LFF 2017: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri *****

Film festival films – such as this one from In Bruges’ director that closed BFI London Film Festival in October 2017 – are often the best on offer in the months leading up to end of year. But to the average cinema-goer, may be regarded as not necessarily ‘mainstream entertainment’, worth spending hard-earned cash on. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri satisfies in both respects: it’s both a work of art and fine acting and highly entertaining – profanity aside, if that offends. It has all the pitch-black humour and delivery of In Bruges too.

The story follows a grieving but no-nonsense mother, Mildred, played by the brilliant Frances McDormand, who believes local law enforcement of a rural town is not doing anything about bringing justice for her daughter’s murder and finding the culprits.

Mildred decides to take out three billboard ads – or messages – that challenge the local police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). This stirs up a hornet’s nest of opinion in the locality, as well as deep-seated prejudices, perpetuated by local bigoted officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

From McDormand to Rockwell, the acting in this film is outstanding. Every character initially appears a stereotype, only to take those preconceptions and smash them with fully fleshed and very real (and individually flawed) personalities. This does not detract from the hilarity and irony of the situation, but goes to enhance it further. From the bleakest of subject matter comes humour, something writer-director Martin McDonagh is highly skilled at – without trivalising matters.

Three Billboards runs you through the full spectrum of emotions, too, concentrating on a pocket of small-town life to do this. It also does not shy away from un-PC and polarizing views, examining their impact with full vigour, and laying them on the table for all to see and digest – a refreshing stance indeed, and one that takes the bravest of film-makers like McDonagh to handle.

If you like your comedy pitch-black and controversial but with a lot of heart and soul, you can do no better than to catch this film: Believe its billboard poster ratings – like the ones in the film, they speak the absolute truth.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Darkest Hour ****

Winston Churchill was formidable figure in history and is always portrayed as one of Britain’s greatest and highly respected leaders. What Darkest Hour does is not destroys that myth, but ‘distorts’ it by showing his immediate rise to wartime leadership position and his unpopularity – the more questionable elements of his character. It needed a strong actor for the job, to coax out Churchill’s multi-faceted traits, and Gary Oldman is pitch perfect.

The film is very topical today: war or peace, force or peace talks? It follows how Churchill was instilled as prime minister, still with the former PM, Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and his supporters lurking in the shadows after Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940. In fact, very much like today with Theresa May, placed in the position of power (unelected by the public), and trying to avoid the in-party knives that are out, while dealing with tricky foreign policy.

Oldman embodies Churchill, so much so that you forget who is behind the prosthetics. He is both physically and mentally the man, carrying the weight of the leader, both literally and metaphorically. Awards are on the cards for his portrayal, almost as though Oldman’s whole career has been building up to play this one mighty character.

If there was any criticism to be had, it would be small: that the whole film is one long character piece that doesn’t escape the ‘awards bating’ label. If you are neither an Oldman fan nor care for a lesson in Britain’s political history, this may not come top of what to go and see at the box office. Shame though, as it’s still all-absorbing with enough verbal battles and psychological warfare going on just within the war cabinet to fruitfully warrant its run-time.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Pitch Perfect 3 ***

 

The Bellas are back, older, perhaps none the wiser, but not succeeding in adult life completely and desperately needing the comforting source of singing sisterhood they got at college. For fans, it’s the latter that keeps episode 3 humming along, the idea that we have invested so much in these girls that we need to see them reunite – just like with a favourite girl band, even though we know, deep down, the magic won’t last.

The Bellas are recruited to entertain the troops in an overseas USO tour this time around, competing against other artists to win the chance to tour with (real-life) DJ and producer DJ Khaled. However, one of their parents wants more than a reunion, which puts the Bellas in danger.

Writer-director Trish Sie is no stranger to musical drama, with Step Up All In in 2014. She has taken over the girls and kept the harmonies and toe-tapping and going. The girls still have their charm, and some will relate to having to suppress one’s dreams to earn a living in the adult world. Hence the plot of having the opportunity to reform and do what they really love – and get somewhere doing it – is infectious and so the scene is set.

The thing that will swing the fans is whether they want to see their beloved girl group placed in an action movie, or not? This time around there is a ‘thriller’ element to the story that actually does not detract from the core soul of the films, but seems like an add-on, rather that taking the saga further onto a new genre path. Still, John Lithgow as the ‘baddie’ has a ball, again, hamming it up and over-acting like we’ve recently in Daddy’s Home 2 as Don. Also, if you’re already tired of Rebel Wilson‘s character’s juvenile retorts, you will have tired of this.

That said there is still plenty of performance to be had from the Bellas in this, and it’s all about the journey (and struggle) getting to the final one that is the crux of it all. Film 3 does not add anything new – apart from the odd action scene, it just fills us in on the next saga in the girls’ lives. Not a bad thing for any fan, really.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Disaster Artist ****

The saying “it’s so bad it’s good” applies to the Franco brothers’ latest film project, The Disaster Artist. The other saying that “art imitates life…that imitates art” could also apply: The Francos’ acting track record is highly debatable, with each brother’s own fair share of ‘dodgy’ performances to boot. The success of The Disaster Artist is how touching it turns out to be, as well as being a different comedic take on the underdog triumphing in Hollywood.

Based on a true story, writer/director Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) makes a film called The Room that transpires to be about his own life, starring his good friend, aspiring actor Greg Sestero (brother Dave), after Hollywood is less than kind to him. The story chronicles the odd, badly-acted film’s troubled development, with guest appearances from Seth Rogen (Sandy Schklair) and Zac Efron.

The film has its ready-made fan base that have attended all the midnight screenings and turned The Room into cult status. It’s the rest of us that need convincing. It earns new fans because it takes the oddballs bromance theory that Franco is so familiar with and adds a level of survival to it to give it gravitas that real-life Wiseau could only dream of.

The question isn’t lack of money – the usual downfall of those seeking fame in Tinseltown. The whole mystery of the source of the film funding – Wiseau’s wealth – is still as much a mystery today as it was in back then. The survival aspect to it is taking on Hollywood’s populist label that closes its doors to all whose face does not fit, and winning in a roundabout way that no one could have foreseen. In that sense it’s a breath of fresh air that slowly and gradually makes sense and entertains, climaxing in a fist thump at the ending.

The Disaster Artist turns life’s losers into winners; it is inspiring, tragic, painful and courageous all at once. This is one performance the Franco brothers get spot on.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Wonder ****

Following on from Anti-Bullying Week 2017 in the UK, and based on the New York Times bestseller, this heartwarming screen story adapted by Beauty and the Beast writer Stephen Chbosky is highly poignant, reminding us that we are all different but the same inside. In the same vein as the 1985 film that propelled Cher’s on-screen career, Mask, there is a central character that is extraordinary, both physically and mentally, trying to fit in and be ordinary. Personal journeys cannot fail to hit the right chord, if attempted well.

This is the story of August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with facial differences who has had years of corrective surgery. Homeschooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), he decides it is time to enter fifth grade in a mainstream elementary school. It means going out in the world without his trusted spaceman’s helmet. He encounters many reactions to looking ‘different’.

Chbosky and team have developed a convincing back story to the Pullman household – that includes Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) – without relying on schmaltz for reaction. We get a very real sense of each character’s place in the family unit and their hopes, frustrations and reactions to the position they find themselves in. Indeed, the Pullman world does revolve around Auggie and protecting him, but the little boy resists this to an extent, wanting to be judged on merit and personality alone.

The strength of the tale lies in the comparisons between siblings. Wonder juxtapositions their life experiences, and examines how one child gets more parental limelight than the other, through no fault of their own. In fact there is a great deal of ‘selflessness’ to all four characters making truly inspirational viewing. It is outside forces and opinions that propel the narrative forward, using Auggie as the litmus test in each new scenario.

This sweet coming-of-age tale does not leave any of its leads behind either – each one gets a chance to grow their character arc, not just Auggie, which is refreshing. This means none are left as two-dimensional caricatures propping up another, pointing to some great writing and direction.

We are used to seeing Roberts in fighting mom spirit, though this is commendably understated in Wonder, complimented by Owen’s gentle humorous input as Nate. Both Tremblay and Vidovic give engaging performances as the Pullman children. Even though Roberts and Owen are big names on the project, the film belongs to the younger stars.

This enlightening family viewing is full of morals, incentives and solutions for all – not just the standard “you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it” mantra. It is in the little details that Chbosky’s film speaks its greatest volume and empathizes with all characters: There is no black and white in Wonder as the storyline unfolds – even the school bully has a back story that goes some way to explaining his hurtful actions.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Daddy’s Home 2 **

Family dynamics around the festive period are ripe for the comedy picking. Everyone can relate to the age-old saying “you can’t chose your family” when faced with spending the requisite time with them. Indeed, even the most cynical of us will cherish at least one memorable moment – event if it’s at the expense of a loved one.

The thought of comedy duo Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg – who had a natural flow in The Other Guys – returning as Brad and Dusty respectively for a second Daddy’s Home edition, and trying to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas does prick the interest. Such enormous comedy potential, considering all was at peace with dad and stepdad at the end of the last film in 2015.

The potent mixer here is introducing the chalk-and-cheese granddads, played by John Lithgow (Bard’s emotional, touchy-feely dad) and Mel Gibson (Dusty’s macho, womanizing, guarded father) to stir up dormant feelings of inner inadequacy in our boys. Throw in some tinsel, snow and cute kids, and you have the perfect recipe, right?

The biggest crime committed here is the writers is not attempting to pen any original festive film gags, considering all four leads can do comedy with great ease. The ‘waste’ of talent is shameful. After the fun, fantasy meet-and-greet at the airport, it’s cue fairy lights going wrong, cue someone falling flat in snow, and cue a festive sing-along to remind all what the silly season is about how we should love one another. In truth, in a world in turmoil at present, this message should not be squandered lightly, but the film’s musical number leaves a sickly-sweet taste in the mouth – even though there’s a potential Marky Mark moment for fans.

This time around utter idiocy is in command. There are moments you can pick out of the festive-film déjà vu that do resonate, especially if you are a parent, and these are always a comic given. Indeed Christmas with the family does mean repetition of old ways and habits, and the predictability of it all is what the film-makers give a nod to here.

Part of the film’s other issue is bad timing of outside forces at play on its ‘innocent’ storylines – through no fault of the film-makers. With Hollywood under a cloud of abuse allegations, Gibson’s rather misogynistic character Kurt is a tad uncomfortable to watch, especially in a family film. The other is a loose attempt at tackling the gun control issue in a family-centric way, with both sides of the argument given, though the pro lobby shouting louder and even glorifying it further. The danger of polarizing characters and their beliefs renders the status quo as caricatures, with any depth and empathy for them in danger of being lost.

This does come across as Ferrell/Brad and Wahlberg/Dusty fight to be heard in the crowded screen space. Their central dynamic key to the first film and their past comedic success is muted to the point that when the cracks appear and the tipping point comes, there is a sense of disappointment. Perhaps making it more about the others – though Linda Cardellini as Brad’s long-suffering wife is woefully under-used – is to the film concept’s detriment: Too many personalities, big and small, grappling for the limelight?

Daddy’s Home 2 does bring more daddies into the domestic fray with a couple of snatched laughs – more in disbelief at what is being delivered on screen with hindsight. It also will appeal to the Bad Moms crowd too, with adults behaving childishly and without consequence. Even a sweet coming-of-age storyline about girl trouble fails to rescue this completely – and Ferrell and Wahlberg, however much we want it to.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Mudbound ****

This year’s BFI LFF was full of richly layered film-making that seemed poignantly relevant to current affairs, even though the story may have been set in another time and era. Perhaps we never learn our past mistakes?

One such example is writer-director Dee Rees’s Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, a beautifully rendered tale set in the Deep South about the impact of post-war America on the various communities. Not only does it explore racial tensions of the time, present-day unrest in Charlottesville, for example, makes us project latter-day opinions on the film’s events.

When two men – one white (Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan) and one black (Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson) – return home from World War II to work on a farm in Mississippi, they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to daily life after war. One belongs to a white family who own the land (the McAllans), and the other to family who, along with its descendants, works it (the Jacksons).

Nothing is taken for granted in Mudbound. No back story is left untold. Hence there are no plot holes to contend with. Rees fully fleshes out each character, as well as gives them an individual journey to embark on. Coupled with some fantastic casting/acting in Hedlund and Mitchell and Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan, this film offers a plethora of events and surface tensions to dissect and submerse in that parallel present-day tensions in America.

The storytelling is emotive in nature, as is to be expected. However, it is not drawn out for effect and exploitative in sentimentality. Events play out with real-time significance, with some of the most violent scenes very real indeed. In fact, Clarke’s McAllan brother, Henry, actually hits actor Hedlund for full effect in the brothers’ confrontation scene. The irony is there is also sensitivity invested in the characters and their story that Rees’ coaxes out on screen that is powerful in the mundane of moments.

Mudbound could fall into the clichéd Deep South screen story of racial divide but addresses all injustices using the most traumatic, humbling and leveling device: war.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Justice League **

Fans aside, for the rest of us, there is no competition: both DC Comics and Marvel have some iconic characters that are perfect of big-screen adaptation. Sometimes they fair better in their own film, like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and Iron Man and Captain America. Other times getting them all in one flick just means too many superhero egos to deal with/ or not enough development to care. DC Comic’s latest ensemble, Justice League, is the latter.

In this story, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) must quickly recruit a superhero team – including The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – to combat a newly awoken enemy after three powerful boxes to gain ultimate apocalyptic power. Part of this feat means Batman must face an old ‘nemesis’, Superman (Henry Cavill).

The thought of Batman facing Superman again, after the super dark and abysmal concept of Batman vs Superman last year, is enough to stimulate excitement for Justice League. Director Zack Snyder has a ‘second chance’ to get their power play right. The moment they meet again, however, is a damp squib, as Affleck’s Batman just feels tired. Admittedly, part of the attraction of The Dark Knight’s appeal is he has no super powers so there must come a point when the weariness sets in and it’s time to retire Alfred too (here, played by Jeremy Irons once more).

The only superhero acts as the vital glue in this is Wonder Woman, with Gadot a one-woman force but ‘missing’ a lot more costume than in her solo film this year. Are things that desperate that we have to resort to low-level, up-skirt shots of the only female character?

The only characters that are mildly interesting in addition to the female lead are The Flash and Aquaman. That said the former becomes the film’s token joker character, when his eccentricities are interesting enough to explore further, and the latter is the resident Scandi eye candy that also keeps the status quo light and entertaining but has little substance apart from that.

The other dominant force that shrouds any development in the central superhero characters is the relentless CGI – some of it not so impressive too. This is a Snyder film after all – albeit it the director had to make a swift departure at the end due to personal circumstances. Those who find the overuse of CGI in a film nauseating will cringe watching this, to the point that the effects are actually the lead character in the frame in the action moments, possibly masking the flimsy narrative and many plot holes.

Overall, Justice League is a bit of a lackluster stew. DC Comics had to get them all together, but unlike the Marvel Avengers, they just seem awkward and unconvincing together – teamwork definitely does not make the dream work here. Keep watching the credits for a big reveal… Maybe the Justice League has had a bumpy start. Now they have worked together, they need another screen outing to prove themselves…

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Good Time ****

Robert Pattinson has come a long way from his Edward Cullen years in Twilight, having to carefully pick his roles as to throw off the vampire mantel. He has had some successes and some duds. However, with the Safdie BrothersGood Time, an urban thriller on speed, he may just have done it. Its edgy pace and sense of ‘in the moment’ fixes makes the actor’s underdog character Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas not just an exhilarating one to try and keep up with, but a complete change from the normally laid-back Pattinson.

After a botched bank robbery by brothers Connie and Nick (Benny Safdie), the latter gets caught and jailed. So begins the desperate 24-hour countdown by Connie to collect together bail money and stop his mentally-ill brother from being sent to Riker’s Island prison, where he knows Nick will not survive.

With its film noir nods, punctuated by psychedelic colour and energizing pop tracks, the Safdie Brothers take us on a journey through the underbelly of Queens – their home turf, with Connie as our unwilling guide. The gritty, hand-held production was often shot without filming permits – as is the Safdies’ ‘urban opera’ style, further complimenting the whole affair.

With elements of Taxi Driver to it – the Safdies are working with Scorsese on a new film, there is a pressure-cooker environment waiting to come to boil. Unlike the 1976’s cult classic, Good Time has moments of release, only for a split second, to show the idiocy/absurdity of certain events throughout.

At the heart is a criminal with a heart – thieves may not stick together, but brothers do. Pattinson’s casting is a clever choice by the Safdies, who have pluck unknowns from the street to act. Pattinson embodies Connie completely, including clinching the accent. That said there is a softer edge to his hardened exterior, allowing empathy with his plight to filter through at times.

This is in stark contrast with Queens native Buddy Duress, a real-life, reformed felon who the Safdie Brothers cast in their earlier film, Heaven Knows What (2014). Duress plays Ray this time, a pathetic small-time crook who knows how to get cash quick for Connie. The fact Pattinson is so convincing opposite Duress in their scenes is credit to the Brit’s complete transformation in this.

Good Time is a ride of the night, a pulsing, high-octane race against the main enemy – time. It may surprise some Pattinson’s fans, but it will certainly hold him in greater acting regard by everyone who sees this.

4/ 5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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