“You Know, If You Hadn’t Stopped Coming To Church, You’d Have A Little More Understanding Of People’s Feelings…”
With the likes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths on his curriculum vitae, Irish screenwrite Martin McDonagh has become renowned in the entertainment trade for snappy and subversive tales which blend the darker traits of the human spirit with rib-tickling comedic undertones, and his return this week with the hotly anticipated jet-black drama, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an interesting example of a movie which has both equal measures of excellence and fundamental, unforgivable sin. Primarily following Frances McDormand (Fargo, Hail, Caesar!) as the grieving, unpredictable and potty mouthed Mildred Hayes, who in her attempt to call out the workings of the local police force after her daughter’s violent death instinctively causes anguish within the community with the implementation of the titular billboards, McDonagh’s latest carries all the traits and features you would expect when glancing over the director’s previous endeavours on film, but with primary characters within the narrative which ease on the side of utmost vulgarity and gaping plot inconsistencies which become too jarring to ignore, Billboards is a movie which is the epitome of a picture where the whole is lesser than the sum of its’ parts. Whilst performances all around are seemingly note perfect, with obvious plaudits directed to McDormand’s fiery justice seeker and Sam Rockwell’s idiotic, racist and utterly despicable local law enforcer, Officer Dickson, the real heart and centre of the piece is undeniably Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff Bill Willoughby, whose key involvement in the direction of the narrative is the only true character where emotional investment and engagement is truly viable.
Whilst the character of Hayes has a self defined purpose due to the tragic loss of her daughter, her penchant for unwarranted violence and vulgar sensibility highlights the key flaw in a script which not only is tonally wild, but isn’t comedic or sharp enough to come across anything other than played with a straight face, and for a movie which tackles poorly a wide range of issues ranging from rape to institutionalised racism, McDonagh’s script is one of the most nihilistic portrayals of the human race presented on screen in recent memory. With the comedic elements completely absent therefore, the continued use of petulant swearing and offensive set pieces do ultimately lead to extensive nitpicking in terms of plot inconsistencies, with the most obvious being a complete lack of any realist sense of consequence for any of the major players within the piece, with people being violently attacked in front of gazing witnesses, children being assaulted and police stations being burnt to the ground, with the characters at fault then seemingly left without any sense of punishment, and for a movie whose primary basis is Hayes’ search for justice, the feel of the movie just seems terribly conflicted and contradicted. Finally, we get to the character of Rockwell’s Officer Dickson, whose revolting, old-fashioned sensibilities and racist, sexist and bigoted views are seemingly forgotten over the course of the movie’s runtime, with McDonagh handing the character over to the audience as a sort of redemptive figure of hope which I completely and utterly rejected, and whilst Rockwell’s performance is undeniably brilliant, his respective character isn’t and whilst Billboards is indeed brilliantly made and is helmed by a flashy pace which zips along nicely, the key message and feel of the movie ultimately left me with a nasty taste in my mouth, and for a film to successfully manage that, McDonagh’s latest is a film I can admire but ultimately cannot bring myself to like.
Overall Score: 6/10
“You’re Fifty Years Old And You Still Think The World Was Made For You…”
Tackling notions of the mid-life crisis and looking back on a lifetime gone swiftly by, School of Rock writer, Mike White, directs and provides the screenplay for Brad’s Status, a low-key and pleasantly thoughtful comedy which utilises the leading star skills of Ben Stiller who returns to the big screen after a somewhat nonexistent cinematic footprint over the course of the past few years or so. Whilst Stiller’s comedy can somewhat not exactly hit the mark, take the likes of Zoolander 2 for instance, the emergence of White’s script and a wide range of lovely supporting performances from an extravagantly well-versed cast, proves to be a solid winning return for the comedic stalwart, and although the underlying narrative point of the movie is one which has been tackled before in a wide range of differing movies ranging from American Beauty to last year’s Ingrid Goes West, Brad’s Status is a cool, sombre and sometimes heartwarming drama which doesn’t ever feel the need to raise up from its’ subtle examination of its’ titular leading character.
Accompanying his son, Troy (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) along the East Coast whilst they seek out potential future colleges, Brad Sloane (Stiller) reminisces about the success of his out of touch school friends whilst he contemplates his own life’s middling mediocrity, one which is full with seething regret and unwarranted shame in comparison to his long lost forgotten acquaintances. With the narrative primarily explained through the use of Stiller’s voiceover and some rather excessive yet undeniably comedic dream sequences which convey’s Sloane’s belief of his friend’s individual successes, White’s movie works primarily thanks to a brilliantly conflicted leading performance from Stiller alongside the grounding of its’ youthful cast, with the likes of Abrams and Shazi Raja counteracting Sloane’s contempt for the world by explaining its’ true riches in a It’s a Wonderful Life style monologue. Whilst the movie falls at times for swaying too much from the central narrative and limiting its’ actual comedic zingers to a minimal amount, White’s movie is still an interesting social drama which reinforces the idea that when put to good use, Stiller is still an important and welcome leading star.
Overall Score: 6/10
“You Managed To Build A Multi Million Dollar Business Using Not Much More Than Your Wits…”
The first film of 2018 has swiftly arrived and brings with it the talented presence of writer/director Aaron Sorkin whose screenplays for the likes of The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs have placed him at the top of many’s list for the most in-demand screenwriter in America. Turning to the director’s chair for the very first time, Sorkin utilises the prestigious talents of Jessica Chastain in a dramatic representation of Molly Bloom’s autobiographical memoir about the rise and fall of her independently managed luxurious poker empire and the subsequent legal battles following the fallout of a statewide led criminal investigation. With Sorkin’s recognisable literary craft sweeping throughout, Molly’s Game is a rigorous exercise of the American’s unmistakable style audiences have grown to respect and love, and whilst a lengthy and bloated narrative timeline does weaken the finished product and prevent the movie being held in the same esteem as previous Sorkin penned releases, Molly’s Game is a flashy full house of a movie with a Chastain on unmissable form.
Beginning with a quickfire introductory voiceover outlining a young Molly Bloom’s disastrous Olympic skiing experience, Sorkin’s narrative weaves its way sharply and smoothly throughout a first act which follows Chastain’s Bloom as she develops from wandering idealist to opportunist successor, one who uses her real estate agent contact (Jeremy Strong) to flex her intellectual muscles and take over control of an infamous and highly prestigious unlicensed poker ring. With the money flowing, the famous faces increasing and a drug addiction mounting, Sorkin’s script attempts to mix in a wide range of elements of both a personal and dramatic nature of which the source material may have successfully delved into on paper, but even with a two and a half hour runtime to play with, these multiple plot threads do end up feeling convoluted come the final act where even the addition of a ever reliable Idris Elba does strangely seem somewhat added on, with his character never really having the depth to solidify his existence. However, with Chastain owning a leading role which carries all the charisma and charm you would expect from an actress renowned for playing similar characters in Miss Sloane and Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game is a zippy and smart character drama which excels thanks to the involvement of a writer whose move to directing has began more than rewarding.
Overall Score: 8/10
“We Do What We Can To Endure…”
Fresh from an inevitable and well deserved Oscar win for his performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, Casey Affleck returns to the big screen alongside Carol and The Social Network star Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story, a supernatural drama written and directed by David Lowery who reunites with the duo after previously working together on the 2013 drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. With an eerie, off-kilter sensibility, a staggeringly ambitious ideas narrative and one of the most affecting musical accompaniments of the year in film, Lowery’s latest is unlike anything seen on-screen this year, a film which utilises the basic horror trope of a common haunted house movie but then manages to expand its’ horizons into something which resembles closer an allegorical mix of themes which evoke everything from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. With little dialogue and a raging art-house aesthetic, A Ghost Story is a film undoubtedly not for everyone, but for those with the patience and willingness to embrace its existence, Lowery’s movie is an exquisite work of art.
Shot in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, or in televisual and layman’s terms, 4:3, A Ghost Story follows a sheet cladded Casey Affleck who after passing away due to the events of a traffic collision, follows his unnamed wife, portrayed by Rooney Mara, throughout her life after his death, all within the confines of the dated home in which they both shared. With directory David Lowery utilising the retro and “boxiness” nature of the aspect ratio to ensure the audience understands the claustrophobic nature of the film from the point of view of Casey’s spectral presence, the film utilises endless long shots and unbroken edits for the first half of the movie, including the now infamous one-shot “pie scene” and a chilly, uncertain introduction to Affleck’s transition from life to death, and whilst at times the pace of the movie does begin to falter, the second half of the movie in which Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar seemed to be a obvious blueprint for the direction of the narrative, concludes the film in a stunning and ambitious fashion. A Ghost Story isn’t a movie which belongs on the big screen, instead, Lowery’s latest is more akin to a museum piece where examination and steadiness is key to admiring its’ beauty, and whilst the film doesn’t hold together everything it intends to accomplish within such a short amount of time, A Ghost Story is undoubtedly an unforgettable and bold moviegoing experience.
Overall Score: 8/10
“They’re Trying To Make A Hero Out Of Me…”
Whilst Peter Berg’s rather excellent Patriots Day detailed from beginning to end the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings with an added Mark Wahlberg, David Gordon Green’s latest, Stronger, takes a calculated and extensive look at the life of Jeff Bauman, whose life changing injuries during the bombings were subsequently the subject of a 2013 memoir written by himself and Bret Witter and now the basis of the screenplay for a movie led by the ever reliable presence of Jake Gyllenhaal as the famous and life-affirming Bostonian. Whilst Patriots Day was more focused on the action spectacle and a lightning fast editing pace, Stronger is a more low-key character piece which utilises the background of a terrifying event to understand one man’s journey through pain and suffering, and whilst Green’s latest is a picture seething with top-notch performances and likeable, empathetic characters, a bloated narrative over a needlessly extended two hour runtime does threaten to become tiresome at stages, but with Gyllenhaal on Oscar-worthy form, Stronger does manage to hold its’ own undeniably effectively.
Introducing the troubled, up and down relationship between Gyllenhaal’s Jeff Bauman and Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany’s Erin Hursley from the outset, the movie swiftly moves onto the events of the bombing without ever specifically focusing on its’ reasoning or motive and instead directly leads the narrative from the point of view of Bauman who throughout the course of the movie recounts flashbacks of the event, with each progressively getting more detailed and bloody as the film trickles through his long-standing recovery in both a physical and mental capacity. With Gyllenhaal using the character of Bauman as a vessel for his already well established acting chops, utilising the direction of Green to balance moments of emotion fuelled drama with low-key physical movements and reactions, Stronger does have a variety of Oscar baity speeches which in other hands would possibly have derailed the movie’s ultimate goal, but with impressive supporting performances from the likes of Maslany and Miranda Richardson, who although in her portrayal of the expletive ridden, Bostonian parent figure did bring to mind the brilliance of Melissa Leo in The Fighter, Green’s movie is a straightforward character piece, but with such an interesting character at its’ centre, Stronger is more then fulfilling, if slightly forgettable.
Overall Score: 7/10
“You Can’t Blend In When You Were Born To Stand Out…”
Based upon R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel of the same name, Wonder tells the tale of Jacob Tremblay’s August “Auggie” Pullman and his battle with Treacher Collins syndrome as he attempts to manage his way through school and a coming of age lifestyle after years of homeschooling designed to prevent him from facing the potential fear of inevitable youth misunderstanding when it comes to his condition. Supported by the beach burnt Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as Auggie’s father and mother tag team, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose previous credits include The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the lead writer’s gig for this year’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Wonder is a solid by-the-numbers tale of acceptance and individual strength which although features an important fundamental message regarding acceptance and the impact of schoolground bullying, does become increasingly tiresome and overly manipulative in its’ emotional bulldozing as it passively lingers on to a conclusion which does manage to seal the deal to some extent and leave its’ audience with an undeniable smile.
Where Lenny Abrahamson’s Room introduced the world to the enviable talents of young Jacob Tremblay, Wonder solidifies once again that a huge future awaits for an actor who although throughout the film is covered in prosthetics akin to John Hurt in David Lynch’s heartbreaker, The Elephant Man, manages to encompass Auggie’s spectral of emotions to such an extent that the audience can’t help from getting on board and totally support the film’s leading character as he makes his journey through the trials and tribulations of a diverse and sometimes ignorant collection of fellow schoolmates. Whilst Wonder does attempt to balance the heavy dose of Auggie’s characterisation with his fellow family and friends, with the movie sometimes wandering off on tangents to do such via Tarantino-esque title cards, such diversions do come across as somewhat pointless, particularly when regarding the film’s overplayed two hour runtime, and with overly saccharin scenes of animal deaths and endless crying montages, the sentimental value of the narrative does become pretty irksome at times, but with Tremblay stealing the show and even Wilson and Roberts having a fair share of effective quick comedic quips as the relatable parents, Wonder is sometimes preachy but undeniably good hearted.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Just Because You Want It Doesn’t Mean It Can Happen…”
Whilst aware of the infamous nature of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 independent drama, The Room, a movie widely quoted as the worst cinematic release of all time, I confess to not ever finding the time to sit down and embrace it aside from skimming across YouTube videos and university students screaming “hey, watch this movie, it’s so bad”, of which I inevitably and quickly chose not to listen to. Based upon Greg Sestero’s 2013 autobiographical book “The Disaster Artist”, a first hand account of Sestero’s involvement in The Room’s troubled production and his relationship with Wiseau, James Franco directs and stars in a dramatic adaptation of the source material with Franco himself starring as Wiseau and brother Dave Franco as Sestero. Whilst Franco-led comedies in the past have somewhat failed to ignite my comical ways, the same cannot be said for The Disaster Artist, a sharp and hysterically funny look into one of the more subversive and mysterious characters to originate in the world of filmmaking since the turn of the twentieth century, and a film which on the one hand shares admiration and on the other pokes holes into the darker side of a man whose name is slowly becoming a cine-literate household commodity.
With Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau being introduced in a barmy expose of talentless squander, the narrative primarily follows Dave Franco’s Greg Sestero as he begins to pull back the layers of the mysterious Wiseau after blindly following him to Los Angeles in order to fill the craving of success and stardom in the cut throat world of Hollywood. Bringing into conversation questions regarding Wiseau’s background, age and financial caterings, Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau is indeed one of riveting success, a performance which captures both the comedic traits of the character with a numerous amount of zippy, laugh-out-loud quips, as well as the more subversive, darker means and ways of a person whose societal skills and understanding of basic human conditioning is frankly rather non-existent. With the main comedic bulk of the movie focusing completely on the creation of Wiseau’s dramatic project to an alarming top-notch and uncanny degree, The Disaster Artist is an entertaining blend of comedy gold and character examination, and with a person as inevitably ambiguous as Tommy Wiseau at front and centre of the project, there is no reason to suggest why The Disaster Artist might prove to be the ticket to the Oscars Wiseau always dreamed of after all.
Overall Score: 8/10
“I’m Done Talking, Let’s Play…”
Fresh from her Oscar win in 2017’s best film so far in the form of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Emma Stone leads Battle of the Sexes, the latest from Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and a film which focuses on the titular infamous tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs which ultimately lit the touchpaper for King’s advocacy for feminism and LGBT rights within twentieth century America. With Steve Carell co-starring as Riggs and the likes of Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman and Bill Pullman all making an appearance, the husband and wife directorial pair’s return is one of rousing success, a brilliantly acted docu-drama with a hell of a lot to say, and whilst the film sometimes doesn’t quite succeed in cracking open effectively all the notions evident on display, Battle of the Sexes is admirable in its’ attempt to raise the same questions which were raised forty four years ago but are unfortunately still increasingly evident even today.
With Stone continuing to prove why she is arguably the most in-demand talent within Hollywood at this moment in time with yet another brilliantly nuanced performance as Billie Jean King, the film’s strongest narrative thread is undeniably the relationship between her character and Andrea Riseborough’s stylist love interest, Marilyn, a partnership which not only holds the most substance between any of the leading cast in the movie, but thanks to effective dialogue and intensely invasive camera shots is so authentic in its’ design, the movie could have been good enough simply focusing on this particular plot thread alone. With a grainy, stylised 1970’s aesthetic and a jukebox soundtrack accompanying the story, Battle of the Sexes is undeniably a crowd-pleasing ace, and with a final act which although is undeniably inevitable in regards to its’ outcome, still manages to be rousingly intense, Faris and Dayton’s movie is ironically one of the more timely releases in a year rife with discussions regarding women’s liberation and the effect of feminism. Long may it continue.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Hashtag: I Am Ingrid…”
In a week in which every single cinema in the county has been asked to cram its’ screens with the toxic waste of Justice League, thank the heavens for a film in the ilk of Ingrid Goes West, an interesting, blackly comic contemporary stalker drama with a cracking lead performance from Legion star, Aubrey Plaza as the titular social media obsessed Ingrid Thorburn. Directed and written by big time debutant Matt Spicer, the movie depicts an Instagram fixated dreamer who relocates to Los Angeles after the death of her mother in order to seek out Elizabeth Olsen’s social media star, Taylor Sloane and become part of her excessively independent lifestyle which she shares with Wyatt Russell’s hipster husband, Ezra. Beginning with an opening act which straight away highlights the aggressive nature of Ingrid’s obsession and to what end she may go to in order to combat her rage and discomfort at being isolated in a world riddled with people’s wishes to be noticed, Ingrid Goes West goes on to explore the contemporary issue of social media excess and the notion of a life based solely around the viewing of society through a small shiny screen.
With Black Mirror vibes aplenty and the likes of Single White Female a sure inspiration, with a name drop in the narrative necessary to cement such, Spicer’s sure footed direction allows the movie’s key players to bring all round top notch performances, from O’Shea Jackson Jr’s Batman obsessed screenwriter to Billy Magnussen’s hateful steroid fueled junkie, all of whom acting as catnip for Plaza’s character’s downfall into complete and utter obsession with a character who is the epitome of everything wrong with society’s quest for avocado on toast and early twentieth century sociological literature. Whilst Spicer’s movie does involve elements of jet-black comedy and ironic societal comments, most of Ingrid Goes West’s healthy ninety minute runtime is played particularly straight faced, accumulating in a concluding act which although is admiral in what it’s attempting to say, doesn’t exactly pay off, but with a brilliantly kooky and unpredictable leading performance from Audrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West is a highly enjoyable ideas laden social drama which reminds that you don’t always need a big budget to win an audience around.
Overall Score: 7/10
“No Matter What You Hear Or What’s Going On, Stay Together…”
Directed by American filmmaker Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion), Only the Brave tells the dramatic and heartbreaking tale of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team of firefighters who in their attempts in thwarting the Yarnell Hill Fire in June of 2013 became American heroes and the subject of Sean Flynn’s GQ article “No Exit” of which Kosinski’s movie is based upon, and whilst the American’s previous forays into the world of science fiction cinema have been somewhat laboured, the same cannot be said for his ability in the genre of biographical dramas, with Only the Brave being a slow-burning, character-driven tale of heroism and bravery which follows in the footsteps of Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day by being effectively crafted without ever falling into the realms of schmaltziness or cliche. Working with an ensemble cast which includes a reunion with Jeff Bridges and the likes of Josh Brolin and Miles Teller, Kosinski uses the ultimate conclusion of the tale to full emotive effect by using the bulk of the movie to develop meaningful relationships and characteristics, ranging from Miles Teller’s Brendan’s evolution from junkie to father to Josh Brolin’s “Supe” who uses the thrill of his occupation to fill the gap left behind by a previous illegal pastime.
Whilst the movie does suffer slightly from being twenty minutes too long and sometimes not using the likes of Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly to full effect considering their pedigree as actors, Only the Brave chooses instead to focus primarily on Josh Brolin and Miles Teller’s characters, particularly in regards to their respective personal issues and familial ties, and whilst this sometimes leaves other members of the team to come across as simply window dressing, the performances of both hold the key to the film’s successes, with the contrasting final arc of their tale bringing the previous development together to a nicely cropped end which will leave even the most thick skinned audiences gasping with a sense of awe and shock, particularly in one of the film’s final shots when we see our heroes’ family members waiting together in a staggering state of uncertainty. Mixed together with a soundtrack which ticks all the boxes in terms of greatness, with the likes of Pearl Jam, AC/DC and Metallica all making a welcome appearance, Kosinski’s movie manages to be both an excellent homage to the true heroes of the tale and a menacing thrill ride at the same time and with central performances at the top of their game, Only the Brave is an excellent piece of biographical cinema.