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 – The Hard Stop (George Amponsah, 2016)

‘The Hard Stop’ documents the 2011 London riots that erupted in the aftermath of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black British man. Given the current events in Dallas, Texas, the release of the film couldn’t have been more relevant.

The film concentrates on Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville. Both were close friends of Duggan for many years prior to his death, and both were members of the Tottenham Man Dem, a gang formed out of the Broadwater Farm housing estate in Tottenham. Broadwater Farm was the setting for a brutal riot in 1985 that was believed to be caused by the police raiding a home and causing the heart attack of resident Cynthia Barrett. The main reason it is remembered across the UK is the death of PC Keith Blakelock, the first policeman to die in a riot in the UK since 1833.

The film paints a balanced view of both Marcus and Kurtis. Growing up in the aftermath of the 1985 riots, the two are family-oriented men with their home community at the centre of their make-up. Their upbringing – and that of Mark Duggan – has clearly been one overshadowed by suspicion and resentment for a police force that should be there to protect them, but instead seem to constantly be at odds with their community.

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It is an unsettling film for a number of reasons. The media portrayal of the 2011 riots (that quickly spread around the country) seldom touched on the root cause, instead focusing on the looters and chancers that saw it as an opportunity to make some money out of the pandemonium. The anger from the black community in London at the injustice of what happened to Duggan was completely suppressed. I am sorry to say that as a white man, the underlying cause of the riots was not apparent to me and none of the many news outlets I have touch-points with exposed me to the full picture.

The reveal of the eventual findings of the inquest into his death was the most shocking moment of the film. The inquest found that, whilst it was unlikely that Duggan was carrying a gun, the killing was unfathomably still deemed lawful. The emotional response of the community in which Duggan lived was one of absolute devastation and was captured in a moment of brilliant documentary film-making by director Amponsah. This is not a community that wants to fight, but as the opening quote of the film states, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

‘The Hard Stop’ is one of the most important documentary films to hit the big screens this year. Out of necessity, it is rough around the edges. It has, at the heart of it, some of the greatest social themes facing Britain today. A riveting watch.

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

The second of two films I saw at this year’s BFI Flare Festival, Dear White People is an American satirical comedy set on Ivy League Winchester University campus. It centres around several students who attend the predominantly white university, in particular: Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a sharp-tongued mixed-race film production major who runs a popular campus radio show called Dear White People, which challenges the university policies and mind-sets of both the school administration and the students in a humorous but cutting manner; Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a homosexual black student struggling to fit in and find his voice as an aspiring journalist; Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), a black student who is secretly trying to land a role on a reality TV show set around campus, whilst simultaneously trying to garner fame through her video blog; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), Sam’s ex-boyfriend and current school head of Armstrong/Parker, the all-black house on campus; Kurt (Kyle Gallner), a white student and son of the school’s president, who organises a controversial Hallowe’en party with a blackface theme in response to Sam’s outspoken radio show; and Gabe (Juston Dobies), Sam’s white boyfriend.

Tessa Thompson is a revelation in her performance as Sam White.

Tessa Thompson is a revelation in her performance as Sam White.

I was lucky to see this film. It was the subject of an online petition to raise awareness of the film and increase the pitiful number of screenings it received last year in the UK – just two at the BFI London Film Festival. These Flare screenings were again over-subscribed, which begs the question – why hasn’t it received a wider release? Perhaps it’s the fact it deals with some pretty hard-hitting issues whilst not losing its ability to entertain. Maybe the questions posed were deemed as too sensitive for a large distributor to pick it up. Either way, it’s a massive shame. This is a film that needs to be seen, not just because of its important content but also because it’s a fantastic and hilarious film.

Praise is due for both Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson. The former, fresh from his recent role in The Walking Dead as Noah puts in an assured performance as someone who himself isn’t very self-assured for most of the film. However, I’m surprised he is the cover-star of the film as, for me, the central storyline and most interesting character was Sam White. Tess Thompson (recently of Selma) is a revelation in this role, playing the angry student to perfection. It’s a character with some important opinions and without her it would have risked being just a good campus comedy, but without the hard-hitting message. When the cracks in her prickly character reveal her fragility, the results are astounding. As a character, Sam galvanises the same provocative thoughts in the students within the film as it does the viewers of the film, and there aren’t many teen-comedy characters in recent years that I remember asking such important questions of the viewer. Frankly, the performance is a revelation.

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The excellent acting performances reach throughout the large cast.

Elsewhere, I felt the tones and cinematography added a lot to Simien’s well crafted script and impressive performances. Topher Osborn channeled elements of Wes Anderson in the beiges and attention to detail that are clearly evident in these well-composed shots.

If you get a chance to see this film, then I heartily recommend it. As a white heterosexual British man, I inevitably felt discomfort as I sat in the cinema being challenged to think about the questions posed by the film. In many ways that was the ultimate goal and it will be a shame if the wider cinema-going public doesn’t get to see this fantastic story.

Dear White People does not currently have a wide UK release date.

White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)

I have to say that White Dog was the first Masters of Cinema release I was genuinely disappointed with. The series, which is usually so full of care, character and attention to detail, falls short on a number of levels this time out.

Firstly, the film itself is very short, at just 90 minutes. The transfer is great, but I’m sure there was space on the disc for at least one other bonus feature. Unfortunately we get nothing – no trailer, no documentaries, no language options or subtitle options, sound only in 2.0 Digital Dolby, no discussion on why the film was banned, how the ban was lifted, how the restoration went. Not that I want to specifically compare Masters of Cinema to Criterion (though they often are), but they did get interviews with producer Jon Davison, co-writer Curtis Hanson, director Samuel Fuller’s widow Christa Lang-Fuller and dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller. The only bonus is the admittedly extensive booklet, which actually has similar contents to the Criterion release. Even the packaging on the MoC release looks lazy, and hardly goes any way to sell the film to anyone not familiar with either the film or the Blu-ray series.

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The film itself is actually really intriguing. The story opens with a car accident where a struggling young actress (Kristy McNichol) runs over a stray white Alsatian. She agrees to pay the veterinary bills even though she can scarcely afford to and when nobody comes forward to claim the dog she adopts it for herself. The dog saves her from a vicious attack from an intruder in her home, which tightens the bond between the girl and her new-found companion, but it soon turns out that the dog has been trained to attack black people – a dog trained by white racists. Not wanting to give her pet up, she seeks out expert animal trainer Keys (Paul Winfield), who becomes obsessed with retraining the dog’s behaviour in what will be one of the hardest projects he will ever take on.

McNichol and Winfield give assured performances in the lead roles and the dog is given real character by some clever angles and a slow reveal of his true colours. The climax to the film is exciting, though a flip in personality for McNichol’s lead character shortly before the conclusion of the story left me with mixed emotions on how I wanted it to pan out. The biggest highlight for me was the excellent score by Ennio Morricone. It’s probably not worth a purchase just for this.

White Dog would doubtless been forgotten due to lack of interest but for the fact it was banned for so long. Another non-victory for the censors then, but no great reward for the patient film lovers that have waited three decades to see the film.

White Dog is available on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD now.

The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

Why would I watch a film like The Birth of a Nation? It clocks in at 169 minutes long, and as a silent film that is now 100 years old I’d expect the narrative structure and storytelling to be a far cry from what I’m used to today. The storylines cover a period of history that I don’t associate with, and it is the history of a country that I have experienced first-hand only through Orlando theme parks, which despite their best intentions probably aren’t a fair representation of the rest of the USA.

There is a certain detachment from it that means it lacks the stigma I’m sure it holds for Americans. Perhaps it’s the challenge of being able to say I’ve watched it, or to see for myself what all the critics have discussed many times over. Let’s not forget that it holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was the highest grossing film of all time until Gone With The Wind some 25 years later, and it is regarded as one of the most culturally significant films of all time. These facts alone should make it essential viewing for a fan of the history of cinema.

The film starts small and builds to encompass some of the biggest political changes the world has ever seen. Initially, we focus on two families: the Stonemans and the Camerons. The Stonemans are a pro-Union family from Northern US, and they set off to visit the Camerons, a South Carolina-based pro-Confederacy family. Romance and friendship fly between some of the younger members, but this is curtailed when the young men are forced to join their respective armies for the Civil War. Their stories and relationships are intertwined throughout the film, all with the backdrop of some great war battle scenes, some (at the time) shocking torture scenes, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and the entry into Reconstruction-era USA. It’s complex, it’s ambitious and on a purely story-driven level it really works. Films of this grand scale had never been attempted before and it’s not difficult to imagine the wow factor experienced by the audiences when they originally saw it.

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That said, it’s extremely difficult to cover everything necessary to put this film into context. I’m sure whole university courses have been taught on the subject. It is one that traverses cinema, film history and political history and it would take a braver man than I to tackle everything in a short review. The elements of the film that are now deemed to be racist are interesting only from a historical point of view. Indeed, it is alarming that they were ever considered to be not racist. This includes, but isn’t limited to: the romanticisation of the founding of the KKK; African Americans getting elected into parliament only to be shown drinking during parliamentary sessions once in power; the portrayal of white men as the victims for large periods of the second half of the film; the way that the mere suggestion of interracial marriage is shown as abhorrent to white people; and most offensively, the Ku Klux Klan being shown as simply upholding the good values of the land and being the savours of an honest and righteous USA.

One African American is portrayed as a sexual deviant in one scene depicting the attempted rape of a central white character, who opts for suicide in one of the most suspenseful and heartbreaking scenes of the film. It’s segments such as this that really underline both the achievements and the failings of the film, with some pioneering techniques used to create a real edge-of-the-seat experience juxtaposed by subject matter that should never have seen the light of day.

It’s an eye-opener for the political status of the USA in 1915 that this is the case. The fact is that there are quite blatantly racist depictions of African Americans, particularly in the second half, and on every level these are jarring for the modern viewer. Couple this with the length of the film and the fact it’s a silent film and you have something that is quite inaccessible for the casual viewer.

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Certainly Griffith, directing what would come to be his defining picture, felt he had to add a pre-title screen statement clarifying and justifying the existence of the film (this was added to a re-release of the film after its exceptionally successful initial run). Later, riddled with guilt about the success of the film and – more importantly – who it was finding success with, he released Intolerance in 1916, which went a long way to protect his reputation and show other sides of the argument by heavily criticising racism and prejudice. Later he released the first cinematic portrayal of interracial romance (Broken Blossom, 1918). Also included on this disc (the Masters of Cinema PAL release) is a seven minute interview that introduced the film from 1930 onwards, where he attempted to justify the release further. It must have been a tough situation to be in for Griffith, being lauded for a film that you no longer wished to be associated with.

I’m glad I watched it, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of film. For a casual viewer who wants to be entertained, I see nothing for you here.

The Birth of a Nation is out now on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, whilst Griffith’s later film Intolerance will be released on Blu-ray, also via Masters of Cinema, on 8th December 2014.