Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

In Martin McDonagh’s newest film Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother grieving the murder of her teenage daughter, pays for three messages to be painted on deserted billboards. The messages question local Police Chief Willoughby’s ability to find the culprit and rile the small town, setting off a chain of bizarre and violent events.

McDonagh’s third film is a pitch-black comedy that hits you like a punch in the chest with shocking violence and dark wit. Three Billboards is certainly not for everyone, but those who do get it will simply adore it.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes.

The director and writer follows up indie-hit Seven Psychopaths with a feature of the same vein. Three Billboards is similarly blood-soaked and comedic, yet different in the unsuspecting warmth that creeps in among the dark cracks. Another star-studded affair, the film utilises its starry talent well and introduces the audience to some brilliant young new actors (Lucas Hedges is again spectacular).

The hype is real, folks. Frances McDormand is heart-achingly sensational as Mildred, a character whose former life is over and whose current life is ruled by grief, anger and quiet despair. McDormand is given free reign with this role as McDonagh allows her to explore her range, showing herself a true character actress. The results are nowhere short of magnificent. Giving an eye-watering performance that will go down as one of the best in history, McDormand is simply one of the greatest thespians to have walked this earth.

Three Billboards is a film of memorable performances. Every scene offers something to remember from another of Hollywood’s finest. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are both on top-form, the latter flexing his muscles as a racist cop with a true penchant for violence. Rockwell is often memorable, but here he’s something else, giving such complexity to a character who could otherwise be totally one-dimensional. Although the final scene feels initially abrupt and unfulfilling, the importance of the film as a whole creeps up after watching and banishes any initial disappointment.

Three Billboards is completely challenging but completely worth the watch. Wholly uncomfortable in moments yet giggle-inducing and downright silly in others, McDonagh has somehow created his own sub-genre, and may his spellbinding work as auteur continue on.

Straight Outta Compton, review

You don’t have to like rap music to enjoy F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton. While an aversion to the genre might have some kind of sway on your initial choice of whether or not you should endeavour to see this film the movie, which stars an ensemble of incredible talent, isn’t just about the notorious N.W.A group. It’s about race, violence, society, and the somewhat corrupt music industry told through the lens of Gray from the perspective of three men who helped to shape rap. What those audience members didn’t previously know – at least in such intricate detail – was the impact that Eric ‘Eazy E’ Wright, Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young, Ice Cube (and in fact the whole of N.W.A) had on how the rest of the world saw the treatment of lower-class America in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Their songs contained profanity and explored themes of police brutality, they were met with hesitation from authorities and threats from the FBI, but N.W.A lifted the lid on life in Compton and gave others a voice, too; this is why Straight Outta Compton is so important.

The film begins pre super-stardom, set in Compton where if you’re black and stood on a corner of a street you’ll (apparently) be arrested for gang-banging. The opinion the feature has of police is clearly a negative one, but, as you discover as a spectator, rightly so. The first half or so is focused on creating a clear divide between N.W.A and the law, which stems from before Ice Cube penned the now infamous track Fuck Tha Police. You quickly get on-board with the foul-mouthed song as you learn that Ice Cube, Dre and many, many more young black men were the subject of racial police prejudice. The political side of Gray’s film is prominent, but not extreme as it hovers in the background when appropriate with writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff aware of possibly alienating audiences. The script is sensational; Insightful, emotional, and surprisingly witty, Herman and Berloff provided Straight Outta Compton with a screenplay that, had it landed in the wrong hands, could of been delivered ignorant and uninteresting. Even the 147 minute run-time isn’t an issue with Gray taking his time to carefully explore all angles of the life of N.W.A from the viewpoint of all three main hitters. With enough revelations to keep its audience pleased and a perfect fusion of life as a musician to life as a friend, son and husband, the feature is one of the best biopics of the last ten years. Who woulda’ thunk it?

The score speaks for itself, too. With non-diegetic music from the likes of Funkadelic and Parliment that produce 80’s nostalgia in the early moments of the feature; and live-music scenes recreated to perfection that create this sense of total awe; to Snoop Dogg coming in on Nuthin’ but a G Thang for the first time – it’s these individual junctures that ignite delight among the watching audience who were drawn in for the music legend. The actors who play the N.W.A founders: Jason Mitchel as Eazy, Ice Cube’s own son O’Shea Jackson and Corey Hawkins as Dre, deserve undeniable acclaim. The chemistry between the trio is brimming with brotherhood in the early years and charged when the lawsuit years begin, with not a music-biopic cliche insight. Eyes are opened wide when it comes to Eazy E as you walk away with Mitchel’s performance firmly in mind and Jackson is a complete revelation, channeling raw anger alongside this streak of sensibility – expect to see his career blow-up.

The cast of Straight Outta Compton

The cast of Straight Outta Compton

When the feature was initially released there was this slight controversy around the brushing over of certain behaviour, mainly towards the treatment of women. Most critics agreed this was a detail that is totally unpleasant but that if you watch the film and truly believe these young rappers were innocent you’re highly misguided. Straight Outta Compton is first and foremost about the birth of talented musicians and the rise (and fall) of those, and while every moment in those 10 or so years isn’t seen on-screen, the director and his producers (Dre, Cube and Tomica Woods-Wright) don’t shy away from the more shocking aspects of life as an N.W.A member. From hotel orgies and an arsenal of guns on a tour bus, to gang-bangers responsible for family deaths and Suge Knight’s psychotic behaviour at Death Row Records (Which Dre apparently overlooked for some time), this isn’t a rose-tinted overview of rap super-stardom. If anything, this is a tale that constantly reminds viewers (as if the title wasn’t enough) that Wright, Young and Cube didn’t forget their heritage and the effect of Compton on young men. The feature isn’t flawless and clearly not entirely accurate, but Gray attentively portrays key events with such thought,  including Eazy E’s death and the Rodney King trial – all of the while with Compton roots in mind.

Straight Outta Compton could of become a completely fallacious biopic were Dre and Cube not attached to the making of it. Gray directs with ease and a visual edge that depicts the changing of decades appropriately while an intelligent and Oscar-worthy screenplay and an ensemble who not only look like the real deal but clearly studied their characters to the highest extent possible support him. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, and their story of revolutionary rap music is done total justice.

It Follows, review

It Follows is an indie dream. Atmospheric, low-key and teeming with nostalgia (if you’re an old-school horror fan), David Robert Mitchell delivers a movie that is startlingly inventive first time-around but no doubt serves as repeat watching due to its nature of serving up something new each time. It Follows is far from the formulaic teen-slasher or paranormal sub-genre that has dominated cinema screens in recent years and it’s kinda’ hard to put it in any barrier. Mitchell is genre-busting here, for one minute you’re watching an adolescent romance play out, the next a nightmarish horror – this is very clever film making.

In It Follows we meet Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who – after going on a date and sleeping with the guy – is left with strange repercussions to deal with. The aftermath is a follower, one who changes in appearance every time she sees it and one which has malevolent intentions. Long story short, the follower is kind of like an STI, but much, much worse than herpes. So, anyway, Jay (with the help of her kooky pals) sets out to beat this thing in whichever way she can. But, how to do such a thing when you don’t really know what it is? That, pretty simply, is the premise to It Follows.

maika monroe as jay in it follows

maika monroe as jay in it follows

Maika Monroe is an absolute dream in her role as Jay. She’s likable, you want her to succeed, and shes totally relatable if you’re anywhere between 16-25. Monroe is on her way to super-stardom (or at least should be) and among several impressive performances – she is possibly the only good thing about the disappointing The Guest It Follows is one to get a hold of. She is supported by Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Olivia Luccardi as Yara and Lili Sepe as Kelly – all of whom share a great chemistry as they support Jay on her journey against the entity she is haunted by. Mitchell brings out the best from his cast with an original script which is quietly thoughtful and a direction that is reminiscent of horror films of the past. At 100 minutes its a relatively slow-build but this lends to a relationship between Jay, Yara, Paul, Kelly and their audience. The entire feature is atmospheric and where a thunderstorm might seem cliched in any other ‘teen’ horror in It Follows it only pushes the greatness of the piece forward. The soundtrack is an electronic treat with melodies that pop up frequently meaning you’re totally unaware of when you should be concerned that something terrible might just happen.

It Follows is great in the way that it doesn’t show you a whole lot; there is no stream of barbaric violence or continuous scares but there are several carefully timed moments that do keep you on your toes. The antagonist of the film, the entity, is frightening in the way that you can see him or her but you don’t know where it’s from or what it wants, and there’s a lot of well-crafted enigma which propels the film into fantastic territory.

Unique and tense with a whiff of the 1980’s, It Follows is a gem to the horror genre.

 

Begin Again review

Begin Again is a beautifully shot, well-acted and brilliantly scripted film that brings a level of warmth and joy to its audience that many movies attempt to attain but few successfully capture. Director and writer John Carney has produced something very special with his story of love, music and city life in this joyful feature starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Adam Levine and Hailee Steinfeld.

The ensemble are electric and the narrative itself? Simple but open to lots of different themes and exploratory sub-plots of friendship and family. It all falls together superbly and as a spectator you are struck with this sense of happiness and fulfillment come the final moments. What’s even better – and seemingly rare – is the adage of a realistic end that might initially leave people a little disappointed but eventually sits comfortably and summarises the film perfectly.

Begin Again follows Greta (Knightley) and Dan (Ruffalo) after they meet in a bar during a low point in both of their lives. Greta is a British songwriter feeling lost in America following her breakup from newly famous musician boyfriend Dave (played by real pop star Levine, which adds a quiet humour). Dan is a record producer vying for his job, practically broke, newly divorced and has a mild alcohol problem. Together they combine their passion for music – and their respective woes – to produce an outdoor album with a host of talented musicians. What ensues is an uplifting story that combines the best of New York thanks to Yaron Orbach’s stirring cinematography and a sometimes emotional – sometimes funny – script that is carried by a stellar cast that kind of boasts the best in Brit and US talent.

the cast of begin again

the cast of begin again

While Knightley and Ruffalo lead the ensemble, they don’t consume the premise and each actor is allowed a moment to become memorable. From Steinfeld’s Violet rocking out on her electric guitar and Corden’s adorably charismatic Steve to Levine in diva-mode as Dave, Carney is sure to give each character breathing space and provide enough run time to create depth and character development that pays off. The support are strong and the leads, even stronger. Knightley has proved herself to be a diverse actress and to see her step away from period drama in to a whimsical film that see’s her play a kooky, straight-talking singer is refreshing. The visible pain that Knightley channels as Greta following her heartbreak – and her description of this as a process of grieving – is so touching and we can’t help but fall in love with this quirky character. Ruffalo is too in his element as an aging music producer with beard and whiskey both present, and the pairs chemistry sizzles throughout the feature which ultimately leads to an unpredictable conclusion and a set of characters that we not only root for, but want to be friends with.

The best feeling you get from Begin Again is this overriding sense that you’re watching an indie feature. But, the best indie flick you can get your hands on. Carney’s film doesn’t have a studio gloss to it that makes the underlying romance cliched or the musical element corny – in fact, the score is contemporary and catchy and, at times, goose-bump inducing. Every component seems to be measured correctly and I doubt you will have seen a recent film that is as charming and wonderfully undramatic as this.

Begin Again is something rather special. If you’re at a crossroads in your life, this is just what you need.

Gone Baby Gone, review

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut might be nearing the ten year mark, but does that diminish the power and effecting ability as a director the actor holds over his audience with his kidnapping thriller Gone Baby Gone? Although this might be a rhetorical question, in an attempt to swiftly get ones point across, the answer would be no. Stylish in ways, underplayed in others, and with a narrative and lead performance that genuinely stays with you following the end scene, Affleck’s mastery behind the camera is seen so prominently with Gone Baby Gone, and that mastery continued with Argo and The Town – both of which were met with acclaim.

Its not Ben we see as lead protagonist here though, it’s his brother Casey. Younger in years, yes, but lesser in talent? Not a chance. Casey is so believable in his role as PI Patrick Kenzie that the word method springs to mind and his identity as a real person is never questioned during the entire run-time. This won’t be an overly-long big-up of this fantastic film, for many of you will have already seen it – and therefore know its worth. What this will be, is a nod to a daring, intelligent and thought-provoking feature full of striking performances both in front of – and behind – the camera.

Gone Baby Gone is a straight adaptation from Mystic River and Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Centering on two PI’s, Affleck’s Kenzie and Michelle Monaghan’s Angie Genaro, the narrative combines two stories of abduction that opens up a dark and murky underworld of police corruption and, more interestingly, the conscience that comes with right and wrong. Its not always an easy watch – in fact for the latter half, it really isn’t – but if you can overcome the difficulties of a narrative that deals with missing children, drug dealers and pedophiles, you will appreciate the starkness and originality – and importance – of Affleck’s feature.

In dealing with such an intense narrative, you need fierce performances. Affleck demands that from his cast, and they in return deliver. Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Ryan support, the latter received an Oscar nod for her role as the drugged-up, alcohol-fueled mother of missing child Amanda and she certainly deserved it after creating a character who spectators both sympathise with and loath in equal measure. The ensemble are strong, and as a viewer you can never be sure who to trust – which is always refreshing amongst a flock of new releases each year that are quite predictable.

The shining star, though, is Casey Affleck. He teems with realistic emotion and heart, he is truly likeable, and he portrays an everyman – from a rough neighborhood, yet he’s worked hard to produce a successful career for himself. Kenzie is the man in the middle, connecting the residents of Dorchester, Boston, to the middle-class cops who lead the case. The underlying message seems to round out to a questionable upper-class society, and an almost forgotten lower-class who are made up of criminals and addicts, along with their neglected children.

Perhaps a little pretentious in length, but basically perfect in every other aspect, Gone Baby Gone is no doubt the Affleck brothers own gem – and a gem for critics and audiences alike.

Spike Island, review

Shane Meadows, known for his exploratory directorial motives – often into the realms of British sub-cultures – released documentary The Stone Roses: Made of Stone in 2013. The feature was a look into the legendary Stone Roses gig that took place in May 1990. Similar to this, but non-fiction, director Mat Whitecross made, at the same time, Spike Island; a dramatised picture based on the same concert. An indie pic, the film features an ensemble cast, all of whom were relatively unknown at the time. Today – just two years on – we know Emilia Clarke as Game of Thrones’ Daenerys and Nico Mirallegro as My Mad Fat Diaries’ Finn. Small on budget (and even smaller on box-office takings), Spike Island is a whimsical tale of adolescent friendship, first time love, and a time in music that was pivotal within the British industry. It’s almost definitely a little hap-dash – some could even use the derogatory term flimsy – but if you too inhabit any kind of urgency to live life to the fullest (like the characters here do), Whitecross’s feature is the film for you.

the cast of spike island

the cast of spike island

The film takes place over the space of 72 hours, as a spectator you watch as a group of teenage lads attempt to attain tickets to the Spike Island ‘Stone Roses gig that took place in May 1990 in Widnes. The premise is simple, and the characters involved, including Elliott Tittensor as Tits, Jordan Murphy as Zippy, Adam Long as Little Gaz and Oliver Heald as Penfold encounter a number of diversions along their road to being gig-happy. In terms of narrative and script, its all very, very British, and perhaps a tad cliched. There isn’t much room for an American audience due to, one) the Manchester setting which means all actors involved talk in a strong accent that even people who don’t live ‘up North’ will struggle to understand, and two) the humour is based around a English wit that is hard to tap into unless you inhabit the UK. The Britishness of the feature is what makes it so strong, but this too is what limits its audience – the film took just under £100,000 at the box-office, likely due to a limited release. Though it’s an unappreciated – and barely seen – film, Spike Island isn’t a bad movie.

The group of male friends have a genuine chemistry, bouncing off of one another’s youthful energy, the atmospheric half hour at the gig is truly engaging, and director Whitecross genuinely manages to make those watching wish they could of been at that classic moment of  music history. Spike Island will, for some people, sit on the brink of greatness. These people will likely be fans of The Stone Roses and might of even been to the gig, in this way the film serves as a zeitgeist of the time. Others will cast the film to one side, seeing it as yet another Brit comedy-drama that holds so many similar themes to a number of other movies of the genre. Despite the split that Spike Island likely creates amongst its audience, it should first be seen – and then, hopefully, be loved.

 

Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station

With nothing planned this evening and Netflix at my disposal, I decided to sit down for a little movie night. Usually, I’d go for a film I have already seen and enjoyed with want for a quick decision. Tonight, I chose something different. Having heard of Fruitvale Station through the grapevine I chose to give it a go, knowing little about the film apart from it being based on a true-story that involved police brutality. At only one hour and twenty-five minutes long, I can safely announce that this film will never be forgotten. Not by me, nor by anyone who has taken the time to sit and experience Oscar Grant 111’s last hours.

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ariana neale and michael b. jordan in coogler’s feature

On New Years Eve 2008 Oscar Grant spent the day like he perhaps usually would; he dropped his daughter Tatiana to school, he spent the evening with his mother, girlfriend and family, and he celebrated the New Year with friends in San Fransisco, watching as the fireworks took flight. Returning home, Grant was involved in an altercation on the train. The train stops, police arrive, and Grant – and his friends – are all picked out and sat down. From that moment, whatever happened before becomes irrelevant. The police act on a basis that can only be described as racial prejudice, and Grant is shot in the back. On January 1st 2009, Oscar Grant lost his life. His daughter, Tatiana lost her daddy. His girlfriend Sophina Mesa, lost the father of her child. His mother, Wanda Johnson, lost her son. The police officer that committed homicide? Well, he was sentenced to two years in prison and received eleven months. Fruitvale Station is a kettle boiling steadily, quietly waiting to openly, boldly, bravely, confront the misjustice of the corrupt police officers, and the racial stigma in contemporary America. Many know it still exists, only few are brave enough to address it – Ryan Coogler does it here with empathy and authority.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant, and it’s impossible for any critic or audience member to comment on whether the actor has done him justice. That is for Grant’s family to decide, but I get the feeling that had they disagreed with the performance, Fruitvale Station wouldn’t of met its audience. Coogler’s film isn’t an exploitation piece, it a pivotal – and poignant – look at an unfathomable crime. A crime that was acted out by someone citizens of America, no matter what race, or social background, should be able to depend on – and more importantly, trust. The crime itself is just a small scene within the film, the feature is dominated by moments of Grant with his family, the love that they shared together. Coupled with this, are asides of a pensive man, looking back on his time in prison as he decides to once and for all turn away from his life of crime. Coogler doesn’t portray Grant as a perfect 22 year old guy – that would of been so easy. Instead, Grant is seen to be there for his family, desperately trying to attain financial stability. He has a temper, he’s done time, but he’s human. Grant isn’t made out to be a heroic figure, but someone trying to be there for those around him. A positive and upbeat character, a man who shouldn’t of had his life stolen from him so early.

michael b. jordan in fruitvale station

michael b. jordan in fruitvale station

Director Coogler is just 29 years old himself, and was a graduate student when Grant was shot and killed. Coogler knew instantly that he needed to tell the story of what happened at Fruitvale to the rest of the world, and that he successfully did. Going on to win two awards at Sundance, Coogler’s first directorial feature is as powerful and moving as anything from a helmer who’s been in the business for years. Ludwig Goransson composed the films score, which the musician himself describes as “Haunting.” – that, it is. Quiet and instrumental, the score plays an important role in reminding the audience of what is to come, which doesn’t lend to a feeling of impending doom, rather a sense of urgency that Grant see’s his family. Acts of prayer, intimate yet never intrusive, witty scenes of Jordan as Grant brushing his teeth with his daughter (portrayed here by young talent Ariana Neale) for the last time – these are so straightforward, yet they take on a new importance here. Octavia Spencer as Wanda is a treasure, she possesses the faith and hope of a mother. She is as natural as any parent, who all channel so much love to those around them. Spencer’s final moments in the film are so special, full of depth and respect – no overacting in sight here.

There is so much powerful emotion in Fruitvale Station. This emotion might come from the total obscenity of what took place on January 1st. It might also come from the careful and thoughtful manner in which Coogler and team went about adapting such an event for a mass audience. Beyond this, it could be based on the tragedy of the realization that America is still a divided nation. Whatever it is, it’s an accomplishment from the cast and crew who so tentatively put together this crucial feature.