Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are indeed three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, sitting dilapidated, unused and largely unseen given their location alongside a quiet country road. However, they soon become the centre of attention when grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the signs in a bid to hold local Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) accountable for what she sees as a lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder some nine months earlier. Bitter and burdened by an all-consuming mix of guilt, anger and grief, Mildred is desperate for answers and seemingly has no regard for whoever happens to get in the way of her bloody-minded quest. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is undeniably funny at times and McDormand is sensational in the lead role, but there are too many moments of serious violence that are played for laughs and for which there are no real consequences forthcoming for those responsible.

Three Billboards poster

One thing at which McDonagh has proven very adept in his previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is dishing up great dialogue and that is the case again here with some cracking lines delivered by various players, which include Sam Rockwell as a particularly problematic policeman. Despite Mildred’s very public admonishment of Willoughby, there is nothing to suggest that he hasn’t done everything he can to solve the case and Harrelson brings a perfect mix of humour and humanity to the role. In fact, Harrelson is terrific as a man held in high regard by the community who is burdened by a pressing personal predicament that is much more serious than anything Mildred can throw at him. Mildred’s foul-mouthed tirades are a riot and her interactions with Willoughby are something special, but when one of them makes an early exit from proceedings, the film flounders through the final third amidst a series of convenient coincidences and scenes that only seem to exist for the comic potential they offer; a potential that is not always fully realised.

Three Billboards 1

Rockwell is lumbered with a character too stupid to be believable and the fact that he is allowed to get way with so much – such as throwing somebody out of a second-storey window for no real reason whatsoever – with nary a hint of any serious repercussions other than losing a job for which he was utterly unsuited in the first place, requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. As James, Peter Dinklage has little to do other than suffer through a series of dwarf jokes and serve as an alibi for Mildred, while John Hawkes also features as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, who is prone to outbursts of violence. In one scene, Charlie has Mildred pinned to the wall and is poised to strike when his girlfriend Penelope (Australian actress Samara Weaving) interrupts proceedings but is utterly non-plussed about what she has witnessed. Unfortunately for Weaving, Penelope is such a cliché as the dumb, much younger girlfriend that the character has little substance and affords little opportunity for her to make her presence felt, while another Aussie in Abbie Cornish is also confined to a somewhat insubstantial role as Willoughby’s wife.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

When it’s good, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is very good; a cracking good yarn with a plot that seems much more complex than it actually is, but is engaging nevertheless. The dialogue delivers all the best moments, one of which is Mildred drawing an analogy between LA street gangs and the Catholic Church. Sometimes, the violence is too excessive within the context of this story, but the standout performances from McDormand and Harrelson go a long way towards compensating for the shortcomings that exist in character development and narrative logic. It is not surprising that McDormand is amongst the Oscar favourites for her performance and whilst the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights, it is definitely something that strays far from the cookie-cutter conventions of Hollywood.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There are many people whose claims of fandom towards a particular movie franchise are worthy of our deepest suspicion. These are the types who use words like passion and obsession whenever they describe their relationship with a particular film/s and think nothing of dressing as their favourite character or speaking in a fictitious language. The problem is that it is often these so-called fans who seem to take great pride in attacking the very same films they claim to worship, whether it be taking aim at the director, the actors, particular characters, technical elements or plot developments, all the while claiming to love the very same cinematic universe upon whose most recent instalment they railed against. There has probably been no film series that has found itself subjected to as much scrutiny as the Star Wars saga. Needless to say, this latest instalment has found itself subject to the vitriolic rants of so-called fans decrying myriad elements of the film, with some demanding that The Last Jedi be removed from the Star Wars canon and an alternative episode VIII be offered up by Disney.

Star Wars The Last Jedi poster

The only real problem with The Last Jedi, and with pretty much every Star Wars movie, is the ridiculous commentary that invariably follows by the nutty nerds who have nothing better to do than waffle on about how (insert directors name here) got it so wrong. It would not matter what the finished product looked like, these so-called fans would find something to complain about. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson has created something that is a perfectly acceptable and, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyable addition to the sci-fi series that, if the profits it has generated for Disney is any indication, will continue long into the future. Sure, there are some rather corny moments, but given the fantastical nature of the worlds in which the films are set, it seems kind of petty to fuss too much over these. Would the film be better without the much mocked moment that sees General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), having been sucked into space when her ship comes under attack from TIE Fighters, floating her way Peter Pan-like back to safety?. Perhaps, yes, but the intent was obvious enough in that it was to demonstrate the latent Force powers that Organa possesses. It was a clumsy attempt that looked initially to be a logical way of killing off the character in light of Fisher’s death last year, but the fact that she is miraculously resurrected does raise questions about how the character will ultimately exit the franchise.

Star Wars The Last Jedi 2

There are a lot of unanswered questions that emerge from The Last Jedi, but that should hardly come as a surprise given that revealing too much leaves less to explore in future instalments. Much mystery remains around Rey (Daisy Ridley), her background and how she came to possess the Force but, as she was in her first appearance in The Force Awakens, Ridley balances the juxtapositions of her character with distinction and her casting has been a masterstroke in delivering a relatable character that services both the existing fan base and newcomers to this cinematic world. All the old favourites – Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewbacca – appear at various times, with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) taking control of the First Order after a showdown with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). However, it is the prominence of Luke Skywalker in proceedings (Mark Hamill) that sets The Last Jedi apart from its immediate predecessor, with the Jedi master living as a recluse on a remote island on the planet Ahch-To and not particularly enamoured by the arrival of Rey seeking tutelage in the ways of the Force.

Star Wars The Last Jedi 1

As always, there is plenty of humour amidst the action and with an all-star cast that includes the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Gewendoline Christie, Justin Theroux, Adrian Edmondson and Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd, there is plenty to enjoy. This is the longest film in the franchise thus far and there are some scenes that do outstay their welcome, but overall Johnson has delivered something that resembles what we have come to expect from the characters and the world(s) in which they live and the ending has set up the next film as a classic underdog story as the small group of surviving Resistance fighters set about rebuilding.

The Florida Project

Following his breakout hit Tangerine, the next project for director Sean Baker was always going to attract plenty of interest and, understandably, much anticipation. Filmed on an iPhone (as much a gimmick as anything I would think), Tangerine explored the humour and hardship of those living on the margins of mainstream society in Los Angeles and with The Florida Project, Baker mines similar territory, although this time the setting is Orlando, Florida. As was the case with Tangerine, Baker has uses largely unknown performers in all the major roles, with the exception of Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the compassionate, yet conflicted, manager of a tourist strip motel that is a far cry from the glitzy, feel good narrative of the nearby Disneyworld theme park that casts its mocking shadow over the lives of the motley bunch for whom the Magic Castle Motel is home.

The Florida Project poster

The story revolves around the daily adventures of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her small group of friends as they spend each day exploring their domain, which includes neighbouring bushland, abandoned resorts and the endless array of tacky tourist-tempting souvenir shops and strip malls that line the highway. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose lack of oversight enables Moonee to pretty much do as she pleases, much of which results in considerable frustration for Bobby and other residents. Halley spends her days watching television or hawking cheap perfumes to gullible tourists and whilst Baker doesn’t offer a lot with regard to the circumstances that brought her, or any of the others for that matter, to be living in the motel, Halley doesn’t exactly seem overly motivated to bring about any real change in her circumstances. Of course, the issue that Baker is tackling here is how local residents, and particularly those already living on the margins, are often left behind in the name of progress, with tourist infrastructure a greater priority than affordable housing.

The Florida Project 1

There is much amusement in Moonee’s antics which are, by and large, reasonably harmless, although there will be those who find some of her behaviours problematic in someone so young, but to a large extent she is simply a product of the circumstances in which she finds herself. Her tough, bossy exterior shields a vulnerability that she keeps in check for the most part and young Prince is remarkably authentic as a six-year-old who is largely oblivious to the potential dangers to which she exposes herself; she is just trying to find an escape from the dreary existence of life in a two-bit motel. Although Prince and the rest of the unknown performers are all exceptional, it is Dafoe as Bobby who makes the film soar.

The Florida Project 2

Bobby is sympathetic to the circumstances of those residing at the Magic Castle, acting as a father-figure of sorts to the kids and trying to balance his compassion with his responsibilities to the motel owners. He advocates for his tenants and, even when he is fighting with them, he does so with their best interests at heart. If he is angry at Halley for being late with her rent, it is only because he doesn’t want to see her and Moonee evicted. It is a delicate, yet stoic performance that is full of empathy. Forget Spiderman and the myriad other spandex-wearing Marvel types, Bobby is the type of hero we need to see more often on screen; somebody who cares about others and does everything in his power to make their lives a little bit better than they might otherwise be, even if his efforts often go unappreciated. The sun-drenched candy-coloured palette doesn’t hide the darker themes that Baker is exploring and, whilst he might not get any offers from the Disney Corporation any time soon, this is a funny, frightening, compassionate and ethical film that is neither condescending nor cavalier in its examination of poverty and, perhaps most impressively, Baker avoids delivering judgment on the (types of) people who populate the story.

The Best Flicks of 2017

Here we are again. We have reached the end of another year and it is time to look back at the movies of the last 12 months to identify the best releases of the year. Unlike other lists of this type which flood the internet, newspapers and magazines, mine has been compiled at the end of the year to make it an accurate reflection of my viewing experience over the entire 12 months of 2017.

I realise that many such lists are meaningless and often put together by people who are servants to personal preferences, a particular political/social ideology or industry influences, so a list such as mine should come as welcome relief because it is devoid of influence from any individual, organisation or ideological framework. It is derived purely from the truth of the viewing experience and the quality of the product that has been presented on screen.

It would be impossible for me to have seen every film released this year so this list is drawn from the movies that I have seen in cinemas in 2017 (regardless of when they were initially released). New releases, festival screenings, re-releases, previews or retrospectives; if I saw it in a cinema in 2017, it is eligible for inclusion in this list. Films viewed on DVD, television or via streaming or online platforms are most definitely not considered.

This list is compiled using the reviews and ratings that I posted on Letterboxd in the days following each screening. Given that there will be many movies with the same or similar ratings, I also take into account the way in which a film has continued to resonate with me long after I saw it, which always suggests that there is something particularly prescient or powerful about a particular production.

Ultimately, my list cannot be any more or less ‘correct’ than anybody else’s, but it is probably more genuine than most. However, the reality is that there are some movies that are just so good that they simply cannot be overlooked or ignored.

The films are not ranked in any particular order as all of the films listed in this group of ten are outstanding and attempting to narrow the order into some kind of sequential evaluation of merit seems a little pointless. They are all excellent and they all deserve to be celebrated and admired. No doubt there are those who will disagree with my choices and that is fine because those people absolutely have the right to be wrong.

Only films viewed in a cinema by me in 2017 have been considered. Release dates are irrelevant and should never be considered for such lists. This is about the best movies I saw in a cinema in the last 12 months. It also, obviously, precludes any films released in 2017 that I am yet to see.

So, my Top Ten movies of 2017 (in no particular order) are:

Edge of Seventeen

Manchester by the Sea

The Salesman

Raw

The Lure

Loveless

The Square

Wonderstruck

Ingrid Goes West

Dunkirk

Of course, these are not the only great movies released this year and there are plenty more for which justification for inclusion could easily be mounted. The compilation of such a list necessitates the absence of some very good films to arrive at a final ten.  Therefore, here are 10 others worthy of mention that could quite easily have been included as one of the final ten:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Moonlight

Certain Women

20th Century Women

Hidden Figures

The Florida Project

Just to be Sure

Good Time

Toni Erdmann

Get Out

With the good comes the bad and this year, like every other, there were some real stinkers. The particularly bad releases in 2017 that I had the misfortune to see include Will Ferrell’s diabolically unfunny The House, the unintentionally humorous Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me and Kong: Skull Island, the latest instalment of a franchise in which each new chapter sinks deeper into the murky depths of mediocrity.

Just to be Sure

This latest French comedy from director Carine Tardiou (The Dandelions) mines predictable plot points without following through in the ways we might typically expect. With Just to be Sure, Tardiou, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to seamlessly blend humour and drama with Belgian actor Francois Damiens (so good in The Belier Family and fabulous again here) as a 45-year-old widower who learns that the man he grew up with, and with whom he enjoys a good relationship, is not his biological father. Of course, the dilemma comes in his desire to find his real father and, like so many French comedies, the story that ensues is entertaining, subtle and clever with the director and her cast handling the poignant material every bit as well as the lighter moments. Erwan is a bomb-disposal expert who has forgone working in more exotic locales to take on the responsibility of clearing old wartime munitions from local beaches, ostensibly to be available as a means of support to his heavily-pregnant daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Just to be Sure poster

Father and daughter share an apartment and it is when Juliette undertakes a medical examination to rule out a potentially serious genetic disorder (hence the film’s title) that the truth of Erwan’s paternity is revealed, insofar as it reveals that his father Bastien (Guy Marchand) is not the man from whom he was spawned. In quick time, a private investigator identifies Joseph Levkine (Andrew Wilms), a former activist who is struggling to maintain his dignity amidst the physical and social limitations of life as an old man, as Erwan’s biological father. Whilst returning from a visit with Joseph, Erwan encounters the straight-talking doctor Anna (Cecile de France) and is instantly smitten but, of course, there needs to be an obstacle standing in the way of true love and, in this instance, it is the somewhat problematic fact that Anna happens to be Joseph’s daughter, something that he becomes aware of before her and results in a very humorous scene on the beach as the genial Erwan fends off Anna’s advances.

Just to be Sure 1

Now, this is a romantic comedy so, needless to say, there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome and, although there is considerable ambiguity with regard to how it is that these two can be together that only muddies the waters further with regard to the paternity of both of them, it is inevitable that love will prevail. Damiens and de France bring a great chemistry to two characters whose personalities are poles apart. Both Joseph and Bastien are dignified and vulnerable and it is a great credit to the two actors that neither character ever demands that you feel sorry for them. In fact, the whole cast is great and the characters are all believable (except perhaps for the bumbling Didier, who seems like he is from another film altogether), however de Lencquesaing is the standout as the feisty Juliette who, despite Erwan’s current obsession with fathers and family ties, is adamant that her child will be better off not knowing who its father is and refuses to reveal the identity of the baby daddy.

Just to be Sure 2

There is so much to like about this film that there is every reason to be concerned that a Hollywood studio boffin will decide that an American remake is needed, which of course it isn’t. As it is, Just to be Sure is perfectly fine. From the performances to the way in which Tardieau juggles a lot of heavy issues with a delightfully deft touch, drawing upon the predictabilities and coincidences that drive romantic comedies whilst still delivering something that is quite different, Just to be Sure is an enjoyably intelligent study of fatherhood, family and forgiveness.

The Disaster Artist

The biggest problem with this latest directorial effort from James Franco is not the quality of the film, but more the fact that its mere existence continues to allow a manifestly untalented, delusional and seemingly unpleasant person to bask in the spotlight that has been inexplicably thrust his way for no discernible reason. An individual should not be celebrated for producing a movie that is widely regarded as the worst ever made. Having secured a degree of infamy as the man responsible for The Room, a film that set new standards for ineptitude both behind and in front of the camera, the release of The Disaster Artist has afforded Tommy Wiseau the opportunity to again revel in the infamy of his abject mediocrity. Even though Franco, who also takes on the lead role, doesn’t paint the narcissistic Wiseau in a particularly pleasant light, the fact that he fails to explore the myriad mistruths that Wiseau has perpetuated about his life does raise questions about what Franco was really hoping to achieve. Sure, The Disaster Artist is entertaining enough and is Franco’s most accomplished effort as a director, but in simply reiterating that The Room is awful and Wiseau a clueless clown, the film doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know.

The Disaster Artist poster

Adapted from the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the film tells the story of the making of The Room from the perspective of Sestero, an actor who befriended Wiseau and subsequently found himself featuring in the film. From the physical aspects of his persona – such as his accent or ridiculous hair – to his psychological shortcomings, James Franco is pitch perfect as Wiseau, a character who is so ridiculous that it would be impossible to believe such a person exists if we didn’t already know that he does. A delusional dolt who sees his continued failure to secure any acting roles as a conspiracy rather than a reflection of the fact that he has no talent, Wiseau decides that the only way to make a name for himself as an actor is to create his own project. There is nothing wrong with such an approach and plenty of successful actors have been ‘discovered’ in small, independent films made outside of the Hollywood machine. The difference in this instance is that Wiseau actually has very little knowledge about any aspect of the film making process yet refuses to cede any aspect of the production to those who do.

The Disaster Artist 1

Given that The Disaster Artist is adapted from his book, it is perhaps not surprising that Sestero (played by Dave Franco) is pitched as the hero of the piece, sacrificing other opportunities to remain loyal to Wiseau’s vision, even if it is a vision that nobody else understands. Wiseau is dismissive of any advice that is forthcoming and becomes increasingly hostile and dismissive of the crew led by Sandy (Seth Rogan) as the costs mount. Jackie Weaver, Josh Hutcherson and Zac Efron make hilarious cameos as characters in the film within the film, while Alison Brie features as Greg’s girlfriend Amber and the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Bryan Cranston, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith and Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some) also pop in for the briefest of bits, however it is Judd Apatow who steps up as an unnamed Hollywood producer who proves the only person willing to tell Wiseau exactly what he needs to hear (which, of course, falls on deaf ears).

The Disaster Artist 2

In recent years Franco has himself become the subject of much ridicule with some strange career choices, a penchant for provocation and an unwavering belief that he is a master of all trades, but The Disaster Artist serves as a reminder that he is, first and foremost, an actor of considerable talent. He is extremely good here, nailing Wiseau’s strange mannerisms and exploring the insecurities buried beneath the bravado. It’s easy to laugh at Wiseau, and the film does that in spades, but it is much harder to care about him and, as a result, we tend to extend our sympathies to the other characters. In the vein of Florence Foster Jenkins, the rousing finale demonstrates that even a really bad performance can bring great joy to those who witness it, just not for the reasons the artist might have hoped.

Wonder Wheel

Write a screenplay. Make a movie. It seems as straightforward as that for Woody Allen and therein perhaps lies the problem. Seemingly with the freedom to make whatever ideas he develops, usually on a miniscule budget and with no studio interference, Allen has churned out at least one film (and sometimes more) every year since winning two Academy Awards for Annie Hall in 1978. The problem is though that Allen, whose every work these days exists in the shadow of the accusations and controversies of his private life, seems to be more occupied with maintaining this level of output than he is with developing his ideas to their fullest potential, which often results in considerable inconsistencies in both the quality of his various productions and individual elements within each film. As such, the quality performers that Allen invariably secures for each of his productions are often hamstrung by moments that suffer, or so it seems at least, from a lack of oversight.

Wonder Wheel poster

This is very much the case with Wonder Wheel as Allen again mixes some impressive elements (particularly in light of his budget limitations) with some moments that are almost laughable in their execution, largely due to a screenplay that not even the likes of Kate Winslet or Justin Timberlake can elevate to something beyond mediocre. Winslet is Ginny, the put-upon wife of alcoholic Coney Island carousel operator Humpty (James Belushi) with a son whose only interests are, apparently, watching movies and lighting fires, sometimes at the same time. The three live in a small apartment directly behind the Ferris wheel from which the film takes its name. When Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives unannounced after ditching her mobbed-up husband, a frustrated Ginny finds herself falling under the spell of charismatic lifeguard Mickey (Timberlake), who serves as the fourth-wall breaking narrator whose running commentary adds little of consequence. Nothing he says during his several to-camera monologues is particularly insightful with regard to the various characters, the relationships between them and the course of events in which they find themselves embroiled. Rather than adopting the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to his storytelling, Allen has opted to show AND tell, which becomes somewhat infuriating as the film progresses. If we are going to see it unfold anyway, we don’t need the commentary from Mickey.

Wonder Wheel 2

When Carolina also finds herself charmed by Mickey, tension mounts between the two women as a hapless Humpty finds himself in the cross hairs oblivious to the goings-on despite everything unfolding quite literally within the confines of Coney Island. In many ways, Humpty can be likened to Ralph Kramden from the 1950’s television sketch comedy The Honeymooners – short tempered, frequently yelling and making hollow threats – but Belushi falls a long way short of making Humpty as likeable as Jackie Gleason does Krampton. In fact, as the film progresses, it becomes impossible to shake the notion that John Goodman in this role might have resulted in a character significantly less simplistic and soporific. It is the distinct lack of nuance in Belushi’s portrayal of Humpty that makes his performance a less than memorable manifestation of a character who, to be fair, is a wholly unremarkable individual.

Wonder Wheel 3

Allegations of sexual abuse have dogged Allen for years in the aftermath of his marriage to his teenage stepdaughter so when Ginny, in a jealous rage, accuses Humpty of having an ‘unnatural attachment’ to his daughter, you can’t help but cringe a little before you begin to question whether this a conscious act of provocation from the 82 year-old fimmaker, or whether he is simply incapable of seeing how this moment might leave many viewers feeling particularly icky. Far from Allen’s best work, yet still a cut above his worst, Wonder Wheel is beautifully shot at times but the constant transitions between bright colour palettes become a distraction, as if they have been designed specifically to mask the deficiencies in the screenplay and the lack of character development that prevents the film from leaving any lasting impression.