-complicated plot that could have been significantly trimmed to focus the story on the most relevant characters. Fun in parts but overall a disappointment.

Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

Wow. I just left the cinema after watching Birdman and I was blown away. It’s easy to see why it has been so heavily rewarded in both the Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations, and I would be surprised if the Academy Awards doesn’t follow suit.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor who has enjoyed massive cinematic success some twenty years prior portraying superhero Birdman. In a bid to reignite his waning career on a more critically reputable path, he is directing himself in the lead role of his own rewrite of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Also starring in it are Broadway newcomer Lesley (Naomi Watts), Riggan’s romantic-interest Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and late replacement actor and seat-filler Mike Shiner (Edward Norton in excellent form). Also in the mix is daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is now working as Riggan’s P.A., and Zach Galifianakis as Brandon Vander Hey, Riggan’s lawyer.

It’s a film that’s hard to pigeonhole and I’m not sure I really want to. I’d hate to call it a comedy, only for someone to read this article and feel hard done by by the lack of belly laughs. Then again, it’s hardly a superhero film and you’d be bitterly underwhelmed should you think this is what you’ll be getting.

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One thing that will strike you when you watch it is the use of long single-shot scenes. Actually, the film is essentially edited to look like a complete one-shot, though there are some subtle cuts where scenes have been interlinked. Whilst this technique is something I favour (for a great example of this you should take a look at the excellent opening sequence of Orson Welles masterpiece “Touch of Evil”), it can also be used as a means to show off by a director. I’m a big fan of theatre, so since this film deals with the run up to the opening night of a play, on a basic level I can make a connection with the desire to not have a cut between scenes as they run into each other. That’s clearly not what the director is doing here though. For me, in fact, the purpose of these long takes is to build up the relentlessness of the pressure Riggan is under as portions of his life blur into one another and his less-than-clear thoughts are muddied by his unwanted past as a Hollywood superhero and furthermore by an unexpected pregnancy. It’s a really effective method of storytelling and they completely nail it.

I find the casting of Keaton in this role as a masterstroke of genius too. Whilst he was one of the first big-screen superheroes, his subsequent roles have never looked like troubling the box office as much as his turn in Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989. Only Christopher Reeve had been part of a bigger superhero success when he took on the role of Superman, and Keaton’s career trajectory ended up mirroring somewhat Reeve’s problematic career post-Kent. There have been a smattering of successes (Jackie Brown, Toy Story 3 and The Other Guys), but with this in mind I don’t think Birdman’s likeness to the 1989 Dark Knight is a coincidence. This all makes Keaton’s portrayal of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown (or worse) all the more effective, as he struggles to find relevance amongst his peers. It is ironic that this film is doing exactly that for Keaton.

The real-life-to-character comparisons don’t stop with Keaton. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner is a character whose talent is only marred by his reputation for being difficult to work with. It’s almost as if the Norton and the screenwriting team of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo are having a bit of a chuckle at our expense. Norton recently had another reflective statement when interviewed by NPR about his experience when pulling out of the Avengers series of films, which ironically was the reason he was able to schedule in this film (along with both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Clearly the fear for him was that his life would be consumed by a cycle of filming and promoting, when he could instead be part of several films that are both critically successful and reputable. The feeling I got when watching Shiner develop as a character was they had written him as the person everyone thinks Norton is, rather than what he is really like. With both Norton and Keaton both seemingly playing characters criticising the downsides of the superhero film franchises they were involved with, I wonder how Emma Stone, and more so her boyfriend Andrew Garfield, feel about the underlying commentary.

I’m going to single out Zach Galifianakis’s performance as a highlight. People know him very well for his character Alan Garner in the Hangover trilogy, which he effectively reprised in Due Date and The Campaign, and I was a little sceptical of his casting here. Harking back to Keaton, this is Galifianakis shedding his skin as proving he can take of a serious role with great aplomb if given the chance. A great choice for him at this stage in his career.

Of course, this multilayered overthinking of all the characters is all well and good, but the film has to be good to justify it. Otherwise you end up with something like David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, which I will go on record as saying is one of the worst films of all time. Fortunately it’s completely not the case with Birdman.There are some brilliant moments of hilarity in here, some surprising and well-handled special effects and a few intensely emotional back-and-forths from actors giving their everything to their art.

This is the first truly great film I’ve seen this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Birman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is out now at cinemas across the UK.